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Decoding Glenn Beck's CPAC Speech: An Egomaniac With An Inferiority Complex

Or, If America Was More Like Me, It Would Be Great! In a speech peppered with the jargon of Alcoholics Anonymous, Glenn Beck brought thousands of right-wingers attending the annual Conservative Political Action Conference to their feet by promising them that economic hardship was good for them, and that the progressive movement was "a cancer" that is "designed to eat the Constitution." Government spending, he said, is creating an "economic holocaust." While dazzling the crowd with dizzying dynamic swings and a confessional narrative about his life as a recovering alcoholic, Beck handily played his role as community organizer to one of the greediest men in the world: his uberboss, Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation, the parent company of Fox NewsChannel, where Beck nightly plies his trade. The problem with America right now is progressives' attempt to "deprive you of your right to struggle," Beck said. But failure is a character-building exercise, he said, using as an example his own battle with alcohol. Until you know the shame of having done wrong, he essentially said, you'll never do right. "If drinking wasn't causing me a problem in my life, I'd be drunk right now," Beck told the roaring crowd, which packed one of the largest hotel ballrooms in Washington, D.C. His ire wasn't reserved solely for Democrats; he took repeated swings at the Republicans as well, comparing their propensity for government spending to his own addiction. "I'm a recovering alcoholic and I screwed up my life six ways to Sunday; I believe in redemption," Beck said. But the first step to getting redemption is, you gotta admit you've got a problem. I've not heard people in the Republican Party yet admit that they've got a problem...I don't know what they even stand for anymore. 'Hello, my name is the Republican Party, and I've got a problem. I'm addicted to spending and big government...I'm addicted to spending and I just don't want to spend today.' Good -- keep comin' back." "Keep coming back" is one of the signature slogans of AA -- a recovery program laced with slogans. But "keep coming back" at times acquires a tone of derision when said to a member who has just shared a thought or two that seems "off the AA beam," to quote the program literature. "We have a right to fail. Without failure, there is no growth," Beck said. "Fifteen years ago, I was completely broke. I was completely out of control. I had no answers in my life -- none. I was living in a little one-room apartment; I had lost my family -- everything. My whole life was spiraling out of control. I was [sic] on the fetal position [sic] of my apartment. Am I going to die -- or figure it out and live?" He continued: "Because no one was there -- if somebody would have been there to hold me up, I wouldn't have been down here enough" -- here he dropped to his knees -- "to dust myself off and say, 'No, I'm not going to spend my life here, I'm going to stand up on my own two feet, figure it out and because of that failure, I can stand here today." The crowd rose to its feet, applauding wildly. "What we don't have a right to is health care, housing or hand-outs," he said. Earlier in the program he seemed to accuse liberals of whining about their childhoods.  "Don't talk to me about your childhood," he said. "You want to hear me go on about my childhood? No!" Then he proceeded to go on about his childhood. He told of how, from the age of seven, he worked in his father's bakery, cleaning pots and pans in the back with his father, while his sisters "worked the front of the store" with his mother. Then, he said, the town his family lived in went bust, and the bakery went out of business. "But you know what?" he asked. "I learned from that. I learned from the mistakes; I learned from the failure." He talked of how he only got one semester of college because he couldn't afford it, but never thought that was unfair. Instead, he educated himself by going to the library, "where books are free." Well, not exactly. Somebody's taxes paid for those books -- and the building that housed them, and the electricity that kept the lights on, not to mention the salaries of those dreadful public employees. (Public employees came in for a special bashing throughout CPAC.) Has anybody told Beck that he doesn't have a right to have a library in his town? In a lot of towns, the public library, if it still exists, is on the verge of going out of business. Just another failure to learn from, I suppose. There was more to Beck's nearly hour-long performance than just his personal story, though. There was the the classic Beckian history lesson, complete with the signature blackboard. Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt: very, very bad. Calvin Coolidge: very, very good. The best thing Warren Harding did was have a heart attack so that Calvin Coolidge could become president. ("Divine providence," Beck said.) Progressives = Marxists and communists. The name "progressive" is just a cover. What right as the liberal "minority" to "hijack" America? Tiger Woods was used as a corollary to Beck's own addiction narrative. "People said to me, Tiger Woods, is he really gonna change? Well, I don't know" Beck said, "it may not be his bottom." Beck wasn't, here, talking about Woods' keister. He was employing yet another 12-step term, "hitting bottom." However uncertain he was about the final thud of Woods' fall, he was pretty clear that America's was nigh. "This is a pretty good bottom," he said. "This is as bad as I want it to get." Throughout the speech, Beck made numerous references to vomiting. As a recovering alcoholic myself, I found Beck's exploitation of the 12-step code nearly enough to have me spewing. But here's the real rub: for all of his AA-sloganeering, the critical part of Beck's alcoholic recovery metaphor flies in the face of the 12-step ethos, which cautions against excessive self-reliance. True humility is in the asking for help and becoming part of a community, the literature says. God is defined as the God of one's understanding, not the God of Glenn Beck or the Founders or the God who struck Warren Harding dead to give us Calvin Coolidge. More than anything, the program is apolitical -- "AA neither endorses nor opposes any causes," according to a statement read aloud at meetings. Like all of us, Beck is entitled to his personal narrative, and to use it any way he pleases. But to put the lexicon of a life-saving program into the service of Rupert Murdoch's quest to grab all the marbles for himself and his heirs -- well, that's just venal. Keep comin' back, Glenn.