From Pizzagate to Rachel Dolezal, "A Million Little Pieces" to "Love And Consequences," fake Indians to fake Holocaust survivors, the United States has a past rife with hoaxes, and likely, a history peppered with them, too.
Kevin Young, the poetry editor of The New Yorker, joined Boston Public Radio today to talk about his new book, "Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News."
“I really was struck by how many hoaxes seem to be all around us,” Young said. “[I wanted to] understand what was really behind the hoax, what makes us hoax, is it something American peculiarly, and what can we do about it.”
Young started on the book six years ago, and has stuffed the volume full of research. He begins with P.T. Barnum and an early claim to fame, showing the nursemaid of George Washington in 1835, who would have been 161 years old.
“What it provided for people, I think, is a way to access this past, to touch the person who literally nursed George Washington, and really connect us as a young nation to our past.” he said. “I think very much the hoax does some of the same things today; it often imagines a past, and the difference to me is now the past isn’t imagined as some great, glorious thing, but often as this tragic place.”
Joyce Heff, the alleged nursemaid, was black, but Young says race played a role in many more of the hoax examples he found in his research. In fact, it started to present itself as a common thread.
“You start to see the way that race is intertwined with the hoax, and not only are hoaxes dependent on race and deep divisions in our culture, but also race itself can be thought of as a kind of hoax, as a fake thing pretending to be real,” said Young.
Young says he began to hypothesize that hoaxes seemed to be increasing in number, amount, duration and effect over time as he conducted his research.
“They were talking about horrific things more horribly, if you will, and so I really set out to write this book to understand, is that [hypothesis] indeed true?” he said. “And I came to understand that it was.”
Kevin Young will be at the Harvard bookstore tonight at 7 p.m. His new book is "Bunked: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News." He’s director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library and the Poetry Editor at the New Yorker. To hear his interview in its entirety, click on the audio player above.