Because the lines separating “dead serious” and “obviously a joke” have vanished, there was no avoiding the Great “Hobo Chic” Scare of 2015.
This past weekend, The New York Times published a story about the Bindle Brothers, two rumpled-looking men pitching high-end versions of the pouches used by Depression-era hoboes. Touted as “locally grown” and “naturally fallen,” the new wave of artisanal stick-mounted sacks — also known as bindle bags — bore price tags of up to $350.
On social media, the story prompted the usual mix of indignation and eye-rolling, until a critical mass of people scrolled past the lede of the story. A dozen or so paragraphs in, author Steven Kurutz pointed out that the Bindle Brothers are actors, and that the “business” was just a comedy impresario’s elaborate satire of retro fashion trends.
Even then, what nobody said was: This couldn’t possibly be true.
Zanier things than “hobo chic” are actually happening — and not just in Brooklyn.
It’s easy to dismiss a subculture of hipsters for their attention-seeking, logic-defying enthusiasms. But what about everyone else’s?
This summer, the idea of a Berlin-style wall on the Mexican border — to be built at Mexico’s expense, naturally — helped propel a reality-TV star into first place in a major American political party’s presidential contest; never mind the practicalities of such a project. The second-place candidate, recent surveys indicate, is a renowned neurosurgeon who doesn’t believe in evolution and whose tax plan is based on the biblical tithe.
How to stand out in that cacophony? Senator Ted Cruz, a former US Supreme Court clerk educated at Princeton and Harvard Law, made a show of cooking bacon by wrapping it around a machine gun. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker entertained the idea of a wall on the nation’s northern border. You had to wonder: Is machine-gun bacon — or an anti-Canada wall — just a complex joke, or is it really a thing?
In the ’90s, the knock against then-ascendant Gen Xers was that they’d lost the ability to distinguish reality from irony. In a classic episode of “The Simpsons,” Homer gains notoriety as a freak act at the Hullabalooza music festival. “He’s cool,” a guy in the crowd says. His friend asks, “Are you being sarcastic, dude?” “I don’t even know anymore,” the first guy says.
Today, truth and fiction can impersonate each other even more effectively. Earlier this year, Anderson Cooper complained about a quotation attributed to him on a popular website. The CNN anchor wrote, “Ummm . . . @Clickhole, do u make this stuff up?”
Yes, they do. Clickhole, an offshoot of the satirical publication The Onion, is a sendup of viral news sources such as Upworthy. (Completing the circle, Upworthy, whose content is breathless but factual, was cofounded by a former editor from The Onion.) That Cooper didn’t know this said as much about the emerging media world as it did about him.
Today, even goofy hoaxes have slick production values; the “hobo chic” guys shot video promos and set up a genuine-looking e-commerce site. Meanwhile, we, the consuming public, have the power to repost a fake-but-plausible story to hundreds or thousands of people without reading it thoroughly — or at all.