“Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.”
—Cutter (Michael Caine), in The Prestige (2006)
“There’s nothing we can do
We were born to die fools.”
—Geographer, “Lover’s Game”
About halfway through his dizzying historical survey of all things related to pranks, hoaxes, and confidence games, Kembrew McLeod writes,
By the turn of the twentieth century, newspapers were being reimagined as instruments that could foster a healthy democracy. This ideal coincided with a mounting faith in empiricism and social-scientific inquiry. There were these things called ‘facts,’ and it was the role of journalists to transparently transmit them to citizens. (128)
Whether he meant to or not, McLeod summed up the entire ethos of Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World when he decided to off-set the word “facts” with quotation marks. By the time the reader has concluded McLeod’s meticulously organized and researched book, it would be sensible for her to be skeptical of the notion of a coherent history as a whole. For example, in chapter one, he boldly declares: “The modern era was ushered in by a prank” (27). He here refers to the infamous Rosicrucian Brotherhood who, along with the Illuminati, remain a persistent cultural trope, in spite of their rather cheeky origins.
Those conspiracy addicts are likely to rifle through the pages of Pranksters in fury, muttering under doomy breath that McLeod has “drunk the Kool-Aid” and is “oversimplifying” his claims about the prank-based roots of many alleged secret societies. (As McLeod himself notes, “Conspiracy theories are inherently unfalsifiable, and any attempt to disprove a nefarious plot is considered suspect” .) However, those not bent on linking various historical events to an overarching, paranoia-driven narrative, will find this kaleidoscopic tale of pranking and hoaxing to be a riotous and enlivening read—even if one’s notion of “history” and “fact” is seriously challenged in the process.
As is often the case with any narrative whose purpose is removing wool from the collective eyes, Pranksters often lets light shine on those stories that most non-skeptical minds would take for fact. For example, McLeod observes that while Rosa Parks’ defiant stand against institutionalized racism is an important story that aided the Civil Rights movement, it was not, as legend has it, an unplanned incident. “Parks was the secretary of the local NAACP chapter and a community organizer trained at the progressive Highlander Institute” (141). Fortunately, rather than taking on the role of a James Randi-esque contrarian, McLeod judiciously picks the incidents he details; his aim is a broader narrative that illustrates the chameleonic nature of modern media.
Whether it’s P.T. Barnum handing out fantastical playbills, Léo Taxil concocting an exaggerated four-volume history of Freemasonry, or Anton LaVey using television outlets to promote his Ayn Rand-indebted Church of Satan, the message is inextricably linked to the channels of media through which it is funneled. The equation that McLeod devises in the beginning of Pranksters illustrates this simply: “Performance Art + Satire x Media = Prank.” “Pranks,” McLeod elaborates, “performed within the public sphere and amplified by media” (5).
This definition is critical for McLeod’s narrative, particularly in its being distinct from hoaxes and confidence games, two other varieties of illusion-crafting that crop up throughout Pranksters‘s latticework historical account. He explains, “A hoax is a kissing cousin of a prank, but its primary purpose is to fool people and attract attention. Lastly, I use con as an all-purpose term for a wide range of scams meant to defraud or gain an advantage” (16).
There are times where these categories get muddied. It’s not always clear whether or not a particular event McLeod describes fits into any one of the three categories. Chapter Nine, “Showbiz Tricksters and the Pop Underground”, for example, tells the story of some people that don’t neatly fit into the “prankster” designation; McLeod’s explanation of the flamboyant wrestler Gorgeous Gorge and the infamous “Beatle-wrecker” Yoko Ono are interesting, but in some ways feel divergent from the book’s overall trajectory.
Nevertheless, “prank”, “hoax”, and “con” are not absolute but shifting identities, not unlike the identities of those people who spend their lives undertaking those activities. But whatever the motive of the particular act (self-gain with the con, enhancing public discourse with the prank), a counterintuitive benefit of these various deceptions is that they often bring truth to the forefront. As McLeod notes, “A successful deception tells us much about the culture or people who embraced it” (18).
If there is one other fault with Pranksters, it’s that the book is too thorough in its game of historical connect-the-dots. The narrative itself runs 285 pages, leaving the remainder of the book’s 364 pages occupied with endnotes and bibliographic citations. This stupendous amount of research includes quotations from long out-of-print newspapers, multi-volume historical works, music sites like SPIN, and contemporary cultural theorists like Slavoj Zizek. An entirely logical result of this, of course, is that even after one or two chapters Pranksters can induce some serious whiplash.
McLeod’s writing style strikes a perfect balance between the accessible and an academic; more often than not, it’s hard to believe this is a serious academic work and not a rip-roaring tale of historical intrigue. However, the sheer density of information that occupies these pages is such that even an astute reader will have to pause to digest each new connection McLeod makes.
Credit must be given to McLeod, though, for tackling narratives that are by their nature knotty and seemingly inscrutable. In his masterful examination of what Leslie Kane in her book Weasels and Wisemen once called “the paradigmatic conspiracy theory of Jewish world domination,” McLeod writes, “The Protocols [of the Elders of Zion]‘s mutant family tee includes an Illuminati-phobic history of the French Revolution, a political satire targeting Napoleon II, and an anti-Semitic romantic novel that was later transformed into a nonfiction essay” (106). Those who like their reads breezy need not apply—but this is not to say that Pranksters is not worth the read. Anyone in the business of deception—whether remediating or fomenting it—ought to treat this as a primary source.
The primary things that keep this vertigo-inducing collage of pranks from becoming completely untethered are the thematic links that underly all of them. Already mentioned is the shifting nature of media in relation to pranksters; another crucial element is the feedback loop that happens when the targets of pranks take the joke too seriously. “When people credulously embrace pranks, hoaxes, and cons, it is usually because they reinforce their own deep-seated worldviews” (50).
For example, the Catholic Church’s response to the excesses of the French Revolution was to blame it on the Freemasons, who had been falsely associated with the aforementioned Rosicrucian Brotherhood. (Catholics are still forbidden by the Papacy from associating with the Masons.) As McLeod observes, “It was… a no-brainer for conspiracy theorists of the time to blame the French Revolution on the Freemasons and the more elusive Bavarian Illuminati (which became more powerful in myth than it ever was in reality)” (96). This feedback loop can still be seen in the present day; Pat Robertson, in his 1991 The New World Order, cites the Illuminati—the ever-invisible, always falsifiable secret brotherhood—as one of the forces bringing the end to Christianity.
Pranksters brilliantly illustrates that a great deal of the conspiracy theories that remain popular to this day have gained their social capital not from proponents, but from detractors. The irony of the situation is obvious, but it also illustrates how these exaggerated responses to pranks often take the form of grandiose self-deceptions, particularly with the way historical narratives are shaped: “After all, it is much easier to blame the French Revolution on the devil than to wrap one’s head around the complicated social and economic forces that gave rise to it” (108).
“Despite some amusing moments sprinkled throughout Pranksters,” McLeod confesses in the book’s final paragraph, “I can’t shake the feeling of dread that runs through it.” McLeod himself was inspired to write the book following his impressive legacy of pranks, including ones involving him copyrighting the phrase “Freedom of Expression” and a hilarious incident that has spawned his nickname, “RoboProfessor”.
His pranking streak, however, does not fall prey to the folly of prioritizing the “pleasure of pranking” over its “underlying purpose” (271). For that reason, McLeod’s words in Pranksters‘s final paragraph are appropriate; for all the fun and social discourse he identifies throughout the book, a lot of harm has also been caused, and a lot of people have been made to look fools in the process. Pranks and the new media they use as their distribution channels “muddl[e] the epistemological question—‘How do we know what we know?”—by pushing many people to sputter, “Are we really sure we truly know what we think we know?” (26).
McLeod’s voluminous research does a fine job in illuminating those historical incidents many once thought to be comfortably resting in the shadows of knowledge. The marvel of Pranksters, aside from its delightful storytelling and academic prowess, is that for all the preconceptions and myths it dispels, it reveals a larger truth about the nature of history-making itself. The notion that there are “facts”, “conspiracies”, and “myths” is itself suspect, for all of those things weave together to form the legends and tales people tell now. With that knowledge in mind, it’s much easier going forward to adapt a critical mindset, such that one can enter dialogue with pranksters—and know when to make a distinction between them and the con artists.
The truth is, there’s a reason pranks endure: they’re mighty fun. But what makes a good prankster is having a discerning deceptive streak. Learning from a book like Pranksters makes that task a lot easier.