A Book On 'Bunk' For Our Post-Truth Times

Nov 12, 2017
Originally published on November 13, 2017 7:17 am

It's no secret that the United States is going through a "post-truth" or "fake news" moment.

There are people in this country who continue to believe that former President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were an inside job. Fake news went so far as to persuade a North Carolina man to storm a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor with a high-powered gun after he started following an elaborate online hoax linking Hillary Clinton to a nonexistent child trafficking ring.

Essayist and poet Kevin Young tries to make sense of our national problem with falsehoods in his latest book, titled Bunk: The Rise Of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, And Fake News. It's a subject partly inspired by a firsthand experience with a former colleague.

"At the time it seemed just like he was just one of us," Young says. "We worked as editors together on a travel guide, and he came in one day and announced he had cancer — which was terrible, of course. And then later, in the light of all his sort of later hoaxing — which involved, you know, pretending to give money to a university who threw a big party for him and then not giving any money, to, you know, other sort-of run-of-the-mill hoaxes of magazines and things — it seems clear that that was fake too: that his cancer never existed, and he had shaved his head.

"But I think, quite specifically I became really interested about six years ago in thinking about why now do there seem to be more hoaxes, and are they in fact worse? And I came to quickly see that yes, that was true. And once I finished the book, it seemed only more true."


Interview Highlights

On the way hoaxes have changed recently

Well, I think the 19th century, hoaxes are trying to sort of establish America's history. It's trying to think about how we, as a new nation, can have this august past. And often, that's what the hoaxes involved. So P.T. Barnum — the famous showman's first big hoax was of Joice Heth, a black woman he exhibited who he said was George Washington's first nursemaid. And that she would have been then 161 years old, which was part of what he said. He said, "She's 161, come see for yourself!" I think back then, audiences were — by Barnum and others — being made to feel like they were experts. They could decide for themselves — hey, come evaluate, is she real? ...

Now, I think we're really in a really different era, where people have — in our very, very current moment — sort of decided that there are no more experts. Being a scientist or a doctor, something that Barnum would make up — you know, a doctor who had examined [Heth] and proclaimed her real — now, we don't even believe that about things that are real. And so it's a very strange moment.

On the central role of race in many hoaxes

Yeah, I think it's not an accident. And I came to believe this: That the term hoax and our modern idea of race developed around the same time in the middle of the 18th century. And those two concepts kind of grow up together, and the hoax quite often, from Barnum times onward, makes use of race — whether it's someone pretending to be Native American of which there are just millions. A hoax — it starts to feel like to, you know, someone like you said, like Rachel Dolezal, who isn't just passing as black. She's darkening her skin, changing her hair and adapting a certain kind of stance and becoming, in her case, the head of the NAACP somewhere.

And I started to think about, well, is there something American about all of this? And certainly, there is, in our culture, this notion of, you know, you can become anything. You can change. And I think that gets intertwined with the hoax, but not as much as race, which, you know, in the hoaxes that make use of it very much are about things not changing and about sort of assigning to other people some exotic belief or some exotic stance or, often, some inferiority.

On our common responsibility to combat hoaxes

I think our responsibility is to think critically, and to listen to each other — and to talk about some of these issues and not just let them be exploited by someone who wants to pretend to care about them but really is plagiarizing somebody else's pain, say. And I think you see a lot of that. We might have to ask more of our systems, whether that's of our journalists — who I think are working overtime and are catching a lot of these falsehoods — but also of our government. But also, as you point out, ourselves. I think that I try really hard to think about how we deceive ourselves, and we let ourselves be deceived. And race is one big component in that, and how can we get past that? It's something that the book asks, but also I think, in asking, starts to solve.

Marc Rivers and Jennifer Liberto produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's no secret that America is going through a post-truth or fake news moment. There are people in this country who continue to believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job. Fake news went so far as to convince a North Carolina man to storm a D.C. pizza parlor with a high-powered weapon after he started following an elaborate online hoax linking Hillary Clinton to a nonexistent child sex trafficking ring.

So if you are wondering why America seems so obsessed with falsehoods and when this obsession began, well, essayist and poet Kevin Young tries to answer that in his latest book. It's called "Bunk: The Rise Of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts And Fake News." And Kevin Young is with us now from our studios in New York. Kevin Young, thank you so much for being with us.

KEVIN YOUNG: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And your work titles are about as long as the title of this book. I may add that you've been named poetry editor at The New Yorker. You are the director of a major research library in New York. But let's start with the book. You actually started this book years ago. How did you get interested in the subject?

YOUNG: Well, I actually had the misfortune, fortune - I don't know which it is - to work with a hoaxer or someone who turned out to be a hoaxer later. At the time, it seemed just like he was one of us. And we worked as editors together on a travel guide. And he came in one day and announced he had cancer, which was terrible, of course. And then later in the light of all his sort of later hoaxing, which involved, you know, pretending to give money to a university who threw a party for him, and then not giving any money. It seems clear that that was fake, too - that his cancer never existed, and he had shaved his head.

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness.

YOUNG: Yeah, I mean, it was pretty wild to put - realize later. But I think, quite specifically, I became really interested about six years ago. And thinking about why now do there seem to be more hoaxes? And are they, in fact, worse? And I came to quickly see that, yes, that was true. And once I finished the book, it seemed only more true.

MARTIN: You know, the book suggests that originally the idea of the hoax began sort of innocently. There was even a sense of, like, fun and showmanship to it. But then you say that by the time we get to the mid-20th century, the hoax becomes more nefarious. Why is that?

YOUNG: Well, I think the 19th century hoaxes are trying to sort of establish America's history, you know. It's trying to think about how we as a new nation can have this august past. And often, that's what the hoaxes involved. So P.T. Barnum - the famous showman's first big hoax was of Joice Heth, a black woman he exhibited who he said was George Washington's first nurse maid, and that she would have been then 161 years old, which was part of what he said. He said she's 161. Come see for yourself.

And there was a lot of stuff in the press about, was she even physically real? Was she, you know, an automaton? Was she made of rubber? What was she? So there was this kind of mix of feelings, I think, that viewers had. One was this connection to George Washington, say. But also, there was this desire to become expert in something. They could decide for themselves.

And now, I think we're really in a really different era, where people have, in our very, very current moment, sort of decided there are no more experts. You know, being a scientist or a doctor - something that Barnum would make up - some, you know, a doctor who had examined her and proclaimed her real. Now, we don't even believe that about things that are real. And so it's a very strange moment.

MARTIN: One of the interesting aspects of the book is the way you connect race to the history of hoaxes - whether it's - you know, it's P.T. Barnum's exhibit of a woman he claimed was the former slave of George Washington. You just told us about that. Or the human zoos that put caricatures of Native Americans and Africans on display. And you connect that, you know, to, say, Rachel Dolezal who was somebody that a lot of people may remember that name as a woman who, for some reason, decided that she was black and passed herself off as African-American. Could you talk a little bit about the relationship between hoaxes and race?

YOUNG: Yeah, I think it's not an accident. And I came to believe this - that the term hoax and our modern idea of race developed around the same time in the middle of the 18th century. And those two concepts kind of grow up together, and the hoax quite often, from Barnam times onward, makes use of race - whether it's someone pretending to be Native American of which there are just millions. A hoax - it starts to feel like to, you know, someone like you said, like Rachel Dolezal, who isn't just passing as black. She's darkening her skin, changing her hair and adapting a certain kind of stance and becoming, in her case, the head of the NAACP somewhere.

And I started to think about, well, is there something American about all of this? And certainly, there is, in our culture, this notion of, you know, you can become anything. You can change. And I think that gets intertwined with the hoax, but not as much as race, which, you know, in the hoaxes that make use of it very much are about things not changing and about sort of assigning to other people some exotic belief or some exotic stance or, often, some inferiority.

MARTIN: I understand that this is a work of description. It is a work that's deeply researched. But is that enough? I mean, if this crisis of fakeness and fakery and truthiness is as profound as your book suggests that it is, doesn't that mean that, you know, all of us have some responsibility? And what is it? What's yours?

YOUNG: Well, that's a great question. I mean, I think our responsibility is to think critically and to listen to each other and to talk, I think, you know, about some of these issues and not just let them be exploited by someone who wants to pretend to care about them but really is plagiarizing someone else's pain, say. We might have to ask more of our systems - whether that's of our journalists who I think are working overtime and are catching a lot of these falsehoods but also of our government, but also, as you point out, ourselves.

I think that I try really hard to think about how we deceive ourselves and how we let ourselves be deceived. And race is one big component in that. And how can we get past that is something the book asks, but also I think, in asking, starts to solve.

MARTIN: That's Kevin Young. His latest book is "Bunk: The Rise Of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts And Fake News." He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Kevin Young, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll talk again.

YOUNG: Me too.

MARTIN: And it'll be the truth.

YOUNG: (Laughter) Nothing but. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.