(Since the piece has expanded as I worked on it, I’ll now post it in 3 parts; part one here)
A bit more about Beck, quotes from a 2010 article by John Amato, “New Tea Party study: Glenn Beck is an ‘educator’ and the most highly regarded individual. Seriously”:
Tea Party groups consider Beck to be “a guru of the highest magnitude.” Tea Party folks are known for their hostility towards educated smart people. They equate homosexuality with demonic possession (presidential candidate Michelle Bachman and her husband run a “pray away the gay” treatment center. Video here.) According to surveys, “when Glenn Beck whips out his chalk and blackboards and gives [his viewers] lessons about the history of America—they buy it hook, line and sinker.” This would most likely include his ideological views. Among these, Beck has compared progressives “to diseases and vermin and [called] for them to be excised from society.” He has even brought out “’experts’ like Jonah Goldberg to produce ‘documentaries’ portraying progressives as the source of the world’s great genocides.”
If Tea Party folks make up the biggest portion of Beck’s audience, and if these people share Beck’s views, about gays, smart people, progressives (like Nietzsche), and all the rest, then Beck’s framing of Jake Barnett becomes more obviously derogatory. If the phenomenon he is “investigating” (autistic genius) is real, surely it is of profound significance to the world. But Beck is continuously trivializing the subject (and dehumanizing Jake) with his “jokes,” cuing the audience not to take it seriously (at least not the surface message). Beck treats Jacob more or less like a performing seal, and invites his viewers to do the same. (Perhaps a performing robot is a better analogy.) Beck’s responses to Jacob’s brilliance are either “jokey” hostility towards the boy (barking orders and making deprecatory remarks), or “playful” admissions of his, Beck’s, inferiority. While he’s verbally telling his audience that this kid is amazing, Beck’s body language, the equivalent of eye-rolling, is communicating something very different: exasperation, contempt, and scorn.
Jake’s parents sit with Jake, in a line, opposite Beck. The mother looks nothing like Jake and seems of average intelligence for an American (i.e., little to none). She is wearing a dress with square lines in a pattern resembling images used in comic books and ‘50s movies to hypnotize people. Since the design is on her chest, the pointy squares are the inverse of what we’d normally expect to see, i.e., soft round objects. Most males (though few might admit it) tend to look at a woman’s breasts as soon as they see her, so it’s safe to say that most of Beck’s male viewers (Christians all) stare, however briefly, at this “hypnotic” pattern. I’m not suggesting it has a hypnotic effect, just pointing out the curious symbolism. It may send a message to both male and female viewers that something isn’t “right” about the mother, and therefore about the child. Of course, the mother may have chosen the dress, so no conscious agenda is being suggested.
Beck makes a gesture toward Jake and says, “I’m watching you brother,” putting two fingers to his own eyes then pointing them at Jake. Jake responds with a similar gesture. With his reversed cap, the association for the (white, middle class) audience might well be with gang signing, triggering fearful thoughts about “What sort of kid is he going to grow into?”(E.g., Adam Lanza?!) If it sounds like I am exaggerating Americans’ capacity for blind paranoia, see this recent incident about a deaf person being stabbed multiple times when his hand signals were mistaken for gang signs. And in case it sounds like a freak occurrence, here’s another!
Beck makes a comment to Jake’s parents about having “a different kind of brain on your hands.” Jake is described not as a child, or even a person, but as a brain. There’s a photo of Jake as a baby, trying to solve some mathematical question about a cereal box (Beck says the word “cereal” three times). The text on the screen says something about how a case of “mild autism aims high.” Since Jake has expressed an interest in astrophysics, this phrase might be taken literally. Christians, and Americans in general, distrust and even dislike what they perceive as “superior intelligence”—or intelligent superiority. (Think of all those well-spoken, brainiac villains in American movies, being thwarted by plodding, instinct-driven heroes; and of course, the popularity of Forrest Gump.) Astrophysics is about space travel, the bid to conquer heaven, a modern-day equivalent of building the Tower of Babel. Beck’s narration states that Jake “challenges Einstein’s theories” (this is never explored). When the parents talk about Jake’s strange behavior as an infant and child, Beck says in his standard, snide-jokey tone of voice, “Those things might have set me off.” Presumably, what Beck meant to say was, “Those things might have tipped me off.” The meaning is very different, however, and again he appears to be subtly (if unconsciously) cueing audiences how to react to Jake (i.e., with anger).
Beck then orders (invites is hardly the word) Jake to prove his ability on the board at the back of the studio. He tells audiences we are going to “watch him in action,” and “I want you to watch him.” What we are going to see, he says, is “God’s handiwork.” He then gives a speech about “what we think is really bad we just don’t understand,” and that “it’s about to reveal itself as something amazing.” On the surface, this is a clear avocation of autism, a call for more open-mindedness and less condemnation. For conservative Christian viewers, however, it’s a potentially inflammatory statement. Beck is asking them to see Jake as an agent of the divine, a miracle. But Beck, their “guru,” treats Jake not with reverence, or even respect, but with suspicion, condescension, and thinly veiled hostility, like a freak. So what are his viewers to think? That this is not really God’s handiwork, but that it only looks like it?
“I want you to watch him” then takes on a very different meaning.
(Last and final part later today or early tomorrow)