Published September 1, 2008
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.)