Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Al Franken

Plume, 2003 (2004 reprint), 421 pages, C$20.00 tpb, ISBN 0-452-28521-6

I had a plan. In retrospect, it was even a cunning plan.

On November 2nd 2004, American Election Day, I would buy Al Franken’s infamous Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them (A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right) and start reading as the results came in. I would read as Election Night wore on and John Kerry would be declared the (rightful) winner. Being a Canadian, I couldn’t vote myself, but it would be the least I could do to celebrate. There would be schadenfreude as the Republicans would be driven out of office! A new age of reason, peace and prosperity would be ushered in! A fitting conclusion to the madness of the past four years would be written in the history books! And through it all, dependable humorist Al Franken would be my laugh track. Har-har.

I did allow for the small possibility that Franken would be there to cheer me up in case of a Republican victory. Small. Possibility.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. By 10:30 (Ottawa Time), as early results from Ohio and Florida started trickling in, my tingling statistical senses told me that the game was already over. A look at the CBC and another at pretty much confirmed the deal. Minutes, if not hours before even the most enthusiastic networks, I called the election to Bush and went to bed for further nightmares. By them, I’d made it only fifty pages into Al Franken’s book.

The next few days were so full of gallows humour that even Franken’s political satire felt off-key. It’s one thing to humorously uncover lies after lies from American’s radical right-wing commentators, but when the results are in and they show that no one really cares, that’s a pretty damning criticism for Franken’s thesis.

Oh, it’s not as if the book was completely lost on me. One of the unfortunate tendency of the last four years have been to give me a crash-course in American media despite not having access to any of it: While I’m constantly mystified by Ann Coulter’s popularity (does anyone really take her seriously as anything but a conservative stand-up comedian?), her name is familiar to me, as are those of other right-wing pundits like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. Canadians not having this level of partisan discourse, this all looks like a bit of circus from up here. (But we’re glad to see you show us the worst-case scenarios. No, really, we owe a lot to you for what we’re not.)

It goes without saying that American political expertise is essential background for this book, which merrily takes us across the conservative landscape, cracking jokes and scoring points. Some of the book is hilarious (Franken is a better comedian than he’s a pundit), some of it is devastating (as with Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, some of Franken’s criticism of his opponents’ statistics is just beautiful) and some of it falls flat (“The Waitress and the Lawyer”) or skirts tastelessness (“Operation Chickenhawk: Episode I”). Unfortunately, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them occasionally errs on the side of shrillness –and I say this despite basically being on Franken’s liberal side. Part of it is the nature of American discourse, where comparatively right-wing position have staked a claim to centrism. Part of it is also that the book is torn between being funny and being accurate, and the two don’t necessarily mesh well together.

As it happened, I ended up finishing Lies four days after the election, by which time the sky was blue again and the worst of my depression had passed (but then again it rained a lot that week in Ottawa). Despite the partisan cries of, oh, half the American population and the vast majority of non-Americans, this administration too shall pass. (“Pass over our dead bodies, crushing our skeletons to dust”, am I tempted to add, but I would merely be kidding on the square, as Franken would say.) What is unlikely to pass, unfortunately, is the rabid polarization of American politics, of which Franken is as big a culprit as the Liars he exposes. It’s all good fun and circuses and trivialization of the nature of politics… until thousands get killed. Oh, wait, did that happen already?

But really, what do I know? My pick didn’t even get elected.

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