Top
PoliticsTop Section

Brother Phillips, Sister Sky: Why We Get Hoaxed

Chief Seattle and Angeline / Library of Congress

In early 1992, an environmental fable hit number five on the New York Times‘ bestseller list for nonfictionBrother Eagle, Sister Sky, by Susan Jeffers, purported to be an illustrated version of a speech Chief Seattle gave more than 150 years ago. The speech is not authentic, but that did not deter the budding environmental movement from using it for its own purposes. “I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairies left by the white man who shot them from a passing train,” are some of the words attributed to the chief, who lived on Puget Sound, and probably never saw anything like this. In the book Seattle is pictured with a feathered headdress, something he also wouldn’t have worn. The whole book is a bunch of spiritualist hokum that said more about the people who confected it than anything else:

The voice of my grandmother said to me,
Teach your children what
you have been taught.
The earth is our mother.

The book puts these words in the mouth of Seattle despite the fact that he was baptized Catholic in 1848, taking our Blessed Mother as his own. This is a truly awful thing to do. At the time, when he accepted baptism, he was potentially adding religion to his race in terms of characteristics for which he might be discriminated against. But none of that matters, to the mostly white people who would instrumentalize his personality for their own ends. The irony is the book came out an entire year after the Seattle speech was revealed to be a hoax.

To people who would defend the fake speech, it doesn’t matter that Seattle could not have seen the buffalo slaughter on the plains. It is taken for granted that he’s got some sort of connection to the living things, hundreds of miles away, and he felt it. He was speaking in what Greil Marcus calls the prophetic voice, in much the same way that Nathan Phillips, the violent criminal who accosted a group of Catholic schoolkids and tried to disrupt Holy Mass, is trying to when he says, of his military record, “You know, when I was in Vietnam times and when I was in the Marine Corps times, that’s what I was. I was expendable. Expendable to corporate greed.” Likewise, to people who would defend Phillips, he is speaking in a prophetic register. Nevermind that he was never in Vietnam. He felt it, you see. The Great Spirit has given him insight into the evils of empire. He had a very spiritual jailbreak.

This all has happened to Chief Seattle through no fault of his own, posthumously. The difference between him and Nathan Phillips is that Phillips is a willing accomplice in it. The truly shocking thing about the Covington Catholic controversy is how credulously the media has treated his obviously false claims, like him being “blocked” by the schoolchildren (he walked up to them) or him being a Vietnam vet (he is not).

The process by which the entire media-connected world is made to care about a small altercation anywhere involves too much selection and intention for us to treat it as a problem of procedures, fact-checking or otherwise, not working as they are supposed to. We know about these stories because they have been selected for us, by people who are, for the most part, journalists. Most journalists are on the left, a left that has increasingly abandoned the liberal idea of a civil society with procedures for the establishment of facts. For that, they have traded a commitment to the perspectives of “marginalized voices,” as they are called. Truth may be subjective, in their mind, but that does not necessarily imply that all individual truths are equal. The system is working as it is meant to.

The idea that the points of view of marginalized groups should be privileged over facts and the procedures of law, leads to a situation in which people are incapable of dealing with insincere or untruthful actors from any of those groups. This is the problem with the “believe all women” slogan, and why it poses a threat to due process. As a society we are epistemically incapable of dealing with the problem of hoaxes.

One example of this is the supposed crisis of asylum seekers at the border. In 2017 only 20 percent of asylum claims are granted, and a great many of them are without merit. It sounds cruel to second-guess a person who shows up at the border with no papers and a child, claiming asylum, but it is more likely that person’s claim is illegitimate than legitimate. The rise in asylum claims has a lot more to do with Hondurans having WhatsApp, and also sometimes immigration lawyers, so they know what magic words they have to say not to get deported immediately. But again, journalists, who share left-wing assumptions about not second-guessing minorities, virtually never mention this fact. Likewise people who have absorbed the left’s racial sensibilities in the Covington affair are never going to look at that image and see it as anything other than a clash between the oppressive colonizer and the oppressed and colonized. This narrative is not susceptible to revision based on new facts.

Pretending insincere actors are actually sincere is how you get the storm of denunciations of the Covington boys in the conservative press and the Catholic world. One person who they may wish to discuss this problem with is fellow Northern Kentuckian Wilfred Reilly, a professor at Kentucky State outside of Lexington. Next month Regnery will publish a book by him called Hate Crime Hoax: The Left’s Campaign to Sell a Fake Race War. 

A white author could not have published a book like Dr. Reilly’s. The reason I say that is the last time one tried, significant pressure was brought to bear to keep it from being published. The book is called Crying Wolf, by Laird Wilcox, and it was supposed to come out through the late Adam Parfrey’s Feral House imprint in the early 1990s. Feral House is an undeniably edgy publisher and an obvious choice for controversial material like this. He published Michael Moynihan’s controversial history of black metal, Lords of Chaos, and stood up that controversy. But after receiving a phone call from someone with a European accent, implying that they would go after his distributors if he published the book, he pulled it and let Wilcox keep the $1,000 advance. This was after a cover had been designed and some promotion had already been done. Somebody quashed it.

Wilcox decided to self-publish Crying Wolf anyway, and the text is available for free online. In it he describes the phenomenon of how hate crime hoaxes relate to the broader culture:

What I see happening with hoaxes is a kind of “market” process: the frequency of hoaxes increases with their utility in accomplishing desired ends. When the “market” or payoff for victimization goes up, the temptation to create victimization where none exists is very strong and the temptation of exaggerate minor cases of alleged victimization is even stronger.

Conversely, as the number of hoaxes increases (assuming they are reported) a greater skepticism toward unproven and marginal victimization claims will probably increase as well, and hoaxes will become less effective. It’s pretty much a matter of supply and demand.

The second statement begins to answer the problem of how to respond to hate crime hoaxes. They will go away when it is no longer profitable to engage in them. If you are hoaxed, then roll over and show them your belly, you are only asking to get hoaxed again. Suing publishers who repeat and double down on libelous hoaxes into bankruptcy is a good way not to get hoaxed again. So is imposing penalties on people from your own side who defect.

The way to think about that in the long-term is how to have institutions that are resistant, or preferably antifragile, toward these sorts of occurrences. The Covington community seems to understand this better than many of our clergy. They have threatened to withhold their children from confirmation absent a full apology on the part of Bishop Foys, who presides over the local diocese. The sacraments should not be used in this way, but because their children are under threat, they intuitively understand that an organization that caves on their interests, chiefly the well-being of their children, is not reliable.

***

It’s hard to assemble data on hate crime hoaxes, but it’s not a unique problem to our place and time. Race hoaxes in earlier parts of American history tended to go along the lines of the one in To Kill a Mockingbird, but not today. Today the daubers of most dorm-room door swastikas turn out to be black or Jewish. After Trump was elected, we were treated to a mainstream media narrative whereby his election signaled open-season on minorities, and exhibit “A” was the string of bomb threats on Jewish community centers across the country. It turned out the perpetrator of the vast majority of these bomb threats was an American Jew living in Israel.

Why do hoaxes go in one direction at one time, and in the other direction at another time? Why did we get hoaxes about lecherous black rapists in the late 19th and early 20th century, but, in the case of Jazmine Barnes today, a hoax about a white killer out for the blood of black babies?

The answer is that these sorts of provocations and hoaxes can be used by whoever is dominant to press their advantage. This is where blood libels about Jews sacrificing Christian children come from. To take a less controversial example, consider the Taylor expedition before the Mexican-American War. President Polk assigned Taylor to post up somewhere around the Rio Grande, knowing full well Mexico regarded it as its sovereign territory. When the Mexican Army proceeded to attack these trespassers, the United States had the casus belli they were looking for anyway.

To litigate who was in the legal right in this situation is beside the point, much as it is beside the point who accosted who on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The United States was a young, rich and energetic nation, Mexico was a moribund, poor and corrupt one. That is the reason why we came to possess the southwest, not because some Mexican soldiers shot at a detachment on the Rio Grande. American dominance at that time was a material fact, we simply found a pretext to exercise it. The logic of this kind of hate hoax is the same.

J. Arthur Bloom is an editor and co-founder of Jacobite. Follow him on Twitter.