on 8 February 2006
“… it doesn’t mean that they’re not after you”, the saying goes.
This seems like an appropriate sentence to go with this book, particularly considering some of the less positive reviews it received. Meaning: yes, Laura Penny might seem brash, offensive, even ideologically biased (who isn’t?) – but that doesn’t mean that any of her contentions and arguments are false.
Quite the opposite. Her book is a refreshing incursion into modern Western societies (with the U.S.A. in the foreground, something which seems to offend some people – though a hegemonic and imperialistic nation should hardly be expected NOT to be the centre of attention and criticism at shaky times).
Claiming that most (if not all) of the supposed information delivered to us via the media, politicians/government, big corporations, institutions and bureaucracies, is a distortion of reality – and therefore a blunt attempt to bull***t the public, – Laura Penny proposes to look at what is happening behind the glitzy appearances and fancy speeches. She succeeds to do this with elegance, wit, and a straightforward discourse that clearly contrasts with the bogus messages and ideology she is criticizing.
Penny calls our attention to the unbelievable amount of bull***t we are confronted with every day, to the point that reality tends to be obliterated by a sham surface of propaganda slogans. An important distinction is drawn between lying and bull***ting: while the first is a clear falsification, the latter is a “mere” twisting of facts – whereby unimportant bits of information get blown out of proportion and the actual relevant issues are buried under heaps of platitudes or incomprehensible verbosity. However, because this distortion is so ubiquitous these days (in fact, the author convincingly argues that never before have we been so overwhelmed by fibs and hoaxes, hypocrisy and swindles), our reactions range from annoyed incredulity to sheer indifference, but rarely ever is there an outcry of indignation. Which is understandable, since even concern and indignation have been successfully appropriated by groups or institutions with dubious interests, so that many people (particularly the young) end up simply sneering with suspicion at everyone and everything.
Penny’s book goes on to show how this is connected with socio-economic developments of the past decades. She explores the causal relations between the rise of monopolistic mega-corporations, government policies supporting the interests of those corporations, and the (mostly somewhat negative) effects of this on employment, living conditions, consumption, information and entertainment in North America. In the end, we have here another depiction of the impact of globalized capitalism and neo-liberal politics on everyday life. In the several chapters of her book, Penny looks at the appearances promoted by advertisers, PRs, CEOs, broker dealers and banks, pharmaceutics and health industries, insurance companies, government officials, the so-called service industry (particularly retailers and call centres), advertinfotainers (or whatever one is supposed to call the news media these days) and even academe, – repeatedly (and very amusingly) contrasting them with the more crude reality of their actions and implicit interests. The end-result is an informative and well-founded confirmation of many people’s discontents (with references to a great number of websites, articles and books to support the data and statistics).
Of course, none of this is really new – and the author is the first to recognize that her topic is all but a “revelation” to most readers. However, Penny insists on pinpointing the sheer absurdity of most current events, campaigns and slogans, not for the sake of simply complaining, but to actually prove how deeply some actions and words end up affecting people. And how much those same actions and words are in contradiction with the (really somewhat idealistic) supposed principles of democracy and enlightenment.
Ah, well. Here we go again. The point being: yes, we all know (or at least secretly suspect) that we are being misinformed and cheated more often than not – but who cares? And if someone does care, so what?
Penny certainly gets excited every now and then – but her writing talent saves her from drowning in self-pity or reprimanding. She is mostly able to overcome that with humorous remarks and endearing self-mockery. In that sense, her cynicism appears to me more rewarding than Michael Moore or Naomi Klein, who easily become boringly moralistic or idealistic. Penny promises no revolution. She doesn’t even have many demands.
Sure, she doesn’t make a secret of her humanistic ideals and leftish leanings, which might be to her own disadvantage in the end – after all, the world really hasn’t been as “humane” as most of us would expect. Ever. Most things happening to our species (now globally, so we’re all in it together – including the CEO in his neat and expensive Manhattan penthouse, breathing in all the smog and worrying about his money) are actually rather discouraging.
But we ARE constantly being promised “paradise on Earth” – at least for the past 200 years or so. In fact, now more than ever we are surrounded by millions of messages promoting bigger, better, brighter, faster, safer, nicer everything – even though unemployment or (at best) underemployment rates are shooting up in the West, millions of people and entire nations are appallingly indebted, health and living conditions in the supposedly “affluent” West are steadily declining, the planet’s environment is in a shambles, and “terror” is looming from every corner of the world. No wonder some of us are beginning to feel resentful!
In the end, Penny invites her readers to openly admit the bull***t they are surrounded by, but also to laugh about it, and to become a conscious crank – which is to say: “if others can endlessly spread around so much humbug, why shouldn’t YOU, friend and neighbour, go ahead and grumble about it?”
All in all, this book may become a consoling companion for those who feel disturbed enough by what they see and hear and experience – but don’t necessarily have much hope or faith in overwhelming solutions. Particularly when so many “solutions” being sold to us turn out to be… just more bull***t.