On August 28, 2010, my partner, a friend, and I drove from our home in Charlottesville, VA to attend the Reclaim the Dream rally in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” This rally, organized by Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, was called in response to Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally that was being held on the National Mall, the same site as King’s original speech.
Beck claimed that his choice of August 28 was a divine coincidence, and that he hadn’t intentionally chosen to hold his rally on the same day as King’s speech. However, what I witnessed of Beck’s rally assured me that it was explicitly designed to replace the set of signs and symbols associated with King’s speech with a new set of signs and symbols in the national imaginary.
Specifically, Beck’s rally was designed to extend the fantasy of the U.S. as a wounded national homeland that was propagated by the State after the events of 9/11. The most haunting image of this fantasy was the face of the final speaker at Beck’s rally, David Roever, a Vietnam veteran and preacher, who offered a closing benediction. As Beck told the audience, Roever was heinously disfigured during the Vietnam War when a phosphorus grenade that he had intended to throw at the enemy exploded in his hand.
Beck regaled the crowd with the story of how Roever, recovering in a military hospital and suffering from excruciating pain, buried his face in his pillow to hide his tears, only to realize when he turned over that the skin on his face had literally ripped off. The goal of Beck’s rally was to replace Martin Luther King, Jr.’s face, standing in here as a proxy for Barack Obama’s face, with David Roever’s face as the face of the nation.
Such a fantastic displacement was intended, in turn, to replace Obama’s hopeful national agenda with a melancholic one unable to accept its loss of symbolic privilege. I can think of no more potent example of the right wing’s attempt to shift the national imaginary back to a pre-Obama everyday than the fantastic distortions that took place at Beck’s rally.