Tax-Exemption Forms for Vegetarians
My old buddy Fletch was the first to introduce my 18-year-old self to the fantastic and inspiring RE/Search book, Pranks!. Although the book was entertaining and thought-provoking, we were not content to simply passively consume stories about pranks. It was more fun to do our own pranks.
And do them we did; the conservative Southern college we attended, Middle Tennessee State University, provided us with fertile fields to carry out our social experiments. Rather than high profile acts of subterfuge, we engaged in low level disruptive deceptions. My favorite silly/stupid intervention from that era was when we crudely fabricated a “vegetarian tax-exemption” form (#1016, or something like that) and left stacks of them in public places during the 1990 tax season.
Fletch recently reminded me of our little stunt, and soon after that I mentioned the vegetarian tax-exemption prank in an off-the-cuff way to a reporter for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. To my surprise, the reporter mentioned it in an a March 25, 2006 article she wrote on pranks. (The piece had such a great title: “Pranks That Cause Pain Fueled By Immaturity,” by Carly Bossert, B1.)
Once again, an absurd phrase (“tax-exemption forms for vegetarians”) flew out of my loose cannon lips and landed on the page of a newspaper, printed as fact. This brings up a major point I’m constantly reminded of when talking to newspapers as a scholarly “expert” — or in the guise of a prankster who isn’t being completely forthcoming with a reporter. In this case, what I said was factual, though I have no physical proof to verify this story. The fake exemption forms are lost in the dustbin of hoax history. After I got off the phone with the reporter, I emailed Fletch to see if he had a copy filed away somewhere. Here’s his response:
Are you kidding? Do you have a copy of the Magna Carta?
Wow, did I just compare the vegetarian exemption form to the Magna Carta? Off the cuff sarcasm. It’ll get ya every time.
In utter, complete, William F. Buckley-esque seriousness, I’m pretty sure we made the form on a typewriter, and if I saved a copy, I’ve no clue where it is.
I can’t fault the reporter for mentioning the form, but it does highlight the way just aboutanything can make it into a news story. Whether we’re talking about vegetarian tax-exemptions or weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, reality can easily be manufactured and legitimized as news. In the case of the much-hyped but nonexistent WMDs that justified Gulf War 2.0, the sorts of fake facts uttered by experts can easily become “reality” for a mass audience, especially if they fit the needs of those in power. (If anyone who lived in Murfreesboro, TN in 1990 saved a copy of the vegetarian tax-exemption, please email me. I’d love to have a copy.)
Oh, and I couldn’t resist reprinting the photo/caption combo below, which looks like a surrealist propaganda poster: