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Trust III: The Con in Confidence   (October 4, 2006)

...and readers' haiku

A number of readers responded to the weekend haiku challenge, and I am delighted to share their creative efforts. Each one cleverly captures/expresses a key insight:

Bummer I lost my house!
I'm homeless I was a fool
Road is now my home.

Jim T.
(Dedicated to all the ARM victims)

Housing slides downward
Gen-X spirits lift higher
Boomers can't retire

(A little bitter, perhaps; I live in the
long shadow of the baby boom. :-)
Sherry R.

What technology?
Without gasoline this spring,
Ride my bicycle.

Greg R.
Thank you, reader/poets, for these bright witty creations. Each poet wins a free copy of my novel I-State Lines, for how could I pick just one from such field?

OK, on to The Con in Confidence: a look at Herman Melville's classic The Confidence-Man (Oxford World's Classics edition). Why am I bringing up a book from 1857 which flopped so badly as commercial literature that Melville stopped writing and ended his career as a customs official? Because this book masterfully explores the entire nature of trust, confidence and cons. Though the setting is a riverboat on the Mississippi River just before the U.S. exploded into Civil War, its insights cross cultural boundaries.

This is not an easy book to read for several reasons. First, it is undoubtedly one of the first "post-modern" novels which breaks from traditional narrative storytelling. ( Another example: Dostoevsky's Notes From the Underground.) The Confidence-Man is a collection of 45 conversations between various people on the riverboat--beggars, absurdly dressed frontiersmen, sickly misers, shysters, patent medicine hucksters, veterans (of the Mexican-American War) and the "hero" in the latter part of the book, the Cosmopolitan.

In typical Melville fashion, you also get asides--directly to the reader, in several cases, as if Melville felt the need to address issues of fiction outside the actual form of his novel. The lack of structure, action and conclusion make this a post-modern type book, but if you read each conversation as a separate story, then it starts to make more sense.

For what ties the book together is not a story but a theme: the nature of trust and confidence. In a very sly way, Melville shows how a variety of cons are worked, as the absolutely distrustful are slowly but surely convinced to do exactly what they vowed not to do: buy the "herbal" patent medicine, buy shares in a bogus stock venture, or donate cash to a suspect "charity."

In other chapters, it seems like the con artist is either stopped in his tracks or is conned himself. Since the book is mostly conversations, we are left to our own conclusions; there is no authorial voice wrapping up each chapter with a neatly stated ending. This elliptical structure conveys the ambiguous nature of trust; we don't want to be taken, but confidence is also necessary for any business to be transacted. To trust no one is to be entirely isolated.

Melville also raises the question: is it always a bad thing to be conned? The sickly man seems to be improved by his purchase of the worthless herbal remedy, and the donor conned out of his cash for the bogus charity also seems to feel better about himself and life. The ornery frontiersman who's been conned by lazy helpers softens up enough to trust the smooth-talking employment agency owner. Is that a terrible thing, to trust despite a history of being burned?

The ambuiguous nature of the bonds of trust is also explored. We think the Cosmopolitan is a con-man, but when he convinces a fellow passenger to part with a heavy sum, he returns it, just to prove a point. Is that a continuance of the con, or is he actually trustworthy?

The book is also an exploration of a peculiarly American task: sorting out who to trust in a multicultural non-traditional society of highly diverse and highly mobile citizens. In a traditional society, things operate in rote ways; young people follow in their parents' traditional roles, money is made and lent according to unchanging standards, and faith/tradition guides transactions such as marriage and business along well-worn pathways.

But in America, none of this structure is available. Even in Melville's day, America was a polyglot culture on the move; you had to decide who to trust based on their dress, manner and speech/pitch. The con, of course, works on precisely this necessary reliance on one's senses and rationality rather than on a traditional network of trusted people and methods. So the con man dresses well and has a good story, and an answer for every doubt.

What does all this mean for us today? Simply this: we are in the golden age of the Big Con. The entire real estate industry--supposedly as American as Mom and apple pie, the roof over your family's head, your nestegg, etc. etc. is resting on a now-crumbling foundation of mortgages based on lies to the lender (yes, I make $100,000 a year), and deceptions passed onto the borrower (you can re-fi later into a fixed rate. Oops, forgot to mention the penalty, didn't we?).

The stock market rests on profits which are often nothing but fabrications ("before we deduct expenses, why we're immensely profitable!") and accounting chicanery. Our Federal Government soaps the numbers in all sorts of ways, starting with a manipulated inflation rate, a budget which hides future obligations and a method of accounting which includes tricks like putting heavy costs into the next fiscal year in order to artificially reduce the apparent deficit this year.

The list goes on, but we all know that the finances of our nation are spun and manipulated to benefit the spinners. This includes local governments, the housing industry, the financial industry, Fannie Mae, the Federal government, you name it. The solution? Well certainly a good first step is to recognize the con, and accept that we've been conned, and accept that buying into the con made everyone feel warm and fuzzy.

That's the point of a con, isn't it? Too bad reality can't be conned; only people can be conned, and the Great American Pastime--the financial con, not baseball (though that's a con, too)-- looks like it is about to spin out of control. Oh, and the second reason why Melville is hard to read is his long, leisurely, clause upon clause sentences. But the book is also peppered with his sly humor, which sneaks up on you... well, just like a good con.

For more on this subject and a wide array of other topics, please visit my weblog.


copyright © 2006 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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