By Penny Smith

A History of Fake News. A Lapham’s Quarterly Special Issue. (Available at most book stores; I got mine at a Barnes and Noble)

 I admire Lewis Lapham’s essays. Lapham, long-time editor of Harper’s Magazine, would usually pen one for that magazine. He still occasionally does. When he retired in 2006, he founded an eccentric literary magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly. Each issue focuses on a particular theme, say “Youth,” and contains essays written today, yesterday and way back beyond yesterday on the topic. The idea is to have a fuller context of what some people, famous or otherwise, have said about that subject over time. It’s a historian’s crème brûlée.

If you are like me, a collector of odd factoids and opinions, the magazine is a pleasant, casual read. You don’t have to go through it at one time, but can space out the essays as short reads when the time is available.

A History of Fake News comes in standard magazine size as opposed to the scholarly journal proportions of the Quarterly. The topic is timely, obviously and purposefully so. Among the authors included: Virginia Woolf, Plato, Hannah Arendt, H.L. Mencken, Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, Dorothy Sayers, Machiavelli, Joseph Goebbels, Saint-Simon and Mike Royko. Their essays are short, excerpts from longer writings in most cases.

One take-away: Fake news has always been with us. Another: Fake news, deliberately altered, is part of the human conversation.

In a previous life, I was researching the early exploration literature on America. Most of what I was reading was written in the sixteenth-century or very early seventeenth. A set of observations, penned by Richard Hakluyt (Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America, 1582, and The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation, 1600), affirmed the presence of wishful thinking in what was then construed as the truest of documents.

Containing some of the first observations about the Carolina coast, as well as observations about what one might find from Florida through Canada adjacent to the sea, it told prospective adventurers about exotic animals, gold and pearls for the picking, grotesque monsters, and bountiful vegetation. Some of it undoubtedly was accurate; much of it was fantastic, in an imaginative sense.

Hakluyt himself did not encounter what he described; it was based on the tales of people who had traveled abroad. So, it’s what historians call a secondary source, in that it is a step removed from the actual observation. However, it is also a primary source, if what one is studying are the perceptions of a generation of Englishmen on the cusp of multiple discoveries in the New World. I am confident Hakluyt thought he was a truth-teller; I am sometimes convinced today’s fantastical observers also think they are truth-tellers. It suggests that we, their readers, have an obligation to investigate further.

Here are some of Lapham’s Quarterly’s writers’ takes on fake news:

  • “A mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before becoming an everyday phenomenon of masses … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.” (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951)
  • “The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.” (Thomas Jefferson, 1807) (That might explain why non-viewers of TV news know more than viewers of Fox News about what’s going on in the world)
  • “No news director would turn off the feed in the middle of a Trump meltdown. This presidency has become the ultimate ratings bonanza. Trump couldn’t do better numbers if he jumped off Mount Kilimanjaro carrying a Kardashian.” (Matt Taibbi, “The Media is the Villain,” 2017)
  • “Creative people made propaganda and put it in the service of our movement. We must have creative people who can use the means of the state in its service.” (Joseph Goebbels, “Propaganda and Public Enlightenment,” 1934)
  • “We do well to remember that President Nixon did not begin to come undone until his lies were given a theatrical setting at the Watergate Hearings.” (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985)
  • “The human race, I begin to suspect, is actually splitting into two distinct species. The one species is characterized by an incurable thirst for knowledge, and an extraordinary capacity for recognizing and taking in facts and evidences. The other is just as brilliantly marked by a chronic appetite for whatever is most palpably false and a chronic distrust for whatever is most palpably true.” (H.L. Mencken, 1922)
  • “Although news of this sort could whip up public opinion, sophisticates know better than to take it literally. Most of it was fake, sometimes openly so. A footnote to a scandalous item in Le Gazetier cuirassé read: ‘Half of this article is true.’ It was up to the reader to decide which half.” (Robert Darnton, 2017)
  • “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.” (Jonathan Swift, 1710)