I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it’s the sand of the coliseum. He’ll bring them death – and they will love him for it. Gracchus – The Gladiator
Humans are particularly gregarious animals. We tend to live in groups, build cities, and typically work together for the common good. As in any animal group, the elevation of certain select individuals to leadership positions is an important and necessary part of the group’s success. By society’s very nature we can only have a few “Chiefs.” How do prospective leaders convince the “Indians” to follow and cooperate? To get along with one another? To pay taxes? To surrender their individual power and personal freedoms? Or to even give up their very lives and die in battle for the “common good”?
Throughout history leaders have used many techniques to gain and keep control of the masses to accomplish their particular agenda. In Germany a charismatic leader and a common hatred of a particular ethnic group was used to seize power and commit unspeakable horrors. In America during the 1960’s an engaging and handsome President inspired a country to reach for the moon. Successful leaders know that the power of a country rests in the masses. Tap into that power base, and incredible power can be harnessed. In a brilliant observation of the true power base of a county, Derek Jacobi’s character Gracchus in the movie The Gladiator observes that the real power of Rome is in the mob, not in the Senate. Distract them and keep them happy and the leader can even deprive them of their basic freedoms.
In this essay I will be comparing two colorful characters who were and are amazing in their ability to rally the people to step in line and follow: Thomas Paine and Glenn Beck. Paine was instrumental in the formation of this country by the penning of a pamphlet, Common Sense, which helped rally the common folk in their support for independence. Beck is the third most powerful radio personality in the world. Based on his writing, Beck sees himself as a modern leader of a new revolution and has even written book with the same name as Paine’s pamphlet (Beck and Kerry).
To properly understand these men, we need to explore the historical context of the times in which each lived. In the middle of the 18th century, the American colonies were at a crossroad. Throughout the country many new leaders had bubbled up through the ranks of society. They were all male, rich, highly educated, and white. They were well versed in classical Latin and Greek. They were students of history, philosophy, and students of the enlightenment. They created a society where they had all the power. They owned the lucrative plantations in the south and the lucrative shipping and trading businesses in the north. Women, blacks whether free or slave, and non-propertied common folk could not vote. Only them. Times were good and thanks to the British army’s success over the French and Native Americans in the Seven Years War, the frontier was not only secured against their enemies but the size of the country was dramatically increased for future expansion.
Although this victory was a tremendous win for the colonists, it came with a price. The cost to the crown for the execution of the war was staggering and more than doubled England’s national debt. Also, ten thousand troops were left to guard the frontier, which also required substantial funding. The Crown was desperate for new avenues of revenue to both pay off its debt and the ongoing cost of defending the frontier.
To address these issues, the British Parliament passed legislation on March 22, 1765 with what was known as the “Stamp Act.” It was a law carefully crafted with the intent of removing the cost of defending the colonies on the British mainland and placing it directly on the colonists. The law required that every bill, receipt, deed, newspaper, and just about every single piece of paper was to be taxed (Colonial Williamsburg). In terms the actual cost to the colonists, this was a very small and insignificant tax. Additionally, the main occupation at this time in the country’s history was the small family farm being etched out of the landscape by new immigrants. To the average “Joe,” or in the words of Thomas Jefferson “The Yoeman Farmer,” this tax had little or no impact (The Yoeman).
To the powerful and rich elite of this country, this was an unacceptable tax. The tax symbolized control, power, and sovereignty. It was a direct attack on the ruling class of this new country and they felt their power was in jeopardy. Talk of revolution filled the taverns throughout the country. But for the colonists to break away from the Crown was treason, a capital offense. To declare independence was in effect to declare war. To be able to wage war an army would be needed. Common folk would be needed to risk their very lives for a cause which for the most part, didn’t impact them.
Enter Thomas Paine, born on 29th of January 1737 in the town of Thetford, England. His father owned a small business as a corset maker and his mother was described “as a woman of sour temper and an eccentric character” (Ayer 1). At age thirteen, after returning from school he came home to apprentice under his father. The young Thomas Paine was somewhat of a troubled young man with no clear direction in his life. Three years later he ran away from home to enlist as a seaman on the privateer “The Terrible” under the Captain William Death. Fortunately his father intercepted him before his enlistment, since Captain Death and almost all of his crew met with an untimely and horrible death a few years later (The Gentleman’s and London Magazine 491). The young Paine continued to drift through life and was unable to keep a job (Ayer 1-3). He went into business at age twenty-one and married a year later, but with no business savvy his business soon failed. A short time later he lost his young wife.
Thomas Paine had a gift for the gab and the pen. In 1774 when Benjamin Franklin was visiting England, Paine befriended him and secured a letter of introduction. Armed with this letter Paine emigrated to America. After securing work upon his arrival, Paine soon became the managing editor of a monthly periodical called the Pennsylvania Magazine. Under his management the magazine quickly increased its list of subscriptions from six hundred to over fifteen hundred within a year. Paine had established himself as a master of rhetoric and was soon encouraged by his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush (who was later a signer of the Declaration of Independence) to address the need for independence by publishing Common Sense (Ayer 35).
The pamphlet’s success was extraordinary. Over one hundred fifty thousand copies were sold within months. Paine also was careful to avoid making money from his pamphlet’s success by proposing that his portion of the profits be used to purchase mittens for Washington’s troops (Ayer 35).
America, since the time of the Puritans, had an overwhelming Christian ethos. Paine wrapped and packaged Common Sense in the language of the Bible. He brings the reader through the entire history of Jewish people, comparing the Kings of England with the history of the Jews (Paine 10-13). He even states that the act of even having a King was one of the leading sins of the Jews (Paine 11). By inference he states that to continue under the present system would be a sin, so the very act of rebellion would please God. This approach was instrumental in the pamphlet’s success.
Like Paine, Glenn Beck too had a troubled life. As a child he always had a desire to be the center of attention. At an early age he started to perform on stage as a magician. In 1977, when he was only thirteen, his parents divorced. During this difficult time, Beck continued his self promotion and honed his stage skills. In spite of the breakup of his family Beck secured his first radio show at the AM station KBRC while only thirteen (Zaitchik 20). Two years later during a boating trip he lost his mother, (who according to Beck was also an alcoholic), under some very stranger circumstances (Forbes). Her body was found floating next to an empty boat and her companion was found washed ashore. All that was found on board was her dog, a few personal items, and an empty bottle of vodka. Beck spoke many times publicly about his mother’s “suicide” but no public records state that it was anything other than an accident (Zaitchik 21). At around this time Beck became a substance abuser while still pursuing fame, fortune, and attention behind the radio microphone (Zaitchik 23).
Beck had a remarkable meteoric rise to fame and fortune in the Top 40 Radio market. However, due to his continued addiction to alcohol and drugs, he soon found himself on a roller coaster ride in his career. Beck was constantly trying to reinvent himself. He would stop at nothing to promote himself, even resorting to bribery, interviewing another DJ’s wife’s on-air and then mocking her recent miscarriage (Zaitchik 37-38), or dressing up as a giant banana and diving into a pool of Styrofoam (Zaitchik 49).
In 1994, after fifteen years of drugs and alcohol, Beck and his first wife divorced. He then started to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and began his quest for God and purpose in life outside of drugs and the bottle. After vising numerous churches with his future second wife, he settled on the Mormon faith and a new direction in his radio career in the Tampa bay area in talk radio (Zaitchik 56).
Never afraid to push the envelope, Beck was described by the St. Petersburg Times as a “tangle of contradictions.” One minute he would rally his listens to raise money for a grieving family to assist with funeral expenses, and next he would make fun of a woman who was crushed to death by an elephant (Zaitchik 59). The most important point was to light up the phones by pushing the most controversial buttons and to achieve the best ratings regardless of the cost. It was during this time that Beck started a change that would come to set the stage for his national career. He changed from a fruitcake into a right-wing religious social conservative.
Today, hardly a moment goes by when Beck doesn’t find some way to appeal to the mainstay of his audience, which is Protestant middle America. Like Common Sense, everything he says and does is steeped in Biblical imagery. From apocalyptic alarmist threats to appeals to his interpretation of the founders’ faith, Beck has successfully honed himself to reach the average “Joe” of middle America. It also seems very interesting that many of his followers, who profess themselves Christians and consider his Mormon faith a cult, still flock to his teachings (Zernike).
Like Paine, Beck bathes everything he does in the imagery of the Bible. This is crucial to rally the masses, as Machiavelli states in The Prince in praise of the tactics of Ferdinand of Aragon, “always covering himself with a the cloak of religion” (Elliot). The ability to reach out to the large pool of “Indians” is Beck’s wellspring and source of power. Beck even has filled the center of Washington with hundreds of thousands of his followers with a religious rally on August 28th, 2010, calling for the religious rebirth of this nation (Zernike).
When selling a product it isn’t always necessary for the seller to believe in its validity. Are Paine and Beck really true “believers” or merely just using religion as a cloak, like Ferdinand of Aragon, to further their goals?
While Pain’s Common Sense was bathed in the mantle of Christianity, he also wrote a book titled The Age of Reason, which attacked the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Theodore Roosevelt has been quoted referring to Paine as a “filthy little atheist” (Ayer 140). Even his good friend and the very man who encouraged him to publish Common Sense, Dr Benjamin Rush,refused to see or speak to him in 1803 (Ayer 169). Although probably not an atheist but a deist, Paine nonetheless attacks the very foundations of the Bible that he so convincingly used to steer public opinion in Common Sense.
One must wonder, is Beck, like Paine, merely using the right formula to achieve a particular agenda? After years of reinventing himself did Beck finally find the right demographic to succeed in radio? Or, unlike Paine, does Beck really believe the rhetoric he promotes?
A favorite target of Beck is President Obama. From calling the President a racist, to daily assaults on his person, his politics, and family, Beck has made the President the focus of his shows (CBS-News). Beck is a professing Christian who constantly appeals to the Bible as the rule by which to live his life, however, in contrast to his verbal attacks, we find very clear Biblical text stating that existing Governments are established by God (Romans 13:1). Furthermore, as with King David, even if the current King is doing a terrible job, respect is an obligation (1 Samuel). Beck even repeatedly mocked the President’s young children on his national radio show during the Gulf oil crisis. Although Beck did apologize for calling the President a racist, his daily attacks on him and even the mocking of the children continued (Media Matters). As with Paine, Beck uses Biblical imagery to promote his agenda with complete disregard to its actual teachings.
Both Paine and Beck have a gift for making outrageous statements to an ignorant and ill informed audience. In Common Sense Paine proposes that the lack of experienced sailors will not impede the ability of Americans to match the British navy on the seas. He suggests that Captain William Death had crews in which only a small percentage were sailors: “A few able and social sailors will soon instruct a sufficient number of active land-men in the common work of a ship (Paine).” Not only was this not true, but Captain Death and almost the entire crew met with a horrible death (The Gentleman’s and London Magazine). Beck also recently suggested that members of Reformed Judaism, which is almost the entire Jewish population of North America, have similar beliefs to radical Islam (Glenn Beck: Reform Rabbis and Radicalized Islam).
The mob, the crowd, the common folk. They are the backbone and foundation of society. Tap into their thinking, their anger, then market them God’s purpose for their lives and make a lot of money. Paine gave away most of his money made from Common Sense. However, Beck has created a multimedia empire which takes in over thirty two million dollars a year (Forbes). He lives in a multimillion dollar house in Connecticut and daily promotes the purchase of gold, dehydrated food, and gun safes to protect his listeners in the coming apocalypse.
In Elia Kazan’s movie A Face in the Crowd the character Lonesome Rhodes, played by Andy Griffith, rises to fame as the nation’s top rated TV and radio personality, but he is nothing more than a hypocrite who believes nothing of what he says. When Rhodes becomes a major power broker able to help elect the president he becomes drunk with power and states, “This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep! … They’re mine! I own ’em! They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ’em. … you just wait and see. I’m gonna be the power behind the president.” Like Rhodes, Beck has amassed a huge power base of faithful followers. Just the mention of an obscure author or political candidate can send millions of dollars flowing their way in a matter of hours.
Both Paine and Beck have used Biblical imagery extensively in the rallying of the “Indians” to gain power and political control, and neither one believes the principals they have articulated. Paine was able to motivate tens of thousands of men to risk their lives in the fight for independence, and Beck was able to rally hundreds of thousands of people in the Capitol calling for national repentance while keeping his “sponsors” forever in the view of the faithful. Paine used his money to buy mittens for the Continental Army, but Beck has used his money to buy gold, multimillion dollar homes, a staff of bodyguards, and an armored SUV. Glenn Beck is no modern day Thomas Paine, but he lives in the spirit of Lonesome Rhodes, an opportunist drunk with power.
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