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You’ve heard it all, or some version of it, before. In the year Donald Trump was elected president, fewer than a quarter of Republicans believed the fact of human-driven climate change, while a majority still believed the disproven racist lie that the first president of color was an illegitimate foreigner.
And yet the sheer breadth of these false beliefs — so widespread that you cannot accurately call them “unbelievable” — suggests a phenomenon not solely attributable to stupidity or partisanship. Too mainstream to be conspiracy theory, climate denial and birtherism are just the latest Americana fictions — deeply ingrained untruths people have been conditioned to believe.
Late last year Kevin Young — director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and, since November, poetry editor of The New Yorker — released a book that used the current “post-truth” era as its peg. In Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, Young tries to make sense of how tall tales like birtherism take hold, breaking down the many stories that confirm chicanery — as harmless as the cheeky street vendor who gouges the price of his umbrellas when it rains or as dangerous as the politician who promises the restoration of white power will lead to prosperity — is an inherent strand of the American DNA. Rather than neatly depicting the masses as hoodwinked victims, Bunk delineates how popular prejudice and stale conventional wisdoms often readily welcome the skills of those standing by to offer simpler explanations and pills that are easier to swallow. By asking, in each case, which cultural assumption led us to be fooled, Young diligently traces the bullshit back to its more sinister, societal implications.
When I spoke with New Yorker editor David Remnick, he called Bunk a “godsend” for these times and Kevin Young the ideal heir to the weekly’s poetry editorship. From the moment they met at an intimate dinner party hosted by Elizabeth Alexander, Remnick “was completely captivated by him. He was extremely funny, beyond intelligent, and his taste: all over the map” — in the good way.
Remnick was already familiar with Young’s poetry at the time; his poems have been published in The New Yorker since 1999. But over the course of their dinner conversation, Remnick said, “I came to realize that he was also an anthologist.” It was ultimately the varied literary palate he found in Young’s nonfiction work that led him to pick the 47-year-old for the plum assignment, which Remnick carefully describes as “a lot to balance. It’s a kind of complicated aesthetic — a political, literary, and editorial job.”
But as Young prepares for the imminent release of his dozenth poetry collection, Brown, he continues full-time directorial duties in Harlem at the Schomburg Center. And in addition to editing, he hosts the poetry podcast at The New Yorker with a Fresh Air-like ease. On all accounts, the balancing act seems well under control.
You can learn an awful lot about a man’s worldview from the kinetic qualities of his handshake. So, when Young greets me — in a nondescript conference room adjacent to the New York Public Library’s sprawling Beaux-Arts main building on 42nd Street — his formal, academic clasp-into-folksy, Midwestern double-shake-into-smooth-dap suggests that the author, poet, and professor is an embodiment of a new intelligentsia: born of the hip-hop generation, seemingly unconcerned with the guardrails of genre and convention, and as likely to debate Andre 3000’s discography as the works of Sartre.
It was this wide relatability that made Young a popular presence on campus at Emory University, where he was a tenured professor and curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library. And while Young’s poems are profound without killing the fun — and therefore the power — of poetry, his nonfiction cultural criticism maintains this sensibility: deeply layered without being inscrutable. Harper’s Magazine has called Young “a relaxed lyricist, precise without being precious.” A critic at The Paris Review dubbed him “a pure essayist in the vein of Emerson and Montaigne.”
A bookish only child, Young moved six times before he was ten as his parents pursued their careers before eventually settling in Topeka, Kansas. His father worked as an ophthalmologist; his mother is an accomplished chemist who also earned a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Young’s parents were each the first in their respective families from rural Louisiana to attend college.
In the late Eighties, Kevin also attended Harvard, where he joined the storied Dark Room Collective, a reading series hosted by up-and-coming writers of color in a den-turned-salon at 31 Inman Street in Cambridge. Young graduated in 1992 and left for a coveted creative writing fellowship at Stanford, but as he wrote in his nonfiction collection, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, “Once you’re in, you’re in forever.” Young’s participation in the Dark Room would be the first stop on a trajectory laden with prestigious honors and positions at the nexus of the academic and literary world. (A Guggenheim Fellowship and an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences are among the latest bestowments.)
In an old Twitter bio, Young described himself as a “lover of things thought lost,” which, he says, has “a lot to do with my grandparents in Louisiana and the way they saved everything. Black folks in the segregated South are the inventors of sustainable living — making a way out of no way, and nothing gets thrown away.” More literally, though, Young says the bio was a reference to a devotion to “black writing that’s lost or thought lost and to rediscovering writers or promoting writers who are underappreciated.”
“When I sit down to write,” he says, “I think I’m always trying to recover some aspect of something that we might forget, but is really there.” The Schomburg Center, which Young has helmed since August 2016, is itself named after an oft-forgotten, but important black figure: Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Puerto Rican immigrant who, upon migrating to Harlem, helped pioneer African-American history as an institutionalized topic of scholarship. The New York Public Library bought his collection in 1926, and the Schomburg’s founding mission — to serve as an archive repository of the diaspora in all its forms — is still at full tilt. Young, who lives in Central Harlem, continues the legacy, preserving the documents of relative unknowns as well as “knowns” who didn’t quite make it into the mainstream canon: Bayard Rustin, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Gwendolyn Bennett, and countless others. (The center’s fellowships grant intimate access to archives in order to expand scholarship on these subjects.)
The Schomburg gig is perfect for Kevin Young’s skill set. Because, if there’s one thing you learn after listening to him for a while, it’s that Young is a really good rememberer — of culture, literature, and changing political attitudes. Something Bunk, which was years in the making, puts on brilliant display.
When we think of P.T. Barnum in 2018, most picture the charismatic entertainer embodied by Hugh Jackman in last year’s The Greatest Showman. We tend to forget that he got his big start, like our current president, promoting racial hoaxes at his raucous shows. It’s okay if we don’t remember, or never had a clue, because Kevin Young has remembered for us, put it in context, and connected the dots to the present. This is the rhythm of Bunk: deep researching to pull, sometimes obscure, seemingly disconnected anecdotes from the corners of history (both recent and centuries-old), then employing a dose of poetic eloquence to rejigger their relevance in the reader’s mind.
And while scholastically dense, the read feels like a fair bargain, as you, like me, get the dish on things we wouldn’t otherwise know, even if we were better read or a little more cultured. Remnick, a pretty learned fellow by most accounts, admitted: “I didn’t know nine-tenths of these stories.” Still, those unfamiliar with our past are also at risk of becoming sapped from finding out just how much of so much is deeply riddled with at least partially racist roots, from the obscure to the everyday: the movies, the circus, the church, pornography, Emerson, rock ’n’ roll. Is nothing sacred?
“You have to kind of step back and say, what are these things in our culture really about, and ask: How do they tell us something about ourselves even though they’re fake?” Young says. “In fact, especially because they’re fake! That tells us a lot about what we ‘wanted’ to believe.”
Bunk navigates a buffet of subjects — supposed “lost” tribes, fake doctors who performed actual surgeries, and PR for napalm — but much like The Color of Law, We Were Eight Years in Power, and other Woke Blockbusters of 2017, a key motif is breaking it to America that Trumpism’s underpinning sentiments are neither new nor an aberration.
“It’s letting us off the hook to think this is only a recent thing,” Young asserts. Trump was still merely White House Correspondents’ Dinner comedy fodder in the book’s early stages six years ago. But for Young, the now-president has brought a unique form of hoaxing to the forefront, which was too explicit to include alongside all the other nouns in Bunk’s subtitle: bullshit. He writes:
It isn’t that the contemporary hoax provides “a different kind of truth,” but that it offers far less. A whole lie would almost be welcome, but [these] hoaxes won’t extend us the courtesy of respecting the truth enough to betray it. Instead we have become surrounded by the halfway, mealymouthed, politicking habit of bullshit.
Trump, then, is much more a bullshitter than an outright hoaxer or humbugger. “For me,” Young explains, “a hoax is something intended or even unintentionally made to deceive. It isn’t simply a lie because even when it’s sustained, it’s often quite incomplete in its attempt.” A good example? Race, he offers. An abstract construction with dangerous, if not complete, real world consequences: minstrel shows, eugenics, anti-Semitism, Nazism, films like The Birth of A Nation, terms like “miscegenation,” and segregated water fountains are all in conversation with each other — all riffing off the same hoax of Aryanism and white supremacy. “Humbug,” on the other hand, Young reports, “is sort of a nineteenth-century term [that] falls somewhere between a prank and a hoax.”
In Bunk, Young has a well-founded fascination for this more playful shade of untruth and sees the showman P.T. Barnum as its self-serving forefather. The circus he founded, billed as the Greatest Show on Earth, shut down for good in May 2017, but Barnum’s legacy resurfaced with The Greatest Showman which, very loosely, traces the vertiginous story of Barnum’s American Museum: a slap-happy mix of a zoo, wax museum, and theater, with freak shows as the main attraction. Despite mixed reviews, the film performed well at the box office, and earned Hugh Jackman a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of Barnum.
The plot’s rising action, which mainly focuses on Barnum battling the classism of other, more refined white men, conveniently ignores his less flattering — and, frankly, more fascinating — ethical shortcomings. That Barnum’s first break as a showman came when he made use of a loophole in the antebellum North to rent — yes, rent — an elderly black woman to pose as George Washington’s 160-something-year-old maid. That this was one of several blockbuster acts employed by Barnum that preyed on the racially imbued myths which plagued that century.
In the movie’s fantasy past, Barnum’s American Museum is premised on convenient, if transactional, partnerships. The gazing at bearded ladies, fake mermaids, little people, and other so-called freaks is recast, with the help of a dance number, as “dreaming with your eyes wide open.”
“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?” a patrician newspaper critic asks Jackman’s Barnum. “Do these smiles seem fake?” he retorts. “Hyperbole isn’t the worst crime. Men suffer more from imagining too little rather than too much.”
It’s a sentiment with which the real-life Barnum would have agreed, and in Bunk, Young makes the case that humbugging, while insidiously connected to harmful hoaxes, hasn’t been all bad. Its rise throughout the nineteenth century, Young tells us, fostered a wider recognition of contradiction and an exploration of the tension between faith and fact. The shift to this new cultural default extended from the common man to Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857), to Mark Twain’s characters.
In 1865, the year Barnum was first elected to the Connecticut state legislature, he released his book Humbugs of the World: An account of humbugs, delusions, impositions, quackeries, deceits and deceivers generally, in all ages. Barnum billed it as a noble exposé of his own industry: “If we could have a full exposure of ‘the tricks of trade’ of all sorts … religious, political, financial, scientific, quackish, and so forth,” he writes in its prologue, “we might perhaps look for a somewhat wiser generation to follow us.”
Reality TV, with its requirement that we be in on the joke, is a clear descendant of the humbug era. “What if … you could have it all?” the opening sequence of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice beseeched us. Nobody seemed to fully appreciate, or care, that the man behind “You’re fired!” was an overextended real estate hawker with a bankrupt casino business. Then again, Barnum’s financial woes didn’t stop people from watching his shows.
It’s unlikely that President Trump was inspired by Barnum’s The Art of Money-Getting (1880) when he published The Art of the Deal in 1987. Still, as Bunk demonstrates, the similarities are striking: the tabloid fodder bankruptcies, the scorn they received from blueblood types, their eventual entry into politics. Young simultaneously complicates this connection, however, by pointedly noting that Trump, unlike Barnum, seems to lack a magician’s code to never give away the secrets of the trick. Despite his many sins, Barnum was driven in part by a clear, if unethical rubric — like a riddling troll under the bridge. President Trump is just a troll.
With humbug, “you know you’re getting a show, but you’re trying to ascertain what is real and what is not,” Young tells me, alluding to the Trump-Barnum comparison. “That’s part of the pleasure of humbug that’s a little bit different than just straight-up BS. I think bullshit is the kind of extreme version where it’s not even trying to fool you, it doesn’t care whether you believe it or not.”
During the 2016 campaign, a syndicated newspaper story called Trump, “a carnival barker without the integrity,” a reference to Barack Obama’s remarks in 2011, regarding birtherism, that “we’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.” Somewhere along the road, Trump sensed how vulnerable the body politic was to the bullshit artist’s codeless form of deceit. (If science and basic statistics are up for debate, then why not all journalism inconvenient to you?) Young writes in Bunk:
Trump signals a far more troubling mindset in which the truth isn’t so much absent or contested as it doesn’t matter … What Trump really heralds is a time when there are no more experts. … The best way to commit a hoax now is to claim you’ve spotted one.
“One of the big problems I talk about,” Young says, “is this need to say there’s two sides to every story. Everything from vaccines to global warming is just kind of reported as this set of opinions, as opposed to things that you can verify. At the same time, I’m well aware that many of the malfeasances that have been discovered are because of journalists.”
“You look at the history of journalism and it’s not until late in our history that even a few newspapers were committed to a high degree of professionalism,” David Remnick told me, encouraging a fully contextualized view. “This is a new thing! I mean, the greatest prize in journalism is named after one of the developers of yellow journalism — Pulitzer.”
P.T. Barnum, distinguishing his love for humbug from what he saw as more dour forms of fibbing, eagerly cited a cynical diplomat who was quoted as saying, “Language was given to us to conceal our thoughts.” The long lineage of lies that Young catalogs — all the way up to Rachel Dolezal, neoconservative lies about Iraq, and Melania Trump plagiarizing Michelle Obama — sets the stage for his closing argument: that we’ve now become enmired in an Age of Euphemism. An era spurred in large part by a refusal to say what’s what, caused by playing along with, or granting plausible deniability to, people who don’t want to accept the ugliness — or flat-out falsity — of their opinions.
The evidence is so overwhelming in its ubiquity it can, ironically, be hard to see: heritage, not treason; bad apples, not corrupt policing; cultural anxiety, not racism; collateral damage, not civilians murdered; super PACS, not oligarchs; disrespecting the flag, helping job creators, America first. Read Bunk, or the news, and take your pick.
“I was trying to find a language that described that,” Young explains.“The Age of Euphemism was one of the ways I was able to name it, because I definitely think there’s a real impulse to not say what we mean. Once you step back, it’s a real short, scary step to ‘Nothing means anything.’”
Young particularly frets over the internet’s role in the mess. Its ever-warping ability to — with or without Russian interference — make “untruths spread faster and faster at the click of a mouse, spawning whole faux movements” as the nation becomes ever more siloed: geographically, ideologically, algorithmically. “The scary idea is that a lot of it’s disinformation, purposefully faked, coordinated; and what does that say about us? Or those who collude with that hoax?”
In Barnum’s day, if a powerful politico had defended his wife-beating colleague, an attorney general had called law enforcement an “Anglo-American tradition,” and a Senate had passed a bill full of outrageously obvious loopholes for themselves, then there may have been no controversy at all. Now, in Young’s Age of Euphemism, it seems that, when armed with enough privilege, the bullshit will do: something to satiate a press corps eager to quote both sides until, hopefully, the scandal subsides or is subsumed by another scandal and an exhausted, overwhelmed public shrugs, or forgets.
“What was strange for me is I was finishing the book as the election was happening, and many of the things that happened, or have happened since I finished the book I — kind of almost predict?” Young said, clearly grappling with how to publicly react when one’s dystopian hypothesis is vindicated in real time. But if the two choices for people on the right side of history in a wrong world have are to laugh or to cry, then count Kevin Young in the former camp.
“I hope [Bunk] helps us be a bit more skeptical but not cynical,” he said. I wondered how in an age of takes — both good and bad, but almost always hot — Young could stay so cool, after spending years unpacking infuriatingly widespread deceptions, often about his own heritage.
“I think that some of it is my temperament, but a lot of it is really trying to be fair when I could,” he explains. “To say, ‘Well, here are some of the things that this hoaxer did that were interesting or different.’ And sometimes I am just furious about them … but I had to sort of step back and not just simply mock them nor simply make them villains, because I also wanted to understand why we fell for this stuff. We all are invested in it.”
The contrast between the cultural world that produces Young’s forward-thinking, cosmopolitan life and the sphere that engenders the nasty id-driven nationalism that despises people like him — a liberal black intellectual married to a white woman also of the media elite — is, not by happenstance, pretty representative of that sickness.
“I don’t see that disappearing because we haven’t fixed that problem,” Young told me with a sad smirk. “I was really struck by this on the day that people were marching on Charlottesville, when I was with my son watching a basketball game on the courts here in New York and it’s like: do I tell him? How do I tell my soon-to-be eleven-year-old son that there’s still Nazis? That should be a question we ask that everyone asks, not just black fathers of black sons or black parents — everyone should be asking, ‘Why are having to explain this?’ And you know the fact that that somehow can become partisan is really …” He trailed off. “That’s the scary part.”
It’s a dilemma that clearly inspired one of the more heartbreaking pieces in Young’s newest poetry collection: “A Brown Atlanta Boy Watches Basketball on West 4th. Meanwhile, Neo-Nazis March on Charlottesville, Virginia.”
“One of the things at risk is not just our notion of what’s true, but what’s possible,” Young worries. “We sometimes start to lose this sense of the breadth of the imagination, which I think is such a useful tool. And the hoax is the least imaginative, partially ’cause it often uses stereotypes or kind of corny divisions to make its case. It’s shorthand to actual experience, which is much more complicated, rich, fruitful.”
Bunk dedicates an entire section to the finding that the most successful forgeries — in art, literature, or news — are typically those authenticated by arbiters people trust. It opens with a question presented by Orson Welles in his final film as director, 1973’s F for Fake: “As long as there are fakers, there have to be experts. But if there were no experts, would there be any fakers?”
Amid the screechy ambiguity of 2018, the answer seems resounding: yes.