Friday 23 February 2018 at 08:28

Bunk by Kevin Young

By Eric Antoine Scuccimarra

I am very concerned by today's "post-factual" climate, where what is actually true is less important than what we feel should be true, and that is why I was drawn to this book. I thought it would be in the same vein as Kurt Andersen's "Fantasyland." I was very pleasantly surprised because the book goes far beyond that subject, giving a very thorough overview of hoaxes from the 1800s to today. Starting with PT Barnum and what he called "humbug," the book traces the evolution of hoaxes as it evolved from Barnum's relatively benign versions, into the spiritualism of the late 1800s and early 1900s, into confidence schemes, the literary hoaxes and plagiarism of the early 2000s and finally finishing with the "post-truth" and "fake news" of today.

The book is something I would have liked to have read in a college sociology class - it is detailed enough to serve well in an academic context, with a great deal of analysis of the social trends underlying the phenomena described. It is also beautifully written, not surprising as Mr Young is a poet, which I did not know until I had finished it. 

"Bunk" does a great deal of exploration as to what the trends and types of hoaxes throughout history say about the culture, and one of it's major conclusions is that race, and racism, play very important roles. From PT Barnum taking advantage of a variety of non-white people in his shows, to modern authors taking advantage of stereotypes to disguise their made-up stories as truth, it seems that racism is much more deeply woven into American culture than most people realize. There are numerous cases cited of people making up stories about being from underground Taiwanese cities to being raised in the inner cities that take advantage of (incorrect) stereotypes of different colors and cultures to sell themselves as truth. As the confirmation bias would indicate, people are much more likely to accept something as true if it confirms their preexisting conceptions of the world than if it challenges them, and this is easily used by hoaxsters to dupe people.

The last chapter, which starts with "euphemisms" and ends with a dissection of "fake news" (which Mr Young says he preferred when it was simply called "propaganda") is especially striking. I have my own theories on why America today is so willing to entertain crazy theories, such as how victims of mass shootings are really actors paid by the anti-gun people, but Young draws a connection through the evolution of hoaxes through history directly to the fake news of today.

This is an amazing and important book, and one I believe should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of American culture.


Labels: books


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