Foolish notions

01 Apr 2020


“APRIL is the cruellest month,” T.S. Eliot authoritatively declared at the start of his epic poem The Waste Land, and it may well prove to be so as nations around the globe struggle to subdue the Covid-19 pandemic amid a steadily escalating death toll.

The first day of the month is also traditionally an occasion for japery and generally harmless hoaxes. The origins of April Fool’s Day are lost in the mists of time. One theory dates it back to ancient Rome and the festival of Hilaria, another suggests it originated with the French switch to the Gregorian calendar in 1582, when those who continued who celebrate the new year three months later than the newly designated date of Jan 1 were mocked as “April fools”. Others link it to a broader cultural trend towards frivolous spring-time celebrations including Holi, Sizdah Bedar and Purim, in the Hindu, Persian and Jewish traditions, respectively.

Be that as it may, the occasion alternatively known as All Fools’ Day can also be seen as an annual tribute to human gullibility. Our tendency to allow absurdity to fill the enduring gaps in human knowledge has stood the test of time.For instance, around 400 years ago, Galileo Galilei was accused of heresy by the then all-powerful Catholic Church and sentenced to life imprisonment for corroborating the Copernican theory that the Earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around. The aforementioned gaps have steadily narrowed over the years, but the scope for perpetrating falsehoods has barely been diminished.

Trump is a constant reminder that truth is stranger than fiction.

This is illustrated in a relatively harmless way by the mass media getting in on the act. BBC television pitched in back on April 1, 1957, by devoting a three-minute segment of its news to the revelation that Switzerland was revelling in a bumper spaghetti harvest, backed up with images of folks chopping strings of pasta from trees.

Back in those days, when upper lips were resolutely stiff, received pronunciation still inspired awe and spaghetti was a relatively exotic import, the BBC’s unexpected joke sparked hundreds of queries about where the pasta bushes could be procured and how they could be cultivated. To the latter question, the Beeb reputedly responded: “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.” In subsequent years, the BBC’s better hoaxes have included a report just 12 years ago about a breed of flying penguins, backed up with clever computer animation, and, back in the 1980s, a solemn report about the hands of Big Ben being replaced with a digital clock.

Inevitably, other ‘serious’ media organs got in on the act. Among the most alarming reports was an ‘interview’ with Richard Nixon featured on American National Public Radio’s widely respected Talk of the Nation show in 1992, in which the ex-president seemingly declared his intentionof running for the White House once more, saying: “I did nothing wrong, and I won’t do it again.”

That got some Americans riled up with indignant wrath — but would it have been any more absurd if someone five years ago had held out the prospect of Donald Trump becoming the president of the United States?

Deliberate hoaxes such as an advertising campaign announcing that Taco Bell had procured the Liberty Bell or that Burger King would be offering left-handed burgers pale in comparison with a reality whereby Trump goes from decrying the novel coronavirus as a hoax to claiming it would be a good outcome if the eventual American death toll is restricted to 100,000.

Trump is a constant reminder that truth is stranger than fiction, and the fact that his popularity has shot up in the interim only serves to reinforce fears about the intellectual capacity of humanity. Ameri­ca­­ns are by no means the only segments of the human race who refuse to take reality at face value, but they stand out becau­­se their nation perennially suffers from delusions of exceptional greatness when in fact it lags behind much of the world, not least in terms of its attitude to healthcare.

It’s worth noting, though, that many of the actions that supposedly developed nations have taken in recent weeks contradict their traditional hostility to sensible social welfare — and raise the prospect that the world that eventually emerges from the coronavirus disaster will be very different from the neoliberal ‘consensus’ that preceded it.

Who knows what punchlines will amuse us a year from now. In the interim, it’s probably worth recalling the Shakespearean warning transmitted via King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” At the same time, though, it’s useful to remember that The Waste Land ends with three cherishable words: “Shanti Shanti Shanti”. Amen to that — even if the unfolding lockdown fiasco in India portends otherwise. The theme song of the moment ought to be The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again.

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2020