The Truth (With Jokes)
A review of the new book by Al Franken
New Statesman, 9th December 2005
Is Karl Rove the Antichrist? Normally such a question
would seem absurd, but reading the dark truth about
Rove's exploits in Al Franken's new work of comic vitriol,
I began to wonder. Could any mortal man be this evil?
I even went to the Book of Revelation to see if there
was anything there to confirm my suspicions. "Men
worshipped the dragon because he had given authority
to the Beast," it said, "and they also worshipped
the Beast and asked, 'Who is like the Beast? Who can
make war against him?'" Boy. I wish I hadn't asked.
I suspect that Al Franken, too, thinks Rove is the
Antichrist, only the lawyers at Penguin wouldn't let
him say so. Even if he had, it might not have been the
worst accusation levelled at him in The Truth With Jokes,
in which entire buckets of well-aimed acid are flung
in the face of some of the most evil men in America
- most of them, not coincidentally, leading lights in
the Republican Party.
If this sounds like a recipe for 300 pages of tediously
partisan righteousness, never fear. In the wrong hands
that might well have been the result, but Franken is
one of the funniest men in America, and this book is
a laugh-out-loud refutation of the old lie that the
devil has all the best jokes. He doesn't. Al Franken
has a lot of them, and he tells them better.
Franken has written this book for three reasons. Because
he is furious at the shameless lies being told by the
self-serving corporate elite who now govern his country.
Because he is sick of hearing people claim that George
W Bush has "a mandate" to impose his extreme
version of Christian neoliberalism on America. And because
he has had enough of pundits claiming that the US population
is newly right-wing and born again. As with his previous
book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, an excoriating
attack on the right-wing media that led Rupert Murdoch's
Fox News TV channel to try (unsuccessfully) to sue him,
Franken has employed his trademark style - nuggets of
detailed research wrapped in a sugary coating of brilliantly
dry humour - to excellent effect. The result is that
The Truth With Jokes makes more serious political points
and exposes more deceit by the powerful than most US
journalism, while being funnier than most American comedy.
Much of the book explains how Bush and Rove (well,
mainly Rove) won the 2004 presidential election by employing
a three-pronged strategy of "fear, smears and queers".
The fear came from a mix-ture of spurious terrorism
alerts, scary TV commercials full of wolves, and a constantly
repeated Rove-born message, which Franken paraphrases:
"Voting for Kerry meant almost certain death for
your children." Franken even has the figures -
and the peer-reviewed psychology papers - to prove it.
The smears also came from Rove, and Franken is at his
vituperative best as he dissects the outright lies told
by Bush and hangers-on such as the "Swift Boat
Veterans for Truth", and the turncoat Democrat
senator Zell Miller, who "gave the lie to the stereotype
that Democrats can't be evil, vicious, lying fascists".
By the time Franken gets round to explain-ing how Rove
once smeared an opponent as a homosexual paedophile,
even the author can't take it any more. He dictates
the next chapter from his hospital bed as he recuperates
from "Rove-induced septic shock".
Sometimes, you think you're about to join him. Witness
the Senate leader Tom DeLay defending enforced abortions
among sweatshop workers in the US colony of Saipan on
behalf of his garment-industry buddies, while he furiously
opposes, on behalf of Christ, a woman's right to abortion
back home. Witness Bush's attempt to privatise (sorry,
to "reform") social security for the benefit
of the bankers who funded his re-election. Witness the
Republican hack Peggy Noonan's direct comparison between
Democrats and Hitler, after some of the former suggested
that brain-dead Terri Schiavo, whom Bush was using as
a political pawn to woo the religious right, should
perhaps be allowed to die. It all makes you want to
take a long, hot bath.
Future generations may look back on this book and assume
that it is some advanced form of satire; that no government
could possibly act this way and get away with it. Unfortunately,
we know better. We also know that the US is stuck with
Bush and his coterie for at least another three years
- and that while they are in charge, America needs Al
Franken more than ever.