Like the namesake vegetable of the publication that employs them, Citizen You!, co-written by staffers of The Onion, has unexpectedly many layers.
The oversized paperback's red, white and blue cover, its ferociously grinning suburbanite models backgrounded by a fighter jet streaking across a huge stars-and-stripes, promises "The Ultimate Patriotic Handbook." It sure is, loyal Americans: Anyone who's keen to salute the flags of America and Wal-Mart, spy on their neighbors, pray to the correct god, max out their credit cards and, like President Bushcroftcheney, see the bright side of outsourcing jobs to other hemispheres, will judge Citizen You! a smart manual for right living.
Onion Graphics Editor Mike Loew, longtime staffer Joe Garden and their co-author, film producer Randy Ostrow, take on the legacy of 9/11, the USA Patriot Act and the new Persian Gulf wars, wielding sarcasm barbed enough to etch granite. Cartoony graphics -- a sheepishly grinning Iraqi kneels under the machine gun of a smiling, freckled GI -- accompany headlines such as "Compassionate Conquest." A section titled "Our Brave Leaders" features profiles of Rummy, Condi and the gang in the glib, breathless prose of a teenbeat fanzine.
Purportedly crafted by something called the Better Citizenship Bureau, Citizen You! rolls it all into the same ideological blanket: culture wars, war profiteering, the reinvention of fear as a speculative growth industry. As in The Onion itself, some headlines ("Is Your Baby Prepared for a Terrorist Attack?") outshine the text, and the smarter satire -- privatizing tax collection under the Halliburton Revenue Service; party-favor suggestions for your next Anti-Terror Ice Cream Social -- stands beside the more obvious (deploying the military to prevent gay marriages).
But while there's no denying the utility of features like a list of questions parents can ask to determine whether their offspring are terrorists ("Has your child ever asked you to point in the direction of Mecca?"), you're not long into this quick-reading tome before all the glib modest proposals start falling away to reveal something else: naked rage.
Doesn't it give you a sense of closure to read about how we machine-gun pregnant Iraqi women to death in their cars because they don't slow down enough at U.S. checkpoints? What can we say to the 9/11 families about the U.S. military killing innocent women and children in their name around the globe? You're welcome.
Loew, Garden and Ostrow are righteously infuriated by Bush's neocon hegemony. They're often too furious, in fact, to keep the mask of credulous patriotism from slipping, with language that contradicts the disguise; Bush, for instance, is the "Presidential Appointee." In a section titled "Stay the Course," they write, "Dreams are finally coming true in Iraq, for both George Bush and Islamic fundamentalist terror groups." A chapter on corporate malfeasance is highlighted by a gee-whiz account of how, in his days as a Searle pharmaceutical honcho, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld helped put artificial sweetener aspartame on the market despite evidence it's a carcinogen.
The aspartame story is good secondhand muckraking, but like a lot of Citizen You! it's hindered by a certain paucity of rhetoric: Mocking suspected terrorists as "dirty" and "bearded" in the voice of a super-patriot is only funny for so long. A relentless broadside more than a sustained argument, Citizen You! is meant to be picked through rather than read at a single sitting.
Meanwhile, the book's final and most potent layer isn't funny at all. It isn't meant to be. It's terrifying. Citizen You! concludes with a "Read Then Burn" section of 79 Dangerous 9/11 Questions. Culled from mostly mainstream media sources and primary documents, the questions probe dozens of inconsistencies in the official account of 9/11: How did hijackers who'd never flown a plane successfully target buildings hundreds of miles off their courses? How did the World Trade Centers collapse so neatly -- like buildings imploded? Why was the damage to the Pentagon wholly inconsistent with being struck by a jet airplane? Why has the White House worked so hard to keep these events from being investigated?
Call it conspiracy-mongering, but the questions lead you toward a conclusion even many harsh Bush critics haven't broached: that the White House knows a lot more about how 9/11 happened than it wants you to know. The final 40 pages of Citizen You! are like having a giggle fit end with a punch to your stomach. But you won't be able to stop reading.