It’s Not a Lie… If You Believe It

January 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Stammering Century, by Gilbert Seldes.

Reading now: Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler.

I still can’t believe it, honestly: that we went all the way down the rabbit hole and elected the demagogue. The racism, the sexism, the xenophobia: that was the worst of it, of course, but it’s not why I couldn’t bring myself to believe he’d be elected. No: I thought it was just so transparent that he was a fraud, a con man, a bad, bad salesman. Incompetent. Obviously in it for the “winning,” for the chase, and not for the opportunity to do something good or to serve the country.

Honest to God, I thought we were smarter than this.  (The “we” here, throughout, stands for the citizens of the republic as a whole–we all get the same elected officials, after all, whether we voted for them or not–but this all happened because of we the white people. Particularly we the white men.)

Now obviously, had I thought about it and been less often curled into a mental fetal position of terror and rage and loathing, I would’ve recalled the long tradition of confidence men in American literature, who are there to point out that Americans love to be conned.

The Stammering Century is about radical religious movements in the nineteenth century, so of course it’s also about con men.  It really seemed as though anyone in nineteenth-century America could proclaim himself (or, sometimes, herself) the Messiah and get at least a few people– including many socialites and nouveau riche and intellectuals–to follow along and do his bidding. One of the most compelling chapters concerns Robert Matthews, aka Matthias, who decided he was God and was put up in style in 1830s New York by his well-heeled acolytes, at least one of whom he very likely murdered by poisoning (after having been cut off monetarily by that disciple, and having taken the wife of another as his own).

People getting conned, over and over again, through the course of 120 or so years (the book was published in 1928), out of money and rights (given the timing of publication, there’s a lot about temperance and prohibition) and, yeah, immortal souls.  If someone tells us with enough repetition and clarity that they are our ticket out of whatever horrible circumstances we think we’re in and back to or on to a new golden age, many of us buy it on whatever flimsy evidence.  The Fox sisters, who are the focal point of another wonderful chapter, started the spiritualism craze in 1848 more or less as a goof by causing the sound of rapping under a table (thanks to the slightly dislocated toe of one of the sisters) in response to questions posed to the dead.

Of course, many of the self-proclaimed messiahs, then as now, believed their own bunk–either due to mental illness or by simply convincing themselves of their own righteousness. As George Costanza said: “It’s not a lie… if you believe it.”


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