WHERE I LIVE, ON THE EDGE of Topanga Canyon, our cars are dusted with ash and our nostrils tickled with the scent of charred wood. We’ve got one eye on a darkened skyline and the other on the tube, lest we be warned to get out, and get out now.

It’s hardly the first time much of L.A. or — in this case — entire swaths of California have been ablaze. Every five or 10 years, it seems, some sort of biblical inferno sweeps through and brazenly reminds us who, or what, is really in charge. By nature’s whim, a population sometimes lulled into believing that it alone — or at least its representatives — determines the course of history is humbled by forces it cannot comprehend or properly anticipate.

But this round of wildfires coincides with a time in which more than hillsides and homes are being incinerated. There’s also a part of our national character that’s been consumed. This week’s firestorms bear no blame for the ongoing degradation of our civic culture. They merely and starkly illuminate it.

I refer to the comments made Monday by CNN host Glenn Beck on his nationally syndicated radio show. As the news buzzed that flames in Malibu were roaring down the hillsides and licking the Pacific, driving some Hollywood big names into a panicked exile, Beck could hardly contain his delight.

“We all love America. We just disagree on how we should function, what we should do, big government, small government. It doesn’t mean you hate America,” he told his audience. “I think there is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today.”

Ordinarily, I’d laugh off such a jackass remark. But it’s not so funny when the soot is falling in your own yard, when as many as a half million people in 265,000 households have been forced to evacuate, when a thousand homes have been wiped out, when one victim has died and at least a dozen others have suffered burns, when firefighters say they are stretched beyond limits and are worried about losing further control of the more than 15 separate raging fires, when a state of emergency has been declared, and when the governor has mobilized 1,500 National Guard troops to help stem the disaster.

You really have to wonder what sort of nitwit would get on the radio and gloat over this catastrophe. What sort of pea-brain actually believes that capitalist millionaires like Jeff Katzenberg and David Geffen are America-hating firebrands who merit getting burned out of their homes?

Glenn Beck, of course, is the one who really hates America. At a minimum, he openly detests an American democracy that allows the sort of tepid, and — yes — often self-serving, hypocritical and annoying, public political activism of a Barbra, a Cher and some of their beachside neighbors. But they really are a joke, not a threat to be vaguely compared to Osama bin Laden.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got no real brief against Beck. Beck, after all, is only being Beck. This is how he earns his handsome living. This is who he is. To understand him, you need go no further than the fable of “The Scorpion and the Frog.” The former isn’t about to change merely because he’s been extended a favor by the latter.

No, the real culprits here are the executives of CNN who hired Beck precisely because he is a preying insect. It’s his job, nay, his mandate to be outrageous, insulting, polarizing or, in a word, vicious. The CNN execs are not frogs, but rather cynical toads who strut their own disdain for the American people.

Back in the mid-’60s, the luminous DJ known as Magnificent Montague would punctuate his show on the local soul-music powerhouse KGFJ with shouts of “Burn, Baby, Burn!” When the ’65 Watts riots broke out, he was shocked to hear that this jingle had become the deadly serious battle cry in the streets. After both the station manager and then–Mayor Sam Yorty asked Montague to at least temporarily refrain from use of the incendiary phrase, he complied by shouting out instead, “Have Mercy, Los Angeles!”

Magnificent Montague was a mensch. Glenn Beck is a shameful schmuck.

Beck, as a result of his remarks this week, will likely suffer none of the ignominy, humiliation or pain inflicted upon Don Imus for what were similarly inflammatory remarks. But then again, Imus is about to be rehired, isn’t he?

I guess the soot, and ultimately the joke, is on us.

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