I love a good hoax. A hoax is a scam and a con job, but not the sort when a low-life flogs off expensive energy deals to pensioners. Although some hoaxes have made money, that should not be what a hoax is designed for. Its object should be to make the pretentious and pompous look stupid, to expose the vanity of those in high places. The Emperor's New Clothes is a satisfying story, but there would be little point to The Peasant's New Clothes. Hoaxees are gulled for believing what they want to believe, usually something flattering. A hoax is cruel but its victims are not pathetic innocents. You see them as being humiliated as they deserve. Also, a good hoax confirms the prejudices of the on-lookers. They have always known that the hoaxee had it coming to them for their superior airs and crackpot ideas.
The Sokal Affair. Alan Sokal submitted a paper called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", to the cultural studies journal Social Text. The journal in all seriousness published this paper which among other things stated that "quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct". The dupes were a bunch of post-modernist pseuds and academics. They looked like posturing idiots and those who had suspected post-modernism was a shack of jargon were full of glee to see this eyesore get trashed.
The Hitler Diaries. This was more of a forgery for gain than pure mischief, but the egg faced and out of pocket were Rupert Murdoch, the editors of The Times, The Sunday Times, Newsweek and the German magazine Stern, and the journalist who "discovered" the diaries, the Nazi-obsessive Gerd Heidemann. The Deputy Editor of the Sunday Times said later: " When such a scoop is offered, you don't really want to hear anything that would cast doubt on its veracity." Those of us who regard Rupert Murdoch as being a disgrace to truth and decency were justified by the greedy old despot saying about the affair "After all, we are in the entertainment business.” As a bonus, potential readers, the sort who are creepily fascinated about anything to do with Nazism, were cock-teased as well.
The poems of Ern Malley. A hoax by a couple of Australian litterateurs on the editors of an avant-garde poetry magazine. They concocted an unknown poet called Ern Malley and sent in his poems, which they had written deliberately badly. The poetry magazine ran a special issue celebrating this new important voice in poetry. The victims in this case were those who are overly impressed by literature that is obscure and difficult.
(Kingsley Amis wrote a story on a similar theme called Dear Illusion, about a poet who knowingly writes inept poetry that is lauded by the critics.)
The Dreadnought Hoax. Virginia Woolf and her Bloomsbury mates pretended to be Abyssinian royalty and were entertained by the Royal Navy on HMS Dreadnought. I don't think it was that amusing, because I suppose the Navy officers had no choice but to be civil to foreign guests, but the fact that Virginia Woolf did this blacked up, bearded and in drag makes it stand out among hoaxes. The Navy chaps gave the instigator, a poet and constant prankster called Horace de Vere Cole, a token smack with a cane afterwards to satisfy their honour.
Virginia Woolf is at the far left
These days our armed forces have dwindled in size and power so a hoax on them would be silly childishness, whereas a successful hoax on, say, the Daily Mail or Simon Cowell, would delight a chunk of the British public.
The Conquest Letter. I can't find a link for this but Kingsley Amis recounts it in his Memoirs.
Robert Conquest, another poet and prankster and a distinguished Sovietologist, sent a letter to Philip Larkin marked HMG and stating that Larkin's collection of pornography was to be investigated by officialdom. Larkin dashed off to his solicitor's office and spent the whole day hiding there. He later billed Conquest for the solicitor's time. This event didn't spoil their friendship. Conquest is a prolific writer and has been married four times. He must have a lot of excess energy.
Philip Larkin wrote (bad) pornography himself, so there seems to be some justice in this hoax.
My sister L. This was not a pure hoax, more of a wind up but L took a snapshot to school of a heart-throb pop-star, sitting right up close and smiling at her. In fact, she had got a picture from a magazine, pinned it up on the garage wall and photographed that. It did look very convincing for those who hadn't seen her other snaps, where she was inclined to cut off people's heads, or catch them as blurs in the corner. This was funny and harmless. If she had gone to school and said, for instance, that our mother had cancer, that would have been more in line with the Muchausen syndrome school of hoaxing, that is, unhealthily seeking attention.
Myself. Once as art critic for a kind of Time Out magazine I did a piece of deliberate pretentious nonsense about an exhibition I'd seen - no-one spotted it but then I think no-one read it. The magazine's editors thought they should cover exhibitions and as everyone else had snaffled the music side they gave that spot to me. I should say I was, and am, fairly indifferent to painting and sculpture. Those who like them should enjoy the Van Meergen hoax. He faked a Vermeer which met an art critic's theory that Vermeer had been influenced by Italian painting. Van Meegeren was happy with this result which confirmed what he had come to think about the Dutch art establishment and then found he could sell a phony Vermeer for a fortune so carried on faking.
The televisual hoaxer Ali G. I can't stand the unfunny little arse and when he interviewed people who were very polite to him no matter how stupid and crass his questions, I was on their side. I think the real dupes of his hoax were the idiots who found him entertaining.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion - all right, drop the jokey tone. The fact that this fraud is taken seriously still as a view of how the world works makes me howl.
So - a good hoax fulfils a victim's wishful thinking. It's easy to see why Hamas loves the Protocols, why the Sokal hoaxees believed a real proper physicist endorsed their views about science and why the Australian avant-garde grabbed hold of their very own Dylan Thomas.
The Gay Girl in Damascus is not a classic hoax since it was not created to show up the main dupes, the well-meaning progressives who sympathise with Syrian protesters. The hoaxer Tom MacMaster is pleased with himself for adopting a persona that was so convincing it fooled his readers, but there's no sense that he's laughing at them for setting up and signing petitions demanding Amina's release from a Syrian jail. MacMaster's idea of wit is sarcastic jeering (common among activists). One thing he does say is that his false blog exposed the "liberal Orientalism" of the west.
Heresy Corner interprets :-
The clue to what he was playing at lies in the phrase "liberal Orientalism". It's not clear what liberal orientalism he thought he was exposing - perhaps it was the concern some (but not all) western liberals display for the plight of gay people and women in repressive Islamic societies. A perception which, of course, made "Amina" such a brave and representative heroine. It's even possible that he was deliberately creating a character who would prove irresistible to Western liberals, someone around whom they could unite - as indeed, for a time, they did.
MacMaster's own brand of liberal Orientalism, however, seems to have been of a different order - the celebration of an idealised Islamic society characterised above all by tolerance, pluralism and freedom. A picture entirely at odds with the burkhas and beheadings image perpetuated by that other sort of "orientalism" that sees Islam as irredeemably backward and savage. [The whole article is worth reading].
The "liberal orientalism" motive looks like an afterthought. What the Gay Girl resembles is another literary counterfeit, the poems of Ossian. A writer who cannot advance his works by their own merits passes them off as having been written by a more romantic figure. MacMaster used the beautiful lesbian rebel Amina, James MacPherson a druidlike bard called Ossian. Both met the taste of their times. Amina's protest, authenticity and identity politics are much admired in modern culture. Macpherson's eighteenth century had developed a new interest in an ancient and native literature. In Scotland this was "heightened by post-1745 nostalgic romanticisation of all things relating to the Highlands," (the progenitor of today's tourist industry). Many contemporary Scots passionately wanted to believe in Scotland's antique literary heritage.
Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes
The Gay Girl is a writer's hoax - of wanting to be taken seriously as a writer, because MacMaster does believe that his own work is of high quality that just needs a publishing break. He also has strong sympathies with the Syrian uprising and so he coupled a writer's vanity with the unscrupulousness of a politico who feels justified in lying and forgery for a good cause.
Samuel Johnson was famously sceptical about the Ossian poems which he called "an imposture" and what he said about MacPherson goes for MacMaster, going by this interview:-
stubborn audacity is the last refuge of guilt.