First there was Phineas. P.T. Barnum’s autobiography was the bestselling book in the second half of the 19th century after the Bible. We love the con. We can’t get enough of the schemer, his ingenuity and audacity. It’s O.K. if it involves deceit, cheating and greed. After all Capitalism is all about scrambling to the top of the heap. Whatever it takes. It says nothing about how you get there, or the victims of the fraud. Call them losers.
Herman Melville’s last novel published in his lifetime (Billy Budd came posthumously) was titled The Confidence Man. It is set on a riverboat making its way down the Mississippi. We are presented with an array of stock-scammers, charity hustles and panacea-peddlers. They feed on the trust of the sucker born every minute. Dismiss them and they call you a cynic. Try a bottle of this pain-dissuader. What have you got to lose?
Now who does all this remind me of?
We think we have the nose to know what can’t pass the smell test. But consider the trouble in River City, cure-alls, the flimflam man or the hidden persuaders who have us buy $400 sneakers. Gullible America voted for the real estate mogul who ventriloquized the grievances on the tongue of the working man.
When institutions are deemed to be corrupt and hypocritical a vacuum is created which allows the demagogue to rush in with a compelling narrative, however false, with appeal to the aggrieved. Everyone wants to be part of new movement,
Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos) put one over on an A-list of prominent Captains of Industry, a 4-star general, diplomats and ex-president. They heard her out and were bewitched by her hokum that a drop of blood could yield vast amounts of data. Investors were charmed by her presentation. They all wanted in on the ground floor. Disbelief was suspended.
Blind trust and total mistrust are first cousins. The other side of the same coin generates fright. The enemy is out there surrounding us in the jungle, said Jim Jones. The Deep State is destroying America, folks. Those immigrants are taking away your jobs and raping our wives in their spare time. Big Pharma is vaccinating us to death.
Militant mistrusters have bought into a counter narrative as heedlessly as those victims of the con man. Once you are scared it’s natural to hate, to loathe, to shut down your critical faculty. Swallow the hoax and all the rest follows. Even to take arms for survival.
Otherwise enlightened folks have conflated Science with Big Pharma. We may not have evolved much since Aristotle in terms of moral development but we have made great strides in medicine. I have no love for pharmaceutical companies but given our economic system they are the only ones who manufacture and distribute biologicals such as flu vaccine, MMR, DPT, shingles and polio vaccine, Pneumovax, etc… Get over it. We have conquered most communicable disease but without vaccines we are back to mid-18th century. The anti-vax fools not only indulge their ignorance but impose it on the rest of us indifferent to the consequences of fatal epidemics.
The election of 2016 demonstrated we are, in part, a nation of Gullibles. Certainly it all began before Barnum met Bailey. Looking for answers we see conspiracies. Correlation is mistaken for causation. We are suspicious of evidence-based scientific method as if it were some establishment hoax. We spend billions annually buying nutritional supplements unproven as to efficacy or purity as if anecdote trumps clinical trial. The word Natural confers neither harmless or therapeutic nor does it strike a blow against drug companies. Think again. Think digitalis and belladonna. Think opium and strychnine.
The riverboat chugs along with half of America on it. Who wants to buy the Brooklyn Bridge?