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America (the review)

AMERICA (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction

By The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

With a foreword by Thomas Jefferson

Warner Books, $24.95, 246 pp

For many of us, laughing seems the only sane response to the absurdity that politics has become. Those who don't guffaw while listening to politicians speak aren't really paying attention. So it's not surprising that many of us during this presidential election season have been getting some of our best political education from comedians.

Some comics, of course, merely distract us from what has become a political house of mirrors in which the Clean Air Act pollutes and the United States are divided. But a few _ Bill Maher, Chris Rock and Lewis Black come to mind _ actually try to face down this Orwellian universe, and none are more successfully at it than Jon Stewart. Forget Dan Rather or Jason Blair. Stewart has been faking the news on a daily basis as host of The Daily Show on cable's Comedy Central for four years, exposing more political liars than network anchors, cable talking heads and print journalists combined.

The laughter Stewart provokes certainly is cathartic and often it is amazingly clarifying. In encouraging more and more cynicism toward government and politicians, however, Stewart walks a narrow line between searing political commentary and frat-boy high jinx.

This tension between challenging an audience to act and merely offering it a means to shrug its collective shoulders is present in spades his latest project: America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. Aimed at twentysomethings, thirtysomethings and I-don't-have-anything-better-to-do-at-11 p.m.-somethings, The Daily Show prides itself on its political incorrectness, its buttoned up look (a suit and tie, dude, is de rigueur) and its willingness to ridicule mercilessly what was once called the Establishment. America (The Book) has the same heady mixture of biting satire and who-gives-a-care sarcasm.

Here, for example, is a thumbnail sketch of what's inside America:

+ A history of democracy before America ("thousands of years of history casually dismissed in a few pages");

+ Ruminations on the founding of America, including a section on why the Founding Fathers could never be elected today (Thomas Jefferson: "Ms. Hemings? Connie Chung on line one.");

+ A Profile of the Presidency ("Young, Gifted, White" _ or was that the Profile of the Founding Fathers?);

+ Congress ("the gastrointestinal tract of the body politic");

+ The Supreme Court (I could have done without seeing the justices naked);

+ Campaigns and elections ("Learn why your vote counts, but not nearly as much as your money");

+ The Media, including a "Who's Who of Political Interviewers" (which, presciently, doesn't include Dan Rather);

+ Predictions of what democracy will look like in the future (Suffice it to say that it involves advertising logos on the Washington Monument and one foreign embassy left on Embassy Row: the British.

And just to make sure readers don't become too cynical about this country's democracy and its "inefficiencies, inequities, injustices, absurdities, hypocrisies, and overall failure to live up to the lofty ideals expressed in our nation's founding documents," the authors of America (The Book) have added for good measure a chapter on how much worse governments are in the rest of the world.

And as if that's not enough value, America (The Book) also offers:

+ Splashy, in-your-face layouts with eye-catching graphics and snarky, bite-size sidebars ("The office of the president affords its holder many, many opportunities to have sex with women who would otherwise find him unremarkable");

+ Discussion questions ("What the hell does it mean to "rock' a vote?");

+ Classroom activities ("Hold a mock election. If you can't do this, mock a real election");

+ A 16-page supplement on the 2004 Elections, including a Debate Scorecard (Plus points for Use of Phrase "Straight Talk" and minus points for Actual Straight Talk);

And, of course, all of this comes with Kerry and Bush posing as boxers _ "The Thrilla in Vanilla _ on a poster suitable for hanging.

So is America (The Book) merely the postmodern equivalent of a panty raid? Or is serious political satire being committed?

I'm afraid the answer, much like this year's election, is undecided.

At times, the humor is embarrassingly sophomoric (Did I mention the nine naked justices?). But embedded in all the yuks (some of which are downright hilarious) there is a surprising amount of truth. Amid all the juvenilia, the authors manage to knock down the powerful, strip the country bare of some of its enduring myths (oh, now I get it, that's why they disrobed the robed) and point an accusing finger at all the institutions that have failed to live up to their mandate, not least of all, the press ("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 out country to war goes unchecked?")

But whether this look at America (The Country) will spark change in you or merely persuade you that nothing really matters anyway, one thing is certain: You will never see American history in quite the same way. It is said that history is written by the winners, points out Stephen Colbert, a Daily Show regular, touting the book on a recent broadcast. Isn't it time to read a history book written by "a bunch of losers?"

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