This morning’s internet brings this little essay about charlatanry. There have been con men as long as there have been men, I suppose; who, I wonder, was first to try sleight of hand, first to sell nothing as something one simply must have? Who was it? Was there a stone you could tuck into your basket in the hunting and gathering days to ensure it was never empty? A charm to ensure your arrows always struck true?
Or were those perhaps articles of faith, and the abuse of that faith came later?
All one needs in order for a liar to exist is a truth that is inconvenient, but at what point do civilizations start to see true con men emerge among them?
Oh, they’re not always bad, not all the time. Some of them can even be the heroes of the piece, in this world where we all grow up with vague mistrust of the Man and a general sense that a degree of cunning is required to get ahead. Sometimes even the overtly criminal type of con man is a little more Robin Hood and a little less scammer, as in the delightful “The Great Pretender,” where our core squad of confidence-folk go after other criminals, mainly. Other folk who have been so bad, and their comeuppances are so satisfying. We love them. We wish we were as smart, as witty, as charming.
Raw “The Magician” energy, I suppose. In its purest form, all fire and heady glee at the Great Work before it.
And yet we also know there is the other kind of charlatanry. The one that promises infinite wealth if only you yourself can be charming enough to convince others to buy in underneath you. The one that promises health and vitality if only you will buy that miracle cure. The one that promises a bright, secure future, one that looks a lot like your past if you squint, if only you will follow that flag, salute just so.
Why do we not choose that moment to go away?
I suppose some of us are going away, or at least trying to. We quit Facebook (as much as it is possible to quit something that would happily buy its way into tracking every minute of our lives, anyway). We stop watching the news or logging into Twitter. We host our own websites, like this one, in a manner that another of this morning’s reads likens to a modern extension of the sixties’ “dropping out.”
Dropping out, back then, was a way to preserve your inner life, protect it from all of the things that The Man was throwing at it. Certainly feels timely now, what with so many parts of our world engineered to devour our attention, keep you “engaged” as cheaply and easily as possible so that out there in a nebulous somewhere a line will go up and a shareholder will be pleased.
Of course, we also feel guilty, now, for not engaging. There is so much in the world that is so awful, and even if we can do little about most of it, one feels that, at a minimum, one should stay informed. Perhaps, after all, there may eventually BE some meaningful action we can take, one where the smallness of our selves will not matter as much as the greatness of our intent.
Still. There must be some sort of balance one can attain, wobbly though it might be.
It is weird to think of this little writing exercise as a form of resistance – as choosing a moment to go away – but perhaps in a way it is.