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The hoax read the world over

By Dennis Clemente

(Published in Inquirer, August 1997, in a time when the Internet might as well have been the bogeyman)

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97: We’ve been had.

We’re talking about the commencement address Kurt Vonnegut supposedly gave to the class of ’97 graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which we reprinted in the INQUIRER last Aug. 15.

Millions of Internet users worldwide lapped up the loony piece thinking it was Vonnegut’s. Even the best-selling author’s wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, called him up to congratulate him for the speech.

But alas! Vonnegut did not write the speech nor did he deliver it at the MIT graduation ceremonies. It was Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich who was inspired to write it “while high on coffee and M&M’s” one Friday afternoon.

This we learned from the faxes we received from several INQUIRER readers and friends like Alvin Tagle, Luis General of the Technical Insurance Brokers Inc., Cherish Garcia-Hernandez, musician Ryan Cayabyab and singer/actress Lea Salonga.

Email chain

Obviously, a prankster who’s probably laughing hard now for his little mischief, read Schmich’s column last June and passed it off as Vonnegut’s.

Schmich was alerted by several callers and email correspondents who reported the sunscreen speech was “rocketing through the cyberswamp, from Los Angeles to New York to Scotland in a vast email chain letter.”

Friends had emailed it to friends who emailed it to more friends, all of whom were told it was the commencement address given allegedly by Vonnegut to MIT’s graduating class.

In an attempt at damage control, Schmich wrote an apologetic disclaimer and tried to contact the novelist. She called a Los Angeles book reviewer, whom she’d never spoken to, hoping she could help her find Vonnegut.

But the book reviewer was stomped when Schmich revealed who wrote it. “You mean that thing about the sunscreen?” he said when she explained the situation. “I got that. It was brilliant. He (Vonnegut) didn’t write that?”

She tried MIT. Lisa Damtoft of MIT’s news office answered the phone, saying MIT has received many calls and emails on this year’s “sunscreen” commencement speech, but not everyone was sure who had been the speaker.

In Schmich’s quest for the novelist, she ran smack into a blank wall when his agent didn’t answer and she was told Vonnegut’s publisher had taken the afternoon off.

She was surprised when she finally tracked down Vonnegut. The man picked up the phone himself. After explaining her side, the novelist was quoted as saying, “It was very witty, but it was not my wittiness.”

The speaker at the MIT graduation ceremonies, it turned out, was Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations. No, he didn’t say anything about “sunscreen.” Not did he lavishly praise the wonders of flossing, singing or dancing.

Ecstatic wife

Meanwhile, Vonnegut’s wife Jill was ecstatic about his supposed speech.

“She was so pleased,” Vonnegut said in an interview with the New York Times last Tuesday. “She sent it (the speech) to a whole lot of people, including my kids—how clever I am.”

The NY Times said if Vonnegut’s own wife did not doubt that he was the address’ author, it is no surprise that an unknown multitude of others—perhaps hundreds of thousands of people wired into the Internet—also did not. Like us.

“How can I know whether I’m being kidded or not, or lied to?” he asked the NY Times from his home on eastern Long Island, New York., where he said defiantly that he does not surf the Net or get email. “I don’t know what the point is except how gullible people are on the Internet.” Ouch.

More coffee, M&M’s

Unfortunately, one prankster’s fifteen minutes of fame is Schmich’s cross. She received about 250 emails from around the world Tuesday, some of them from “cyber lovers” excoriating her for damaging the Internet.

When the NY Times got hold of her, she sad: … “Having been roped into it in a vey personal way, (the Net) suddenly seems less merely interesting and more dangerous.”

But who cares really if the speech was written by Schmich or Vonnegut. It was funny.

Besides, to quote the so-called Vonnegut speech, wearing sunscreen may actually good for us here in the Philippines where the intense glare of the sun is enough to burn you into a crisp. Scientists have also proved the long-lasting effects of sunscreen. If you believe scientists.

In his fax reply, Cayabyab asked: “(If) one should never believe everything one reads in the papers, should that also include cyberspace?”

In fact, if we could offer you one tip for the future, it’s this: watch out for bs, especially bs from cyberspace. Schmich has learned her lesson. Cyberspace is a lawless swamp. We, too, have learned out lesson. That is, to check our sources first.

Vonnegut, meanwhile, has earned pogi (brownie) points courtesy of Schmich. Not bad for a 74-year-old guy.

But one’s thing for sure amid all the commotion our nameless and faceless prankster has created: Schmich is good. We recommend she drinks more coffee and continue her steady diet of M&M’s.