Blog 31. Book review: Little Black Lies

In 2012, a little—almost pocket-size—book appeared, entitled “Little Black Lies,” by Jeff Gailus, published in Canada by Rocky Mountain Books with support from several Canadian arts-related associations. Jeff Gailus is a writer, based in Missoula Montana, self-described as one “who has been writing about the collision of science, nature and politics for 15 years.”  The book appears to be a diatribe against the manipulation of law and social rules by the industrial organizations behind development of the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, the source of whatever might flow across the US through the politically famous (or infamous) Keystone pipeline. 

As I said, the book appears to be a diatribe, documenting the political spins, news hyperbole, and outright falsehoods promoted by the powers who expect to make big money from the project.  However, as best I can tell, the little book simply presents the facts of the spin, hyperbole, and falsehoods.  The project would be an environmental disaster, but that’s not really the topic.  Labeling “tar sands” as “oil sands” is one small part of the big topic—the method of spin, half-truth, and no-truth by which the public is manipulated.  So what else is new?

It’s the preface of the book, rather than its content, that I find so significant because it talks about truth in communication, not just about tar.  In the preface, Jeff explores the distinction between truth, lies, and what he calls a third thing, “bullshit.” He refers to an 80-page treatise entitled “On Bullshit,” written by Princeton professor emeritus Harry Frankfurt, a little item that spent a reported 27 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.   BS, it seems, is worse than lies.  Liars know the truth, lies have some connection with the truth.  You have to know the truth in order to insert a falsehood in the argument.  But BS makes no representation of reality, and BS’rs are indifferent to reality.  BS—which I think of as political spin—is used to confuse the issue, to manipulate the masses.  As Gailus says, it diminishes our respect for the truth.  Gailus traces BS back to Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, the initiation of “public relations,” and the BBC documentary The Century of the Self.

More than ruining Alberta to ship liquid fuels abroad, and more than the grinding up the US to fill endless 100-car trains carrying coal to northwest ports for transshipment to China, it is our growing disregard for facts and truth that is so dangerous to our society, our governance, and our economy.  And, incidentally, to our environment.

You can find the preface to Little Black Lies by scanning down on Jeff’s web page at http://jeffgailus.com. Find Frankfurt’s BS book at http://press.princeton.edu/titles/7929.html .  Or click the links above.

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