Saturday, 26 February 2011

A Tea Party Homage to Zion


Book Review: Underdogma, by Michael Prell
Publisher: BenBella Books

By Richard Edmondson

Negative portrayals of Palestinians in U.S. media are certainly not new. The usual stereotype is that of a violent terrorist eager to shed the blood of innocents, and the word “Hamas” has been oxygenated so often its mere pronunciation now carries sinister overtones in polite company.

But would Americans be prepared to go even further, to believe, for instance, that Palestinians are racists who view those of other cultures as “descendants of monkeys and pigs”? Would they accept that Palestinians are backward, uncivilized fanatics who approve of stoning women or executing people who are gay? In such terms are Palestinians depicted in Underdogma, the newly-released book by Michael Prell, who says the tendency by Westerners in general, and particularly Americans, to sympathize with underdogs—a “reflexive” impulse he refers to as “underdogma”—spells dire implications for the future of civilization.

Underdogmatists are taking every opportunity to heap scorn on American power and to give America’s power away. American Underdogmatists—from the White House to the media to the angry hordes with “pitchforks” whose rage they kindle and stoke—are vilifying American exceptionalism. They are also attacking the American dream by demonizing wealth and those who have achieved positions of power. On campuses and in cities across the nation, American Underdogmatists regularly take to the streets to protest against American power, while championing and exalting America’s power-hungry enemies.”

Prell claims membership in the Tea Party Patriots, one of the larger organizations in the overall Tea Party umbrella movement that has sprouted up over the political landscape in the last few years. His book has won praise from such public figures as Rep. Michelle Bachmann, chair of the Tea Party Congressional Caucus (upon its formation last summer, this House caucus immediately endorsed an Israeli military attack on Iran), as well as Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin, who calls Underdogma “the first great Tea Party book.” It has also been acclaimed by prominent neo-conservatives such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy.

The Tea Party of the 21st century is of course quite a bit different from the one that took place in Boston in 1773, comprised of underdogs, whose act of defiance was aimed at a world power (Great Britain) as well as a monopolistic global corporation (the East India Tea Company). To claim to evoke that spirit while at the same time heaping scorn upon modern-day underdogs and those who support them would seem to be a difficult if not impossible task, but Prell, as we are informed by his publisher’s website, runs a successful marketing and publicity firm and is also a past winner of the Pollie Award, an accolade handed out each year to political consultants and which is described as “the Academy Award of political advertising.” And indeed, one gets the feeling Prell is quite skilled at his craft. Underdogma seems designed almost as much as a public relations offensive as a book. Certain themes are iterated with a repetition so manifold, through its 314 pages, that it strikes one as similar to the regularity of commercial messages in an advertising campaign. We are also informed, perhaps not surprisingly given the book’s begriming of Palestinian mores and culture, that Prell assisted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the latter’s 2009 political campaign.

In elucidating his argument, the author provides a formal, two-part definition for the term “underdogma”: it is the belief that 1 )those who have less power are virtuous and noble, because they have less power; and 2 ) those who have more power are to be scorned—because they have more power.

Underdogma is not simply standing up for “the little guy,” but reflexively standing up for the little guy and assigning him nobility and virtue—because he has less power. My friend Rabbi Shmuley Boteach calls this first part of Underdogma the “Always Root for the Underdog school of morality [which] sides with the weaker party, however wicked or immoral.” The second part of Underdogma states that those who have more power (overdogs) are to be reflexively scorned—because they have more power. Ayn Rand called this second part of Underdogma “hatred of the good for being good.”

We might pause here and wonder, if Prell is correct and there is such a thing as “underdogma,” would we not find its correlative in “overdogma”—the belief that those who have more power are virtuous and noble because they have more power…etc… and would Prell and some of the people he quotes perhaps not be votaries of the latter outlook? Nowhere in his book does the author consider this possibility, but we do find him pointing to concrete examples of persons or groups of persons deemed by he as “underdogmatists.” This would include those who took part in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the 1960s (where ‘underdogma’ got its start, he says), a Christian group which opposed the war in Iraq, conspiracy theorists, and anyone who would reflexively blame “big banks” or Wall Street “Fat Cats” for the global financial crisis. He also cites the United Nations as an example of “institutionalized Underdogma,” and he even quotes the words of Jesus (that “it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”), although Christ, he says, was not a full-fledged underdogmatist, but only one who “came close to articulating Underdogma by blessing the meek and declaring them inheritors of the Earth.”

But of course at present the world’s premiere underdogs (to employ an oxymoron) are the Palestinian people, a fact inasmuch acknowledged by Prell when he refers to the Palestine-Israel conflict as “‘Ground Zero’ for Underdogma.” Moreover, the author seems to find little about Palestinian society to admire, and much to deplore, including, as he describes it, a rather shocking level of racism. Palestinians, he says, are not only given to inciting violence but also possess the odious characteristic of viewing people from other cultures as “descendants of monkeys and pigs.” This accusation is made on page 35 and repeated on page 284, although in the second instance the indictment is tied to “radical Islamists” rather than Palestinians per se. From what source does the author derive his views on this alleged racism? It seems to be based almost wholly or entirely on a single quote, which he attributes to “Ikrime Sabri, Mufti of the Palestinian authority.” The reference note the author supplies, containing, ostensibly, an extended version of the quote from Sabri, in all its particulars, reads as follows:

“O Allah, destroy America as it is controlled by Zionist Jews…Allah will avenge, in the name of His Prophet, the colonialist settlers who are the descendents (sic) of monkeys and pigs.” Ikrime Sabri, Mufti of the Palestinian Authority, Voice of Palestine, July 11, 1997

A web search turns up the same quote, attributed to Sabri and bearing the identical date and source, on a number of Islamophobic web sites. However a Wikipedia article on “Ekrima Sa’id Sabri,” identified as having served as Mufti of Jerusalem from 1994-2006 and who is presumably the same individual, makes no mention of the quote, even though much of Wikipedia’s article seems derived from MEMRI, a pro-Israel research group.

Such racial views being ascribed to an entire people—based upon one man’s alleged comment—would seem an exercise in irresponsibility, if not outright malice, but in a text table beginning on page 35, Prell declares that Palestinians “incite hatred of, and violence toward, other cultures, calling them ‘descendents (sic) of monkeys and pigs,’” while adding that “91% of university-aged Palestinians deny Israel’s right to exist.” (The world might of course be waiting for Israel to acknowledge Palestine’s “right to exist” but that’s probably beside the point.) And the author doesn’t leave it at that. Palestinians, we are told, also “torture and kill homosexuals” as well as stone or execute women who have been raped or committed adultery, themes which are repeated in slightly different form and with slightly different wording numerous times in the book:

p. 36: “…women are sometimes stoned to death…” “…outlaw and execute homosexuals…”
p. 38: “…Palestinians torture and kill homosexuals and women…”
p. 42: “…stone to death their own women for the ‘dishonor’ of being raped…”
p. 43: “…kill those same Palestinian women for the ‘dishonor’ of being raped…”
p. 44: “…homosexual and rape-victim-killing Palestinians…”
p. 52: “…outlaw and murder ‘queers…’”
p. 53: “…gay-killing…”

Sometimes Prell substitutes “radical Islamists” or “radical Islam” for Palestinians, such as on p. 56, where we read: “…executes homosexuals in town squares…” But as I mentioned above, there is a certain repetition to it all, not unlike commercials in an advertising campaign, much as if the author were trying to program the information into his readers’ brains—and occasionally all the themes are even melded together into one tightly-packed recitation: “What was it about intolerant, violent, misogynist, homosexual-killing, fundamentalist, sexually repressive Palestinians that inspires such feelings of solidarity among tolerant, peaceful, egalitarian, open-minded, largely secular, and free-spirited Western university students?” he asks on p. 37. The answer to the question, of course, is “underdogma”—an ingrained tendency that “bypasses rational thought and is immune from facts.”

Though not quite to the extent that Palestinians do, President Obama also comes in for some heavy-duty criticism in this book. Prell quotes a line from Obama’s, The Audacity of Hope, specifically, “I am angry about policies that constantly favor the wealthy and powerful,” along with other presidential utterances made elsewhere, from all of which we are to conclude that the Commander in Chief of the United States is not only an Underdogmatist but a quite radical and dangerous one at that. And here we come to a neck of the woods in which Underdogma provides a useful service and could even be deemed “worth reading,” for what the book offers us is a look at how Obama is perceived—not how he is in reality, but how he is perceived—by America’s political Right. For the author of Underdogma, Obama has committed the sin of “bowing down to less powerful world leaders,” but Prell doesn’t exactly do a splendid job of making his case for this. Here are some of the Obama quotes he supplies as evidence of this alleged servility:

“In America, there’s a failure to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world.” (Obama speech made April 3, 2009, in Strasbourg, France)

“I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior in our relations.” (address at a summit of Latin American and Caribbean nations later that same month)

“No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.” (speech at the United Nations, September 23, 2009)

Is it really possible to construe the above quotes as “bowing down”? Well, it might be if you were convinced of “American exceptionalism,” or that as an exceptional nation America has the inherent right to dominate other countries and to intervene in their affairs as it sees fit. Prell, we learn, is a firm believer in American exceptionalism:

By all objective measures, the United States of America is the greatest, noblest, most honorable and charitable nation in world history. It is a beacon of freedom and opportunity to oppressed people around the world. “America is indeed exceptional by any plausible definition of the term and actually has grown increasingly exceptional over time.” America is powerful. Some say America is a hegemon. But even those who decry hegemony of any kind must agree that, as far as hegemons go, the United States of America is “as benign a hegemon as the world has ever seen.”

Here in the U.S. we find a curious pattern, one might even call it an unwritten rule, prevailing amongst our mainstream media. Pundits across the spectrum, from print to broadcast, from Democrat to Republican, freely criticize our elected leaders, including the president, and often dish out biting analyses of policies put in place by Washington. Most Americans believe this is because we have a free and independent media, largely due to the “freedom of the press” safeguard written into the First Amendment to the Constitution, but it’s a mistaken belief, for there are two things that seldom if ever are cut down or disparaged in any way, two things hardly ever spoken of in any but the most hushed and reverent tones: 1 ) Israel, and 2 ) any of Israel’s leaders. An irony to be sure—that correspondents and analysts are free to criticize their own leaders, but not those of another country—but such is the case. Prell of course, in keeping with this pattern of behavior, offers no criticism whatever of Israel or any of its leaders. They are apparently faultless.

Had Prell or his publisher, BenBella Books, have generated a book attributing to Jews, or Israelis, such traits or characteristics as they have conferred upon Palestinians, how would it have been received? Such a book could easily have been produced. A number of Israeli rabbis have made blatantly racist and dehumanizing comments, and one does not have to look too far to find examples of this. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, for instance, spiritual leader of the Israeli Shas Party, has compared Gentiles to donkeys , while many Israeli rabbis have come out in support of a book called The King’s Torah, written by Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, which asserts that it is acceptable to kill non-Jewish babies “if it is clear they will grow up to harm us.” But do we deduce from the ramblings of a few disturbed men that all Jews feel the same way? This is what Prell seems to do with the Palestinians. Shapira’s book, by the way, has been described as a rabbinical guidebook for killing non-Jews. But this is not the type of information you’ll find in Underdogma.

So how, then, does Israel fare in the pages of Prell’s book? How is the Jewish state portrayed? By and large as a tolerant nation (the author mentions the country’s annual Gay Pride parade), where justice is valued, where security forces are careful to avoid civilian casualties, a land whose people “apologize for the deaths of innocents and investigate what went wrong.” But the author’s focus overall seems less on elevating or extoling Israel than upon denigrating Israel’s enemies. Thus while Israelis may “apologize for the deaths of innocents,” Palestinians on the other hand, he informs us, “celebrate” such deaths and call them “heroic.” And in denigrating Israel’s enemies in such a manner, the author, by extension, transforms them into America’s enemies as well.

The Tea Party Patriots website endorses the book as “recommended reading,” proclaiming that, “Underdogma was written by one of us—a fellow Tea Party Patriot who has been volunteering behind the scenes and helping us for a long time.” The site also supplies a link, to the BenBella Books website, along with the appeal that if you purchase the book there, directly from the publisher, “the author will donate 100% of his royalties to the Tea Party Patriots!!!”—and as mentioned above, TPP co-founder and national coordinator Jenny Beth Martin has hailed Underdogma as “the first great Tea Party book.”

Aside from book royalties, how does the TPP get its funding? “All money we have raised has come in the form of donations of varying size from concerned average Americans,” says the organization’s website on its about us page. Apparently, despite the economic downturn, the donations have been robust. A feature story on Martin, published May 9, 2010 in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, mentions that the TPP leader “draws a monthly salary of about $6,000”—a respectable enough rebound considering the failure of her husband’s business and his consequent filing for bankruptcy in 2008 “with tax debts alone of more than $680,000.” The TPP is also holding an “American Policy Summit” this weekend, Feb. 25-27, 2011, in Phoenix, Arizona, with more than 20 confirmed speakers as of this writing. The summit is to be held at the Phoenix Convention Center, which in the past several years has undergone a multi-phased, $600 million expansion and is now regarded as one of the top 20 convention venues in North America. The speaker list includes John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, former Minnesota Governor Tom Pawlenty, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, Ernest Istook of the Heritage Foundation, political consultant and former Clinton advisor Dick Morris, Fox News commentator Herman Cain, conservative website publisher Andrew Breitbart, among others—and of course Martin herself. Click here to view a promo video of the event.

One other aspect of Underdogma that bears mentioning is the author’s treatment of the global financial crisis—a crisis, he says, which underdogma played a role in creating and which underdogmatists have exploited in an effort to “reorder the balance of power in America.” The financial straits in which Americans, and much of the rest of the world, now find themselves came about, at least in part, because politicians, “under the guise of standing up for the little guy (and against the big, greedy banks),” says Prell, passed laws forcing financial institutions to issue loans to unqualified borrowers, resulting in millions of people defaulting on home mortgages. He is especially critical of government sponsored enterprises such as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae in which the government backed (either in reality, as Prell maintains, or only “implicitly” as is argued here) mortgage loans in the event of homeowner default. “Duplicitous mortgage brokers” were then set to make “pots of money” selling mortgages to those without the means of repaying them, thus creating a house of cards with no stable foundation. According to Prell, when we assign responsibility for the inevitable collapse of that house of cards, we should divvy it out in the following order: 1 ) the homeowners who failed to pay off their mortgages, and 2 ) the “underdogmatist” politicians who passed laws making it necessary for financial institutions to issue these loans to ineligible borrowers.

If “champion of the underdog” politicians and governments had simply stayed out of the mortgage business and had not artificially removed risk from the system, opportunists—from borrowers to bankers to subprime lenders to Wall Street investors—would not have taken advantage of the system the way they did, because there would have been consequences to their actions.

It would perhaps come as news to millions of America’s poor that they have such powerful champions in Washington. I am not an economist and certainly am not going to try and provide an analysis of the global financial crisis here. However I would make the rather self-evident observation that big money exerts enormous influence over the American political system in the form of campaign donations to candidates, including, of course, donations from the banking industry. According to, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Inc., JP Morgan Chase & Co., UBS AG, and Morgan Stanley—all heavy hitters in the banking and financial services industry—were all among the top 20 contributors to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. If “underdogmatist” politicians like Obama keep enacting laws they disapprove of, then why do bankers such as these keep contributing to their campaigns? An “overdogmatist” (such as Prell perhaps?) might suggest it’s out of virtue, generosity, and public-spiritedness, with no expectations on the bankers’ part of ever getting anything in return. But is that how things really work in Washington? (Click here, here, and here, for bankers expressing support and approval for Obama’s policies) Obama’s top 20 contributors perhaps did not get every single thing they wished for, but they must have gotten something. It would be naïve to believe otherwise, but a lot of Tea Party rhetoric we hear nowadays seems to tap into a rather large reservoir of public naivety.

Underdogma’s subtitle is “How America’s Enemies Use Our Love for the Underdog to Trash American Power,” and according to Prell, this trashing is pervasive. But where does this societal phenomenon come from and why is it so widespread among the American populace? The author offers a theory on that, and on its face it sounds plausible:

Regardless of where we grew up or how we were raised, each of us has a tangible, personal understanding of what it feels like to be a small and powerless underdog surrounded by those who have more power. We begin life tiny and helpless, at the mercy of those who are bigger and more powerful than us; parents and guardians who tell us what to eat, what to wear, how to behave—even when to sleep and when to wake up. Then we encounter school teachers and professors who work us, test us, and assign grades to us that could shape the future directions of our lives. After school, we emerge into the workforce, where we face new Goliaths: bosses and supervisors who interview us, hire us, set our incomes, and hold the power to promote or fire us.

But does this really explain the public’s growing disgust with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, with the blockade of Gaza, or with the use of chemical weapons like white phosphorous in the commission of war crimes? Does it explain the resentment Americans feel at allocating public money to bail out bankers, who then turn around and give themselves extravagant pay bonuses? And does it explain the undue influence wielded by the wealthiest ten percent of the population, their ability to literally buy politicians, to control the media—and the outrage felt by the remaining 90 percent who see rampant corporate crime with a government not only doing little or nothing about it but presiding over a ‘revolving door’ through which the same people move from private industry into jobs as government regulators and back again? What the author seems to have overlooked is that the most powerful people in the world do not and did not, by and large, attain their stations in life through acts of kindness, benevolence, and ethicality. Where there is smoke there is fire, and where large numbers of people despise powerful institutions and individuals, there often is good reason for it. Prell should take a tip from the writer of the book of Ephesians: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Eph. 6:12)

Underdogma hit the bookstore shelves in late January/early February just as millions of people across North Africa and the Middle East were rising up against corrupt dictators (a configuration of events Prell and his publisher probably didn’t count on), some of whom had been in power 30 years or more. The fact that these uprisings have been cheered and applauded the world over would perhaps lend credence to the author’s theory that people do indeed support underdogs. But how do we look at figures like Hosni Mubarak through the lens of what Prell writes in this book? How does Mubarak, a tyrant who enjoyed America’s support year in and year out for three decades (years spent imprisoning, torturing, and killing his own people) square off with Prell’s view of America as a gracious and noble hegemon? In what way does preserving a peace treaty with Israel outweigh in importance the Egyptian blood that flowed in those 30 years? What Prell fails to consider is that the dislike for America, presently widespread throughout the world, might have something to do with hypocrisy and the fact that America’s leaders pay lip service to democracy while propping up dictators; that it might have something to do with torturing people, with invading other lands under transparently false pretexts, something America has done not just once but repeatedly. How does Prell reconcile all of this—loathing for America, and its policies, grounded in very real, very understandable reasons—with his complaints about “underdogmatists” and the harm they are allegedly doing the country? We don’t know. He doesn’t address it. But the fact of the matter is this: people may hate a dictator, but their contempt for a hypocrite is in some respects even deeper, more rooted in the gut. In the era of Internet and social networking websites, with discontented people all over the world plugged in, America’s leaders are likely to find it increasingly difficult to camouflage their hypocrisy behind the obliging “iron curtain” of corporate media propaganda.

“My goal, in writing this book, is to stop Underdogmatists by lifting the veil of Underdogma, showing you the empathetic bridge they have built to our near-universal love for the underdog, and detonating that bridge so they can never again cross it to pick power from our pockets,” says Prell on the closing page of his book. But the question is not one of “picking pockets.” The question is whether powerful nations, and people who hold positions of power in those nations, ever commit acts of evil. Since Prell uses the words of Jesus to bolster his arguments, I will consider myself at liberty, here in closing, to do the same:

Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.

The above words, spoken by Christ during his so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem prior to the crucifixion, are found in John 12:31. Were Christ an “overdogmatist,” he would of course welcome the prince of this world and regard him as virtuous and noble—because he has great power. Were Jesus an “underdogmatist,” on the other hand, he would, to be sure, scorn the prince of this world, but only because of his power, not for anything objectionable the Prince of this World might have done (for powerful people rarely, if ever, commit acts of evil, at least not if they’re Americans).

What we find, however, is Christ the realist, one who did not see Roman or Pharisaic “exceptionalism” everywhere he turned, but rather who looked at reality and saw it for what it is—that the powerful have immeasurably greater capacity for committing evil, and far too often the willingness to go with it, than do the weak. Prell says underdogma is “all around us.” I would encourage Americans, however, and particularly American Christians (of which I am one) not to be taken in by his amateurish sophistry.

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian

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