Recently Fox television’s Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, employing their customary formulaic shtick, engaged in what on surface seemed innocuous, if somewhat mean-spirited, witty banter on a regular segment of O’Reilly’s show called “Beck and Call.” The topic was Beck’s earlier recorded commentary “Rats, Flies, Bees, and Obama, Oh My!” Beck and O’Reilly juxtaposed more recent footage with that of President Obama’s infamous fly-swatting episode from June 2009 – you remember the shot, in which President Obama summarily dispatched a fly in one fell swoop without batting an eye or becoming distracted from his line of thought, then a downward pan to frame a dead fly on the floor of the Oval Office. In the new video, there’s a close-up of another fly landing on the president’s face, followed by a shot of a rat scurrying across the front of the presidential podium, and then, as Beck’s narrative arcs, the camera cuts to an image of bees swarming on the White House lawn. These pictures prompt the obligatory pseudo-journalistic query (as both men feign utter befuddlement): Why has the Obama White House attracted such infestation?
To the casual viewer untrained in anthropology, sociology, symbology, or iconography, Beck’s cavalier amusement with the White House pest-infiltration narrative may appear to be nothing more than a Fox infotainment foray into a human-interest aspect of the Obama administration. But it would be unthinkable to dismiss this charade as lighthearted comedic jesting. If you were to casually regard Fox’s snickering “White House Infestation” segment as mere comic relief, you’d be viewing the world through the proverbial rose-colored lens and missing the real picture.
The fact is that symbols are powerful tools of mass communication. One need only reflect on the passion that symbols can evoke; the American flag, the Confederate flag, the Star of David, the Christian cross. Across cultures and through the ages, animals, insects, and objects have been imputed symbolic meanings. And once symbols are embedded and codified as icons, they possess a unique ability to convey intent and significance in compact, coded – but also immediately recognizable – form.
Glenn Beck has long displayed a ferocious proclivity for deconstructing symbolism as he plants himself to pontificate piously in front of an image of the Statue of Liberty, or frames his bloviations with the American flag, or implores the electorate to beware of treasonous communistic iconography in our midst – as in the artwork of Rockefeller Center, stoking fears of the demise of our morals and our democratic society.
The effect of icons, signs, and symbols is enormous. The fly’s image has had currency for centuries as a symbol of filth, decay, and disease. The fly on Obama’s cheek evokes the fly-covered faces of Biafran children in UNICEF campaigns. And Beck tastelessly drags the joke to even more sophomoric levels by pretending to ingest a dead fly for “yuck” effect.
Likewise, rats have long signified pestilence, plague, betrayal, and death, at least in Western culture. (In China the year of the Rat denotes prosperity and good luck.) In Albert Camus’classic novel, The Plague, the image of rats is called forth to do more than merely symbolize disease – the rats parallel the frailty of our human condition. Both creatures are regarded as vermin; fodder for annihilation lest they infect our homes, crops, and livestock.
And then there’s the troublesome White House bee-infestation imagery. What gives this story wings, so to speak? After all, rose gardens are expected to attract bees and more significantly, for the first time in history a bee hive is being maintained on the South Lawn as part of the First Lady’s environmental and healthy-foods efforts. (This was never mentioned by Beck and O’Reilly.) Robert Bridges in his poem “The Parable of Bees” refers to ancient times when the life of the bee was not systematized and regulated as it is today, and “the bee was not a State-kept hoard.” In other words, before people colonized bees into hives for cultivation, they were free. In the brief clip used by O’Reilly and Beck, the bees appear to be swarming in attack mode, overwhelming the groundskeeper in a terroristic frenzy.
The visuals serve to drum home Beck’s story line. In his subliminal iconography, the bee hive represents a socialist society dependent upon the Queen Bee, a perfect metaphor for the Republican narrative that seeks to portray Obama’s presidency as imperial, with full reign over big-government resources and committed to redistributing the wealth (and subtly implying redistribution on the basis of race). Symbolically, bee swarms in the Rose Garden represent a rebellious, disruptive (white) electorate on the attack against the President for leading the nation down the slippery slope to socialism – to a society in which individual freedoms are viewed as subservient to the survival of special interests,minority groups and blacks in particular.
Within days of his hijacking of the bee footage, Beck was hawking “The Bees Know” t-shirts on his website.
In addition to the rats, flies, and bees, other symbolic literary references surfaced in this same “Beck and Call” segment, all deviously laden with disturbing allegory masquerading as good-humored jesting at the President’s expense: Obama mocked as Pied Piper, as Dr. Doolittle, as the blood-sucking Count Dracula, and the White House portrayed as the Amityville Horror house (which, along with the haunting spirits, was infested with – you guessed it – flies). These giggly comparisons are not void of layered social, psychological, political and, yes, deliberate racial connotations. They are meant to demean and marginalize the President by innuendo, using symbolism and literary imagery to reinforce the notion of Obama’s mystical “otherness.”
Fox’s program executives have strategically allowed Beck and O’Reilly to cast America as a nation in decline under Obama’s leadership. Biblical allegories of deadly plagues, mystical metaphors of evil haunted houses, and raw images suggesting a vermin- and insect-infested White House are calculated to conjure fear and revulsion in an already economically insecure and anxious American electorate. They present a vision of the U.S. plunging from number-one reigning world empire to banana republic by casting President Obama as alien, third-worldly; an unworthy occupant of America’s most revered residence, the White House.
Despite Beck’s admitted lack of formal education – he never earned a college degree – he nonetheless is a New York Times bestselling author, so it’s difficult to believe that he is unaware of the racist content of Hugh Lofton’s original Dr. Doolittle books, in which, for example, the African Prince Bumpo persuades Dr. Doolittle to bleach his face white in hopes that he may marry a fairytale European princess. The books have come under attack from advocates seeking to draw attention to children’s books that portray racist imagery and mock black people.
Powerful stereotypes, both positive and negative, depend upon one’s cultural perspective. Nearly four decades ago at Fisk University, I reviewed research on racial stereotypes when I studied with the brilliant Japanese-American scholar Dr. J. Matsuoka. Many of the same vicious and factually baseless stereotypes persist today, having been bequeathed from generation to generation. For example, in 2007 a D.C. high school teacher asked students to list stereotypes they were aware of pertaining to black, white, and Latino populations. Many of the descriptors generated by the students echoed the vicious views found in Dr. Matsuoka’s empirical studies from the 1960s. For black people, these included “low job expectations, dropouts, live in the ghetto/projects,” despite blacks’ enormous economic and educational gains over forty years, while whites were characterized as “rich with big houses” and “always in a hurry and on time.”
Beck and O’Reilly are perversely intentional in their skillful appropriation of symbols and stereotypes – in this case infestation; linking rats, flies, and bees with the name and image of Obama for the subliminal manipulation of their viewers’ emotions and opinions, further stoking the suspicion, racial division, apprehension, anger, and hatred that they are often accused of evoking in more open, direct commentary. Their visual tools of mind control are carefully crafted for full effect – to perpetuate the us-against-them and we-they attitudes within our national psyche that govern our common discourse on race.
As Marshall McLuhan intoned in 1960, “the medium is the message.” Television’s formidable power to shape public opinion and common cultural understandings is not lost on Beck, O’Reilly, or pundits and network executives across the industry. Fox’s mass-media forum, tactically handed over to the likes of Beck and O’Reilly, becomes a lethal weapon; spewing propaganda, reinforcing stereotypes, and smearing innuendo for political advantage and, to an even greater extent, for pure monetary profit. Why else would Fox spend the enormous salary and production costs-per-minute to devote such an inordinate number of minutes to this infestation narrative when so many larger issues loom?
The illusion of a hoped-for post-racial American society has not materialized. Like a steady drumbeat in the polarizing cable media “culture wars,” the carefully crafted, symbol-laden imagery of Beck and O’Reilly propels their storyline. Obama’s White House, like the Amityville Horror house, is infested with threatening, blood-sucking (your tax dollars!) nuisances that must be exorcised or “there goes the neighborhood.”
At the end of the televised “Beck and Call” segment, O’Reilly asserts that everything Beck has said is completely true. You be the judge of whether what is portrayed is truthful the next time Mr. Beck portends to reveal the symbolic meaning of an event, relationship, idea, object, or picture. (More recently, for example, he compared Obama’s America to the Planet of the Apes. )
Ask yourself what Beck is really saying. And then ask: Why should we care? As freedom-loving Americans, indeed we all should care. Think about it.