How much importance could a forged document have?
June 18, 2016 6:55 AM   Subscribe

A current FPP about a forged apocryphal Biblical text made me wonder: could any forged document really have world-shattering significance? Suppose the forgery were undetectable; could any plausible forgery of any document more than(say) 100 years old have a large impact outside academia?
posted by Joe in Australia to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
A forged document "clarifying" the authors' understanding of language in the US Constitution would have a big effect on those people who think of the intent of the Framers as mattering, and a lot of those people are working judges, not academics.
posted by escabeche at 7:33 AM on June 18, 2016 [3 favorites]


You might be interested to learn about the Donation of Constantine, which I learned about through the excellent History of Byzantium Podcast (which as an aside, and I can't believe I'm writing this, is better than the History of Rome podcast). Though the Donation of Constantine doesn't meet the modern implications of your question, it does give an example of the impact a forgery can have.
posted by El_Marto at 7:41 AM on June 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


Of course! Say that piece of papyrus convinced the Vatican to permit women to be priests. That would be a huge, mainstream impact.
posted by amro at 7:49 AM on June 18, 2016


In some areas of the world, ownership of lands is an ongoing, centuries-long conflict. A plausible forgery of a deed, bill of sale, or the like, even if hundreds of years old, could ignite additional conflict.
posted by yesster at 7:51 AM on June 18, 2016 [3 favorites]


A forged document "clarifying" the authors' understanding of language in the US Constitution

Seriously, something by the founders about the second amendment that said "We really just mean military people, not average citizens" might really shift the debate on gun control in the US. There's a great book on a guy who made basically a living out of forging "found" Mormon foundational documents. Called The Poet and the Murderer. I'm not sure if world-changing is accurate but it could totally shift the direction of America's fastest-growing religion.
posted by jessamyn at 7:52 AM on June 18, 2016 [7 favorites]


Can forged documents include photography? If so, Eugene Appert's doctored photos of massacres at the Paris Commune in 1871 were used to justify executions by the government of the time.
posted by tavegyl at 7:57 AM on June 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a forged document that fueled a lot of antisemitism in the 20th century.
posted by phoenix_rising at 8:07 AM on June 18, 2016 [11 favorites]


Since you've stipulated that the forgery is undetectable, you should also take a look at the results of discoveries of documents that we don't believe to be forgeries. Maybe they are in fact what you're asking about!

A new find of the Gospel of Judas that was carbon dated to the same period as the canonical works of the Bible would be potentially worldview-shattering at the very least.
posted by books for weapons at 8:17 AM on June 18, 2016


This is not quite the same thing but the existence of the mummified body of Jesus is a central plot point of Tom Robbins' book Another Roadside Attraction and is an amusing read at least because they think it might change Western Civ as it was then known.
posted by jessamyn at 8:49 AM on June 18, 2016 [2 favorites]


There's almost continual argument over the meaning and existence of US treaties with Native Americans from the early 1800s. A forged treaty that clearly gives the entire territory of a major city to a tribe could have vast implications. Imagine if the everyone in Chicago woke up one day and was living under Dakota Sioux government. Actually that would be a really great novel.
posted by miyabo at 9:29 AM on June 18, 2016 [6 favorites]


Anything regarding the water rights to the Colorado River (which feeds a good percentage of California, is already meted out to like 175% of its actual capacity, and is based on deeds that date back, in a lot of cases, 150+ years) could affect the lives of millions and upset the food supply of the United States to a surprisingly large degree, leading to unrest, radical inequality, an expanded police state, increasing tension between urban and rural areas, invasions of nearby (and distant) countries to loot their resources, etc etc. So, no, not really any effects that you would notice as being out of the ordinary.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:27 AM on June 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


I read a novel decades ago that centered on the discovery of a forgotten coda to the sale of Alaska from Russia to the U.S., which gave Russia the right to buy it back for some now-relatively-small amount of gold. That would be a pretty huge thing to forge and have accepted.
posted by Etrigan at 11:01 AM on June 18, 2016


Another historically significant anti-Semitic forgery (or type of forgery): Toledot Yeshu
posted by griphus at 11:46 AM on June 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


I would think that most property documents, land treaties and the like between sovereign entities would be basically unenforceable as a practical matter. I mean, if the Alaska thing were found and Russia tried to press claims, the US would just be like haha no. Same for treaties with aboriginal people: settler nations have not been known for their objective treatment of native claims....

I think things would get more interesting (well, different) if you had a document discovered that gave a relatively powerful entity a [semi]reasonable fig leaf to do something they sort of already wanted to do. Like, I dunno, some sort of secret treaty giving Russia the right to military intervention in the Baltic states.

Ancient texts in a weird place that wasn't known to be connected to any ancient civilization? That would force a reconsidering of the beginning of civilization, possibly affecting things outside of academia.

Evidence of ancient extraterrestrial visitation would be worldchanging in unpredictable ways. I don't know how that would ever be accepted as not-a-forgery though.
posted by tivalasvegas at 11:47 AM on June 18, 2016


An hitherto-unknown US Constitutional amendment calling for an automatic constitutional convention every X years. That would be an epic shitshow.
posted by tivalasvegas at 11:55 AM on June 18, 2016


A forged treaty that clearly gives the entire territory of a major city to a tribe could have vast implications. Imagine if the everyone in Chicago woke up one day and was living under Dakota Sioux government. Actually that would be a really great novel.

You don't really have to imagine what the federal government would do: see Cayuga Indian Nation v. Pataki and City of Sherrill v. Oneida.
posted by praemunire at 12:41 PM on June 18, 2016 [2 favorites]


In the 1980s in Utah a forger made a lot of money off of selling documents to the LDS church, some of which it considered embarrassing to them and bought in order to suppress. These forged documents if they had gotten out could have changed the history of the LDS church. Before it was discovered he was a forger, Mark Hoffman built bombs and killed two people. It's a fascinating story and worth reading the linked Wikipedia entry.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 1:40 PM on June 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


Operation Mincemeat:wikipedia, video
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:43 PM on June 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


The Hitler Diaries were a forgery that embarrassed quite a lot of people back in the day.
posted by orrnyereg at 3:18 PM on June 18, 2016


If a respected news organization successfully produced a document which ended any chance of a candidate becoming US President, the impact could radically alter world geo politics and economics.
posted by Homer42 at 8:30 PM on June 18, 2016


centered on the discovery of a forgotten coda to the sale of Alaska from Russia to the U.S
'A Matter of Honor' - Jeffery Archer. Along similar lines, 'The Road to Omaha' by Robert Ludlum:
...the Hawk has discovered a long-forgotten treaty between the US government and a tribe of Native Americans. This treaty granted the tribe a vast area of land that has since become Omaha, Nebraska, and includes the home of the Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Base. Posing as a member of the tribe, the Hawk plans to bring suit against the United States and force it to give the land to the tribe.

And then I realise it's not about forgery, just world-changing paperwork. But the prequel, The road to Gandolfo is about 'forging' the Pope.
posted by quinndexter at 9:02 PM on June 18, 2016


Perhaps not world-shattering, and a little under 100 years old - but the "Zinoviev Letter" was a likely-forged 'red scare' that may have affected the course of politics in the UK.
posted by d11 at 9:44 AM on June 19, 2016 [1 favorite]


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