In his decade-long obsession with Dr. Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover revealed himself as one of American history’s most reprehensible figures. Feeding on a stew of racism and anti-communism, Hoover used his considerable power as FBI Director to try to torment King into leaving public life. His tactics were noxious – illegally taping King in his most private moments – and inexcusable – he refused to report legitimate assassination threats to King’s security team. Most notably, as he realized that King was made of steely stuff, he went after his allies. Stanley Levison and Bayard Rustin, two indispensable advisers to King, were mercilessly targeted by Hoover. Their previous associations with communist causes were more than enough grist for Hoover’s malicious mill.
What Hoover was to law enforcement during the King years, Glenn Beck is to a free press during the Obama years. For each of these demagogues, a sacred foundation of democracy is nothing more than a means to a twisted end: promoting racially-driven paranoia in order to serve their own vanity. Hoover’s insights into the vulnerabilities of others helped him become a consumate bureacrat; Beck’s channeling of ‘the paranoid style of American politics’ has helped him become a highly popular broadcaster. Differences abound: Hoover did his bidding in private, while Beck is embarrasingly public. But in the end, each leads the same futile fight: trying to stop the steady growth of a more just, more diverse and more hopeful America.
Hoover came to mind this weekend with the announcement that Van Jones had resigned from Obama’s CEQ. Viewed one way, this was a victory for Beck and his Fox News patrons, and it was right out of the Hoover playbook. Find a few seemingly embarrassing moments from your target’s vibrant past, cast them in the most damning light, and then let a well-oiled system take over. And as the targeting of Levison and Rustin were meant to weaken King, so with Jones and Obama. Progressives and climate-movement activists are rightfully outraged by all of this.
But with reflection, we can find solace in history. It’s true that Levison and Rustin were each ‘thrown under the bus’ at key moments in the fight for civil rights. Just as Hoover had hoped, disclosures about their past led King and his other advisers to shun these two for a time. But you know something: it didn’t last. After being cast aside, Rustin went on to co-organize the 1963 March on Washington; Levison was soon back in King’s inner circle. Hoover, simply, could not stop them from shaping history’s grand push toward freedom.
So I’m sure it will be with Beck, Jones and Obama. Does anyone really think that Van Jones won’t be leading again soon, with renewed vigor? And does anyone really think that Glenn Beck’s vision for America – too grizzly to even detail! – will triumph over that of Jones?
Indeed, what Jones has lead so brilliantly over the last several years, as the climate movement has come into its own, is the development of a new vision of a greener and more just America. ‘Green jobs’ is not just a slogan. It captures the muscular idea that our urban centers can be revitalized as we build a clean-energy economy. In this Step It Up montage, one can bear witness to Jones’s vision – and how a new generation has worked alongside him to make it their own. And it is this generation that will, as the years pass, implement Obama’s higher call.
To get there, what should we do right now? For climate activists, two lessons from the Hoover-Beck analogy should ignite action. First, note that the FBI head was allowed to corrupt national politics for way too long. Amazingly, Hoover was in that position for almost half a century. Beck is a relatively young man with, disturbingly, what might be called a ‘promising’ future. Millions read his books and watch his show. It is right, therefore, for climate activists to re-double their efforts to stop him, so that his moment in history, unlike Hoover’s, is fleeting.
To take away Beck’s power, we should start by supporting the consumer boycott led by the Color of Change. By every account, it’s working. And of course, we need to shed light on Beck’s despicable ways with our own research and words: here’s a great post from Juliana Williams and a new website that she has co-founded. These and related online efforts will have a cumulative effect.
Getting Beck, though, is not the most important action for us now. In fact, pursuing Beck in isolation might well play to his hand. For what he and Limbaugh and others really thrive on is vitriol, bitterness and hate – whether provided by them or their opponents. When opponents of birthers yell, it reinforces the Beck worldview that created the birthers in the first place. If we just attack and yell, Beck wins.
Ultimately, what King, Levison, Rustin and all of the other civil rights leaders teach us is the power of anti-Hooverism, of anti-Beckism. Indeed, it’s a lesson that cuts across the centuries. When President Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, re-affirmed his faith in “the better angels of our nature,” he was reaching out to us now, reminding us now of the “mystic chords of memory” that bind us as we work to create a better future.
Van Jones surely binds us from one age to the next, to the visions of Lincoln and King and to the leadership of so many of today’s young leaders. We can thank him, we can honor him best by redoubling our own efforts to begin the world anew.