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Barack Obama's presidency

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Beck's Washington Monument Myth

By Jonathan Schwarz
September 1, 2010

Editor’s Note: A sizable portion of the American public has chosen to follow hucksters, like Fox News’ Glenn Beck, into a modern-day Know Nothing movement that ironically sees itself as steeped in the early history of the nation.

Yet, the history and the founding principles often are jumbled up and twisted to fit the confused vision of this new assault on reason, as Jonathan Schwarz of A Tiny Revolution notes in this guest essay:

I realize this isn't breaking news, but...listening to Glenn Beck is the mental equivalent of falling into a vat of Karo syrup. You thrash around, can't get out, and feel like you're going to die in the most insipid way possible.

Here's the beginning of his speech at his Lincoln Memorial rally on Sunday:

BECK: “We have a choice today .... We can either look at our scars, look at the scars of the nation...we concentrate on the bad instead of learning from the bad and repairing the bad, and then looking to the good...

“We have a choice today, to either let those scars crush us, or redeem us. We are gathered here today, in a hallowed spot. Here, Abraham Lincoln, a giant of an American, casting a shadow on all of us. We look, to a giant for answers.

“Behind you, in front of me, the Washington—alone, tall, straight—if you look at the Washington Monument, you might notice its scars. But nobody talks about that...but a quarter of the way up it changes color. Did you know that it did? Look at it. Look at its scars.

“How did the scar get there? They stopped building it in the Civil War. And when the war was over, they began again. No one sees the scars of the Washington memorial, the Washington Monument. We see what it stands for. No one also talks about what's on top, facing east. Just two words, ‘Laus Deo,’ ‘Praise be to God.’"

So this means...what, exactly? I think it's that we shouldn't dwell on America's flaws, just like, uh, we don't pay any attention to the way the color of the Washington Monument changes?

But instead we pay attention to what it stands for? Which is an inscription telling us to praise god? one talks about the inscription either? Help me out here.

Of course, this makes no sense at all. If you've ever been on an elementary school field trip to the Washington Monument, you know that EVERY FOURTH GRADER talks about the way it changes color. Why wouldn't they? It's incredibly obvious.

However, no one pays attention to what it "stands for," because no one has any idea. (Beck's right that no one talks about the inscription at the top, though.)

Beyond engulfing us in this unpleasantly sticky metaphor, Beck is also wrong about the Washington Monument's history — which I learned about on one of those elementary school field trips.

The construction didn't stop because of the Civil War. As the National Park Service's website will tell you, it had already stopped years earlier:

“Why does the color change on the outside of the monument?

“When the monument was under construction in 1854, the Washington National Monument Society ran out of money and the project ground to a halt. Twenty-five years later, the U.S. Government took over and completed the upper two-thirds of the structure by 1884 using marble from a different quarry.”

There's actually a little more to the story, which you can find in a 1999 Washington Post article.

One interesting part is that after the original, private organization running things ran out of money in 1854, it was taken over by the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party. They were particularly outraged by the fact the Vatican, like many other organizations, had donated a stone. So they destroyed it.

Then they screwed around for two more years but finally gave up too.

So...I guess you could argue that Beck is within shouting distance of reality. I mean, it probably was harder to raise money as the war approached. And construction probably would have stopped during the Civil War...if it had been going on when the Civil War started. Which it, uh, wasn't.

Finally, the actual history is bad news for Beck's ideology: the private effort to build the monument puttered out, and then was derailed for a long time by cranks with a worldview strikingly similar to Beck & co.

(Don't you hate immigrants with weird foreign religions? Did you know Abraham Lincoln is a secret apostate Catholic?!?)

It was only the government's money and organization that finally made it happen.


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