The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2011

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MAR 2011 Issue

Against the Underdogs

Michael Prell
(BenBella Books, 2011)

Michael Prell’s new book, Underdogma, is the latest in an increasingly long line of books either articulating or examining America’s recent right-wing resurgence. In fact, if you are looking for the Tea Party seal of approval, look no further than the first page, where Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin says of the work, “Underdogma is the first great Tea Party book. All Tea Party Patriots should read Underdogma.”High praise from one of the leader’s of this new political movement. Indeed, this book tries to give the intense pride and patriotism currently running rampant in places like the Tea Party its proper due by attempting to display the need for Americans to respect, admire, and encourage their own power, while explaining the dangers of cheering for the little guy. Yes, Prell invents a new term, Underdogma, to help explain “How America’s Enemies Use Our Love for the Underdog to Trash American Power.”

Yes, Prell believes that many Americans (and people all around the world) are far too kind too those without power, wealth, and privilege. He defines Underdogma in the following way, “Underdogma is the belief that those who have less power are virtuous and noble—because they have less power—and the belief that those who have more power are to be scorned—because they have more power.” He goes on to explain that Underdogma is “not simply standing up for the ‘little guy,’ but reflexively standing up for the little guy and assigning him nobility and virtue.”

Through the lens of Underdogma, Prell takes us on a whirlwind tour of power relations, from the irrational lines drawn in the sand of the Israel-Palestine conflict, to the campaign trail, to the United Nations (where they are said to suffer from Institutionalized Underdogma), right into your neighborhood (don’t you hate your rich neighbors? Why?) and your office (where so many people detest the boss or C.E.O. even though they gave them a job!). The result is a fairly boring, simplistic way to find sympathy for those in power while further attacking the plight of those less privileged or accomplished.

Although not entirely convincing, Underdogma does broach some interesting territory. When explaining the basic premise of Underdogmatism, Prell tells of a simple experiment of how size seems to be able to dictate the amount of sympathy or empathy a party or nation receives from the rest of the international community. In the study, each participant was made to read an identical essay about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Then, participants were given one of two maps of the Middle East, one showing only the Israel and Palestinian Territory, the other showing Israel in the context of the rest of the region. Prell says, “The results were astounding. Group A (big Israel map) chose Palestinians as the underdog (70 percent). Group B (small Israel map) chose Israelis as the underdog (62.1 percent).” Also, he brings up some apparent hypocrisies in pro-Palestinian student movements from the West. If these students are tolerant of homosexuality, if they believe women are equal, how then can they support the often brutal actions of many Palestinian leaders, who have supported the stoning of women and persecution of homosexuals?

However, Prell stops short in most every argument because he has settled on the veracity of Underdogma. For example, if one wants to understand a pro-student movement that supports Palestine, perhaps it is worth examining the relationship between statehood and the rights of citizens. Could the demand for a Palestinian state not help those who are left without recourse? Instead, Prell claims the students are simply giving in to an easy urge to side with the disadvantaged, because well, they’re Underdogmatists.

In addition to failing to move all the way through an analysis, the book is hopelessly repetitive. One cannot help but feel that there is simply not enough to say on the issue of Underdogma to warrant a 300 page book. Over a dozen times, Prell reiterates the meaning of Underdogma, using almost the same language every time. Either he is more than happy to insult the intelligence of his readers, or he truly believes that those who are reading his book will need to have its core concept repeated every 15 to 20 pages.

The strongest section of the book is his look at “Political Underdogma.” By giving a plethora of examples, he illustrates the annoying tendency of politicians who try to portray themselves as the underdog. The logic is sound but hardly original, as we have long dealt with this rather silly phenomenon. Politicians take part in campaigns, which are used by television networks to build ratings. Just as often as the politicians themselves, these designations (underdog, frontrunner, momentum, etc.) are used to create a sometimes false narrative, to help keep people glued to their various forms of media. It is less an issue of dogma and more an issue of trying to keep and expand an audience.

All in all, Michael Prell’s Underdogma appears to be little more than an attempt to provide retrospective justification for those in power by reducing support for underdogs to a mere reflexive impulse. In this way, he manages to ignore the cumulative effect of power of a group or nation, and the silliness of trying to isolate the actions of the powerful to single incidents. Also, it is yet another cry to the converted, a plea to the American right to stand up for this powerful land, to embrace the dominant role, even as it appears to be in a process of decline.


Michael Terry


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2011

All Issues