Review: Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance

Alexander Zaitchik methodically unravels Glenn Beck's Christmas sweater
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  July 16, 2010

Perhaps you've also had the pleasure of explaining to relatives why they should stop watching Glenn Beck (or at least avoid parroting the Fox News method actor in public). Maybe, like me, you've coughed up spaghetti when your uncle claimed that Beck is "just telling it like it is." If such conversations are Sunday-dinner staples, or if you work in finance among intellectual Neanderthals whose every cold opinion stems from pure greed, then Alex Zaitchik's Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance is your Art of War (as well as great train reading material if you like getting ice-grilled by sexually rejected male Baby Boomers sporting fanny packs and Seinfeld clodhoppers).

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BOMB THROWER As Alex Zaitchik's new book shows, only Beck can top Beck.
There's a worthwhile argument that Zaitchik — prolific and talented veteran of The eXile and the New York Press, frequent contributor to Salon and AlterNet, and drinking buddy of mine — could have imagined loftier ways to spend this past year than crisscrossing America to interview characters from Beck's tenure as a semi-successful, inebriated, and unhinged Top 40 radio jock. After all, Zaitchik — a consummate muckraker — once traveled to remote northwest Ireland to profile political prisoners for The Nation. But his mission is warranted in that Common Nonsense effectively and in detail confirms what thinking folks already knew but may have had difficulty explaining to relatives: Beck, equal parts Mormon and moron, is a towering ignoramus and a shameless bigot.

The early chapters, in which Zaitchik traces Beck's morning-zoo career, play out like the Howard Stern autobiography (and complementary film) Private Parts. In these sections, even the author can hardly contain his admiration for his subject's lasting determination through failure after failure. This same note of awe appears to creep into the voices of past friends and foes, who shared stories about Beck gluing shut a competing station's front door during sweeps week, verbally abusing overweight jocks on competing frequencies, and one time vandalizing all the cars outside an adversary music director's wedding ceremony, "slapping bumper stickers on anything with a fender." As Zaitchik clearly shows, the guy is a sick sort of competitive animal. A former colleague recalls how Beck took his animosity toward rival jock Bruce Kelly to astonishing depths of cruelty: "A couple days after Kelly's wife, Terry, had a miscarriage, Beck called her live on the air and says, 'We hear you had a miscarriage' ... When Terry said yes, Beck proceeded to joke about how Bruce apparently can't do anything right — he can't even have a baby." (As karma would have it, Beck's first daughter was soon after born with cerebral palsy.)

Despite mild yet cautious applause of Beck's relentless nature, Zaitchik, armed with mighty rhetorical gusto, hardly skips opportunities to harpoon his white whale, as he does in explaining the conservative's latest incarnation: "With the election of Barack Obama, Beck was confronted with a Democratic administration for the first time since he had become a politically sentient adult. It is partly because he possesses a child's understanding of U.S. history and Democratic coalition politics that to him, everything seems so shocking and new. This is why his rants about the 'tree of radicalism' have the same feel as a freshman-year bong session devoted to the possibility that the universe is really just an atom, and within each atom another entire universe."

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