Like every worthy history, Kevin Young’s Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News reflects the present. Thick and information-laden as the internet cacophony, Young’s book proves a worthy and exhaustingly researched read.
Like its subject, Bunk presents to the rube—the know-nothing, the mark, the student—a cruel face, even if for our own good. For what Bunk makes very clear is that a hoax doesn’t get by on gullibility so much as suck on our societal marrow, subsuming grief, hubris and race. These pathologies are what afflict Young’s subject—especially in the hoax-scape wherein all three meet.
Bereavement is what gives mediums and others with “access to the beyond” their power, dangling hope over those desperate to make contact with the dearly departed. What more could someone want to believe than that they can communicate with the lost once more? What easier person to fleece?
And appealing to pride is, as Young makes clear, one of the oldest tricks in the book. “Come on in,” P.T. Barnum would say to visitors of his 1860 exhibition, “and tell me! You decide: Man or Monster? Missing Link or Simple Freak? Monkey stitched to a fish, or a Mermaid from Fiji?” In playing to one’s inherent desire to not only be treated as an expert but vindicated, the hoaxer can coax most anyone off a cliff.
And what better subject—what more perfect, American locus of pain, pride and confusion—than race, the ultimate hoax first upheld by science? Whether it is Barnum exhibiting a black man as a missing link, “Indian” half-breeds white as printer paper riding their appropriation to fame or faux-memoirists penning tales of living amongst the street gangs of L.A., Young makes clear that hoaxes throughout history have race at their core.
The internet has only exaggerated and exacerbated all the elements of the hoax. With access to almost all of human knowledge a few keystrokes away, who could claim to be more an expert than you? Offered a banquet of fresh horrors, who does not mourn, if only for a moment, every day? And with echo chambers all around, what better to bounce off their walls than myths and polemics and hate speech about race?
Absolutely inundated with both fake news and Fake News, the hoax-choked world around us is challenging to navigate. It’s not for the lack of something—a guiding light—that we are currently lost, but for an interminable amount of something, as silt kicked up by the errant scuba diver reduces his world to nothing via something. A flashlight will illuminate a mineshaft; not even the most powerful light will shine through silt.
Ours is currently the most unfortunate type of confusion, and Bunk reveals it can be navigated only through careful reason, patience and a refusal to die blind.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayis, and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, his work can be seen in The Atlantic, Hazlitt, Jezebel, Sports Illustrated, VICE Sports, Creators, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.