The persona of Jon Stewart has become shorthand for a certain
irony. His name no longer belongs to one cynical comic, or even to
a TV show, but to a lens that can be turned on anything. It was
inevitable, given this power, that Stewart would expand beyond
nightly fake news and become an ironist of everything. This is what
“America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy
Inaction” has achieved, by virtue of acting like it
hasn’t.

Its principle technique is to mask the approach, so that the
delivery comes like an ambush, be it a joke or a hard truth. The
approach here is a civics textbook, but the reader soon finds a
history of prehistoric man, “Marbury’s Head v.
Madison’s Rock,” a look into the future, “Robots
Everywhere,” and a survey of the rest of the world, “By
the time you finish reading this sentence, three million more
Chinese people will have been born.”

The rest of the book is the lesson on democracy it purports to
be, but every serious entry is couched within a ruse. The reader
only learn the true Preamble after reading Jefferson’s first
attempt: “AMERICA. A is for All the tea they taxed, M is for
the Minutemen they shellaxed.”

The United State’s worst characteristics are dredged up by
flippant humor. It would be a big task to count all the references
to slaughtered indigenous peoples or misguided wars. The book hits
easy targets like an inefficient Congress, but it also finds a way
to voice real criticisms.

In the section about the Middle East, there is an empty outline
of the region with an invitation to draw one’s own
boundaries: “Don’t be afraid to group people with no
regard for history and ethnicity. It worked for the British and
French! Invent new countries and create interesting and fresh
conflicts!” The joke succeeds by its open irony, but there is
a sense of dread underlying the appeal to American apathy.

Elsewhere, the reader finds the corporate terror of media
synergy condensed into diagram form, with the Disney illusion
busted by “Ever wish upon a star? We own 3,459 actual stars.
Have one. No, have two.” And another kind of terror, the
policy enacted at Abu Ghraib, is shown in a pic alongside a Viet
Cong execution, child coal workers and a vampire space baby with
the tagline, “Which classic example of photojournalism most
gnaws at your soul?”

Throughout the book, irony opens up into something more potent.
Outside of the book, too, Stewart is speaking candidly, more as
himself than as the persona. In an appearance last week on CNN
“Crossfire” with conservative Tucker Carlson, the two
reached an impasse that Stewart would not salvage with comedy:
“I’m not going to be your monkey.” Stewart has
been told by Emmys and ratings that he has something no one else
has. Now, the book and the resultant cachet have handed him the
mantle of modern truth-teller. Here’s hoping that he treats
it well.

 

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

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