In Herman Melville’s final novel, “The Confidence Man,” the author presents a mid-19th century allegorical look at American culture. Onboard a riverboat sailing down the Mississippi, the reader encounters all varieties of con artists: one selling cures for cancer, another pushing failing stock certificates, another slippery operative collecting donations for Seminole widows and orphans.
Each passenger embodies greed and self-interest. No surprise that Melville lived in a deceitful society, hustlers everywhere trying to take what they have not earned.
Has anything changed? Whom should we trust? As we duck for cover, advertisers, post-truth news sources, political spin artists and get-rich-quick scammers fire salvos of lies aimed at our gullible heads.
The dissemblers have been at it for ages. “Say truth and shame the devil” was a common expression used by 16th century clergy. Imagine that, shaming Lucifer! The rest of us might suffer red-faced humiliation if caught with a thumb on the scale, but Old Nick takes delight in cheating.
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Conducting oneself honorably proves difficult because evidence of deceit mars our culture like a carbuncle on Lady Liberty’s nose.
I have not heard from the Nigerian prince lately, but he used to email me often. In his place, eager Rachel from Credit Card Services rings through weekly, imploring me to lower my credit card interest rate. I wonder if she knows Caroline, who calls now and then to offer an all-expenses-paid vacation to the Caribbean. Her cream-and-honey voice is more pleasant than the self-appointed IRS agent who threatens something about back taxes and an arrest warrant.
Not only that, some purported computer yahoo claims that I must take immediate steps to secure my firewall by allowing him access to my computer. Did I mention the hearing aid guy? Or the push poll people? Or the faux charity that renders little of its take to real charity? What an onslaught of stinkers shamelessly wagging their leather tails in hopes of theft by trickery.
One such trickster recently caught me unawares as I was sipping my morning coffee and reading The New Tribune.
I picked up the receiver to hear, “Hello, Grandpa.”
Urgency in his voice, the fast talker apparently did not know that I have no grandson.
The swindler said his voice sounded “funny” because his nose was broken, the result of a car crash. I imagined the caller: cloven feet, a stylish pitchfork, a pointed goatee and leaking the odor of sulfur dioxide. Totaled car, hospital bills, changed voice — the little devil was in big trouble and needed some help.
Stunned into silence, I listened as the narration untangled, waiting for the denouement, which ended in a plea for cash.
Tempted to say, “Go to hell,” I reconsidered on the grounds of redundancy. I hung up and checked the front door deadbolt.
Swindling always has always been a lucrative enterprise. Hackers, cheats, schemers, crooks, mountebanks — all folks who decide to con the slow-witted and gullible. Casting a wide net, connivers look to haul in slow-moving and often-elderly fish.
A few years ago, a young Tacoma police officer enrolled in one of my evening classes at Pierce College. In the course of our time together, I came to enjoy chatting with him during coffee breaks. He surprised me when he claimed that every civilian he encountered while on duty he deemed a liar.
“They all lie,” he said.
“Honestly, I don’t I lie,” I lied.
I think now about all the times I substitute flattery for honesty: “How nice to see you!” and, “You look as if you’ve lost weight.” I lie to please people because, well, honesty often causes discomfort. Alas, though, a lie is still a lie.
But hostile lies cause catastrophes. Take the sociopathic Iago in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” the most monstrous liar in literature. He causes death and ruination to everyone he encounters. The other characters in the play call him “Honest Iago,” but behind his façade beats a murderous heart.
Trust me. Iago lives among us. He smiles, puts his lips close to your ear and pours out lies:
“Congratulations, friend. I have a deal for you, one almost too good to be true.”
Steilacoom resident Steve Jaech retired from Pierce College, where he taught literature and composition. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.