Book Review: Dumbocracy

November 19, 2008

Dumbocracy: Adventures with the Loony Left, the Rabid Right, and Other American Idiots

dumbocracyBy Marty Beckerman

Published September 1, 2008

The Disinformation Company

224 pp.

ISBN 1-934-70806-2

Reviewed November 17, 2008

Unless you have been living in a commune for the blind/deaf/mute with neither basic cable nor Internet access, you know that America recently concluded the most excruciating presidential election in its history. It was a novel-worthy affair loaded with grand promises, ancient history and truly absurd moments – Hillary Clinton’s sniper snafu and Sarah Palin’s shopping spree are personal favorites – but regularly distinguished by an extremist tone. Barack Obama painted the Republicans as irrevocably shackled to the single-minded Bush doctrine, while John McCain’s campaign came just short of calling Obama a pinko commie.

This is nothing new in the political climate, but it’s yet another reflection of the fact that our society loves to split itself apart. Left and right, red and blue – all with an “I’m better than you are” attitude disguising the fact that in virtually all cases they’re not. Few books illustrate this as well as Marty Beckerman’s “Dumbocracy: Adventures with the Loony Left, the Rabid Right, and Other American Idiots,” a breath of fresh air to clear out some of the smoke regularly blown up our asses.

In the spirit of gonzo journalism, Beckerman inserts himself directly into the poles of America. He walks through the March for Women’s Lives in Washington D.C. to confront marchers and protestors, watches right-wing preachers on New York streets before ducking into a gay bar, receives placid stares from college kids who support Palestine and weathers “righteous” indignation at a conservative conference. He looks at the effort to regulate our vices – pornography, cigarettes, marijuana, fast food and alcohol – and takes a trip to Jerusalem in an effort to understand what makes believers tick.

With an introduction titled “Douche Bag Nation,” “Dumbocracy” makes it clear from the start this search takes neither sides nor prisoners. Beckerman argues that the majority of those who hold zealous views on a subject turn out to be selfish morons, using both the implausibility of their arguments and the bile of their tone to leave readers wishing he’d made these points up. Magazine editors, talk show hosts, student activists and government officials are all seen taking matters into their own hands, and the resulting emotion is a desire to slap those hands with a ruler.

Its direct tone may make “Dumbocracy” appear little more than a diatribe against die-hards, but Beckerman gets past the jingoism of his subjects with two strengths. First is impressive research – he cites dozens of books, articles, interviews and broadcasts, from sources ranging from Fox News to “Fast Food Nation.” The research mostly serves to prove his point rather than open up debate, but it proves he’s not basing his point on isolated incidents the way his subjects do.

His second strength is his “smartass pipsqueak Jew” personality, which is refreshingly amusing when placed next to narrow-minded zealots. He regularly poses direct questions to his subjects but never attacks their beliefs, only offering a rational point that causes a fuse to pop in their heads when they see their rhetoric ignored. And while the writing does try too hard in some places – particularly with sarcastic replies interjecting fact lists – it’s never in a manner too grating to remove observer status or earn him a punch in the face.

Additional gonzo credit is also awarded for a drunken postscript to the prohibition section and downing hallucinogenic liquor during his Jerusalem visit.

To paraphrase Voltaire, Beckerman’s argument can be boiled into: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death my right to call you a jackass for saying it.” And that’s an argument desperately needed in today’s partisan culture, one that points out the common denominator of extreme left and extreme right is being extremely wrong. “Dumbocracy” is a compelling case for being a moderate in today’s world, and yet another reason to hope our new president means what he says about restoring America’s common purpose.

(Political disclaimer: The political beliefs of the reviewer played no role in the above article, and the review was based solely on quality of writing, depth of research and author arguments.)

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Book Review: Open Line

November 10, 2008

Open Line

openlinebBy Ellen Hawley

Published May 1, 2008

Coffee House Press

288 pp.

ISBN 1-566-89209-0

Reviewed November 10, 2008

An interesting paradox of modern media is that while there is a glut of information from podcasts, blogs and news networks, it always seems to be the little ideas that cultivate the highest interest. It’s a concept seen in elections where one quote or recording dominates the news cycle for at least three days, or when one video released on YouTube can build thousands of viewers just by word of mouth.

And of course, the problem with so many of these ideas is that most of them are ones that people are better off not paying any attention to, either founded on false pretense or being simply idiotic. Christopher Buckley explored this idea in “Boomsday” where a blogger suggests exterminating the baby boomers to save the government funds, and Ellen Hawley has now explored it in her novel “Open Line,” an intriguing yet unsatisfying look at saying the wrong thing at the right time.

Trapped in the echo chamber that is late-night Midwest talk radio, Annette Majoris finally succumbs to her boredom and off-handedly suggests to a caller that the Vietnam War never actually happened. As the topic begins to generate calls from veterans and conspiracy nuts, it also attracts the attention of the equally disaffected Stan Marlin, who quickly sees that her theory can be a unifying issue for his conservative political group.

Soon, thanks to Stan’s research and a rapidly growing listener base, Annette finds herself turning into a star. She begins dating the wealthy Republican lobbyist Walter Bishop, engages in serious talks with the governor about putting her listeners on his side and finds her show pulling in listeners on all ends of the political spectrum. As her fame grows, so does the level of protest and her own ambitions, everyone forgetting that it’s built around a train of thought alone.

It’s a compelling idea, both in concept and in the paranoia it suggests, but it quickly gets quashed under the foibles of its cast. Bishop has an odd fascination with puzzle toys, Stan’s thought process periodically centers on popping open the buttons on Annette’s blazer and Annette remains fixated on New York like some sort of promised land. They’re more realistic than Buckley’s unsubtle cast, but there’s nothing to make them endearing or even likeable – in fact, “creepy” is the most appropriate word.

A great deal of this is credited to the fact that the book focuses more on the reaction to Annette’s idea than the idea itself, and as a result the characters and the plot feel shallow. The back cover implies that there may be some truth in it but the shadow government idea never even begins to materialize, and it’s never answered whether or not it exists beyond bored people looking to march behind any issue. Other side plots, such as a power play between Stan and a zealot member of his group, are pushed under the rug in favor of Annette’s accelerated growth.

Though the base of “Open Line” is unsteady, it does have some strong supporting elements. Hawley, who used to work for a Minnesota radio station herself, makes Annette’s broadcasts realistic down to the assertive clip of her voice and the calculations inside her head to avoid dead time. Several passages are well-crafted, particularly one instance in the upward phase of Annette’s fame where she feels trapped in a hotel stairway despite no real evidence that anyone is after her.

When exploring paranoia or showing the growth of popular opinion, “Open Line” does provide a bleak satire of how the media can make a great deal from almost nothing. However, like most mass media, when it comes to digging deeper or creating people of any substance, the book just tends to make a reader feel uncomfortable.