The Honest Untruth

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By Rachel Hartigan Shea,
who is a senior editor at Book World
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

I AM AMERICA (And So Can You!)

By Stephen Colbert

Grand Central. 230 pp. $26.99

What is truth? Does it come from inside us or from the known world?

Some argue that truth is knowledge based on data and facts. Others, Stephen Colbert for one, suggest -- nay, declaim -- that facts themselves dangerously undermine the truth, especially the American Truth.

"Today," as Colbert explains in his new book, "Lady Liberty is under attack from the cable channels, the Internet blogs, and the Hollywood celebritocracy, out there spewing 'facts' like so many locusts descending on America's crop of ripe, tender values." There's a word for Colbert's sort of truth, and Colbert invented it:

Truthiness, "truth that comes from the gut, not books."

"I Am America (And So Can You!)" is full of it. As he explains so effectively in his introduction, this book is "not just some collection of reasoned arguments supported by facts. That's the coward's way out." Instead, it's a primer on what to believe about American families, religion, sports, homosexuality (well, not American homosexuality -- liberal homosexuality), immigration and many other aspects of our great country. He helpfully provides stickers for loyal readers to mark the truest statements with the appropriate response: "Brave Words," for example, or "I Think It, Stephen Says It" or "It's Morning in Colbert-ica." Also, there's a useful sign to post in your window urging firefighters to rescue the book in case of emergency.

Here are some of the truths that Stephen Colbert holds to be self-evident: The elderly are "year-hoggers," atheists are "no-goodnik no-Godniks" and academics are "Aca-demons." Women who work outside the home "might as well bring coconut arsenic squares to the school bake sale." (Guilty!) And, most obviously, immigration can be stopped with a 2,000-mile wall along our southern border. "I'm talking," Colbert says, "about something that can be seen from space, with double-wall construction, machine-gun nests and a flaming moat loaded with fireproof crocodiles." Bold statements all, but what is actually true here? Although Colbert promises that this book is "a runaway train to Cold, Hard Realityville," not a single fact in here could be verified. (Full disclosure: I didn't attempt to verify a single fact.)

For instance, can it possibly be true that cows at a factory farm -- "America's most succulent industry" -- "can go from mooing to stewing in under ninety seconds"? And is "the official win-loss record of the Judeo-Christian God" really "God: 12, Not-God: 0, Democrats: -1"? So the Democrats lost Vietnam, but surely God could have won the war for America if He'd wanted to.

Nonetheless, the book does provide moments of insight. His simple explanation of reverse discrimination, "so-called because it goes in the opposite way of how we naturally discriminate," illuminates the affirmative action debate. The many quizzes that dot the text are similarly informative. In one, Colbert helps readers determine their social class. If what keeps you up at night is the "growing suspicion you've been duped," you belong to the middle class. If your retirement activities include diabetes, you cling to the bottom rung of the economic ladder. And if you don't wear shoes because you recently "had the yard leathered," you are a contented member of the upper class.

Yet, none of "I Am America" rings as uncomfortably true as Colbert's blistering speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner, which is reprinted as an appendix here. While the humor in the book at times feels blunted and overly general, at the dinner he had a specific target: President Bush sitting just a few feet away from him and the journalists and politicians in the tables before him. "We're not members of the Factinista," he told the president. "We go straight from the gut, right sir?" Those low poll numbers "are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in 'reality.' And reality has a well-known liberal bias." When he was done, "you could hear a pin drop," Colbert writes. "Or a sphincter clamp." Reading it now, you also can get a sense of the political convictions behind the comedian, the convictions that sharpened his jokes and that emboldened him to make them at such a historically cozy event. Funny as "I Am America" is, it lacks that critical force.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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