Hoaxes and Hand Grenades
By Emily Glen
Hoaxes are an unusually American tradition relying on shame and superiority to fool or
deceive another, and the resemblance they hold to fake news, racism, and the way we treat one another is almost uncanny.
“Once the hoax meant to honor, now embraces horror. Once sought to praise, today the hoax mostly traffics in pain,” said Kevin Young.
Critically accredited poet, editor, author, and professor, Young spoke at the 77th annual Forum in Schofield auditorium Thursday night at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire to a packed house of 600 university students and area residents.
Young brought up P.T. Barnum, a successful American promoter who made a pretty penny showing hoaxes as a sideshow attraction. One particular act, “What is It?” was an African American performer playing the missing link between man and beast. The act wasn’t real, but people still paid. “Race itself started to become a hoax,” said Young, “a false thing, pretending to be real.”
According to Young an estimated one hundred million viewers saw “What is It?” on display from Barnum. Young made a point to mention William Henry Johnson, the man and actor who played the “It” from Barnum’s attraction. In an archive is a picture of Johnson, with a George Washington button tacked on his jacket, smiling right at the camera. “Even though he was portrayed as an animal, maybe he wasn’t,” said Young.
Young spent seven years researching and writing “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News”, which was the focus of discussion at The Forum.
According to Young, the twenty first century is a “boom time of fakery”. Modern day hoaxes are everywhere, unreality is the point.
“I enjoyed it, but I wish he would’ve talked more about bigger issues and how it all relates to stuff going on today,” said Kayla Garcia, 36, who attended the forum with her husband. “I think it’s all relevant and good to know, but I wanted him to go deeper on the impact that these hoaxes and whatnot have in the modern day.”
Despite some satisfaction to the crowd, Young didn’t completely skim the top on every issue he talked about.
“Why do people tend to think the worst of each other?” said Young, “It’s like we’re addicted to doing it.”
During the Q and A segment, Young addressed how the modern hoaxes of fake news and false accusations have affected the #MeToo movement. Young challenged the audience to remember to find the truth in a world full of so much deception, to be kind to one another, despite the tendencies of society.
People are too often too eager to point fingers and call out others for being fake news to the point where it’s almost a race to see who can do it first. Young called today’s society an “age of impersonation”, everyone trying to be something or someone other than themselves, even if it means being dishonest to do so.
Young shared poems he had written throughout the event. “I loved the poetry he did,” said Mike LeMahieu, 68, “You really had to pay attention to every word, unless you wanted to miss something. One line that hit me was, “as we watched our chocolate sprinkles fall into the vanilla ice cream, invisible”, could’ve been just about ice cream, but I’m guessing he’s a really smart man who wrote a really good metaphor about racism through ice cream.”
The Forum will continue with more events in February 2019 with topics of gerrymandering in Wisconsin, sex, and extreme weather.