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Glenn Beck rewrites civil rights history

By Will Bunch, Special to CNN
  • Will Bunch says Glenn Beck is trying to rewrite history of American civil rights movement
  • Bunch says Beck views progress for minorities, women as step toward socialism
  • He says many in the Tea Party are taking their lead on U.S. history from Beck
  • Beck planning a "Restoring Honor" event Saturday near spot of "I Have a Dream" speech

Editor's note: Will Bunch is author of "The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama," to be published by HarperCollins on Tuesday, and of "Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future." He is senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and writer of its Attytood blog, and a senior fellow for Media Matters for America, a progressive research center monitoring the media.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- "We are on the right side of history! We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and, dammit, we will reclaim the civil rights moment. We will take that movement -- because we were the people who did it in the first place." -- Glenn Beck, on his nationally syndicated radio program, May 26.

It is Glenn Beck's most audacious stunt yet: This Saturday, in the company of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the National Rifle Association and others, the Fox News Channel host will stand in the sacred shadow not just of the Lincoln Memorial but of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, near the spot where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech 47 years earlier to the exact day.

During this event -- billed as "Restoring Honor" -- Beck will aim to "reclaim the civil rights moment" for his cause, and in the process he will continue what he's been doing for the last 18 months: bending the history of 20th-century America like a Philadelphia soft pretzel.

The revisionist message behind "Restoring Honor" is nothing new for the conservative shock jock. In the year and half since President Obama took office, Beck has led his loyal followers on a journey not just to "reclaim" civil rights but much more audaciously to rewrite the sweeping narrative arc of American history from the time of the Founding Fathers forward.

iReport: Warning to Tea Party members coming to D.C.

The backbone of the Tea Party is over-55s and especially retirees -- some planned, some forced -- with the most valuable asset of all, time.

They see studying U.S. history as a powerful reconnection with their youth. Waiting for Beck's "American Revival" show in Orlando, Florida, in March, 70-year-old fan Joseph Cerniglia told me he was way too busy for civics lessons when he was raising kids and working as a stockbroker and then cider-maker. "I have learned more from Glenn Beck -- learned more about American history and government, from Glenn Beck -- than in the previous 40 years of my life," the retiree told me.

For thousands of followers such as Cerniglia, there is a genuine desire to relearn American history. The only problem is that what they're learning is bunk. It's not history as it happened, but rather a Beck-scripted, Tea Party rewrite of history that demonizes Obama, Democrats and progressive activists.

In this alternate reality version of the past, the 20th century's heroic battles over equal rights for racial and ethnic minorities, women and homosexuals are recast as a march toward socialism and away from the Founding Fathers. Meanwhile, flawed progressive Woodrow Wilson and even Teddy Roosevelt become America's Lenin and Trotsky while it is the pre-Depression-era Calvin Coolidge who belongs on Mount Rushmore.

More recently, Beck has featured on Fox, at several well-attended "American Revivals" and on his web-based "university" a new right-hand man -- David Barton, a key figure in the recent right-wing rewrite of Texas school textbooks -- to teach his viewers the much-debunked idea that America's creation was rooted in Christianity.

Barton's machine-gun-paced spewing of 18th-century God references and black-robed revolutionary preachers gives less than short shrift to the real achievement of the Founders in separating church and state. In April, Barton told Beck's 3 million TV viewers that "we use the Ten Commandments as basis of civil law and the Western world [and it] has been for 2,000 years."

The results of this re-education campaign have been nothing short of phenomenal. A mere on-air endorsement by Beck of any obscure book -- such as "Sacred Fire," on the spirituality of George Washington -- will propel it to the best-seller list. Now, thousands of fans have signed up for a paid "insider" package that includes an online Glenn Beck University with lectures by Barton and others.

But pseudo-history is having a real impact on current events. In Texas, the new school curriculum downgrades democracy-minded Thomas Jefferson as well as 1960s civil rights. In the political arena, some activists are pushing to repeal the 17th Amendment that allows people to elect U.S. senators directly -- largely because the measure was enacted during Wilson's progressive era.

While all these histories are too important to lose to revisionism, none represents more of a risk than the civil rights era. In 1963, King understood that his dream of equal rights for black Americans would never happen without intervention from the federal government, a concept that's such an anathema to the Tea Partiers, the Beck-sponsored 9/12 movement and the other right-wing radicals who'll occupy the Mall this Saturday.

Famously, King lashed out at the Alabama governor -- George Wallace -- who had "his lips dripping with the words of 'interposition' and 'nullification' " -- a reference to claims by Wallace and other segregationists that states' rights trumped the power of Washington to promote integration.

Yet these two maligned principles are exactly what the Tea Party wants their red-state governors to do to block health care reform and other major federal initiatives of the first black president. This contradiction is lost on the Tea Partiers, and if the recent past is prologue, such facts will matter little to the mass of people who've risen up in the backlash against the Obama presidency.

Most moderates and liberals aren't even aware that this Hollywood-size script doctoring of U.S. history is taking place -- and the political consequences may be enormous. George Orwell wrote that "who controls the past ... controls the future." Beck and his fans may reclaim a lot more than the legacy of 1960s civil rights this weekend -- unless America's too silent majority is finally ready to start fighting back for our past.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Will Bunch.