In “his” new novel, Glenn Beck tell us one we’ve heard before
“Praise the squirrels. Praise those who feed the squirrels.” So chants the ecofascist dictatorship that controls America in Glenn Beck’s fascinating new novel Agenda 21. With its black-garbed “Enforcers”, its “nourishment cubes” and power-generating “energy mats,” Agenda 21 reads like boilerplate pulp. Yet we’d be mistaken to class it as science fiction. Rather, the book represents a generic mutation akin to the evolution Thomas Frank documents in What’s the Matter with Kansas?: the strange transformation of rural populism from a mass movement of the radical left to a tendency of the extreme right.
In an afterword, Beck explains how Agenda 21 should be used. The book, he says, will awaken its readers to the existential threat posed by the real life “Agenda 21,” a tepid United Nations program for—gasp! sustainable development. They should then pass the book on to friends but without mentioning its politics. “Don’t tell them about the Afterword,” he urges. “Don’t even tell them that Agenda 21 is a real initiative. Let them go through the discovery process themselves.” In other words, Beck sees Agenda 21 less as literary text than political intervention. He’s adopting a novelistic mode quite foreign to today’s left (which has, by and large, abandoned any direct relationship between activism and authorship) but instantly recognizable to progressive novelists of original populist era.
Consider Ignatius Donnelly’s 1890 bestselling Caesar’s Column, a key text in the late 19th century boom of literary utopias and dystopias. “Believing, as I do, that I read the future aright,” Donnelly announces, in a very Beckian introduction, “it would be criminal of me to remain silent.” His book duly describes the depredations of a futuristic New York, not to titillate curiosity about tomorrow but to spur action today. Which was precisely what it did. Donnelly also composed the 1892 preamble for the Omaha Platform of the People’s Party, whose presidential candidate that year received more than a million votes on a program very similar to that espoused in his novel.
The similarities between Caesar’s Column and Agenda 21 extend beyond their agitational aspirations. In one of the “how-it-all happened” info dumps so characteristic of the genre, the mother of Beck’s protagonist, Emmeline, explains the rise of the oppressive Republic. “A new law started on the East Coast,” she says, “because that’s where laws were made. They gave it a fancy sounding name. Agenda 21.” New laws, the East Coast, fancy sounding names: the tropes are now so deeply associated with the conspiratorial right that the dystopian script writes itself.
Yet Donnelly’s book reminds that imagery of decent “plain folk” trampled upon by snooty East Coasters belonged originally to the populist left, not the right. In Caesar’s Column, our hero, one Gabriel Weltstein, discovers that New York boasts public booths in which would-be suicides can conveniently organize their own deaths. “The authorities assert that it is a marked improvement over the old fashioned methods,” the outraged Weltstein writes to his brother back home, “but to my mind it is a shocking combination of impiety and mock philanthropy.” If today it goes without saying that a rural outsider appalled by big-city death panels would be a conservative, back then it was equally obvious he’d be a reformer aghast at an irreligious “money power.”
There’s even a precedent for Beck’s conspiratorial paranoia. Yes, the identification of an asinine environmental program as an existential threat to America might reinforce the perception of an author nutty as the rodents his characters worship. But a certain rhetorical excess comes with the territory; Donnelly’s first bestseller explored the fate of the lost city of Atlantis, while he later developed some extravagant theories about the real authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Populism, whether Left or Right, identifies a fairly amorphous “people” against an equally ill-defined “elite,” and the unanswered question as to exactly how the latter retains its dominance over the former provides fertile ground for paranoiac flourishes. “A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents, and it is rapidly taking possession of the world. If not met and overthrown at once it forebodes terrible social convulsions, the destruction of civilization, or the establishment of an absolute despotism.” If you shut your eyes, you could imagine that passage (from Donnelly’s Omaha Platform) accompanied by the fevered scribbling of circles on Beck’s famous chalkboard.
Yet, for all its eccentricities, Donnelly’s populism identified a genuine gulf between ordinary citizens and financial oligarchs. Beck, by contrast, performs a more ticklish task: it is not, one imagines, so simple to pen a populist novel in which capitalist tycoons feature as downtrodden victims. In Beck’s afterword, he’s most explicit about his economics, warning how terms such as “inefficiencies of the market,” “concentration of wealth,” and “social injustice” should “send shivers down the spine of anyone who cares about capitalism and true individual freedoms.” In the novel itself, we find Emmeline’s friend Joan recalling the work ethic of the old order: “If we worked hard we would succeed,” she explains wistfully. “Individuals could work and be rewarded for their effort.” But individual effort’s a dangerous theme in a manuscript that Beck purchased wholesale from an obscure author named Harriet Parke (her name appears below his). So, for the most part, Agenda 21 emphasizes culture rather than class. The environmental Republic bans mention of God. It disallows home schooling. It forbids talk of US history. It even (shades of Michelle Obama!) forces Americans to exercise on treadmills.
The contradiction between the book’s ostensible sympathy for the “plain folk” and its avowed enthusiasm for big capital (an opposition between its form and its content, if you like) remains unresolved. On the one hand, the novel is a long polemic against the perniciousness of environmentalism; on the other, the characters’ resistance to ecofascism entails a strange nostalgia for nature. “The smell of green, the smell of growing,” says Emmeline’s father, pining for his farm. “How I miss the smell of a green, living thing.” Beck’s conservative populism exults the values of rural America (against sneering urban elites) even as it proselytizes for a market capitalism that renders small farms unviable, a tension evident in the peculiar rhetorical similarity between this doughty son-of-the-soil and the squirrel-worshiping Enforcers who oppress him.
There’s a similar ambiguity about motherhood, a central theme of the book. The Republic needs children, and so conducts compulsory “pairings” of fertile women to produce babies for the regime. Emmeline accordingly becomes a kind of Mama Grizzly, whose determination to rescue her child leads her to flee the compound in search of the legendary “Shadow People,” rumored to live free in the wild. But that means she stands against the Enforcers’ compulsory religious meetings, events where the congregation chants in unison, “Praise be to reproduction”—a message not so very different from today’s Christian Right. Bizarrely, Emmeline evolves into a kind of sexual rebel who sleeps with the man she likes despite the Republic’s (very traditional) ban on pre-pairing hookups.
Again, you can see the strains involved in crafting a heroine for a movement that both fetishes old-fashioned values and advocates a neoliberalism innately corrosive of traditions, sexual or otherwise. Agenda 21 thus illustrates how the populist Right maintains its coherence less from a common platform than by shared resentments. Plot-wise, it might seem incongruous that an environmental and fascistly PC Republic forces women to wear headscarves—except that, politically, Beck knows the importance of Islamophobia to his readership and must therefore appeal to it, even if so doing makes no narrative sense whatsoever.
Donnelly’s dystopia can be grouped generically with the outpouring of utopianism in the same era (think of Bellamy’s Looking Backward or William Morris’s News from Nowhere). Though Caesar’s Column mostly chronicles the destruction of civilization, it concludes with Weltstein and his friends building their own walled populist paradise in the mountains. There’s no similar moment in Agenda 21—and it’s hard to see how there could be, since Beck’s populism shapes its constituency by a nostalgia for a vanished America and a hatred for its enemies rather than any vision of a world to come.
Mind you, that doesn’t mean his paranoiac rhetoric possesses no force. “Since those who speak about Agenda 21 are constantly marginalized as radicals or conspiracy theorists,” writes Beck in his afterword, “I wanted to include a link to the official 2012 GOP platform, which formalizes the party’s opposition to the plan.” The link’s entirely genuine—and that’s much more frightening than anything in his novel.