I was interviewed on Voice of Islam radio this week about Brexit, Donald Trump and challenging prejudice. Here is audio and transcript of the interview.
With us on the line is Michael Nugent, a writer from Dublin and chairperson of Atheist Ireland. Michael, what are your views on the surprise wins for Brexit and Trump? My personal view is Trump was very surprising, Brexit not so much. Why do you think people voted for less ‘mainstream’ options?
Well, I am disappointed with both results. I would have supported Remain, and Hillary Clinton. But I wasn’t particularly surprised at either.
The best description I have seen of the Trump win is that his opponents took him literally but not seriously, and his supporters took him seriously but not literally.
The more often I read it, the more convinced I am that it is a hoax. But my reason is because of its content: it is ridiculously funny, incoherent and inconsistent, and it covers all of the right angles relevant to the issue to match the formula of an excellent hoax.
My reason for believing it is a hoax is not simply because the online prankster Godfrey Elfwick has claimed that he wrote it. As always, I am open to new evidence to rationally challenge any of my beliefs.
I’ve always enjoyed the Godfrey Elfwick pranks, whoever is using the pseudonym at any given time. But the evidence that he has provided that he wrote this is far from conclusive. It is just as consistent with the Godfrey ethos that he is happily trolling the rest of us, by opportunistically claiming responsibility for a hoax that somebody else perpetrated.
This matters, because we need to remain skeptical about claims made without reasonable evidence, regardless of where they come from and regardless of what arguments they are supporting. And it is significant because Godfrey’s initial claim to have written it was liked 4,600 times, shared 2,600 times and replied to over 600 times.
So let’s look at the evidence that Godfrey has provided, together with similar evidence that the hoax was perpetrated by Andy Kaufman, perhaps the greatest prankster in living memory.
Brendan Investments, a firm launched by Eddie Hobbs in 2007, is set to lose 90% of almost €13m raised from small investors, according to an Irish Times report today.
By 2014, the failed company had paid about €2m to a management company of which Hobbs was also a shareholder. He resigned that year as a director of the investment company, and sold his shares in the management company, before co-launching the political party Renua from which he has since resigned.
When the firm was founded in 2007, the mainstream media was presenting Hobbs as a consumers’ champion against our Rip-Off Republic. He had recently launched a consumer magazine called You and Your Money, which included the following Financial Horoscope (yes, Financial Horoscope!) advice:
“Capricorn: Uncle Eddie called me last week and said that he reckoned that you Capricorns were spending too much lately. I didn’t believe him until I looked at your Zodiac chart and found out that he was right! Be aware of offers that look too good to be true, and say thank you to Uncle Eddie for the warning.”
The Guardian has published what is either an unintentionally hilarious guilt-by-association stream of tortured consciousness, or else one of the best hoax parodies to be published by a mainstream publication. It is an anonymously written opinion piece titled ‘Alt-right’ online poison nearly turned me into a racist. The relieved author describes his lucky escape from a descent into racism, after considering various ideas that he describes, none of which are racist.
Skeptics are of course skeptical. Russell Blackford describes it as a brilliant anonymous parody of current self-censoring, identity-obsessed ‘liberalism’ before asking: ‘Who thinks that that piece in the Guardian might *really* be a hoax/parody? Everyone is assuming it is serious. I’m not sure.’ Miranda Hale thinks that it has to be parody and trolling, adding that it is important to confront the potential danger of actual ‘alt-right’ bigots, but that this article and its self-flagellating author lack all sense.
I know something of the formula of publishing hoax parodies, having written a bestselling book of prank letters in the 1990s. That was before the Internet gave everyone access to publishing without editorial gatekeepers, which is a good development, but also played havoc with the Overton window of social and political discourse, which is a bad development.
The essence of a good hoax is that it should be retrospectively obvious, but on first reading it has to sail as close to being silly as possible, while always slightly pulling back whenever it seems that it is going too far. On that basis this article might not be a hoax, because it sometimes goes too far into absolute silliness. But that has to be balanced with the Overton window shift that allows even mainstream publications to sincerely publish absolute silliness.
Another argument for it being a hoax is the author’s anonymity, which prevents readers from checking his authenticity. Against that, comments on the article are closed, and hoaxes are generally designed to elicit reaction. So is it a hoax or not? I think yes, but let’s examine it and see what you think. Even if it is an excellent hoax, it is worth countering the arguments for the benefit of those who may be taken in by it, and to admire the author’s mastery of his craft.
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