Guernica Magazine

The Power and Politics of Hoaxes

Incoming New Yorker Poetry Editor Kevin Young discusses his new book, Bunk. The post The Power and Politics of Hoaxes appeared first on Guernica.
Cover image: Graywolf Press.

Poet and polymath Kevin Young’s newest book, Bunk, unites a history of “post-facts and fake news” with sociocultural analysis, rumination, and literary criticism. It is also a diagnosis of America’s present condition, which, to borrow Young’s words, is one of “forced forgetting in which the most immediate facts are displaced and denied in favor of older ones that claim a long neglected past, a newfound Neverland.”

Bunk chronicles hoaxes and humbugs around the world, paying special attention to that font of fakery, America. Young tackles the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, Spiritualism (a movement, originating in the 1840s, which seeks to contact the dead), a slew of fake memoirs and forgeries, plagiarism, imposture—and all related crimes. Some names may be new to readers (George Psalmanazar) while others will be painfully familiar (Rachel Dolezal). Clear-eyed and thorough, Young is both scholar and judge. Psychology can be explanation but not exoneration. Truth, facts: Young insists that these are vital, real, and important. It’s impossible not to think of Donald Trump when reading Bunk, though Trump’s appearances are limited. Young reminds us that Trump is not a liar, or not only a liar: “Liars often lie to escape getting caught; the hoaxer lies as a form of escapism, all the more pernicious in that it pretends to be real. Bunk doesn’t care if it’s real or not—it just expects you to accept it.”

Perhaps the defining character of is nineteenth-century impresario P. T. Barnum, a real Trump antecedent, minus the presidency. Barnum was a notorious showman, the man “who first turned the American invention of the confidence man legit.” He exhibited Joice Heth, an elderly black woman, as the childhood caretaker of George Washington. Barnum claimed that she was 161 years old. The American people participated willingly in their own deception: Barnum’s hoax was wildly popular, and outlived even Heth. Barnum had her autopsied in public to establish her age. When she turned out not to be 161, he simply said that he had given the coroner a different woman’s body. Barnum—like many other purveyors of fakery—hoaxed history, inventing and erasing simultaneously. His exploitation and abuse of Joice Heth’s body is no outlier in Young’s catalogue. America’s favorite deceptions are often attempts, conscious or not, to establish white superiority and innocence, whether by fabricating spurious “race science” or a society on the moon with a race-based hierarchy from a white supremacist’s dreams. As Young writes, “operating in the gap between what we wish and what

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