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August 30, 2010

Help, I'm Drowning

I realize this isn't breaking news, but...listening to Glenn Beck is the mental equivalent of falling into a vat of Karo syrup. You thrash around, can't get out, and feel like you're going to die in the most insipid way possible.

Here's the beginning of his speech at his Lincoln Memorial rally on Sunday:

BECK: We have a choice today .... We can either look at our scars, look at the scars of the nation...we concentrate on the bad instead of learning from the bad and repairing the bad, and then looking to the good...

We have a choice today, to either let those scars crush us, or redeem us. We are gathered here today, in a hallowed spot. Here, Abraham Lincoln, a giant of an American, casting a shadow on all of us. We look, to a giant for answers. Behind you, in front of me, the Washington—alone, tall, straight—if you look at the Washington Monument, you might notice its scars. But nobody talks about that...but a quarter of the way up it changes color. Did you know that it did? Look at it. Look at its scars.

How did the scar get there? They stopped building it in the Civil War. And when the war was over, they began again. No one sees the scars of the Washington memorial, the Washington Monument. We see what it stands for. No one also talks about what's on top, facing east. Just two words, "Laus Deo," "Praise be to God."

So this means...what, exactly? I think it's that we shouldn't dwell on America's flaws, just like, uh, we don't pay any attention to the way the color of the Washington Monument changes? But instead we pay attention to what it stands for? Which is an inscription telling us to praise god? one talks about the inscription either? Help me out here.

Of course, this makes no sense at all. If you've ever been on an elementary school field trip to the Washington Monument, you know that EVERY FOURTH GRADER talks about the way it changes color. Why wouldn't they? It's incredibly obvious. However, no one pays attention to what it "stands for," because no one has any idea. (Beck's right that no one talks about the inscription at the top, though.)

Beyond engulfing us in this unpleasantly sticky metaphor, Beck is also wrong about the Washington Monument's history—which I learned about on one of those elementary school field trips. The construction didn't stop because of the Civil War. As the National Park Service's website will tell you, it had already stopped years earlier:

Why does the color change on the outside of the monument?

When the monument was under construction in 1854, the Washington National Monument Society ran out of money and the project ground to a halt. Twenty-five years later, the U.S. Government took over and completed the upper two-thirds of the structure by 1884 using marble from a different quarry.

There's actually a little more to the story, which you can find in a 1999 Washington Post article. One interesting part is that after the original, private organization running things ran out of money in 1854, it was taken over by the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party. They were particularly outraged by the fact the Vatican, like many other organizations, had donated a stone. So they destroyed it. Then they screwed around for two more years but finally gave up too.

So...I guess you could argue that Beck is within shouting distance of reality. I mean, it probably was harder to raise money as the war approached. And construction probably would have stopped during the Civil War...if it had been going on when the Civil War started. Which it, uh, wasn't.

Finally, the actual history is bad news for Beck's ideology: the private effort to build the monument puttered out, and then was derailed for a long time by cranks with a worldview strikingly similar to Beck & co. (Don't you hate immigrants with weird foreign religions? Did you know Abraham Lincoln is a secret apostate Catholic?!?) It was only the government's money and organization that finally made it happen.


—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at August 30, 2010 11:48 PM

Sounds like they had a hard time getting it up.

Posted by: Rob Payne at August 31, 2010 04:47 AM

No habla espanol or Beck.

Posted by: bayville at August 31, 2010 09:40 AM

Glenn Beck is an entertainer, and his communications are aimed at the feeling centers, not the thinking centers. Accuracy and consistency are NOT his objectives.

I used to live in Baltimore, which also has a Washington Monument. "Baltimore's Washington Monument pre-dates the more famous one in Washington DC by more than 50 years. It is, in fact, the first one in the country. The marble tower rises 178 feet (the DC one is 555 feet tall) from the highest point in Baltimore. At one time ships entering the harbor could see the monument, which is only 10 blocks from the Inner Harbor. Today downtown's skyscrapers block the vista.

"Just 10 years after George Washington died in 1799, a group of citizens organized a lottery to raise $100,000 for Baltimore's monument. Robert Mills, who later became architect of the other Washington Monument, won the commission to design Baltimore's tribute to Washington. Begun in 1815, the grandiose design was scaled back several times before its completion in 1829. A Doric column rising from a square base, the monument is topped with a statue of Washington in a Roman toga.

"Visitors can climb its 228 steps for a view of the city from a small observation area. In the base, a small museum with chronicles the history of the monument." []

Our friends at Wikipedia tell us a few more things: The monument is referenced by Herman Melville (as Ishmael) in Chapter XXXV (The Mast-Head) of Moby-Dick, "Great Washington, too, stands high aloft on his towering main-mast in Baltimore, and like one of Hercules' pillars, his column marks that point of human grandeur beyond which few mortals will go."

Entry fee is now a suggested $5 donation. NOTE: The monument was closed in June 2010 for safety reasons, according to articles in the "Baltimore Sun" and "Washington Post" newspapers. Missing mortar and rusted support brackets were among specific safety concerns. While reports initially indicated the closure would last three months, no updated information on opening was available as of August 2010.

William Rusk, in his book "Art in Baltimore: Monuments and Memorials", tells the following story about the raising of Italian sculptor Enrico Causici's marble statue of Washington in 1829. "Tradition recalls a prodigy occurring when the statue was raised to the summit of the monument - a shooting star dashed across the sky and an eagle lit on the head of the settling general." [End of quotes from Wikipedia]

For a picture, see

Two personal notes:

1)I've climbed to the top of the Baltimore Washington Monument.

2)When I would take vistors to this site, I pointed out that Washington was depicted in a Roman toga, and would remind them them that the Founders were familiar with Roman history, and were influenced by their study of it in designing our Constitution. I added that, in honor of their ancient predecessors, the U.S. Senators wore togas for the first formal session of their deliberative body, and that Washington's garb in the statue recalls that occasion. This is the kind of colorful and memorable detail that helps to fix a story in the mind, and one can argue that the fact that it is literally false should not be allowed to stand in the way of its achieving its educational purpose. I'm sure Mr. Beck would see it this way.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at August 31, 2010 09:40 AM

For his audience, any ol' crap'll do.

"Oh, Blinding Light,
Oh, Light That Blinds,
I cannot see,
Look out for me."

For having the pluck to wade through the Karo syrup and then, as a consequence of this self sacrifice, to be able to point out the thoroughgoing irony underlying Beck's inarticulate yammering, I salute you.

Posted by: JerseyJeffersonian at August 31, 2010 10:37 AM

scars crush us

Do they?

Posted by: me at August 31, 2010 11:18 AM

Maybe a very big scab could crush you?

Posted by: DavidByron at August 31, 2010 01:25 PM

I never knew who Beck was till recently as I do not watch TV or read newspapers and suddenly his name is all over the internet. I did not watch his performance during his rally, but below is an excellent analysis of it by Prof Jensen.

"Why the Left Should Take Him Seriously"
'Glenn Beck's Redemption Song'

Posted by: Rupa Shah at August 31, 2010 01:29 PM

I don't believe the vat is filled with Karo syrup. I think it is filled with corn starch:

Interestingly, corn starch in solution is a fluid with many of the properties of a solid. If struck with sufficient speed, it does not yield; but, like a liquid, it will not support static shear stresses.

This is just like Glenn Beck. If struck with any intellectual force, the impinging object bounces right off of him. But slow objects sink right in and are lost.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at August 31, 2010 01:50 PM

"It was only the government's money and organization that finally made it happen."

Only the government will squander money to erect giant phallic temples in honor of our God-kings. Praise government!

Posted by: marcus at August 31, 2010 05:26 PM

Read this excellent New Yorker article about Koch industries and the Koch family in general, the billionaire funders behind much of the Tea Party's deregulatory, Obama-is-a-socialist nonsense.

Posted by: saurabh at August 31, 2010 06:51 PM

What exactly does the Washington Monument stand for? Isn't an obelisk suspiciously Muslim?

Beck sounds like the Warren G Harding of our time.

He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered... It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of tosh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

Posted by: Carl at August 31, 2010 07:47 PM

"Beck sounds like the Warren G. Harding of our time."

Poor Warren Harding, crapped on indiscriminately by millions of people even though he refused to be as rotten as others wanted him to be. There was more to him than he is credited for.

There are lots of good links in this thread.

Beck is a preacher, and though it's hard to understand how so many people can like drowning in syrup, they do. People would be wise not to be dismissive.

Posted by: N E at August 31, 2010 10:02 PM

Jon says: "listening to Glenn Beck is the mental equivalent of falling into a vat of Karo syrup. You thrash around, can't get out, and feel like you're going to die in the most insipid way possible."

Best description I have heard so far of the stages of mental retardation you experience while listening to Beck!

Posted by: Dimitria at September 1, 2010 07:51 AM

The Washington monument is a giant cock, right?
That's what I was told in fourth grade anyway.

Posted by: SideShow Bob at September 1, 2010 01:30 PM
Posted by N E at August 31, 2010 10:02 PM

Beck is a preacher, and though it's hard to understand how so many people can like drowning in syrup, they do. People would be wise not to be dismissive.

Beck is a bigot and his racist screeds have been a great boon to white supremacists; to condemn his idiotic mangling of english does not dismiss the harm he has or can cause. However, because his performances contain nothing more than hate speech and passionate gibberish, discussion of the exact nature of the stupid shit that pours out of his mouth is useful in determining what kind of people makes up his audience. Such determinations, again, can dismiss his ability to communicate and affirm his reach as an asshole.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at September 1, 2010 04:56 PM

"discussion of the exact nature of the stupid shit that pours out of his mouth is useful in determining what kind of people makes up his audience."

Exactly. Stupid shit has been a powerful moving force throughout history.

Posted by: N E at September 1, 2010 10:35 PM

Goddam. I knew that, but then, I grew up in the D.C. area. That's standard elementary school tour history, as you point out.

(As an alternative, in Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, a crashing alien saucer cuts into the monument at about that height. That might suit Beck more, actually.)

Posted by: Batocchio at September 2, 2010 05:28 AM