Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
“The world is what it is,” V. S. Naipaul famously wrote. “Men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
I wonder whether I have allowed myself to become nothing.
Despite being a lawyer, I have never been a good liar. I never lied for my clients. Technical truths? Sure. Outright lies? Never. For a while I tried to practice lying, because mendacity is such a useful life skill. I got as far as telling obviously ridiculous fibs about my job at cocktail parties: “I am a hamster farmer,” I might say. “I work at the circus as a lion-tamer.” But these were only jokes.
But the emblematic figure of our age, the dominant mode of existence, the era-defining vocation, is the confidence man, the scam artist, the fraud.
The New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino makes a devastating case for the prosecution in “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams” in her essay collection Trick Mirror. From the risibly obvious scams like the Fyre Festival and “raw water,” to the obvious-in-retrospect ones that nonetheless took in the best and the brightest like Elizabeth Holmes’s Theranos, to the most terrifyingly successful con man of all time, the one who lives in the White House, Tolentino shows how our age is fundamentally shaped by scams. Children should not grow up saying that they want to be astronauts or presidents (well…); they should all be taught to admire con artists. Their skills are far more useful in life than history or chemistry or whatever. If you’re very good at scamming, even when you get caught, you will suffer no consequences, because the United States Senate as well as the Department of “Justice” will rush to your defense.
But Tolentino’s case is most troubling and most incisive when she writes about the pillars our contemporary world that we don’t think of as straight-up frauds but that are fraud-adjacent. There is the Wall Street that gave us the 2008 crash and set back a generation’s economic prospects without ever being held responsible for it. There is the data exploitation of social media that leads us down the path of bots and trolls and fake news. There is the labor exploitation of Amazon that has made Jeff Bezos the richest man in history. It all adds up to this: our generation has been raised “on a relentless demonstration that scamming pays.”
Tolentino, a self-professed feminist, is perhaps most bracing when she turns her acid pen on contemporary feminism, which she includes on her list of scams. It’s “self-congratulatory empowerment feminism that corporations can get behind, the kind that comes with merchandise.” Cloaked in suddenly mainstream doctrines that are at once unassailable in certain circles and constantly demanding reaffirmation, a cohort of female entrepreneurs have discovered that they can sell any manner of BS and be lauded for being woke and brave.
“We got conferences, endless conferences,” Tolentino describes the state of despair of the contemporary woman. “We got the full-on charlatan Miki Agrawal.... We got, instead of structural supports and safety nets that would actually make women feel better on a systematic basis, a bottomless cornucopia of privatized nonsolutions: face serums, infrared saunas, wellness gurus like Gwyneth Paltrow, who famously suggested putting stone eggs in one’s vagina....”
Of course, the con is nothing new, and much of what we accept as pillars of our world have long been somewhat scammy. The term “confidence man” was originally coined to refer to a 19th century New York scammer named William Thompson. When Thompson was finally arrested, a newspaper editorial mockingly lamented that poor Mr. Thompson had not found his way to Wall Street, where his talents could have made him many times wealthier without ever running afoul of the law.
Our admiration for the con artist is also nothing new. Before Leonardo DiCaprio played fraudster Jordan Belfort in 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” he played con man Frank Abagnale in 2002’s “Catch Me If You Can.” (You see, kids: If you defraud enough people in just the right way, no less than Leo will play you in the film about your life — and Hollywood studios will pay you millions for the privilege of making you look as handsome as DiCaprio.) Don Draper, a quintessential TV hero of the early 21st century, was not only a fraud personally but also spent his days selling false images as an advertising executive.
There probably have been scammers since homo sapiens first discovered lying — and boy it must have been as great a discovery as fire — so that thinkers have considered the problem of dissembling since ancient times. Every classical moral tradition I am aware of teaches that one ought to be good rather than to seem to be good. This is Socrates’s position in Book II of the Republic, arguing against Glaucon who felt that an unjust individual could lead a great life as long as he was perceived to be just. Cicero famously gave us the dictum: esse quam videri: “to be rather than to seem to be.”
But the ancients’ understanding of the power of fraud was more complicated than their moralizing. Cicero’s dictum was actually a lament: Virtute enim ipsa non tam multi praediti esse quam videri volunt (“Few are those who wish to be endowed with virtue rather than to seem so”). Cicero himself was an ardent self-promoter, as evidenced by the way he circulated copies of his own speeches to court the admiration of others. In the end he lost his life because he couldn’t fake it as well as Mark Antony, who in turn met defeat because he wasn’t as skilled a liar as Octavian.
What seems unique about our age, though, is the way that everything has become theater, everything is now performance. What is new about our age is the almost heroic refusal of any semblance of substance. Cicero might have promoted himself, but he was a genuinely great orator. Steve Jobs might have often oversold and overpromised, but the technologies that he helped to bring into the world ultimately worked and worked well. In contrast, Elizabeth Holmes, who presented herself as a new Jobs, reached billionaire status without a product that even began to function.
Of course, we didn’t achieve our industrial grade emptiness overnight. The ur-reality TV show Survivor premiered all the way back in 2000, before anyone had heard of the Kardashians. In 2000, most of us didn’t have cellphones, and cellphones didn’t yet have cameras and weren’t yet smartphones. When Facebook launched in 2003, it only seemed like a quaint student startup. But some minds more perceptive than mine were already beginning to see our culture morphing into a series of surfaces and illusions, devoid of all substance. When Stephen Colbert launched The Colbert Report in 2005, the show’s motto was videri quam esse, a reversal of Cicero’s dictum: “to seem to be rather than to be.”
Now everyone has a camera in the pocket. Just about anywhere I travel in this world I find young women posing for Instagram as though they were fashion models. The Kardashians have become some of the most famous people in the world without accomplishing anything. The man in the White House parleyed his way into office using his position as host of The Apprentice. Now we have “virtue signaling”; now we have “performative wokeness.”
And how is one to live in such a world? How is one to find one’s place in it? Can one live in it without being implicated by it? Tolentino is brutally honest here about herself:
I know [the falsity of contemporary feminism] because my own career has depended to some significant extent on feminism being monetizable. As a result, I live very close to this scam category, perhaps even inside it — attempting to stay on the ethical side, if there is one, of a blurry line between “woman who takes feminism seriously” and “woman selling her feminist personal brand.” I’ve avoided merchandise, the cutesy illustrated books about “badass” historical women, the coworking spaces and corporate panels and empowerment conferences, but I am a part of that world — and I benefit from it — even if I criticize its emptiness; I am complicit no matter what I do.
It’s a somewhat different question for me: Can a man who retches at the thought of “building a personal brand,” who has never learned to go into a job interview and pretend that said job is what he has wanted to do since the age of five, who has always tried to be rather than to seem to be, find a place in this world?
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."