We've heard a lot this week about Glenn Beck, thanks to his "Restoring Honor" rally on Saturday on the National Mall. But it was the summer of 2009 when I became truly addicted to his antics. It was the summer of the health care reform town hall meetings. On the Internet, shaky footage of elected representatives being jeered at and shouted down begat clips of right-wing provocatuers egging the mobs on, and he was leading the charge. By this spring, I was spending enough time at Media Matters for America, the self-described "Web-based watchdog of conservative misinformation," I might as well have worked there. Some days it flagged as many as a dozen different incitements from Beck's radio and television programs, intermixed with his fellow travelers.
Of course, it's not just on the Internet that I can get my outrage on. Alone in a hotel room, I'll turn on Fox News and let its bilious blather wash over me. In the car, I'll switch the radio to AM and find the closest talk radio station, then change it back to NPR lest my wife suspect I've lost my marbles. My political views fall solidly left-of-center, so why can't I get enough of the right's rants? I'm sure if I went looking, I could find a counterpart on the right documenting the over-the-top liberal rhetoric of Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann to the delight of masochistic conservatives. But how much productive time, either in Washington or among the citizenry, is lost to tracking each new outburst of a political pundit? I am not in favor of blinders, but aren't these the sort of taunts our parents taught us to ignore?
Last year, while doing research for my book, I came across a profile in Christianity Today of an ultra-conservative Christian who cited the Bible in arguing for, among other things, the benefits of slavery and the execution of adulterers. The article noted with some alarm that he was "becoming someone who even those minding their own business in the non-controversial ‘mainstream' cannot afford to ignore." I emailed the story to my brother. We were raised as secular humanists but he was born again when he was 17. In college, he and his male friends swore off girls, declaring themselves "Bachelors till the Rapture." Today, he is a self-described conservative Evangelical Christian.
I'm not sure what I expected his reaction would be. I think I just wanted to test to see if his outrage meter was working. So I was surprised when he replied that not only did he find the guy "dead wrong," but that he went out of his way to ignore people like him. He described them as those, "who appeal to mere natural inclinations and distract me from the direction God is moving in my life."
My brother's ability to tune out unwanted influences, usually due to sex, profanity or violence, had in the past been a source of concern for me. I could remember how, before becoming a Christian, he could delight in the bawdiest popular culture. I wanted to be able to share that with him again. But in this case, I appreciated it, and not just because we seemed to agree about this one nutjob.
As we fight back the flood of information and opinion deluging our 21st century lives, I think my brother has the right approach. The ability to ignore the absurd sideshows, the extreme-for-extreme's sake, the intentionally provocative, feels more and more like a virtue. It frees up time to explore ideas that are constructive and challenging, and avoids the pointless anger one feels towards a bully with an opposing view. I don't know if it's a Christian idea, but I'm trying to adopt it. And maybe I'll leave the outrage to Media Matters.