Cannonball Read / AlabamaPink
Book Reviews | October 27, 2008 | Comments ()
I consider myself moderately apolitical. This isn’t to imply I don’t vote; I vote like a champ: national, state, local, primaries, the whole nine yards. I just don’t have strongly held political beliefs. There’s nothing, short of certain medical procedures, that gets me less excited than the political process. And I sure as shit don’t like to talk about politics. I’ve yet to see a political discussion between a diverse group of people not devolve into eye-bulging, spittle-spewing hysterics. Someone starts talking politics, my ass is out of the room in a heartbeat. I’ve had enough political discussions in my lifetime. My parents are both fairly conservative Republicans, and my father studied political science in college. (I love the expressions I get upon telling friends this fact for the first time; it’s as if I’ve said my parents are Korean or Yetis or something. What’s even better is when my friends learn this after meeting my parents and discovering that they are very kind people and not mouth-breathing assholes.) This fact made for some interesting dinner conversations between me and my father in my teens and 20s. But what I can now appreciate about those fun discussions where we did not always see eye-to-eye (and sometimes we did) is that it forced me to learn how to rationally defend my opinions. That just because someone differs from the way you thought about something does not mean you can simply excuse his or her opinions away with “You’re stupid!” or “You’re wrong!” In the end, you look like the bigger idiot for not being about to argue without turning into a five-year-old.
Sadly, what appears in the public eye these days regarding political discourse seems to be devolving into such preschool shenanigans. It’s not unlike my local news in the way they report a fire or a robbery or a shooting in a particular neighborhood. The camera crews seem to actively seek out the one toothless, village idiot on the block to make some blithering, nonsensical statement about the incident. On the rare occasion where I find myself watching any sort of political discussion on television, it seems inevitable that the extreme assholes on both sides of the subject are the only ones represented and they spend most of the time howling platitudes and insults at each other. Why do these wingnuts get the airtime? Because they make for good television, not rational discussion. But they also make for excellent cannon fodder in Marty Beckerman’s Dumbocracy. Beckerman, a self-described professional asshole, decided to peel back the paper-thin skins on the wackadoodles of both sides of the political spectrum and expose the ridiculousness of their zealotry. Along the way, he goes beyond tipping the Sacred Cows of American Politics; he eviscerates them, bathes in their blood, makes suspenders from their intestines, and runs naked through the field of carcasses. He’s profane, mean-spirited, obscene, and damned hysterical.
The first portion of the book is dedicated to the Sign Wavers on both sides of hot-button issues like abortion, gay rights, war, and religion (or lack thereof). While lampooning the extremists of any issue seems like the equivalent of picking on the fat kid in gym, Beckerman takes his skewering very seriously. He’s researched the rhetoric, and his chapters are stuffed to the gills with quotes and footnotes and statistics. It’s one thing to say someone is a kook; it’s a stronger thing altogether to offer up their own kooky words. He quotes the daughter of Pajiba’s favorite religious band of nutbags, the Phelps family, as saying that most of mankind’s children are from Satan and everyone is basically going to Hell. But contrast that to the equally bizarre statements from prominent feminist/gender study writers that Beckerman also uses. For example, “To secure a world of female values and female freedom we must, I believe, add one more element to the structure of the future: the ratio of men to women must be radically reduced so that men approximate only ten percent of the total population… One option is of course male infanticide.” Say what? Crazy goes both ways apparently. Beckerman also does his time on the front lines, chatting it up (and mocking mercilessly) with activists of all flavors. I’ve read one particular portion aloud to almost anyone willing to hear where he suggested, with some amount of seriousness, to an activist at a marriage equality rally that the U.S. invade Cuba and turn it into a Gay Israel. There were times, however, when I thought Beckerman’s jackass routine ran a little thin, and I wanted to exclaim, “All right already! I get it. You’re a jerk.”
While I found the transitions between two opposing sides of an issue sometimes awkward within a chapter, Beckerman did a nimble job of exposing the ridiculousness of the extremists’ views, while also giving the reader grounding statistics on how the majority of Americans feel about these pressure point issues. No big surprise, but most folks in this country feel pretty middle of the road about things like the role of religion in the public sphere, gay folks getting married, and abortion. What Beckerman manages to capture with his weird mix of frat-guy humor and journalistic gumption is the anger with which extremists on both ends of the spectrum pulse, even though the targets of their anger are very different. These people are plain pissed off, and ideologies aside, pissed off people are fundamentally dangerous, especially to rational discourse.
For the second portion of the book, Beckerman takes on the Nanny State and government-sponsored attempts to control everything from our free speech to the type of food we consume. This chapter scared the hell out of me. Beckerman chronicles numerous attempts by lawmakers, aided and abetted by a variety of special interest groups ranging from morality police to NOW, to seriously curtail the individual freedoms of the average American (and in the rest of the Western World, according to Beckerman’s research). After examining the various “Wars on…” crusades being waged in our legislatures and courts, Beckerman concludes the real reason all these folks are so adamant about restricting your freedoms is because something you’re doing bothers them, not necessarily, as studies often show to the contrary, because it’s bad for you or for the nation as a whole. He spends a lot of print detailing the draconian measures MADD promotes; beyond simply preventing drunk driving accidents, the organization has been actively working to shut down the public consumption of alcohol all together. The Nanny State mentality seems to blossom like a giant snowball off of the backs of the complacency of the citizens, and Beckerman warns that while you might not mind a public smoking ban, what about a ban on the type of food you like to eat that the government has suddenly deemed unhealthy? As a Southern woman, I will fight vehemently for my right to have fried Oreos once a year at the State Fair. (As a side note related to voting, pay attention who your state representatives are; the majority of the weird, restrictive laws Beckerman references in these chapters came out of state legislatures, not Congress. The Nanny State starts close to home.)
Beckerman’s copious references to studies and surveys did ultimately wear thin on me. While I appreciate well-researched and documented writing, I also know that information can be extrapolated out of the proper context and used with certain creative license to prove a point. Without reading every source referenced by an author, the reader can’t know 100 percent if the information presented is contextually sound. In his chapter regarding the legalization of pot, Beckerman gets a little slap-happy with his “studies say” references, claiming that smoking marijuana basically makes you a better person. The argument to legalize/decriminalize pot is a strong enough one for me without the exaggerated claims of greatness because, while I know many normal, well-adjusted pot smokers, I know just as many who don’t leave their couches for days and then frighteningly when they do, it’s to go to some sort of work involving power tools or roofing. Beckerman brings up the Nazi regime a lot in these chapters, paralleling the Third Reich’s propaganda with current PC crazes. The Nazi card is strong statement, but one that can be overwrought if not used with prudence: “The Nazis built the Autobahn! Ah! Highway systems are evil!”
Beckerman’s third section is something of a weird coda, and one that didn’t fully gel with the tone of the previous two. In it he details his travels to Israel, and amongst the believers there, he attempts to “find God” or at least make sense of the whole Divine thing. He attempts to address religious zealotry and atheistic zealotry, but without objective strength. Instead, it’s peppered with drunken tales of wandering around Israel and being schooled by his more devout brothers and sisters in the faith. He wraps it all up with insightful but not necessarily profound statements on just getting along and adds a punchy postscript about his own personal political journey. Beckerman ends the romping through the sacred cow slaughterhouse on a collapsed lung, perhaps weary from his own profanity. He’s a funny writer, and my copy sits beside me filled with little red stickies to remind me of passages worth repeating. Now that I’m done with the book and have written my little report, I’m passing it along to another reader who will find it just as naughtily entertaining and smugly informative as I did. My dad.