I am America (And so can you!)

I recently finished reading Stephen Clarke's Merde Happens and Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!), two humorous books that take an ironic look at American life by two men both called Stephen C. Conspiracy? I certainly think so.

The thing about humour is it doesn't change people's minds. Nobody laughs at something they disagree with. Comedy reflects what they already believe and allows them to laugh at things they suspect are true, whether or not these things are polite. Humour also counts on the audience feeling superior. Nobody laughs at being made to feel stupid.

Stephen Colbert has a TV show and gets lots of exposure. He says things that are hyper-correct to Right Wing thinkers, in a tone that lets us in on the joke. He thinks Right Wingers are wing-nuts who don't believe in evolution. Here is a quote, somewhat overwritten, that leaves no doubt about where he stands on science.

"If I may quote myself: Reality has a well-known liberal bias. And who can you depend on to kowtow to reality like it's the only game in town? Scientists. They do it religiously. With their fanatical devotion, scientists are no better than cult members - only difference is they put their blind faith into empirical observation... Only problem, we weren't put on this planet to question our environment, we were put here to process it into fuel for our cars."

Naturally, sharing his liberal bias, I laughed out loud reading this book. I know it's a time-waster to read someone funny who you agree with but why not? You have to be happy sometimes.

I was less pleased with Stephen Clarke's Merde Happens. Clarke is a Brit with three other books to his credit on the theme of French/English cultural misunderstanding. I've lived in France. I visit Quebec and I listen to French-language radio frequently. I do not believe that the British are superior to the French. I figure they're all European and therefore pretty much the same - like, say Canadians and Americans are pretty much the same. ;-)

Needless to say, I found the humour in this a little strained. The main character, Paul West, has opened an English Tea Shop in Paris. The problem is, he has labelled everything in English and when he get inspected, the fine the French government levies is large enough to put him out of business. I suppose I should be a little more sympathetic but I'm not. The amount of the fine is obviously exaggerated for effect and the general situation is not so absurd. Why shouldn't a shop in Paris be required to post French signs?

We have a similar situation in Quebec. Retail signs there have to be in French and if there is another language present, say Chinese on a restaurant sign, the French letters are supposed to be larger. It's all part of making French the main language of daily expression in Quebec just as English is the majority language in the rest of Canada and the United States.

This seems fair to me. The francophone diaspora is under pressure to survive. The Académie française is deluged with English tech neologisms every day. French, once the language of diplomacy, has been superceded by English, the most popular second language in the world. That's a lot of people learning English instead of the language of Molière.

I suppose the best parts of Merde Happens, for me, were when Clarke takes on American foibles, but we share so many of these in Canada, they were funny but not exotic: SUV's, highway driving, supercharged air-conditioning, outsourcing, men in kilts (okay, maybe that part would have been funnier if it didn't smack of homophobia).

The result is a mildly funny book with enough narrative drive and sexy bits to keep me reading to the end, which was forgettable. To 'get' this one fully I guess you have to be English or at least share Clarke's point-of-view.

Happy reading.

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