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Review: More Money than Brains, by Laura Penny

If, when confronted with yet another dreary tome from a paid-up member of the Canadian commentariat (and we all know who they are: "Granatstein! Crowley! Take your fingers out of Frum's nose!"), you reach for the nearest knitting needle to shove in your eye, this is the book for you.

Laura Penny's prose is fluent, clever, often funny and, most important, consistently engaging. Her new book, More Money Than Brains, is a ferocious defence of the arts and humanities against the philistine influence of Homo economicus (subspecies Goldman Sachsus). Money and its attendant material and technological manifestations, argues the Mount Saint Vincent University professor and author of the bestselling Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth about Bullshit, is making us stupid.

To wit: "We often point to our magnificent technological achievements as evidence of our triumph over those benighted primitives who preceded us. I definitely get this vibe from my students. 'Why do we need to read this old stuff?' they grouse. It's, like, old, from the back-in-the-day times when people shat in buckets and were too stupid to invent cool stuff like cell phones. The past is just one long smelly error …"

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In making her case, Penny ranges between an almost extemporaneous style not far from standup comedy ( SCTV meets Stephen Leacock) to carefully constructed polemics, sometimes in adjacent paragraphs. Her comparison between Bush Jr. and Sr. on education made me think and laugh, one on top of the other:

"[Bush Sr. asked]the following excellent question:

'Education is our most enduring legacy, vital to everything we are and can become. And come the next century - just 10 years away - what will we be? Will we be children of the enlightenment or its orphans?'

"More than a decade later, in 2000, his son posed a similar question: 'Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?' The difference between these two quotes says a lot, and none of it is good. Even the president's children is not learning. Is this because our schools is sucking?"

[Laura Penny's]unflinching willingness to entertain puts her light years ahead of her Canadian competitors

Not surprisingly, Penny goes on to answer her question in the affirmative (yes, they is!) and claws at a few sacred cows along the way. On the subject of parochial schools, she's particularly scathing: "Studying the Second World War in a mainstream history class could be a real blow to the self-esteem of a kid raised as a fake Aryan. At the Stormfront Skool of Traditional Values (home of the Fighting Hitlers), the poor child would be spared the trauma of having her culture and her family's choices disrespected."

If you don't laugh out loud at the Fighting Hitlers, well then, maybe Laura Penny isn't really your cup of tea.

That said, and as much as I liked the book, it seems at times that she fancies herself a bull who arrives complete with her own china shop. Penny tosses around a lot of indelicate language with an abandon that - I have to say it - borders on the obsessively glib.

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For instance, taxpayers don't just get upset at the prospect of a higher tariff, they "spazz out"; bureaucrats write complex policy papers on poverty that "poor people cannot read." This need for constant riffing is unbecoming and unnecessary, putting her in league with trite stereotypers like Al Franken, Glenn Beck (for whom Penny has a particular and delicious loathing) and Anne Coulter.

Moreover, when you take the rhetorical low road in favour of maintaining "standards," you open yourself up to hair-splitters who might complain that the congressman's name on page 215 is Jim Himes not Jim Hines, or that "persnickety" on page 187 is a coarse Americanization of the preferred OED version "pernickity."

For all that, Penny is, from any literate person's perspective, on the side of the angels. Her unflinching willingness to entertain puts her light years ahead of her Canadian competitors. And she is fully deserving of attention paid by the likes of 60 Minutes alongside her spiritual forebear Harry Frankfurt ( On Bullshit, On Truth). One hopes that, for a time, at least, she'll continue to aim her darts at Canadian poseurs before heading south to shoot bigger fish in that biggest of all barrels.

Douglas Bell writes a blog for The Globe and Mail's politics hub.

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