The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Discretion in speech is more than eloquence."....  ....Sir Francis Bacon.

Commentary of the Day - October 26, 2007: Matthew Meyer and Hugh Troy: Hoaxes of a Different Color.  Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

A few months ago Matthew Meyer, a senior communications major at the University of Florida, grabbed the national spotlight by taking the microphone at a question-and-answer session with Senator John Kerry and holding on for dear life.  This guy had lots of questions for the senator, far more than he could fit into the time allotted to each student.  When members of the campus security team reminded Mr. Meyer that his time was up and that other students also wanted a crack at Kerry, Meyer refused to budge an inch -- and when they tried to escort him outside the auditorium, he upped the ante by kicking, screaming, and generally "resisting arrest."  As caught on tape -- and replayed for all  the world to see -- Meyer was shocked into submission -- but not into silence -- by a jolt from a taser gun.

Meyer fancies himself a campus cut-up, exactly the sort of person who would hold up a sign reading "Harry Dies" a few days before the last Harry Potter book was released and think this a really swell  prank.  But as attention-grabbing as it was, it didn't have half the sticking power of yelling "Don't tase me bro" into somebody's cell phone camera.

Thus was a new campus martyr was  born -- at least for some.  Others painted him in less flattering terms: jerk, boor, and  altogether un-cool.  Meyer didn't get more than a minute's worth of fame for the Harry Potter stunt, and there are those who will argue that he didn't get more than seven-and-a-half minutes worth of fame for showing bad behavior at the campus's John Kerry event.

Not surprisingly, my own feelings were mixed: on one hand, Meyer’s loud demands for "free speech" must be seen in the context of  other people's rights to speech -- and questions -- of their own.  On the other hand, I don't think that stun guns should be part of the equipment given to campus security personnel.  Too many people end up dying from the electric shock, even though a taser is obviously better than bringing down a resisting suspect by shooting him or her.

I kept spinning my wheels about where I should stand on the Matthew Meyer case (a plague on both houses seemed a reasonable compromise) when I remembered Hugh Troy (l906-1964), the impish prankster who enlivened campus life at Cornell during the l920s.  So many pranks -- more real, some much embellished, some entirely apocryphal -- were  attributed to Troy that it is hard to separate truth from fiction.  But one thing is true: Hugh Troy became the stuff of legend in ways that Matthew Meyer never will.

Why so?  Because Troy had an inventive wit, and because he could construct pranks that were both elaborate and, if you will, elegant.  Take, for example, his most  famous prank: taking an wastebasket made of as rhinoceros foot, Troy fashioned what appeared to be rhinoceros tracks across the Cornell campus and to the edge of Beebe Lake, the source of drinking water for the area.  This was done during a winter snowstorm.  Troy also cut a huge hole in the ice at the edge of the lake so it looked for all the world as if the animal had fallen in.  Troy was careful to make the spacing of the tracks look authentic (he threaded 20-foot ropes through each side of the wastebasket and with a helper holding one end and Troy the other they marched the imaginary beast across the snow field.)  As the story goes (probably untrue), some people refused to drink the water from Beebe Lake until Troy published an anonymous letter revealing the hoax.

Troy is nearly as well known for the hoax he perpetrated on New York's Museum of Modern Art.  During an exhibition of the works of Vincent Van Gogh, Troy took a piece of  corned beef  and fashioned it into the shape of a human ear, which he placed on display with a plaque that declared it was the ear Van Gogh had cut off in l888.  People flocked to see it until museum authorities took  Troy's fake exhibit down.

At their best, college students are capable of more, much more, than the dumb stunts of films such as "Jackass."  That's why Hugh Troy is still remembered and Matthew Meyer should be forgotten as soon as is possible.

2007 Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days.

The IP comments: A good hoax is a thing of beauty!


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© 2007 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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