January 18th, 2013
Last week was quite literally a white-out. The blizzard was forecast well ahead of time and so there were no surprises, only the extent to which most of us would be without power for a day or so. It’s true, but nothing points out our dependency on electricity like an outage. At first it’s a bit of an adventure, but as the house starts to cool off and the light diminishes and one can’t work or type or tweet or text, it all becomes one giant aggravation. Nothing to do but shudder in the dark and wait for that satisfying and audible surge of electrical energy when the power returns. Civilization—where would we be without it?
This week is all about hoaxes so far. It’s hard not to follow the parallel sagas of two major athletes whose stories of (alleged) colossal deception dominate the headlines. One inevitably confessed because his brand demanded it (Lance Armstrong), while the other (Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o) is still scrambling to get his story straight. We may never really know where the truth lies in Te’o’s case. Is it possible to grow so emotionally attached to a woman you’ve never met? (Stupid question, I know.) But to base your own career heroics on a virtual romance fraught with suffering and death? Hell, anything is possible. I half believe Te’o, who as of this blog is claiming he was the victim of an elaborate hoax, set up to fall for an online fake, a good-looking cancer patient with a lot of consonants in her name, Lennay Kekua. May she rest in a piece of cyberspace.
As for Lance, what’s left to say? We are all watching the spectacle of manufactured contrition at the moment. Oprah was pretty easy on him. The whole confession was anticlimactic and, frankly, self-serving. Imagine a more determined and forceful journalist conducting that interview, say, any of the guys on 60 Minutes. Lance might have not looked quite so composed. I want to hear what Sheryl Crowe or all the other girlfriends knew. Did he lie to them, too? Now there’s a story I need to know.
Here at the School of Graduate Studies we deal with hoaxes of one kind or another all the time. All universities do. Admission is tough and when you are applying from far away, competing with thousands of your peers in India or China or Nigeria, and so on, you reach for desperate measures. We catch fake admission applications all the time, inviting us to consider just how many we don’t or can’t catch. I don’t lie awake thinking about this. Ultimately students have to perform to standards and if they were admitted illegitimately and without credentials then they just won’t last and it will all have been for naught. If they do manage to beat the system they do so by performing well enough, and so all the power to them. I have seen far too many Bond and Bourne films not to appreciate just how handy a fake ID can be for those who really need them.
More intriguing is the psychological piece: what happens to a person who harbours a big dirty secret? In Lance’s case, it appears he has been able to internalize the deception rather well. He might be eating himself inside out, for all we know, but on the surface he seems poised and reconciled to himself. You’d think the sheer fear of being caught would have eroded that strong chin by now, but, instead, and as he says so matter-of-factly, you get naturalized to the machinery of deception. It became part of the ritual of prepping for the races. Watching the spectacle of his story right now you can almost understand what he means. A smart celebrity at the very centre of a glamorous spotlight understands how to stay one step, or pedal, ahead of the game. He played everyone—the media, the public, his peers—brilliantly. Let’s face it, we have all been admiring him for pretending so well until now. I mean, what a terrific actor.
We have seen students react to being caught with forged documents with far less confidence. They melt down pretty quickly. In some cases, the forgeries are explained as necessary acts of survival, extreme measures undertaken to escape an impossible situation in the home country. And sometimes we have a lot of sympathy, and different judgements are brought to bear on the circumstances. It’s not all black and white or right and wrong.
We all have secrets. It’s the scale of them and their unintended consequences that make for the most robust water cooler chat. Every day the headlines are screaming about somebody who committed one form of fraud or another, from the woman who skimmed about $5000 off the top of her petty cash box to the university administrator who managed an elaborate scheme of redirected payments to cover the cost of his personal building supplies. These are all hoaxes of one form or another. They require a lot of energy and shrewd management to sustain. Just think of the way the mind works to be able to compartmentalize all that. Bernie Madoff is a model of such accomplishment, of course.
Just yesterday I was yet another Twitter victim of that common spam that’s going around—the one where someone you know tweets you to say there are nasty blogs going on about you. So at first you feel like throwing up, then you follow the link in the tweet, your head buzzing, soon realizing as you are doing so that you’ve fallen for the ruse and are perpetuating the hoax itself in that action. Who or what machine is trolling for victims like me? A random act of anarchy out there, designed to spread paranoia and destabilize the universe, one small hoax at a time?
A happier version of all this, albeit attracting its own backlash, is the viral-traveled YouTube of that eagle snatching a toddler in a park on a nice sunny day—all brilliantly constructed by the magician students at Centre NAD in Montreal. There’s a world of successful counterfeiting in their future.