Glenn Beck and Big Labor shared an agenda on the Mall: ‘Free to Be Orderly’

This election season brought us rallies on the Mall that too many commentators have contrasted too casually.  Yes, Glenn Beck’s get-together to “Restore Honor” and the union-galvanized convergence on the Lincoln Memorial that wanted to pull in “One Nation Working Together” can be generally regarded as public demonstrations from the political right and left, respectively.  

But a common thread ran through both rallies: an unfocused message coming down from the podium and deference to order back up from the throngs.  

In proffering guarded kudos for the organizers’ efforts, Mike Elk, on In These Times’ labor beat, lamented that “One Nation” “lacked the spirit of civil disobedience and direct action that marked” 1963’s March on Washington, the civil rights landmark demonstration cited as inspiration for this event.  

Organized labor know how to organize well, indeed. Unions’ imprint on the affair was obvious in the uniform signature colors from the shirts and signs of attendees bused in by various affiliates. Heeding the calls of labor leaders on the ground seems to have imposed orderly behavior on the march overall.

Struggling to piece together a common theme from the voices over the loudspeaker, labor journo Elk sympathetically quoted  puzzled a factory worker from Erie, PA: “It was unclear what the rally was about exactly.”

In the same spot a month earlier, ambling through the assembled along the Reflecting Pool, attention drifted easily from Glenn Beck’s rambling remarks over the load speakers.  People-watching instead revealed an accessory choice no longer considered controversial, even among the devoted legions on hand to hear their hero. Sandals were ubiquitous. Enough Beck devotees were even shod in Birkenstocks that this choice in footwear seems to have failed to arouse suspicions regarding their faith or patriotism.  

Not all that long ago, “Birkenstock-wearing” was a staple punchline in conservative parodies of liberals out of touch with Middle American values. They were footwear for the sort of parents who forced their kids to listen to “Free to Be You…and Me.”

The piercings and ponytails, and tattoos and motorcycle tees, indicate that the 70s-era libertarian-ish ethos of individual expression promulgated by the Marlo Thomas’ kids LP seems to have trickled down even to Glenn Beck fans. (’s Nick Gillespie archly and ably captured the spirit of the crowd in sometimes silly sight and mostly inchoate sound.) If Beck’s crowd of contemporary conservatives are less invested in enforcing conformity in personal attire, they have yet to embrace the notion of “Free to Be You…and Me” for everybody on larger cultural questions.  

But scanning the crowd for signs promoting culturally conservative sentiments that clash with the paeans to American freedom emanating from the jumbotrons proved fruitless.  

Why? Because Glen Beck himself told them to hold up. The rally’s official website instructed the faithful: “We request that you not bring the following: “…Signs political or otherwise…”  

The beef Glenn Beck and his fans have with Barack Obama’s America certainly incorporates forbidding two guys to tie the knot, slamming the door on brown folks looking for a job and stopping “Mohammedans” from building a mosque near the site of the Twin Towers, but Beck fans seem less interested in telling others what to do than in doing what they’re told. “Restoring Honor’s” website proclaimed: “Our freedom is possible only if we remain virtuous.” Chief among those virtues, it seems, is deference to authority. The “Honor Restorers” left the signs at home. Would Ron Paul’s fervid fans ever heed a request like that, even when prescribed by the good doctor himself?

Washington Examiner columnist Gene Healy joined this blogger on the Mall that day, and I introduced Healy to the Christian Flag, a banner that melds faith and authority, and commands its own disconcertingly deferential pledge.  Seeing the Christian Flag waved in numbers rivalling the Tea Party’s favorite “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flags made us suspect that this crowd was not quite the ragtag mix of “anti-government activists” that an AP reporter made them out to be.

Deference to order among Beck’s minions even extended to waiting in a long line at the subway entrance, that wended around the museums. An anecdote was shared by a hard lefty reporter for the Boston Phoenix. He could not lure ralliers to abandon their places in line for the portable potties with tales of wait-free johns closer to the monument.

Imagine the contrast between that sight and a post-Ron Paul rally: a scrum of Freedom Fighters scrambling to cram themselves and all their homemade placards down the mouth of Metro.

To In These Times’ Elk “One Clear Message” was handed down from the podium at labor’s “One Nation” rally: “Vote Democratic in November.” That the crowd was so deferential to this directive disappointed Elk, who values a little idealistic disorder, and more diversity of opinion on the Left.

Libertarians can be also wary of Glen Beck’s army who observe the “virtue” of authority and institutions like organized religion and the military above and before a more abstract ideal, like freedom.

Big Labor and Glenn Beck might be avowedly implacable foes, but at both the rallies for “One Nation Working Together” and “Restoring Honor,” the ethos in the air was less “Free to Be You…and Me,” than “‘Free’ to be Orderly.”

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