McClelland & Stewart, 278 pp, $22.99, softcover.
Think of Laura Penny as a bartender of cultural criticism. The recipe for the cocktail of modern rebellion that is Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit goes something like this: start with one part each Michael Moore, The Corporation, and Toxic Sludge Is Good for You; liberally free-pour comedians Jon Stewart and Bill Hicks; top up with rocks of research and references to Ice Cube and Immanuel Kant; and blend at the speed of a native Nova Scotian wit.
It's a tasty mix, but it's the wise-cracking bartender's comments that make this drink go down so well. Penny tackles the idea of bullshit and some of its most common and egregious manifestations-in advertising and PR; politics; business; the financial, pharmaceutical, and insurance industries; mall culture; and the media-and makes a number of smart and funny points along the way, like "Bullshit is not just a phenomenon, but an industry-one of the growth industries of the information age."
One of her themes is the shift from the manufacturing economy that fuelled the long postwar boom to our current service/information economy, and how the increase in the sheer volume of commercial communication and the technological advances that spread it have led to an explosion in bullshit. As she explains, "Advertising and PR make one thing and one thing only, and that is shit up. Making shit up is not to be confused with outright lying, although lying is sometimes involved. Making shit up is more like painting the lawn green when the Queen comes to town. The grass may be green to start with, but it ain't that green."
Penny strips the emperors of business, too. As the CEOs with the five fattest paycheques in 1999 all fired more than a thousand employees, or at least five percent of their work forces, she argues that "in the business press, the phrase a commitment to productivity has gradually come to mean a commitment to getting rid of the people who produce things."
In working all this bullshit Penny offers no prescriptions for change, but her own hybrid voice-part historian, part comedian-suggests a new bloom on a growing resistance to the same old shit.