April fish and other hoaxes

Vincenzo Ruggiero is Professor of Sociology at the Universities of Middlesex and Pisa. His latest books are Crime in Literature (Verso, 2003) and Understanding Political Violence (OUP, 2006).

Hoaxes, fear and joy

A dozen years before Orson Welles' radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds convinced Americans that Martians had invaded the East Coast, Broadcasting from the Barricades generated a similar frenzy of social hysteria in Britain. Transmitted on a Saturday evening in 1926, the programme began with a lecture on eighteenth-century literature followed by the news. After an item about an improbable cricket score and another on an act of heroism in which a man saved a child from the slimy Thames, a report mentioned, with subtle insouciance, a demonstration of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square.

The radio audience were then treated to live music from the Savoy and updates on the cricket and weather before the announcement that the unemployed were now marching in a threatening manner towards government buildings in Whitehall. The commentary followed the crowd throwing empty bottles at the ducks innocently floating on the pond in St James's Park. Leaving the audience no time to be shocked at the barbaric treatment suffered by these docile creatures, it was reported that the mob was now demolishing Parliament with trench mortars. The destruction culminated in the decapitation of Big Ben. Violence swept across the city, now targeting individuals. The Minister of Transport was hanged from a lamppost in Vauxhall Bridge Road. A moment later, there was an embarrassed apology: the Minister had not been hanged from a lamppost, but a tramway post.

The thousands of listeners who were deceived by this hoax were the victims of their own anxiety, which was fuelled by the economic crisis and soaring unemployment of the day. Guilt at their relative affluence amid increasingly visible poverty made the news about the riots all the more credible. The hoax turned their anxiety into fear as it turned an anticipated menace into an immediate threat. It produced a shift from a feeling of vague disquiet to focused hostility towards an identifiable group of people. As Freud would put it, anxiety relates to the condition and ignores the object, whereas fear overlooks the condition and focuses on the object.

Contemporary, respectable fears too seem to be fed by a hoax, or rather a meta-hoax, based on a growing feeling that inequality is reaching unacceptable limits, and that privileges may be threatened by an obscure and ubiquitous force: the fanatical Other.

"Pessimists of reason but optimists of action", like myself, tend to find hoaxes entertaining, although occasionally unhelpful or depressing. Hoaxes can arouse latent fears, exaggerate feelings, reveal intimate poison or obscenity thus discouraging action and thereby spread pessimism from reason to practical will. If hoaxes trigger shifts in thought and feeling, one had better be aware of their likely impacts. In fact, one should avoid hoaxes that cause shifts between the abstract entities of one thought or feeling and another, and choose to concoct only those which help to turn a feeling into an act.

La Mandragola, a comedy by Machiavelli, describes one such hoax, in which the abstract desire for a woman develops into the joyful act of spending the night with her. Old Signor Nicia and his beautiful wife Lucrezia are disappointed by their childless marriage, and consult a famous doctor who assures them that offspring will materialize if the woman drinks a miraculous mandrake potion. The doctor cautions that the potion will only be effective if, after drinking it, Lucrezia sleeps with a man other than her husband. A stranger, a sacrificial volunteer, must be found to perform the deed. Callimaco, who ardently desires Lucrezia, just happens to be a friend of the doctor. He eagerly volunteers to visit the woman's bed. So his feeling of desire is turned by the hoax into a mutually rewarding act. Optimists of action are inclined to prefer this type of joyful hoax which, rather than producing shifts between intangible feelings, translates abstract desire into tangible pleasure.

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