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America (The Book) – A Textbook Case

Reported by Judy - February 24, 2005

If you're a fan of Jon Stewart's "Daily Show," you'll love America (the Book) A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. The book features the same satiric rejection of the patently ridiculous in American politics that characterizes the show.

Stewart and the "Daily Show's" faux journalists – Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry, and Ed Helms – provide material for the book, but Stewart's voice predominates. He strings together grand-sounding clichés and tops them off with a cynical twist that undermines the preceding pomposity and startles the reader with its blunt truthfulness.

In a chapter about America's founding, for example, Stewart writes about the U.S. Constitution as "a bulwark against tyranny," the rule of law, equality, respect for the individual and so on. "The Founders prayed only that this Constitution be ratified, respected and upheld --- and that nobody would tell the black people about it." (p. 30) Funny, but reflective of the indisputable fact that in the beginning, the Constitution's terms did not apply to everyone.

Stewart's cynicism in such instances serves an important purpose – keeping the founders and their flaws in perspective. Rather than nominate our founders for sainthood, Stewart prefers that Americans remember that yesterday's elected officials were every bit as political and fallible as the ones we have today. To believe otherwise can result only in voters holding wildly unrealistic expectations – and ultimately disdain – for those serving in office today.

Throughout the book's nine chapters, Stewart satirizes not only American democracy, but also the way the nation's schools teach about government. The book is presented in textbook fashion – each main chapter has numerous sidebars, charts, graphs, discussion questions, and classroom activities. These textbook elements spoof not just the idealistic picture of how government works, but also the textbook genre, with its superficial coverage of the democratic process that stresses knowing names and dates rather than a deep understanding of fundamental concepts of American democracy.

To lampoon the collection of miscellaneous facts and trivia that all too often passes as history instruction, Stewart writes that the founders named the document they wrote, "the Constitution, after Hamilton's mother." (p. 28) He makes fun of classroom activities that keep students busy without tackling the complexity of issues. One mock classroom activity, for example, tells the reader: "Have fun with the gerrymander! On the right are five congressional districts in rural Texas that have experienced a sudden upswing in minority population. Using only three straight lines, can you re-draw the boundaries to consolidate white power in four of the five districts? If you can, please contact the office of Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX)." (p. 79)

Like much satire, America (The Book) will be funniest for people who know something about American politics. The gerrymander exercise is funny on its own, for example, but the joke is richer for those who are aware of Delay's meddling in Texas redistricting.

Stewart does an especially fine job with the chapter on the role of the news media. He begins by describing their role as informing voters on vital matters, then adds the zinger, "Why they've stopped doing that is a mystery. I mean, 300 camera crews outside a courthouse to see what Kobe Bryant is wearing when the judge sets his hearing date, while false information used to send our country to war goes unchecked?" (p. 131) It would be even funnier if it weren't so true.

The chapter is stuffed with creative elements that cut to the core of what's wrong with American journalism. There are formulae for determining newsworthiness (the RIP Body County Conversation Rate: "2,000 Massacred Congolese=500 Drowned Bangladeshies=45 Fired-bombed Iraqis=12 Car-bombed Europeans=1 Snipered American." p. 155); a list of speculation caveats, and "A Who's Who of Political Interviewers" ranging from Ted Koppel to Diane Sawyer. About Bill O'Reilly, Stewart writes, "Are you a man amongst men whose moral clarity and vision stand unsurpassed or a maggot feeding upon the flesh of the dying? You will be told within the first minute of the program. Do not question the judgment."

Stewart's "TV News Screen of the Future" is surprisingly like Fox News Channel's screen of today with multiple elements including a news crawl at the bottom, graphics, and a talking head. In the bottom right-hand-corner is the "Instant Feedback Box" allowing viewers' comments to be posted as they e-mail them. One message, purportedly from "Newshound 2837," reads "his story blowz!" (p. 172) I wish I could say Stewart is referring to us, but I think his choice of a screen name was coincidental.

I don't want to ruin any more of the jokes, but I will give one piece of advice. Don't read this book in one sitting. It's too much fun. Read a chapter every day or so to savor its humor – and its truth.

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