WORDS IN THE HAND: Of fakes and fools
Oh faux the days when fakery didn't rob us of fun foolery
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
I am not going to rant about what the rise of fake news has done to the collective psyche of humankind; how it has turned us into paranoiacs who sniff every news report suspiciously for traces of manipulation. Enough other people have already done that.
I am not angry about how self-serving fakery has expanded the sea of ignorance and irrationality in inverse proportion to dam levels in Cape Town … actually I am a bit angry about that, but what bothers me most is that the propagators of porkies have robbed us of all the fun we used to have on the first of April.
What a joy it used to be to look through news headlines on April 1 and try to spot the sly dissimulation. The Museum of Hoaxes has in its repository a list of the best pranks played on April Fool’s day in South Africa.In 1952, four masked men armed with water pistols robbed a bank in Stellenbosch. The tellers, understandably terrified, handed over all their cash. The men immediately gave the money back, shouted “April Fool” and ran away. We might not find that stunt as amusing today as we used to.
Another one that probably wouldn’t work now is the 1980 faux news report claiming that South African furriers were passing off coats made of rat fur as mink and seal and the like. The wearing of any kind of fur is now so verboten that the outrage would be for completely different reasons.
On April Fool’s day in 2003, it was reported that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein would be moving to South Africa, where he had been offered a palatial home and state protection. He would repay this generosity by taking over the management of our oil industry. This caused some consternation, as you can imagine.
Some of the best acts of April foolery from other parts of the world include Burger King’s Whopper burger for left-handed people, flying penguins in the Falklands (there was actual faked video footage of this), spaghetti trees in Switzerland and a Google app that translated animal sounds into human speech.Some South African pranks have involved politicians. As recently as 2015, presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj entered into the spirit of April Fool’s day by announcing a completely ludicrous cabinet reshuffle. The ensuing barrage of calls was probably enough to convince the Presidency never to do that again. The joke part, I mean.
And herein lies the tragedy. There seems to be nothing so hilariously impossible that it could not actually happen. On the one hand this helps April 1 leg-pullers, because the more gullible the public, the more successful the hoax. On the other hand, if it could be real then it is often more sad than funny.And on the third hand, as the pranksters who invented three-armed robotic waitrons would have it, there is the fake news problem. If we refuse to believe even facts based on evidence, we certainly won’t be taken in by deliberate misinformation.
Or will we? Fake news isn’t always what it seems. You’d think it would be universally defined as news that can empirically be proven to be false, but the more common interpretation of fake news is either an opinion with which we disagree or a news report that offends our idea of how things should be (and therefore must be). Neither of these is the same as an actual objective lie.
So maybe all is not lost for the April Fool. Even the great disruptor Elon Musk is not immune to the allure of a good myth. Musk recently said that the risk associated with a journey to Mars “kind of reads like Shackleton’s ad for Antarctic explorers: ‘Difficult, dangerous, good chance you’ll die. Excitement for those who survive.’”Ernest Shackleton’s legendary challenge, which still appears on dozens of lists of “the world’s greatest advertisements”, is supposed to have been placed in the UK Times sometime in the early 1900s. It allegedly read: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”
The only problem, as historians have concluded after exhaustive research, is that there is no record of this ad ever having appeared in the Times or any other paper. Artists’ impressions of what it might have looked like in print have convinced people that it existed, but no one has seen the original.
Fake news, it would seem, is as old as the human appetite for adventure.