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."
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.
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.