Is America like Glenn Beck?
On the one hand, yes. On the other, no, it isn't. As I see it, from outside of the US, there's a discrepancy between the ideals of the declaration of independence and the constitution, and the daily reality in the 21st century. And, of course, real life has the upper hand.
Imho the reason behind the horrible image America (or more exactly, the USA) is presenting today is, sorry to say that, the US interpretation of freedom of speech. It simply goes too far, has degenerated into pure fundamentalism. Everything is allowed in the public discourse nowadays, no lie is too outrageous, no insult too hurtful. The idea that the freedom of one citizen ends where the rights of another person begins has been totally forgotten. And one of those rights is the dignity of a human being. Who can honestly say this dignity isn't violated, even denied, if everyody is allowed to smear another citizen in the most vile terms, even with made up accusations, without any obligation to stay with the facts at all?
Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, the most prominent of the smear merchants, simply exploit this extreme interpretation of the freedom of speech to their advantage. And while they represent the most despicable variant of mud slingers, those who do it for the money, they aren't responsible for this sad development. It's been talk radio, and to a lesser degree FCC regulated TV, that pushed the limit of socially "acceptable" speech to the limits. And nowadays the internet speeds up the horrible erosion of standards of decency. But that's not an inevitable side effect of modern technology, as the different situation in other countries shows! In most of the rest of the world, libel and slander laws still are enforced, and offenders face much harsher consequences. With positive consequences for the public discouse, which is much more civil than the verbal extremism of the US!
And such personal responsiblity for statements a citizen makes in public should actually be something that reasonable people see as only natural, and not something negative. If you make outrageous remarks about another person, harming their image and creating emotional pain, of course you should face consequences if you can't support these with at least some evidence! But instead, right wing hypocrites like Dr. Laura don't see any obligation to be bound by the truth, while at the same time they complain about the thousands of other citizen, excersizing their freedom of speech in a much more respectable manner, when send notes of protest to the advertisers. It's really a crazy show of egomanical extremes to see no limits to the own speech, while dismissing the right of much more reasonable others to make their voices heard at the same time! Only in the US, as a far as I can see. In most other countries, Beck, Limbaugh and their ilk would already be bankrupt, and the companies allowing them to spread their insults, prejudices and outright lies, too.
So, sorry Mr. Herbert, but imho your column falls short in identifying the reason behind the extremism of Beck & Co. It's the freedom of speech fundamentalism that knows no bounds and has no compassion for the victims at all, that is eroding all standards of decency and creating the base for the hate mongerers! And once again the USA are No. 1, at least in this regard, because too many reasonable people there support the right of Beck and other demagogues to smear, insult, and distort the truth. Nobody cares about the collateral damage in form of those who fall victim to this right wing smear machine, often good citizen who become target of a hate campaign simply because they supported important issues like the health care reform. Their pain seems to be much less important than the demagogues' unlimited rright of freedom of speech. America should be better than this, but, no, it isn't!
(based on a comment to Bob Herbert's NYT column)