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Posted at 11:14 AM ET, 11/24/2010

Got to admit it's getting better

By Ezra Klein

Peter Duffy has a convincing piece arguing that whatever Glenn Beck's faults, he's no Father Coughlin. But the point I'd make off of it is that for all the hand-wringing about today's polarized age with its awful talk radio personalities and its eccentric political movements, things used to be much, much worse:

Coughlin was a giant in the history of radio, both the prototypical televangelist (he raked in the bucks) and the first political loudmouth with a mass following: He drew 40 million listeners in the early thirties to his Sunday afternoon program, double the 20 million that Rush Limbaugh has claimed for his audience. But he didn’t just talk; he urged action — illegal and terrifying. By1938, increasingly unhinged and openly anti-Semitic, Coughlin was using his radio pulpit and his 200,000-circulation newspaper, Social Justice, to advocate for the creation of a violent hate group, the Christian Front. The group soon boasted members numbering in the thousands throughout the cities of Northeast. It has largely been forgotten that Coughlin’s “platoons,” as he called them, were responsible for a months-long campaign of low-level mayhem in New York City: They attacked Jews with fists and sometimes knives. They boycotted Jewish-owned businesses (guided by a “Christian index” of shopkeepers) and sometimes smashed their windows in the German fashion. This ugly episode culminated when 17 Coughlinites were arrested by the FBI in January 1940 and charged with planning acts of terrorism against Jewish individuals and institutions (and those deemed their allies).

Although he didn’t have a role in orchestrating the plan, Coughlin, after a brief hesitation, gave his full-throated support to the “Brooklyn Boys,” saying in a January 21,1940, broadcast that “I take my stand beside the Christian Fronters … [and] … reaffirm every word which I have said in advocating [the Front’s] formation.”

You still have crackpot theories about the Federal Reserve and unfortunate racial sentiments, of course. And it's hard to say what sort of lunacy would emerge if we actually fell into a 1930s-style Great Depression. But for now, our disputes have mostly been confined to the realm of peaceful politics.

By Ezra Klein  | November 24, 2010; 11:14 AM ET
 
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Comments

This theme--historical US politics was more vitriolic--has limits. It's living memory that matters here perhaps more than the 1930s, or 1850s or 1790s. Is Beck of the 2010 worse than Jerry Falwell's cable shows in the 1990s where he alleged Clinton had killed Vince Foster?

Posted by: undisclosedangler | November 24, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

And remember in those days there really were Communists on the one hand and Fascists on the other, in the USSR and Germany, Italy and Spain, and we weren't the strongest country in the world militarily. So we were in a more precarious position economically and militarily, although the oceans shielded us more than they do now.

More and more, though, I think that in the '50s, '60s and '70s, despite the prejudice and the really stultifying conformity to about 1964, there was a consensus about tolerance and comity that is probably an abberation in American History.

Posted by: Mimikatz | November 24, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

By that I mean that someone like McCarthy was taken down and something like not ratifying the START Treaty was unthinkable. There was rampant prejudice and unconscionable discrimination in the South but in my recollection it was not as tolerated by elite opinion as it is now. But maybe that's because it isn't as bad now. Same with anti-gay sentiments--gays were just arrested for congregating. It wasn't necessary to rail against them.

So the officially sanctioned vitriol now is a consequence of changing mores that many people find hard to accept, plus hard times.

Posted by: Mimikatz | November 24, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

40 million? When the entire population of the country was about 120 million? Anyone who believes that number is even in the ballpark, I'd like to have some of what they're smoking, please.

Posted by: ostap666 | November 24, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I have a feeling you had a greater variety of opinion on radio (i.e. the only broadcast medium of the time) in the 30s than now. I mean it wasn't all just owned by a handful of corporations -- and ownership means something.

The fact that we have all those rightwing talk radio stations nowadays is no coincidence, freak-of-nature, etc.

Things would've been a bit more balanced in the 30s.

Posted by: leoklein | November 24, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, you are missing a key point. The 24/7 nature and pervasiveness of the modern right wing propaganda machine has no equal since a certain man with a mustache worked his will on Germany many years ago. That polls consistently show 70% of republicans only trust Fox "news" as a source of information (I assume it goes without saying that fellow travelers like Rush fall into that sphere as well).

It is all they hear because it is all they allow themselves to hear, and what they hear is a profoundly distorted view of the world, filled with new black panthers, Muslim smears, and constant assaults on anything liberal. They frame their understanding of the world through the Fox fun house mirror, and there is no way to penetrate it with anything that is not approved.

Posted by: wvng | November 24, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

The interesting part is that no one ever states *exactly* what is untrue about what Beck says. They just grouse and mischaracterize, but the facts he uncovers are never, ever disputed.

That makes Beck valuable.

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | November 24, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

But Coughlin was really a Klein sort of big government, anti-capitalism guy.

Wikipedia: Among the NUSJ's articles of faith were work and income guarantees, nationalizing "necessary" industry, wealth redistribution through taxation of the wealthy, federal protection of worker's unions, and decreasing property rights in favor of the government controlling the country's assets for "public good."

There's a type of bloviating busybody that never goes out of style. Today they're call progressives.

Posted by: msoja | November 24, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

It is definitely a reminder that when the jobs go away the demagogues come out to play.

I can't believe someone here actually called Father Coughlin a progressive. Wow.

Posted by: itstrue | November 24, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Yes, wrongfuldeath, no one ever challenges Beck's facts:

"Fact-checking Beck is an inherently silly exercise, but this notion that President Obama called for the creation of a "private army" continues to be a popular concept on the unhinged right, but it remains patently ridiculous.

Oliver Willis posted a transcript of what Obama actually said, and explained, "Obama was discussing the expansion of agencies like the foreign service and AmeriCorps, not any sort of private army -- and definitely not one comprised of unionized TSA agents."

Once in a while, I almost feel sorry for Beck's minions. Is it any wonder why they have such a twisted view of reality?"
http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2010_11/026793.php

Posted by: wvng | November 24, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

I think "wvng" has cleverly reposted under the pseudonym "wrongful death" so as to prove his point. Googling "fact check Glenn Beck" turns up @ 310,000 hits with sources ranging from one site devoted entirely to this issue--they're very busy--to mainstream news organizations. It's not that Beck isn't debunked every day, often by his own words, but that his audience lives in a fact-free zone. Who cares if Father Coughlin was worse? Beck is bad enough.

Posted by: undisclosedangler | November 24, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

undisclosedangler, no, I'm me. I was being sarcastic. The idea that Beck is not fact checked and found wanting is so absurd as to be beyond Ionescu's wildest dreams.

Posted by: wvng | November 24, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Have you seen this?

Top 48 ads that would never be allowed today

http://owni.eu/2010/11/08/top-48-ads-that-would-never-be-allowed-today/

Posted by: ania8 | November 24, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

--*I can't believe someone here actually called Father Coughlin a progressive.*--

Oh, right. I forgot some people still find it useful to adhere to the old fashioned one dimensional political spectrum which places fascism and communism at opposite ends of the line, when, in practice, they have more in common than they have differences. The real ideological struggle is and always has been individuals versus the state, and Coughlin was as anti-individual as any modern progressive.

Posted by: msoja | November 24, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

I found this part of the article very interesting:

"This ugly episode culminated when 17 Coughlinites were arrested by the FBI in January 1940 and charged with planning acts of terrorism against Jewish individuals and institutions (and those deemed their allies). "

Why is it in the 1940's the acts of violence perpetrated against Jews and Jewish establishments were considered acts of Terrorism and yet today in 2010 when acts of violence are committed against Muslims or Muslim places of worship they are considered only assault or vandalism.

I think the media should carefully weigh how they refer to these attacks against peaceful Muslim Americans because they are just as much acts of terrorism as those carried out by extremist groups whose only true relationship to the Muslim religion is they choose to use it's name not practice it's tenets.

Posted by: rbrady141 | November 24, 2010 8:16 PM | Report abuse

Poor comparison. You have to compare everything with the times. All said and done, the world IS a better (atleast less bad) place to live now. Glenn Beck has to be put into that context.

Posted by: vara | November 25, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Poor comparison. You have to compare everything with the times. All said and done, the world IS a better (atleast less bad) place to live now. Glenn Beck has to be put into that context.

Posted by: vara | November 25, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

WrongfulDeath, now that several posters have pointed out that Glen Beck often uses untrue information in his broadcasts, don't you think it is time for an apology, for you to admit that you were wrong? And now that they have pointed out that the Beck broadcasts are daily factually incorrect do you have the intelligence to stop watching them and, perhaps,turn on NPR, a far more reliable source of news and information? At the very least you could stop disseminating incorrect information,

Posted by: nyrunner101 | November 27, 2010 3:19 AM | Report abuse

--*And now that they have pointed out that the Beck broadcasts are daily factually incorrect do you have the intelligence to stop watching them [...]?*--

How many times a day is Klein, here, found to be "factually incorrect"? Or stupidly hyperbolic? ("crackpot theories about the Federal Reserve"?) Or uninformed? Or simplistic? Or just plain lying?

Klein, for all his self-promotion as media boy "policy wonk", appears to have but one field of expertise consisting of an unbridled faith that all problems can be solved by bigger, better government. Outside that, he's a blatherer and bloviator.

But seriously, Klein is no Tokyo Rose. It's hard to say what sort of lunacy would pop out of him if the Democrats actually suffer more electoral losses like the last one. But for now, his confused resentments have mostly been confined to the realm of peaceful politics.

Posted by: msoja | November 27, 2010 8:39 AM | Report abuse

"I can't believe someone here actually called Father Coughlin a progressive"

Did you check the wikipedia article cited by msoja?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Coughlin

"Early in his career Coughlin was a vocal supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his early New Deal proposals, before later becoming a harsh critic of Roosevelt as too friendly to bankers.[3] In 1934 he announced a new political organization called the "Nation's Union of Social Justice." He wrote a platform calling for monetary reforms, the nationalization of major industries and railroads, and protection of the rights of labor. The membership ran into the millions, resembling the Populist movement of the 1890s.[4]"

A direct quote from Coughlin himself:

"We maintain the principle that there can be no lasting prosperity if free competition exists in industry. Therefore, it is the business of government not only to legislate for a minimum annual wage and maximum working schedule to be observed by industry, but also to curtail individualism that, if necessary, factories shall be licensed and their output shall be limited."

The man sounds an awful lot like a modern progressive. The anti-semitism of course isn't a progressive characteristic, but his economic views seem to have been more or less those of a modern progressive. He even named his newspaper "Social Justice"!

Posted by: justin84 | November 29, 2010 12:22 AM | Report abuse

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