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Humbug! Or, A Defense of Fraud

30 March 2010 Stories and Appreciations 7,409 views No CommentPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

Based on his reputation as a fraudster, the great showman P.T. Barnum once collected together stories of historical lies and frauds in a book called “Ancient and Modern Humbugs of the World.” Barnum wouldn’t have appreciated me using the word “fraud,” however; he preferred the word “humbug” to describe his particular kind of misrepresentation. When it is used today, the word humbug has come to simply mean a fraud, mostly through Scrooge shouting about Christmas in “A Christmas Carol” — but in Barnum’s time, it used to indicate a particular kind of fraud.

To Barnum’s mind, a humbug was something that used a tremendous amount of publicity — perhaps more than it was worth — to get the public to go to an event and spend money on it, but that didn’t misrepresent what was actually there. In fact, the publicity was worded in such a way as to incite interest while at the same time obscuring what was actually inside. Barnum often used the verbal method of presenting himself not as a believer but simply a vehicle, leaving it up to the audience to detect fraud. If the person came and saw a wonder and detected no legerdemain, they left happy. If they left thinking it was not what it had been advertised, it simply made them feel smarter than everyone else who had showed up.

And as someone often accused of fraud, Barnum was quick to point out that humbugs of all kinds took place in medicine, politics, religion and matters of money. None of those people were as up front as he was about the inherent slipperiness of their language, he argued.

We haven’t learned much since Barnum. These days, the media is almost completely given over to reporting humbugs, of both the harmless and harmful variety. We hardly pay attention to something unless it has a whirlwind of humbuggery around it. Even when we’re debating the important issues of the day, it isn’t facts that matter as much as the way in which the words you use to describe it obscure what the issue actually is.

Hardly anyone providing us information is seeking the truth. They all simply want to obscure the truth in an interesting way. The day-to-day mundane doings of our existence are supercharged whenever action or decision is exaggerated to a level of life-or-death importance. Half the cable news channels report the humbug and the other half pretend to be smarter by pointing out the fraud. And the cycle continues, with the only two roles left for us on the outside is to be observers of, or participants in, the humbug.

I would recommend Barnum’s book as a source of wonderful examples of humbug– from its descriptions of food tampering, to “Scooby-Doo”-esque hauntings that end with a gun being held to a “ghost’s” head, to the New York Sun’s “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835, in which a description and pictures of the moon’s bat-winged inhabitants were printed in a daily newspaper. Even then, the media was complicit in humbuggery.

Lest you think Barnum thought the world a giant humbug, he included a warning about what must be the greatest humbug of them all: “The greatest humbug of all is the man who believes — or pretends to believe — that everything and everybody are humbugs.” You see, if one is so cynical that everything is a humbug, where is the joy and zest of life? Being fooled is the essence of pleasure and entertainment, so to deny yourself the possibility that something unbelievable might be true is to become the worst kind of creature.

Surely there must be a way to balance this sense of wonder with the world as it is today. To that end, I implore you to go out this April Fool’s Day and create your own humbug. Not to commit fraud, but to simply raise the specter of curiosity and doubt in the minds of those that interact with you. Even if they don’t get what they expect, they won’t go away disappointed.

To lose your ability to be fooled, even in harmless ways, doesn’t make you smarter or more sophisticated. It truly makes you less human. If the lie you disprove is a fun lie, it makes you a rascal and a spoilsport.

David Wahl

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