Warner, 2004, 227 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-53268-1
Reading America (The Book), I kept flashing back to historian J. Barlett Brebner’s saying that “Americans are benevolently ignorant about Canada, while Canadians are malevolently well informed about the United States.” I mean; here I am, good little Canadian, reading a parody of an American civics book and laughing at American politics as if they were my own.
But when you’re in a country sharing a border with the elephant known as the United States of America, there’s not much of a choice: We Canadians know that even the slightest American tremor will have repercussions everywhere else in the world, starting here. Watching America isn’t just a Canadian pastime rivalling hockey: it’s sheer national self-defence. The USA may not care too much about Canada, but we’re still the ones getting shoved around when the elephant gets prickly.
Hence our national amusement at TV shows like The Daily Show, a blistering look at American politics front beneath a veneer of silly humour and parody. Hence (I imagine) the good sales figures of an America-centric humour book north of the 49th parallel. Some of us know the American political process better than most US citizens. Part of our national pride (I hate to say) is based on not being part of it.
What the writers of America (The Book) intended was a picture-perfect parody of your usual Civic Education textbook, down to the full-colour hard cover case binding, wide layout and abundant use of photo clip art. There’s even class exercises and a topical supplement covering the 2004 presidential election. Physically, it’s a wonderful design job. Fortunately, the content is up to the presentation.
America (The Book) is a sarcastic look at the American political process, from its historical origins (“For purposes of this chapter, ‘person’ still means ‘white males’ up until 1870, then ‘males’ until 1920, then ‘all people but really still just white people’ until 1964” [P.62]) to its current implementation. There’s usually one or two good gags per page, and two or three audible laughs per chapter.
But as you may guess, it’s not all gags and giggles for the masterminds writing the book: America (The Book) is at the same time a sharp criticism of the less-salient aspects of the US political process, starting with the influence of lobbyists, the way amendments are grafted upon unrelated bills and the structural factors discouraging anything but a two-party system. There’s plenty of serious material in the book, as long as you’re willing to see past the jokes. (Sometimes, you don’t even need to: The pixelicious “Third Party Graveyard” [P.110-111] is worth framing by itself.)
Ironically (or not), the only let-down offered by America (The Book) happens once it starts looking outside its borders. Canada is gratified with recurring and appropriately self-depreciative “Would You Mind If I Told You How We Do It In Canada?” segments, but passages like “All governmental business is conducted in both French and English, because a small minority of Canadians, called ‘Québécois’, never wanted to learn English, and we thought it was rude to ask them to.” [P.59] don’t exactly betray a witty understanding of the situation. Still, it a comfort to realize that all other countries fare worse; Chapter 9 (“The Rest of the World: International House of Horror”) tries to satirize the appalling isolationism of some Americans, but it merely comes across as a lamer, less funny section. Oh well. Also worth noting as a weaker element is the appearance of some Daily Show regular characters, an inclusion that could puzzle readers who aren’t familiar with the TV show.
But never mind the above: as self-effacing Canadians, we’re just grateful to be able to buy your wonderful books and find mentions of our country in them. It would never occur to us to have the nerve and write, in bold capitals, FOR THE SAKE OF YOUR DEMOCRACY AND THE FATE OF THE REST OF THE WORLD, BUY THIS BOOK AND UNDERSTAND THE POINTS IT’S TRYING TO MAKE BEFORE YOUR BIPOLAR POLITICAL DISORDER ENDS UP LEADING TO THE DEATH OF THOUSANDS OF INNOCENT FOREIGNERS!!!
Oh no. Never. We’ll just read the book and laugh respectfully. Tee-hee.