Glenn Beck and Detroit

Mar 2, 2011

Detroit was in an uproar yesterday, not because the schools are in crisis, or because the governor’s budget promises to make the city’s short-term fiscal problems even worse. 

Nor were Detroit’s leaders openly concerned about the effect the political crisis sweeping the oil-rich Middle East is having on gasoline prices and the auto industry.

No, what had them upset was the latest rant by the entertainer Glenn Beck, who holds forth on the Fox network. On Monday, Beck,  compared Detroit to Hiroshima, saying that today, Hiroshima is in far better shape. Beck said Detroit’s devastation is due to what he calls “progressive policies,” combined with corrupt government and labor unions. He said these forces combined to bail out the auto industry, which he thinks should have been allowed to die. I heard about this rant, and so reluctantly, I watched it, or most of it. It was, as I expected, classic Beck: Shallow, hate-filled, and full of half-truths.

Once upon a time, there was a rule about commentary. You could spout opinions, but your facts had to be accurate. Glenn Beck has never cared about facts, and the disgrace of Fox and whoever employs him is that nobody else requires him to do so, either.

Recently, Beck delivered another commentary about our government’s decision to buy Alaska in the 1950s. He might have asked his friend Sarah Palin about that one; we actually acquired Alaska in 1867. He also says he has learned a lot from reading Adolf Hitler, and believes Woodrow Wilson was an evil force who is responsible for much of what is wrong with America today.

This is not someone anchored in the reality-based universe. But what really disappointed me was the way Detroit’s leadership handled this, which was to treat Beck as deserving of respect. Mayor Dave Bing invited him to, quote “come see and experience Detroit for himself.” The Reverend Horace Sheffield, a prominent Baptist minister in the city, said he was reaching out to the commentator, and hoped to meet with him.

Forgive me, but these actions betray fundamental ignorance of what’s going on here. There is utterly no reason to try to engage Beck in serious discussion. He is a man in his mid-40s with barely a high school education, who by his own admission spent more than a decade drunk and on drugs before sobering up and discovering he could make millions with incendiary commentary. His remarks weren’t really aimed at the city itself, but were meant to persuade people that President Obama’s policies are designed to make all of America look like the worst parts of Detroit.

Well, Detroit has a lot of problems. I don’t know if Beck has ever been there or to Hiroshima, but I’ve spent time in both places.

Yes, Detroit has more urban blight, but the causes are complex, and stem, more than anything else, from federal policies in the 1950s  that encouraged suburban sprawl and prevented annexation.

Figuring out how to make things better is a topic that deserves endless discussion, but attempting to negotiate with verbal terrorists is not how to do that. Detroiters and Michiganders should attempt, with dignity, to tell their story themselves, while working to make the next chapter better than the last few have been.