Maybe it’s just my own situation but I’m not noticing many April Fool jokes. Isn’t it enough to have barely survived (maybe we haven’t) eight years of hoaxes from our elected officials and corporate CEO’s? And today the news reveals that the Catholic Church from the Pope on down knew about sexually abusive priests as long ago as the Fifties and did not respond, though one dedicated priest -- redeeming his calling -- spent twenty years battering away at the officials to take action and even tried to buy an island where the predatory priests could live out their lives away from victims. Though we might not be willing to invest money and though today even islands are not sequestered enough, we’re fed up with being lied to and fooled.
Yet how do we find out the truth with newspapers shrinking and television going to sensation and celebrity shenanigans? Someone else on the radio (I listen as I go through the day) said that the failure of the big city newspapers wouldn’t be so bad in this time of so much other media, including blogs, except for our congressional representatives: senators included. He said it’s up to each state to closely monitor what those powerful people are doing in Washington, D.C., and only a big high-pay, high-power, state-by-state, networking newspaper has the chops to keep track of them. He suggested that our elected officials get up to some very strange things indeed. Tell us about it!
One evening on my way to the town council meeting I noticed a well being sunk on an empty lot. Nosy as always, I trotted over to ask whether they thought they might solve our budget problems by striking oil. But they said they were venting gas contamination from an old gas station leak. They said they were surprised to find it even thirty feet down. When I got to the town council meeting, they assured me that there was NO contamination.
Were they scheming? Misinformed? Careless about what they remembered? Or did they simply not want to know about the problem? Maybe they already had enough worries and denial was a way of controlling things. They say that dogged whistle-blowers turned in Madolf over and over, pointed out EXACTLY how he was running a Ponzi scheme to PRECISELY the people who had the tools to investigate. Nothing happened. They evidently weren’t paid off or in on the scheme. They just didn’t want to know.
I’m reading “Fakers” by Paul Maliszewski, which begins with an account of his own “faked” letters and articles to his own newspaper -- meant to be satire and preposterous, but immediately accepted as valid by the editors. (Reference Dilbert, the comic strip.) The rest of the book is various essays on hoaxes, masks, con artists, counterfeiters and Great Pretenders, many of them literary. It becomes very clear that pretenses and minor sleight-of-hand are woven through our daily lives everywhere and only recognized when it becomes of benefit for someone to “reveal” them.
One big illustration of how a situation calls out hoaxable circumstances and then presents the opportunity to profit from their refutation is the craze for memoir, which is “memory,” notoriously tricky and inclined to be embellished or overdramatic. A little cluster of unreliable memoirs (caroming off the assumption that biographies and autobiographies are or should be accurate or even CAN be accurate beyond the rough outlines) was almost irresistible for blood-sucking journalists, who then created a “trend” of exposures of cases that were in fact nothing alike.
Frey exaggerated reality in the conventional Hollywood way, making himself a badder boy than he was. JT LeRoy went for the big leap and invented a fantasy, also an underclass tale, because what nice readers would know the diff anyway? And Nasdijj (Tim Barrus) told the truth but changed the names and identifying circumstances, the way doctors do and for similar reasons. But in the past he’d been the baddest boy of all. Frey was soon seen for what he was and, enabled by Oprah, went back to work. JT had to pay or (one hopes) return an enormous amount of money on grounds that she defrauded her publisher. (Hard to believe.) And Barrus became an expatriate, which has made him grateful considering how things have gone in publishing ever since.
Not much has been done with the third step in this sequence: unmasking the motives and methods of those who identify hoaxes. How much money did they make? And who were their witnesses? In Barrus’ case, they were mainly a former brother-in-law with a felony record, a pornographer still angry from Barrus -- then an editor -- rejecting his manuscript, and a non-American living in Cyprus and purporting to be an expert on Native American writing. Don’t we all have people like that floating around at the fringes of our lives? I do. My former students alone could probably come up with enough accusations to... what am I saying? Don’t tell the kids not to put beans up their noses!
One of the lessons of Maliszewski’s inquiries is that people who are hoaxed WANT to be hoaxed. Much like grief-sticken mothers hoping to contact their lost children “on the other side” and therefore willing to be ripped off by spiritualists and table-rappers, or people with terminal illnesses hoping for a miracle (remember Katherine Kuhlman in her diaphanous nightgowns crooning “I belieeeeve in Miracles!”), or wives not wanting to confront what their husbands have been doing to their children, the American public wants to believe that our mighty leaders really ARE mighty. We NEED to believe our doctors and lawyers are competent and honorable. (They used to want that, too.) And yet we are so quick to believe that this one and that one did something horrid and should be tried on the front page of the newspaper.
Right now we are especially vulnerable since there is no consensus on reality, much less culture. People in this town will fight you if you say global warming is real. We seem to have a great need for conformity in our cohort, and enforce the consensus by labeling dissidents as hoaxers, liars. This is not just a right wing phenomenon.
I was interested in a statement I read yesterday: that liberals are very willing to accept all sorts of differences: color, ethnic origin, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, prosperity, education and all the rest -- SO LONG AS they thought like the other liberals in the group.
But thoughts can be disguised. And who has the broad experience to pick up real dissemblers? Not our professional spies, it seems. And how can unknown bloggers be truth-checked? Even Snopes can’t always know. Sooner or later we’re all bound to be April Fools, right around the calendar.