Democracy Ripe for Satire

Fellow columnist Molly Ivins frequently exhorts her audiences not to neglect having fun, to seek out the humor so often embodied in our political system and our politicians.

While it is difficult to approach our present-day political situation in such a manner since Nov. 2, there is some welcome relief to be found just in time for Christmas. With the publication of America: The Book: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction by Jon Stewart and TV's The Daily Show staff we have some welcome relief from the political grime of the past year.

With chapters devoted to "Democracy Before America," "The Founding of America," "The President," "Congress," "The Judicial Branch," "Campaigns and Elections," "The Media," "The Future of Democracy" and "The Rest of the World," we have in 228 pages of text, charts and illustrations an often hilarious study guide of a system that best calls to mind Winston Churchill's famous observation, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."

However, among the spoofs and the blue language (language not necessarily confined to the blue states), there are pearls of insight, as for example:

"If the Declaration [of Independence] was our national sales pitch, the Constitution would be its owner's manual, and as the Founding Fathers knew all too well, no one ever reads the owner's manual." (p. 28)

"If the president is the head of the American body politic, Congress is its gastrointestinal tract. Its vast and convoluted inner workings may be mysterious and unpleasant, but in the end they excrete a great deal of material whose successful passage is crucial to our national survival." (p. 57)

"If, as mentioned in Chapter Two, the Constitution is the nation's owner's manual, the judicial branch is America's helpful 24-hour tech support, always available to explain how things should work. And like any good tech support, it costs extra, takes forever to reach, and you don't understand their instructions half the time anyway." (p. 81)

"Of the three candidates in the 2000 election, Ralph Nader was second only to Al Gore in costing Al Gore the presidency." (p. 108)

"Mass production of cheap radios had helped unite and inform the populace of a growing nation. But at what price? The radio's over-reliance on words had forced Americans to connect mental images to a narrative. The country's imagination was dangerously well-developed at the very moment we needed not to think about what dropping an atomic bomb on someone might look like. Couldn't anyone create a device that would numb not just one, but all our senses, so information concerning our government could be absorbed by osmosis in the course of gathering the family to watch a funny man in a dress (fn: Uncle Miltie, not J. Edgar Hoover)? Finally came the breakthrough mankind had been waiting for: Television." (p. 146)

What, however, would a book about democracy and America be without controversy from the book police, as demonstrated by Wal-Mart? Recently, the nation's largest retail distributor canceled an order for the book after executives learned that it contained a photo of nine naked, aged bodies, each with the superimposed head of a Supreme Court justice. Also included are cutouts of the justices' robes and a caption asking readers to "restore their dignity by matching each justice with his or her respective robe."

Thus, the executives for the Bentonville, Ark.-based retail giant deemed the book inappropriate for its shelves. "We were not aware of the image that was in the book (when Wal-Mart ordered it) and we felt the majority of our customers would not be comfortable with it," Wal-Mart Stores Inc. spokeswoman Karen Burk told the Associated Press. "We offer what we think our customers want to buy. That just makes good business sense."

America: The Book has an equally riotous precedent in Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America: Vol 1 - The Early Years and Vol. 2 - The Middle Years, available as a CD from Rhino Records Inc.

For those of us who can remember such things, Freberg was a television pioneer with a puppet show -- "Time For Beany" -- on Los Angeles's KTLA-TV in the 1950s that usually drew an audience of both children for the puppet animation and adults for the witty, often biting dialogue. Since that time Freberg's versatility has been widely revered as a cartoon voice, actor, on-screen film actor, singer, musician, author and advertising genius.

His satirical songs -- "St. George and the Dragonet," "John and Marsha," "the Yellow Rose of Texas," "Wun'erful, Wun'erful" and "Green Chri$tmas$" were all gleeful satirical numbers in an age when satire was suspect, if not subversive and un-American.

In 1961 he, backed by an all-star cast of character actors and actresses and the musical arranger and conductor Billy May, released along with Capitol Records Vol. 1 his "History of the United States of America," which contained tracts that include "Columbus Discovers America," "The Thanksgiving Story (Under the Double Turkey)," "The Sale of Manhattan," "The Boston Tea Party," "Washington Crosses the Delaware (Command Decision)" and "The Battle of Yorktown" among others, and this writer's favorite, "A Man Can't Be Too Careful What He Signs These Days."

... Jefferson: Well I've got this petition I've been circulating around the neighborhood and kinda thought you'd like to sign it. It's called the Declaration of Independence.

Franklin: Yes, I've heard about that, sounds a little suspect to me, if you ask me.

Jefferson: What do you mean suspect?

Franklin: Well, you're advocating the overthrow of the British government by force and violence, aren't yea?

Jefferson: Well yeah, yeah, but we've had it with that royal jazz.

Franklin: Who's we?

Jefferson: All the guys!

Franklin: Who's all the guys?

Jefferson: George, Jim Madison, Alex Hamilton, Johnny Adams, you know, all the guys.

Franklin: Ha, the lunatic fringe!

Jefferson: Oh, they are not

Franklin: A bunch of wild-eyed radicals, professional liberals, don't kid me!

Jefferson: You call George Washington a wild-eyed radical?

Franklin: Washington, I don't see his name on there.

Jefferson: No, but he promised to sign it.

Franklin: Ooooooh yeah! That's George for ya, talks up a storm with those wooden teeth, can't shut him up, but when it comes to putting the name on the ol' parchmentoroni, try to find him ...

As a former high school civics teacher, I can testify to the fact, as many such teachers also wrote Freberg -- who flunked history in high school due to the sheer boredom of the class -- students both welcomed and enjoyed this unique approach to American history.

It was not until 1996 that Vol 2 was released, the 35-year gap due to what Freberg attributes to "national security issues." Among its tracts, which takes the listener from the Revolutionary War to the end of World War I, are: "Madison, Jefferson, Franklin & Osbourne: The First Advertising Agency," "Abe Lincoln in Analysis," "The Appomattox Courthouse Bar and Grill" and "Henry Ford Invents Detroit," among others.

With the gift-giving season upon us America: The Book and Freberg's CD make excellent stocking stuffers (providing you have one small and one very large square foot).

A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203. He publishes a free email newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner; email; website

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