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Glenn Beck cranks up the culture wars

By Rich Benjamin, Special to CNN
  • Rich Benjamin: Beck upping ante on social divides while appearing to champion unity
  • Benjamin: The right revamps culture wars at the site of MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech
  • Benjamin: In MLK's day, right used same names against MLK as used against Obama today
  • Benjamin says Beck twisted MLK's message and celebrated a white, reactionary America

Editor's note: Rich Benjamin wrote the book "Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America," winner of a 2009 Editor's Choice award from Booklist and the American Library Association. He is also senior fellow at Demos, a nonpartisan think tank.

(CNN) -- Glenn Beck, consummate showman and talk hound, would have been more honest calling his rally to "Restore Honor" a rally to restore the culture wars.

Despite his splashy show to celebrate the troops, Beck's rally was not about "honor" any more than the controversy over the Islamic center near ground zero is about a building -- or the immigration debate is about fixing the system. Instead, Beck's rally upped the ante on America's social divides, all the while appearing to champion unity. It was a clever head-fake disguising backward conservative zealotry as feel-good inclusion.

"May this day be the change point," said Sarah Palin, the rally's darling. "Look around you. You're not alone. You are Americans!" In his keynote, Beck declared that America is "in the midst of a great war" over its values. "America is at a crossroads," Beck said. "We must decide: Who are we and what do we believe?"

Anxious that the culture war over gay and reproductive rights is suffering setbacks, the right is doubling down. Its revamped culture war, flaunted at the rally, is gaining impressive traction.

Fiery skirmishes in this war abound. Beck and his progressive adversaries clash over this nation's role and purpose in the world, who gets to be American at home, and what our country can afford and should demand of us. The debates over immigration, birthright citizenship, and the scope of public spending are the more visible flashpoints of this clash.

That "Muslim" and "socialist" are the country's two reigning slanders speaks volumes about ... this cultural war.
--Rich Benjamin
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Besides the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the major figure dominating the rally in absentia was President Obama. One rally supporter, typifying the mood, dubbed the president "Chairman Maobama." Another rally participant sported a T-shirt: "If you can't love America, go back to Kenya."

Beck may insist the rally was nonpolitical, but participants and viewers had other ideas.

With each passing day, President Obama stands increasingly as the lightning rod of this morphing culture war. Growing numbers of people believe the president is Muslim. Other data show that a majority of Americans believe that he is a socialist.

That "Muslim" and "socialist" are the country's two reigning scarlet slanders speaks volumes about the psyche behind this cultural war.

The public's perplexing confusion over Obama's identity -- conservatives' well-landed one-two punch -- is testament to the right wing's canny success contorting the president's image.

Here, a virulent coded racism conjoins with "anti-communist" character assassination. Although Beck's rally touted King as a hallmark icon, conservatives in King's time tarred the black civil rights leader as a Communist subversive. Now, those very attacks are being plagiarized to attack Obama: each has been labeled a communist sympathizer bent on destroying the freedom of average Americans.

During King's lifetime, right-wing leaders cast doubt on his Christian credentials and warned that his efforts toward integration amounted to communist tactics to destroy America. Now, Beck declares: "Most Americans don't recognize Obama's version of Christianity." Other right-wing leaders dub the president's program of economic opportunity a socialist plot to destroy America.

Both branded heretics and communists, King and Obama represent their opponents' disdain for court-ordered desegregation and government "takeover," respectively. They shout "We want our country back!"

King and Obama stand as whipping boys for America's decline, the uppity enemies of "individual freedom," "privatization," "states' rights" and social homogeneity -- goals that once defined segregationist politics and that now define the right-wing cause.

What a cunning feat of psychology for Beck and Palin to have commemorated "I Have a Dream." They spew a toxic brew of anger, spiked with aspiration, to millions of eager white Americans -- all with a smile and a sneer. Each cultural warrior embodies a bizarre combination of triumph and complaint, one that their decidedly white fan base devours. In waging cultural warfare with optimism and grievance, such conservatives willfully misconstrue King's dream that we judge one another by the content of our character as license to neglect social inequality.

Recent right-wing hijinks -- Andrew Breitbart's character assassination of Shirley Sherrod, Laura Schlessinger's n-word musings, the rising xenophobia of immigration opponents -- have had an incendiary racial timbre. Beck surely imagines that yoking his cause to Dr. King's memory, and crowding his stage with black gospel singers, provides the best insurance policy against ongoing charges of bigotry.

Besides twisting King's message, Beck's rally was even more galling for exploiting the troops, who include immigrants and Muslims, to celebrate a reactionary, backward-looking dream for America.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rich Benjamin.