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Susan’s Bookshelves: Big Lies by Mark Kurlansky

I’ve been reviewing for The School Librarian, a quarterly magazine published by the School Library Association, for over 30 years. It’s voluntary work which I do because, obviously, I’m passionate about school libraries and encouraging reading. Moreover, they sometimes send me some interesting titles. And that’s how Big Lies: from Socrates to Social Media reached me. It was published in 2022 so I’m not sure why now, but any time is  a good time for this book because it’s one of the most interesting and informative  non-fiction titles I’ve read in a long time. I think it’s aimed at teenagers but you hardly notice that. It’s serious, over 300 pages long and there’s no dumbing down of language or attempt to be “matey”.  I’ve been out of my teens for longer than I care to reveal here but I learned a great deal from Mark Kurlanksy’s fine book.

Propoganda, misinformation, half-truths, rumour, myth, fake news, hoax – has there ever been a time when it’s more important to filter it all from the truth? And truth, by the way is an absolute. Something is either true or it isn’t. There is no truck in this book with woolly new age waffle about “your truth” and “my truth”.  Big public lies are thrown at us constantly from the link between autism and measles (there isn’t one)  to doctored photographs emanating from war zones and the outlandish pronouncements of Donald Trump.

And this is an interesting one. We’ve all read accounts of German atrocities in Belgium in the First World War. It was what Kurlansky calls an “old trick”. He compares it with spreading the lie in 1588 that the Spanish Armada was carrying instruments of torture to use on the English.  In 1914 the public needed to be persuaded that, as Kipling expressed it “There are only two divisions in the world today, human beings and Germans”. So unsubstantiated stories appeared in newspapers about, for example, dismembered Belgian babies. And in 1915 a British commission led by the very respected Viscount James Bryce “proved” that it was all true on a large scale without naming any families, children or locations.  When the report was re-examined after the war no basis could be found for any of these “well-established cases” and it was all discredited. Then Kurlansky, chillingly gives us this and I’ll quote it verbatim:

“The great tragedy was that in World War II the Germans really did abuse women and children, murder millions of civilians, make lampshades and soap from humans, conduct horrifying medical experiments, and commit many other atrocities, but there was a reluctance to report on this for fear of sounding as questionable as the Bryce report.”

Mark Kurlansky  debunks hundreds of lies, current and historical while also examining how lying works. Science and religion, he suggests, seek answers to the same questions. The difference is that science uses evidence. Nonetheless, accept nothing at face value. Who conducted the research, who funded it and how big was the sample? Posing a hypothesis is completely different from setting out to prove an idea in a biased way. Google is not the be-all and end-all of a rigorous search for the truth.

Kurlansky is strong on the Enlightenment which is often discussed as an 18th century shift in thinking but which is still with us. There are  people in the 2020s, he argues, who continue to reject the Enlightenment –  in American states which persist in teaching Creationism for example.

He discusses in detail the 17th century witch hunts in Europe and then in Massachusetts.  Of course these were based on lies because we all know there is no such thing as a witch except that “Tourist attractions in both Salem and Zugarranurdi [Basque village in Spain]  suggest that there really were witches there, which just shows how hard it is to kill a lie.”

And there’s a lovely story about Arthur Conan Doyle’s (pretty peculiar) belief in fairies and how he was duped by a photograph which Elsie Wright admitted in 1982 she had faked with cardboard cut outs as a hoax/joke against her own family. It wasn’t supposed to go “viral”. Yes, cameras can lie and always could – witness photographs from Soviet Russia from which people were simply excised.

“Viral” brings us neatly to social media which, Kurlansky argues has made lying and the spread of false information easier than anyone could have imagined, even 20 years ago – although radio was doing a pretty good job before that. Of course, it’s why Donald Trump took “his truth” (lies) to Twitter so enthusiastically. And it’s why everything  on these platforms should be read warily. Is this a person or a bot? Vested interests, advertisers. politicians, cranks and, despite the so-called controls, even hate-inspirers and terrorists are all there.

I was amused, though, to catch Kurlansky out in lie, himself – presumably an unintentional one. On page 178 he refers to “…Oliver Cromwell, who executed Charles I,  …” Sorry, Mark. Cromwell was on of 59 signatures on Charles 1’s death warrant which is still in the possession of UK Government. And of course he didn’t personally wield the axe on 30 Jan 1649 which is the other way you could take that clause.

Because Kurlansky is American, so are many of his examples but that doesn’t matter. I think this is a perceptive and penetrating   book which everyone, everywhere should read.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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