Reflections on ‘Hoax’, 1750
A hoax is a con, a flimflam, a swindle—but with a twist: to be successful, a hoax must be discovered and then perceived as ridiculous. The true hoax is complete in its exposé, which brings not shame but fame. The impish weavers of Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ were excellent hoaxers. To be successful, hoaxes must find an audience inclining towards a willing suspension of disbelief. How could the Emperor parade naked? We sometimes say that if something didn’t exist we’d have to invent it; the hoaxer invents it and then sees if we’ll claim it exists.
Readers may possibly guess why ‘hoax’ came to my attention. It was said that continentals used to refer to Englishmen as ‘goddams’, because that was the expression always on their lips. ‘Hoax’ is Donald Trump’s favorite word, and if one gives credit to the Russian influence on the election in 2016, Trump is himself an excellent example of a hoax. How could the leader of the free world be a reality TV host? Despite his insistence that every criticism is ‘fake news’, for a moment, as the pandemic deepened this April, it looked as if he recognized that death could not be hoaxed away, but already he reverts to type. Trump, however, is best seen as a symptom. The great misinformation superhighway of the internet has made hoaxing both ubiquitous (trolling) and impossible (the denuding of trust). It makes the most ridiculous claims somehow believed. ‘Poe’s Law’ of the internet (unrelated to the poet) states that one cannot parody any extreme ...
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