I’m so old, I remember when hostile “unauthorized biographers” at least pretended they’d made every effort to contact the subject of their “investigations.”
“No, Mr. X didn’t return my numerous calls or answer my letters. What can I say? Maybe he has something to hide, who knows…?”
In fact, Gay Talese created a whole new literary sub-genre back in 1965, with his instant Esquire classic, “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold”. Constantly rebuffed by Old Blue Eyes and his entourage, would-be profiler Talese gamely steered into the skid and turned that into the story. The entertaining saga of Talese’s “failure” is one of the most widely studied, anthologized (and poorly imitated) magazine articles ever, because paradoxically, Sinatra’s refusal to speak to Talese revealed more about him than anything he could have said. Deep, huh?
Alas, Glenn Beck’s literary predator, Alexander Zaitchik, is no Gay Talese. Apparently, even pretending you tried to get a comment from your subject is old and tired. The new hotness? Admitting you purposely didn’t bother.
I never tried to get in touch with [Beck]or his inner-circle. Even if he had agreed to talk to me, which was extremely unlikely, I wouldn’t have believed a word that came out of his mouth. Beck may not know much about politics or history, but he has arguably the most demonstrably sophisticated instinct for self-promotion on earth. I wasn’t interested in allowing Beck to use the book as a way to reinforce his well crafted and partly fictitious redemption narrative.
This is all the more troubling because Zaitchik’s assessment of Beck is singularly brutal. For example, he tells Weigel, “This is a guy who thinks the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is an urban legend.”
So what was the Tuskegee Experiment? Calling it “the Medusa’s head of black left-wing paranoia,” Jonah Goldberg explains:
In 1932, public health researchers set out to study syphilis, particularly among African-Americans, who had higher infection rates than whites. They recruited 399 black men who already had syphilis. The doctors infected no one. In fact, the patients were selected in the first place because they were tertiary-stage syphilitics who were no longer contagious.
The researchers studied the progress of the disease, without treating it, for 40 years.
Prior to the availability of penicillin in the 1940s and 1950s, the researchers couldn’t have treated the men even if they wanted to. Even after standardized penicillin treatments were available, it wasn’t clear that the patients could have been helped. Some of the doctors believed that treating the decades-long infections would kill the men.
Among scholars who’ve studied Tuskegee, there’s a lot of debate about how much — if any — racism was involved in the experiment. But no one disputes that Tuskegee had nothing whatsoever to do with genocide or even a desire to spread the disease among the black population.
What was bad about the Tuskegee experiment was a callous disregard for the humanity and integrity of the patients. They were told they were getting “treatments” when they were merely being studied. They were lied to, treated as objects rather than citizens. This is even more offensive today, now that we have modern legal and ethical rules about informed consent — rules that did not exist when the study was launched. But it was still wrong.
So claiming that Glenn Beck thinks the Tuskegee Experiment is “an urban legend” is a pretty serious charge. Let’s see how Zaitchik makes his case.
Google isn’t everything, I know, but bear with me. I googled “Glenn Beck” and “Tuskegee Experiment” and found a transcript of Beck’s September 1, 2009 radio show. Beck is playing clips of sermons by Obama’s pastor of twenty years, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Here’s one of the clips:
VAN JONES: The white polluters and the white environmentals are essentially steering poison into the people of colored communities.
GLENN: Have you heard this any has the president ever been around anyone who has ever said anything like that before Van Jones?
REVEREND WRIGHT: The government lied about the Tuskegee experiment. They purposely infected African American men with syphilis.
GLENN: The president of the United States has tried to pass himself off as a guy who just sat in Jeremiah Wright’s Black Liberation Theology church for 20 years. A friend. He’s like an old uncle. He didn’t even notice. He baptized Barack Obama’s children. He baptized Barack Obama, but he never heard these things before.
And so forth. Beck never mentions the Tuskegee Experiment again on that show. He certainly never calls it “an urban legend.” The program was devoted to playing a number of (now familiar) excerpts from Wright’s sermons, and expressing dismay at some of his statements.
Now, here’s a bylined article by Zaitchik, described as “an adapted excerpt” from Common Nonsense and entitled “The Racism of the Tea Party Movement is Confirmed,” posted on the web on March 3 of this year:
Instead, the host repeatedly doubled down on his ignorance. Never was this strategy more glaring or abhorrent than during the September 1 edition of The Glenn Beck Program. This was when Beck dismissed Jones’ comments about environmental racism by comparing them to what he considered another black urban legend: The Tuskegee Syphilis Study. He followed a Jones audio clip with one of Jeremiah Wright stating a simple, uncontested fact of American history: “The government lied about the Tuskegee experiment.” For most Americans, the Tuskegee experiment — a 40-year clinical study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service in which black subjects with syphilis were experimented on and allowed to die even after the discovery of penicillin — is shameful chapter in black America’s long and frequently nonconsensual relationship with experimental medicine, one that does much to explain the lingering anger and suspicions of a generation of African-Americans, including Jeremiah Wright.
For Beck, who knows nothing about Tuskegee or the well-documented tradition of which it is a part, it is just another bit of radical nonsense spouted by America’s black nationalist enemies within.
The trouble is, Zaitchik leaves out the key portion of the Wright clip: the preacher’s belief that the government “purposely infected African American men with syphilis.”
That is, quite simply, false.
Reverend Jeremiah Wright is the purveyor of urban legends, not Glenn Beck.
No less a liberal personage than broadcaster Bill Moyers took Wright (gently) to task for spreading this paranoid rumor. In May 2008, a year and a half before Beck even raised the issue, Moyers told fellow liberal hero Jon Stewart:
All of us have made absurd statements. I know that Rev. Wright, whom I had never met before this, was no doubt — had misspoken and made some erratic statements and all that. Most of us do. But on the whole if you look at all of the speeches, what about HIV, about the — I didn’t — I ran out of time, as you do, and I didn’t get to ask him, do you really believe that the government generated HIV among the black community? He buys into the paranoia that the black community feels because of the Tuskegee Institute, where black men with syphilis were allowed to die while thinking they were being treated, because they wanted to have a scientific study. He bought into that paranoia. That’s not a pastor’s job. A pastor should be the gatekeeper of misinformation. So he made some mistakes but then suddenly thrust on the stage, he was unable to deal with it.
Does Zaitchik think Moyers and Stewart are “symbolic racists” for questioning Wright? That’s the phrase he’s coined to describe Glenn Beck, after all.
Zaitchik calls Beck’s Tuskegee Experiment moment the most “glaring and abhorrent” example of Beck’s ignorance and racism.
Since I’ve just demonstrated that Zaitchik has willfully or innocently misrepresented Beck’s beliefs about Tuskegee, does this mean his entire book is worthless? One big — dare I say it — urban legend?