Pros and Cons

Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News BY Kevin Young. Graywolf Press. Hardcover, 480 pages. $30.

Remember the story of Dumbo the elephant? It comes to us by way of two of America’s greatest storytellers, P. T. Barnum—whose “Jumbo the Elephant” was the star of “The Greatest Show on Earth”—and Walt Disney, who made “Jumbo Jr.” (Dumbo’s original name) world-famous in his retelling of Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl’s classic children’s book. After Dumbo gets drunk and passes out, he awakens to find himself dangerously high above the ground, frightened and stuck in the branches of a tree. Timothy Q. Mouse, the circus impresario who is Dumbo’s only friend, convinces him that all he needs to fly down out of the branches is a magic feather. Dumbo believes his friend, and lo and behold, through the power of a lie—that a feather can make him fly—he discovers and realizes a capacity, that he can fly by flapping his ears, without which he would quite literally be up a tree.

The story of Dumbo and the psychological efficacy of self-deception remind us that truth is not always good, and false belief is not always bad. But lately the truth is in short supply, and we are remembering why we value it as much as we do. If only we had a president like this softhearted little elephant with acute separation anxiety, someone who believed in falsehood only to help himself realize his own hidden strengths. Instead, as Kevin Young points out in his timely book Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, we have Donald Trump, lover of his own lies. Trump, as Young argues more than once, is in many ways a contemporary version of P. T. Barnum, a man who relied on the power of hokum, and on “audiences taking pleasure in hoaxing and being hoaxed.” Young shows that there is something distinctly American about the love of con artists, humbug, and fraud, and that at least since the nineteenth century we Americans have preferred sensationalism over skepticism, penny papers over real newspapers, fake memoir over fact, kangaroo courts over justice. In 1835, when the New York Sun described “men with bat wings (Vespertilio-homo), unicorns, and biped beavers” living on the moon, the newspaper’s circulation soared; the paper claimed that it was merely reporting what astronomer Sir John Herschel had seen from his South African observatory, and as Young points out, these “great Astronomical discoveries” suddenly became the talk of the town.

Interestingly, the moon hoax and its popularity depended on a deeper need of the Sun’s readers to believe in American racial stereotypes and power structures: The lunar humanoids were “hierarchical in the ways white eugenicists characterized races on earth, from beaver bipeds (metaphoric Native Americans) to woolly man-bats (Negroes) to this last group, in which ‘nearly all the individuals in these groups were . . . less dark in color, and in every respect an improved variety of the race.’” As Young persuasively suggests in his study of American bullshit, the racism and white nationalism that drive so much of our current hysteria, hate-mongering, and humbuggery have always fed our willingness to believe what is false. You might remember the very briefly popular book about childhood and gang life in South Central LA, Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival (2008), by one “Margaret B. Jones,” subsequently revealed to be Margaret Seltzer, a suburban white woman who had attended an expensive private school. Young argues that we believed the memoir not despite the fact that it relied on “the corniest, Boyz n the Hood–era set of clichés about gang life” but because of our desire to have those clichés reaffirmed. Young ties his analysis of why we believed Seltzer’s lies to our similar willingness to be duped by James Frey, who also traded in racist stereotypes (especially in his silly book My Friend Leonard).

Happily, Young never lets us off the hook: Although he approvingly quotes the moment when, interviewing Frey, Oprah confronted him with his lies, he reminds us that in a later interview, “by the end of the broadcast, Oprah is apologizing to Frey, as one might to a manipulative lover, for her previous anger at his bad behavior.” The fake memoirist doesn’t necessarily use racial stereotypes because she or he is a racist, but because racism sells. At the end of the day, we find as much pleasure—perhaps more pleasure—in our indignation over Seltzer’s and Frey’s hoaxes as we formerly found in their implausible “true stories.” Will Trump be reelected in 2020? According to Young, of course he will. I fear that he’s right. Because no one can hold our attention like he can; no one else is as entertaining, even when the entertainment consists in collective outrage.

Still from Walt Disney’s Dumbo, 1941. © Walt Disney Productions.

Young’s encyclopedic study of cons is so exhaustive that it will undoubtedly be the definitive book on hoaxes and fraud. He looks at more than sixty splendid, sad, and often hilarious case studies of American fakery, and they all have at their core one simple fact about human psychology: Just as we all too often tend to lie—while telling ourselves how honest we are—we similarly love to be duped. Worse still, we love to be lied to in ways that confirm what we want to believe; as Ta-Nehisi Coates recently argued, the prevarications of Stephen Glass, “one of the greatest fraud sprees in modern journalistic history,” were “aided and abetted by the New Republic’sbelief in shiftless, dangerous blacks.” As Barnum and, after him, the great fraudster Armand Hammer knew well, we simply enjoy believing, even when what we believe is outrageous, implausible, or downright nasty. (You might remember that Hammer, who started out selling counterfeit Fabergé jewelry, wanted to be president of the United States but instead wound up CEO of an oil company.)

Young, who is a poet by trade, tells his stories beautifully. There are more delightful synonyms for deception here than you will find in any book I’ve read (and I’ve spent a lot of time on the literature of lying): “spin, say-so, hooey, fiddle, Mickey Mousing, jazzed” is just one line picked from a random page. His readings are impressive not only because he moves so fluidly among apparently incongruous subjects (Lance Armstrong, Jay Gatsby, Jayson Blair, Avatar), but also because he brings such limber insight to every con he takes on. Perhaps my favorite of Young’s analyses is his discussion of Walter Kirn’s masterful study of the famous fraud and sociopath “Clark Rockefeller”—real name: Christian Gerhartsreiter—in the now-classic Blood Will Out. Gerhartsreiter participated in every sort of forgery: forged paintings, forged manuscripts, a forged life. He was also a kidnapper and a murderer. But how did he get away with it all for as long as he did? Kirn, for one, is quick to admit that he was himself a collaborator in Gerhartsreiter’s deceptions, becoming an ideal audience for his fictions. This helps Young make his point: We can’t simply (and simplemindedly) blame only the deceiver, no matter how morally convenient that might be; we also need to look at dupes, to interrogate our culture and ourselves about why we believe such patently implausible hoaxes and humbuggery. As the case of Trump illustrates, we continue to be fascinated and compelled by liars even after we know that they are peddling fakery.

Why do we Americans fall for these fraudsters? Young’s answer is timely, simple, familiar, and upsetting. From the nineteenth-century scientist Louis Agassiz—founder of Harvard’s comparative zoology department, friend to Emerson, Hawthorne, and Longfellow, and collaborator with the phrenologist “fudger” and finagler Samuel George Morton—to the twenty-first-century Harvard student, novelist, and plagiarist Kaavya Viswanathan, Americans have failed to see through bad science, false writings, and other humbug in large part because the misinformation supported racist assumptions and stereotypes. If I was ever frustrated with Young’s brilliant and definitive account, it was because in almost every case his argument follows the same pattern: Racists easily believe false claims that confirm racist views. This argument is no doubt true, and Young demonstrates it repeatedly, but occasionally I did wish that he would reflect more pointedly on the other reasons we fall for frauds, including the wish to be entertained (P. T. Barnum’s favorite), fear and the need for distraction (Nixon and Trump’s favorites), and greed (the favorite of so many in the great history of American business confidence schemes).

When we follow along with Young, we see that the strategies that con artists employ are not exceptional but commonplace, occurring in our literature, our journalism, our politics, and throughout our culture.

These days we’re experiencing a flood—not of facts but factoids, not of truth but truthiness. In an age where reality is something experienced on television, where we’ve substituted the tragic for tragedy—that is, tales of what can go wrong instead of ideas of right and wrong—we’ve become especially vulnerable. Untruths spread faster and faster, at the click of a mouse, spawning whole faux movements like birthers and truthers, billionaire populists and the alt-right, whose euphemistic names describe exactly what they do not believe. . . . This is euphemism not as avoidance but insistence; the ease of their being disproved does nothing to lessen belief.

The truth isn’t easy, and it usually doesn’t make us feel good. Truth tends to be hard, and rare, and lonely.

There is a simple cognitive tool you can apply to any belief, to any purchase or investment; it’s the same tool you should use when confronted with any cultural artifact, fascinating narrative, or “news story” on Facebook. Ask yourself, of the person selling you something: “Is this person somehow telling me exactly what I want (or fear) to hear?” If the answer is yes, then—just as you should do when you’re self-deceiving, telling yourself what you want to hear—take a deep breath, suspend judgment for a moment (definitely put your wallet away), and think again.

Clancy Martin is the author of the novel How to Sell (2009) and the critical study Love and Lies (2015; both Farrar, Straus and Giroux).