BOOK REVIEW – America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction By Jon Stewart

By Stewie Sutherland

America The Book Cover

It’s really no secret that I’m a big fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which is beamed to many countries’ basic cable providers. For this reason it might be overlooked. The show, hosted by Comedy Central in America, is also only available via cable there, and isn’t the most well-known program. If you look for it though, you can find it: the show has gained such popularity that it now includes a Global Edition (The Daily Show airs Monday-Thursday – due to the lag in transmission, it is played in other countries Tuesday to Friday, with a recap of the previous week’s best moments in a special format for Monday).

They’re very busy people, yet somehow they managed to get enough time to write this incredible book of historical inaccuracy, political scandals and “what not to do if you’re trying to become a democracy”. In case all of this is Greek to you, I’m happy to explain it!

The Daily Show is an award-winning news parody programme, hosted by the charismatic comedian Jon Stewart. With its unique spin/slant on current affairs while still being informative, The Daily Show presents the news quite unlike any other program. It’s won multiple awards and presented some of the United State’s best talents: Steve Carell began his career as a correspondent on the show, debating topics with his fellow rising co-star Stephen Colbert (host of the spin-off show, The Colbert Report).  The king of indignation, Lewis Black, is a regular with his own segment Back in Black.

The show has had a huge array of guests, from Ricky Gervais to former president Bill Clinton, both of whom have appeared several times, not to mention Governors, Senators, Actors, Comedians and Presidential Staff members. It’s tongue-in-cheek, witty, intelligent and funny, from the opening theme song of Dog on Fire to Jon Stewart’s closing segment, Moment of Zen which features any 5 second quote of the day from anyone in the political arena through to the media. And the writers have managed to capture their whole range in this snappy book, America – a Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction. And no, “inaction” is not a typo!

Written shortly before the 2004 Presidential Election, the book has been released as a 3 CD audio book set and paperback and it remained a best seller even after the election. The audio book won the 2005 Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album. I was lucky enough to purchase the original hardcover edition off eBay – the book is a large, well planned, illustrated, clever read, 227 A4 pages in length.

The cover is a full photo of the show’s host, Jon Stewart, pictured with a live eagle because “live eagles are easier to come across than stuffed ones”. Set in the style of a textbook like you would receive in High School, the inside cover is stamped with a label stating “This book is the property of: …… school.”

The fine print at the bottom of the table where a student would put their name reads “We are fully aware that Dick Hertz, I.P. Freely and Heywood Jablome are not real people, so please exclude them”. The book also has a short and simple dedication: “To the huddled masses, Keep yearnin’!”

This gives you a small preview of what to expect. Still need more? The book’s foreword is written by Thomas Jefferson, despite being well and truly dead. He shortly explains that, while it’s been a good 170+ years since he’s penned anything worthwhile (or even breathed) you never truly lose the knack, and he has been in his own words “…itching to get back to the quill and paper, and declaration work is not as steady as it used to be.” He reminds people that his fellow Founders were mere men and not Gods, and closes with asking if it’s true that Helle Berry is once again single, and if she is, then please, put in a good word for him.

The book is pure fiction: the pie charts are not to be taken seriously, nor are the quotations. Do not put stock into their facts, and I’m sure a real historian will point out that John Hancock was really not 23 feet tall as the book claims (explaining the reason behind signing his name in extra-large print on the Declaration of Independence).

The book is cleverly presented as a text-book as previously noted, but that can’t quite describe what it’s actually like opening a page. Chapters are printed clearly, with defining headlines and subject changes, such as Chapter 6, Campaigns and Elections: America Changes the Sheets. Phoney class room activities end each chapter, occasionally even discussing what the chapter was actually about. Just to be safe, expect more along the lines of “Classroom activities. 1: Found a country.” Or “7: What would you rather watch being made: laws or sausage?”

Large illustrations fill the pages too. Sometimes this will be a full-page photograph of someone important, complete with a notable catch phrase (“[expletive deleted]” – Richard M. Nixon) or rich colour shots of presidential campaign buttons and seals. Expect the occasional board game too, as well as a top-down view of the Federal Cabinet, pointing out important positions such as the Secretary of Education, the Attorney General, and the bowl of Jellybeans on the table. Want even more? Fun factoids of “Where You Aware?” are sometimes shown on the page, filling the reader in on fun trivia and miscellanea. Supreme Court justices secretly like it when you shout “Here come da judge!” for example.

The Daily Show’s main correspondents at the time, Ed Helms (now an actor of The Office and The Hangover), Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert, also write small articles throughout the book. Canadian-born Bee tells how some chapter’s subjects are featured differently in Canada (and are sometimes cut short by the Editor for the sake of interest), while Colbert often makes smarmy comments and is heavily biased towards certain people. Ed Helms explains what he would do if given power, including make laws, give health care, and kill a certain individual: we never find out why, but they know the reason, and that should be enough.

Each article is ended with a little titbit about the author. Flicking through at random I found Colbert’s article “Of course your vote counts!” which explains how declining voting turnouts might one day see only one person voting, and how valuable that vote would be. At the bottom in clear, small writing is the post script: Stephen Colbert has received the Werner Heisenberg Prize for Excellence in Theoretical Mathematics seven years in a row, yet can barely feed himself.

There are 9 chapters, not including the Foreword by the departed T. Jefferson, detailing democracy before America, the founding fathers (and mothers), the President (King of Democracy, and how you can one day grow up to be him, but not really), Campaigns, the Media and the Future of Democracy. Let me point out that Sci-Fi fans will enjoy that chapter a lot!

The rest of the world gets off rather lightly with a single chapter: The Rest of the World: International House of Horrors. This is an alphabetical list of the other places on Earth that after reading the book, you “might be tempted to flee to, but you really shouldn’t”.

Each country gets 2 pages dedicated to encompassing its fine points, usually in stereotypes that you can’t take seriously enough to be offended by. My home of Australia is detailed as being very similar to America: the main difference being language, including an excerpt from the fable of Waltzing Matilda and translating the different slangs into English. At least until they give up, cursing and exclaiming “English-speaking country my ass.” A neat table explaining “how many cans of Aussie beer need to be drunk before you can understand Geoffrey Rush or think Russell Crowe is a good guy” is also included.

Many of my fellow writers here on Alternative Magazine Online are English, so I turned to the pages of Europe to find out that the Secretary of the Treasury is translated there as being “Her Majesty’s Right Honourable Chief Secretary for the Ministration and the Exchequery and Underchancellor for the Bursarial Arts”. I can’t stress just how much this book just has a good poke of fun at everything!

America (The Book) features a full section on how to run for Office, including who you’ll need on your staff, how much you’ll learn to hate kissing babies, and how to deal with losing (try not to burn down the nearby flags) and winning (be sure not to let your child escape rehab to spoil the photo shoot) the election itself. It tells you the secrets of the Media Giants of the United States (just who runs purely off photo synthesis?) and sums up the incredible lives of incredible people in just a few short sentences.

It might ask ridiculous questions and give phoney classroom activities (give every student a Veto card to be used at any time for any event and see just how much work gets done) but from the writers of one of the best shows on television, I wouldn’t have expected any less. I cannot stress enough that this book is not to be taken seriously: anyone can and will tell you that the Presidential Seal is not burned onto the arm of a newly elected President (and that those who cry are fated to be one term Commanders In Chief) and that Benjamin Franklin did not catch lightning on a key just to vindicate years of meaningless kite flying. You won’t learn anything real, but I defy anyone with a sense of humour not to love every moment.

As it says on the back cover;

I would certainly read this book if I were alive today, which, for all you geniuses out there, I am not. – Abraham Lincoln.

9 OUT OF 10

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