Glenn Beck is holding one of his rallies in Washington tomorrow. Sarah Palin will be there to stir up the yahoos. Beck himself has been there before as an organizer of last year's "9/12" march. This time, however, prominent black activists are denouncing Beck for his scheduling of the "Restoring Honor" event on the 47th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. For Beck and Palin to speak on the same steps where Martin Luther King delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech, some say, is an affront to Dr. King's memory and the civil-rights movement as a whole.
Beck's response to criticism has evolved from disingenuousness to defiance. After initially claiming that he had not realized the historical significance of the day he chose for his rally, the demagogue has claimed his own right to the King legacy. He has invited a niece of King, who has accepted the invite, to speak at the rally. He argues, rightly in my opinion, that King's legacy belongs no more exclusively to black people than Abraham Lincoln's legacy belongs exclusively to white people. Predictably enough, Beck identifies King's legacy almost entirely with that single famous reference in the famous speech to "the content of our character. Like many reactionaries, Beck believes that King's dream vision of a time when every American will be judged solely by the content of his character rather than by superficial details like race, gender, etc., requires the immediate institution of a "color-blind" society through the abolition of all "affirmative action" programs. Whether an 81 year old King, were he alive today, would agree that compensatory programs could be done away with now is quite debatable, but Beck has every right to make the claim, just as Rev. Al Sharpton, who is holding a counter-demonstration tomorrow, has every right to dispute it.
The latest Beck brouhaha makes an interesting companion story to the ongoing contretemps over the proposed 'Ground Zero mosque' in New York City. It's another instance of hypersensitive backlash against a properly inoffensive exercise of civil rights. I can defend Glenn Beck's right to hold a rally where and when he pleases, as long as the law permits it, without endorsing any of his reactionary views. He is under no more obligation to defer to the sensitivity of some black Americans than the Park 51 planners are to defer to the irrational sentiments of some New Yorkers. A similar mental impulse animates both disputes. The aggrieved New Yorkers visualize the Twin Towers replaced by a mosque and their sensitivity is violated. Sharpton and others look to the Lincoln Memorial and see King displaced and replaced by Beck, as if the site would no longer "belong" to the civil rights movement but would be conquered and occupied by right-wingers and reactionaries, if not by outright racists. They identify the Memorial steps, if not the entire National Mall, with the sacred moment of 1963, so that its occupation by anyone believed to disagree with King or oppose his legacy, all of Beck's disclaimers notwithstanding, becomes a desecration. It is all perfectly irrational, and probably as cynically political, to an extent, as much of the outrage over the mosque plan.
Sharpton is within his rights to counter-demonstrate, as he probably would if opportunity allowed whenever and wherever Beck held a rally. Everyone has the right to use the occasion to criticize or simply insult Beck, Palin and the doctrines they stand for. But to suggest that Beck has no right to speak from the Lincoln steps on a particular day, or even to challenge the "wisdom" of his schedule, is unacceptable. This isn't about right and left or black and white; it's about an attitude that seems to be all too common in this country but ought to be less so.