Think of this as Volume 17, Number 23 of the newsletter I have written weekly since March, 1997. Enjoy.
In fact, the con may be the most human act there is. Because it is based on the one thing that most separates us from other animals, story-telling.
Civilization begins with story-telling. Whether it's in cave paintings or the words grandparents give grandchildren, indicating a past before the kids' own births that was different from the present day, it's story-telling that defines us as human.
A con man is telling a story. And the first person they tell that story to is themselves. They are their own first “victim,” and their most important one.
This is what separates the con artist from someone who, like Bill Clinton, just gets caught with their pants down and tries to cover it up. The con artist believes their own story. Clinton obfuscated, he avoided speaking the truth about his affair, but he knew what it was, and it was thus fairly easy to see through. Bush didn't. He conned himself, first, last and always, and thus his con continues among his followers.
Con artists come in all shapes and sizes. They may be a business partner. They may be a family member. And their cons may be large or small. But always, the wrong they do is covered up with a phony self-justification that the con artist actually believes to be true. “I was just trying to help,” or “I was just trying to do the right thing,” becomes “I was helping” and “I was doing the right thing.”
In “Haroun and the Sea of Stories”, which I consider his master work, Salman Rushdie asks “what's the point of stories that aren't even true?” They have many purposes. In the story they eventually bring down a dictator. The adventure Haroun experiences to save his father, the Shah of Blah, eventually comes out of his father's own mouth, and as his audience is swept up in the story they turn on the local dictator, Snooty Buttoo, the man who'd hired the story-teller to spin lies supporting him, telling him to be gone, “khattam shud.” And with that the city so sad it had forgotten its own name, the city of K, remembers its name. Khalifa. It means story, you know.
The best stories, like Haroun, aren't over-complicated. They're stripped to their essence. Rushdie wrote the book while under virtual house arrest following the Iranian “fatwa” against him, a sentence of death that forced British police to go to extraordinary lengths to protect him, moving him from place to place under assumed names, surrounding him with officers, making of him a prisoner in the name of his life and liberty. As he recalls in the rigorously self-researched “Joseph Anton,” it was irony piled on irony that eventually led to this basic truth, the power of story-telling.
Every con artist has this gift, this gift of the gab, this very human gift, within them. They believe their own blah, and thus others believe them. They are friendly, apparently open-hearted, displaying all the signs of a truth-teller and a good, honest man or woman. And if you peel away the onion you won't find any self-doubt within them, either. The act is total, complete.
We believe con artists, once discovered, to be inhuman because we don't want to believe the capacity for such self-deception lies within each of us. But it does.
It's an essential element that makes us human.
But so is its obverse. We have, within us, the ability to see through a con, and to reject the con artists within us and without us. The con artist's hold is based on making acting against him as difficult as possible, making the acceptance of the con the path of least resistance.
A decade ago I faced two such cons.
One was about a sports team. The con artist had convinced himself that cheating was the way to the greater good. Having convinced himself, he convinced other community leaders to believe the same, and to harrangue anyone who questioned this questionable path. They made it hard for someone to do the right thing, but apparently someone did. The con was found out, those who perpetrated it were shamed out of the game, and everyone learned a hard lesson.
I faced another such con in business. A man brought in a lot of work, offered good pay to those who would do the work, but spent all the money on himself and his partners, so that when it came time to pay his workers he said he would “have” to declare bankruptcy, but would then re-form the next day under another name and pay workers part of what he owed, with more promises to come. That con didn't work either, because someone stood up to him and, knowing that everything owed would now be lost, not just most of it, blew the whistle to bankruptcy authorities.
The honest way is the hard way. The con way is the easy way. That's the only lesson I can take from these two stories. But when all is said and done, the honest way leaves you with only one story to remember, and no lies to tell. The con, on the other hand, remains trapped in their own web of deceit, possibly forever. Someone, reading the two paragraphs above this one, may think that they recognize themselves, and that I'm telling lies, and sue me over them.
But they're only stories. What's the point of stories that aren't even true? Only that, somewhere deep inside them, there may lie a truth that must be told.
So, have I just conned you? Do you believe what I've written, or am I just telling stories? That's something you have to decide for yourself. And what you have to do in making that decision is, simply, to confront your own humanity and decide what type of human you are.