The Triumph of Hoax Over Experience

What this country needs is a grand unified theory of the hoax.

In the same news cycle as the revelation that Connecticut attorney general and Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal was lying about serving in Vietnam, we learned about Adam Wheeler, who faked his way into Harvard. There was also Guerdwich Montimer, a.k.a. “Jerry Joseph,” a 22-year-old star athlete who passed himself off as a 15-year-old so that he could play basketball for Permian High School in Odessa, Texas. Not to mention the stunning disclosure, made on CNN just minutes ago, that Glenn Beck is actually a gay Hasidic woman. I’m kidding. But admit it. You weren’t completely sure that I was kidding.

Isn’t being able to bullshit your way into the Ivy League one of the crucial qualifications for being part of the Ivy League?

That’s because the hoax, once an exception like Clifford Irving’s notorious ruse, has now become as American as lying on your résumé, making stuff up on your Facebook page, taking steroids, using Botox and turning that novel you always wanted to write into a memoir. Within the past year, we’ve had Balloon Boy and the Salahis. And let’s not forget the domestic deceits of Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer and Tiger Woods, whose antics were similar to a public hoax: They pretended to be someone they weren’t. Except that in the case of the cheaters, they pretended to be someone they weren’t to hold on to something they had. The hoaxers pretended to be someone they weren’t to get something they didn’t have. Yet both the cheater and the hoaxer have to tell a story to themselves about themselves to be believed. “I am the type of person who deserves to have this. Therefore, I am the type of person who has it.”

Americans have always been told that their individuality has the highest value. Think of the Puritans, who identified godliness with personal introspection. Think of Emerson’s sovereign, autonomous individual. Think of that archetypal American fraud, Gatsby, who was able to turn a fantasy of himself as a respectable, wealthy man into the actuality of being a respectable, wealthy man. The American Dream is just that. It is the ability to dream yourself into being the type of American you want to be and then convincing everyone else you are the person you have dreamed yourself into being.

Take, on the one hand, this innate American tendency to mix fantasy and reality into a national cocktail that has everyone inebriated to one degree or another. Combine it with contemporary trends and-voilà!-you have today’s Homo americanus fantasticus. Commercial society has made us all quivering flames of appetite. It used to be that if you got that illicit thing you had been hungering for, you felt guilty. Now you feel guilty if you don’t get it, no matter how illicit it is. And the technology, the technology. We are so used to wanting something one minute and getting it the next-the instant tweet, the instant text or email back to us, the instant purchase, the instant everything at the touch of the mouse-that not being the person we want to be smacks of, well, injustice.

I’m not trying to excuse Richard Blumenthal’s lies. I don’t like people who lie, and I like public “servants” who lie least of all. But since the next hoax is right around the corner, I wonder whether we shouldn’t start drawing up a casual set of criteria for judging the severity of a hoax. If not, we’ll be knocking ourselves out with outrage every few days.

For instance, I have a sneaking fondness for Adam Wheeler. If he was smart enough to be taken for a Harvard student, shouldn’t he deserve to be a Harvard student? I mean, isn’t being able to bullshit your way into the Ivy League one of the crucial qualifications for being part of the Ivy League? Otherwise, if being a Harvard man means that you are a person of truth and integrity, Harvard grad Richard Blumenthal clearly faked his way into Harvard.

And yet I’m not convinced that what Mr. Blumenthal did was so bad. I’m caught between a wince and a shrug. Someone once said that there is more than morality to a good man. I have no idea whether Mr. Blumenthal is a good man, but I don’t believe that lying about serving in Vietnam necessarily means that he is a bad man. The strangest thing about Mr. Blumenthal’s deceit is that this intelligent, shrewd, sophisticated man would spin himself to begin with. It’s not as if he needed to be a veteran to win the votes of Connecticut’s veterans, even with all his deferments; it’s not as if he needed their votes to win at all. It’s as if he passionately and honestly felt that he should have been part of the trauma of Vietnam, and so having the means and the power to do so, he inserted himself into the trauma of Vietnam. It never occurred to him that he would be exposed and castigated as a liar. In his mind, he wasn’t a liar. He was merely realigning reality with the good man he always knew he was.

Then again, maybe I’m romanticizing a sleazy con man who doesn’t deserve the public trust. Maybe The New York Times, which has run story after story about Mr. Blumenthal’s lies about his military service, isn’t stretching the ethical magnitude of its scoop and defying its own ethical standards. Maybe Linda McMahon, a Republican Mr.  Blumenthal might have to face if he were nominated, would be a more effective Senator than he, given her experience fighting in and running the World Wrestling Entertainment network, which is regularly accused of staging wrestling hoaxes.

And maybe we are not living in a world where, for one reason or another, the everyday truthfulness we used to take for granted has become so elusive and complex as to cry out for new definition. But I doubt it.

  The Triumph of Hoax Over Experience