Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them - Al Franken

How soon a cultural scene can change. Not so long ago the chin strokers were proclaiming The End Of History and The Death Of Politics, convinced the apathetic masses would now spend all eternity doing nothing but read celeb mags, watch reality TV, and frig themselves off into a post-modernist oblivion. Four years back book publishers thought there was more chance of a Leo Sayer revival than a mass upsurge in popular political book sales.

Then a hard-right East Coast rich kid posing as a Western cowboy nicks an election and it's a very different story. A red-raw societal nerve is struck. Polarisation; people who don't like Dubya really make themselves known, and people who don't like them back retaliate. Literally millions of anti-Bush books have sold on both sides of the Atlantic in the past two years alone, with a fair few arguing the opposite case selling too. Say what you like about it, it ain't exactly apathy.

The king of the anti-Bush book camp is of course Michael Moore; idolised, lionised. How surreal this seems to someone who watched a likable fat man pull thought-provoking stunts uncovering injustices with his TV Nation show in the early 90's. Try to imagine if, in Britain, a cross between Mark Thomas, Roger Cooke, John Pilger and Esther Rantzen suddenly became the fountain of all radical hope and overtaken the official opposition. Strange indeed, and that's more or less what's happened in the US. Moore's rise is unprecedented in modern times. But with Stupid White Men and Dude Where's My Country still topping the best-sellers and keeping the Bush-fires burning, what's the point in this offering from Franken?

Al, a long-standing part of America's comedy establishment, is a very different beast to Mike. Moore is a genuine working class leftist radical, Franken is a wealthy, professional Democrat. You'll search in vain for any criticism of Clinton or Gore in this book, indeed it's steeped in praise for the pair. Unapologetic references to his corporate speeches and his son's private education won't exactly ingratiate him to the anti-capitalists who lap up Moore either. He was even initially a supporter of Dubbya's latest Iraqi escapade. When a cultural war is brewing, who wants to hear this seemingly wet liberal?

Well, first and foremost, because from the outset its very clear both the style and content of his book is anything but wet. This is going after the Bush and the boys with a very real, corrosive venom. Reading Franken after Moore is like being in a strange yet wonderful distorting hall of mirrors; the socialist seems sedentary, the moderate seems manic.

The sheer nasty onslaught of sardonic vitriol in this book achieves what every satirical polemic should; being funny and entertaining in its own right, something that Moore, for all his popularity, cannot always claim.

The book is of course an all out attack on the US Republican Right, but its main target is not so much Bush and co as their cheerleaders in the American media (and, as the title implies, specifically their talent for fibbing.) It is a tribute to the book's appeal that it can keep your interest even if you scarcely know, or don't know at all, about the targets being lambasted. Though I want to think of myself as fairly "up" on American politics, like most Brits I had scarcely heard of the journalists Bill O`Reilly, Bernie Goldberg, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity. You don't really need to. Franken shows through countless examples just how ubiquitous and pernicious their influence on the American political scene is.

This book is half meticulous research (every TV channel in the country and paper in the US has been scoured by Franken and his team over a year to find out just how real the "liberal bias" constantly proclaimed by Coulter and co is), and half gratuitous attack and sarcasm. Chapter titles include "Bill O-Reilly: Lying, Splotchy Bully", "I Bitch-Slap Bernie Goldberg", "Ann Coulter: Nut-case" and "You Know Who I Don't Like? Ann Coulter". Childish? Yes, a bit. Funny? In context, I think so. And also satires in themselves on the sheer abusiveness that each one of their targets use in their own arguments. Hard facts back every bit of vitriol.

When they join up; the effect can be brilliant. Franken gives the example of the particularly unpleasant Ann Coulter flying the populist flag, complaining how the "liberal elitist" New York Times didn't cover the death of stock car racer Dale Earnhardt due to their contempt for the common man's pursuits. Franken helpfully encloses a copy of the front cover of the paper quite clearly carrying the story, with a Franken-added marker pen ring and the words "See!" on it.

"Frankly, I think the fact that the New York Times have a front page article on Dale Earhardt the day after he died kind of undercuts her point that they didn't. Don't you? I mean, if they didn't, that would have been something huh? But they did."

There's lots more of this weapons-grade sarcasm. When Coulter lays into a fellow journalist of Franken's called Dan Radmacher for proving there had been twice as many pro-Bush articles as pro-Gore articles during the New York Times. She ascribes his study to "The sheer joy liberals take in telling lies...They take insolent pleasure in saying absurd things." The investigative Franken is straight on the phone to Dan:-

"Al: Do you take sheer joy in telling lies?

Dan: Yes. Yes I do.

Al: Shoot. That proves her point then. Also she mentions insolent pleasure. Do you get insolent pleasure from lying?

Dan: Yeah, I guess so. But it's more the sheer joy."

There are those who say sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. That's their lookout.

Franken can apply it lightly as well as lay it on thick. Perhaps he is at his best on the bizarre coalition of extreme pro-Israelis and fundamentalist Christians who influence Bush's foreign policy.

"Neo-cons support the Jewish state for the same reasons I do: because it is the only democracy in the region, and because they're Jewish. Evangelical Christians fervently support the survival of Israel in order to fulfil the prophecy of the Second Coming, which, of course, will lead to the fiery death of all Jews. At that point, Bush's coalition will collapse."

If you don't like these examples you probably won't like the book. If you do; they're even funnier in context, and pack a powerful argument. There's a few misfires along the way; a comic strip imagining various draft-dodging right-wingers on a mission to Vietnam in particular overstays its welcome. The excerpts from his radio shows indicate he's a lot funnier in print than on the air, which perhaps explains why his new Air America liberal station project (set up after this book was printed) is apparently floundering.

But at its best it is both hilarious and biting in its expose of extremism and sophistry in very high places. For those lefties still suspicious of Franken's pro-Clinton stance, he can be just as perceptive as more obvious radicals on the mythical nature of the American Right's version of "the Dream". He describes a peasant revolt in the 1300s where a lord was killed, and his wife raped before being forced to eat his roasted corpse. "That is class warfare. Arguing over the optimum marginal tax rate for the top one per cent is not."

The book is extremely well paced too. The "playful" tone (a cat playing with a mouse) which serves the book so well is artfully suspended for a time during two chapters. One describes how right-wing pundits managed to make vicious political capital over the death of a well-loved Democrat senator and his subsequent funeral, smearing his family on the way. The other describes how Republican phone-pollsters managed to smear and whisper two other Democrats out of office, one for being "a foreign born Jew who does not believe in Jesus Christ as our savour" (wonder how that went down with the neo-cons?), the other via spreading utterly false rumours he had an affair with an Asian woman outside his marriage (led a perverted credence by the fact he and his wife had adopted a Bangaldeshi girl.) These are designed to make the blood boil. They do.

If you're on the wrong side of W Bush in the current cultural war this is a good book to have, whether you're a wet liberal who wants more poison and passion than Will Hutton, or a revolutionary who sees that Mr Moore, for all his qualities, can veer towards the self-righteous. Franken's a good corrective for them both. And if you're on the other side, well, its even possible that you might just take some insolent pleasure from Franken's absurd lies. Probably not though.

[First published on Spike Magazine, 2004]