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Keeping the con alive

Salon readers have never been the shy and retiring type, but Monday's Life story -- "How I Became a Con Artist" -- certainly brought out the knives. "You don't deserve to live in a civilized society," read one of the 200+ outraged comments, peppered with such descriptors as douchebag, degenerate and morally bankrupt. At least one furious reader actually e-mailed writer Jason Jellick's employer to complain. Readers directed their scorn at us as well. "Is this the best Salon can do, especially at the start of the Christmas holiday season?" Ouch. We weren't just ethically bankrupt. We were ruining Christmas.

To clarify, Salon doesn't advocate stealing -- but for that matter, neither does Jellick. His account of a youth spent indulging in petty crimes against chain stores and other corporations ends with a hard stare at his own shady behavior, with a realization at just how much damage his behavior has wrought. Jellick's story is one of regret as much as misdeed. It is about the lies we tell ourselves -- that we are better and smarter than everyone else, that we deserve more than the shreds we've been given, that our swinging fist doesn't hurt anyone. Like all our Life Stories, his tale offers a window into human behavior in its imperfections and complexity. All of us have tiny private shames we're afraid to tell others. To confess them isn't just fascinating. It's liberating. (Sarah Hepola, “Our con story – and yours,” Salon, 2 Dec. 2010)

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Thank you for your expulsion from Eden; welcome to Salon

His account of a youth spent indulging in petty crimes against chain stores and other corporations ends with a hard stare at his own shady behavior, with a realization at just how much damage his behavior has wrought.

All your life stories read like this, to the point of feeling prescribed. This isn't about discovery; and certainly not complexity, either. It's more about self-fashioning, and probably mostly about salvation: a collective concern to identify yourselves as amongst the repentant, and therefore feel less guilty. So much so, that I bet the author of this piece doesn't even allow himself to partake of what this piece is tantalizingly ripe to offer him -- namely, further sense that in he is rather still, artfully, nimbly, making use of others' route requirements to benefit himself -- the fox.

At some level, the author believes himself braver than most others. His true lack of courage comes not only -- as Hutman pointed out -- not doing anything near the Michael Moore and doing his thing directly before empowered adults (though it is true that some people might not manage what he managed, even if required for truly good benefit, and that this lack isn't to be shamed but certainly to be dealt with, to be insistently pointed out), but in his Salon-preference need to demonstrate himself imperfect but repentant, ultimately more formula, general-type, sumupable, quiescent, than an interesting, riseable particular, so he might count himself amongst those actually less worthy of a beating in these purity concerned times. If it still seems as if he's too much rejoicing in his memory of the "score," don't worry: though he is still laughing at you a bit (he can permit himself some of this -- after all, you're outside the gates in the land of the loud, pained, but ultimately powerless and distinctly separated letter writers; you're the plebs whose role is to uninterruptedly experience the snub, with never any worth-affirming real attention or recompense), he'll make it about further demonstance of his blatant (but ultimately actually redeeming) human weakness, and further expunge this voice in later writings.

And this bit:

It is about the lies we tell ourselves -- that we are better and smarter than everyone else, that we deserve more than the shreds we've been given, that our swinging fist doesn't hurt anyone.

is gross. How on earth are we supposed to accomplish anything if some of us don't imagine we might do better than what was done before, insist on better than we were handed, conceive of ourselves as noteworthy, and perhaps special? But you're about flattening a sinning generation now, aren't you? Submerging personality, uniqueness; every individual's desire sublimating into something the crowd would okay (I noticed how Andrew Leonard managed his desire to once again self-absorb in video games, by making it into part of a collective ritual of primarily more selflessness-intended sharing across generations. He made his son, that is, serve his lie.) Everyone abandoning every pretense to something special, sinking themselves as close to the ground, as obsequiously within the okays of the group, only rising to cut the legs out from those who would dare roam about on their own. Welcome to righteous, jealous-eyed, village life. Welcome to the the shamed covering-up, followed by the grim, self-preserving pointing of fingers, that follows the unaccounted for, hugely blasphemic, orgy. Welcome to Salon.

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You do need to be able to con. You do need to be able, if there is just cause, to be able -- in an instant -- do otherwise than what you've always been told you're supposed to do. If society is turning puritan, for example, you do need to be able to protect, hide, those that are being assigned the role of the rats. If society is corporate, against cooperative efforts, you need to be able to find some way to help communicate that its control is not total. A first step toward this, may just come from the likes of returning books you never purchased: you may actually thereby be safely convincing yourself you can thwart authority, and survive: foundation for scarier, more relevant, efforts. If you sense that this is part of what your own cons were about, to do most good, you don't repudiate all you once did -- just work on why your efforts became to seem near mostly about repetition-compulsion, about always proving you can avoid the scrutiny of the angry eye, from your own projected parental-figure, about why you keep keeping it within a context whereby not corporations but vulnerable, perennially trapped people kinda like yourself, are actually the ones you imagine most at risk of being taken in your scams. There is psychological work you could make of this, and it could make it so that rather than a repentant, you become more truly what you once (however still faintly) set out to be: a truly moral person, who respects "the human" enough to be a potentially change-prompting, certainly anger-arousing, irritant, when appropriate.

I remember reading "Why They Kill," of how rapists and killers get "there" by first partaking of smaller thrills they believe others would fear to similarly manage, so I'm not ignorant: the truest villains can be made to seem heroes, if what you're mostly doing is championing deviance, deviation, defiance. Still, though there is a world of difference, heroes ARE those who can brave anxiety-provoking experiences, for some better purpose, and I do sense a little bit of the hero in this person. I just wish that there was an environment around to encourage it. As is, he's just doing what Tiger Woods is about to do, and castrate himself to a larger order, and participate in society's revenge against those who would dare range about as selfishly as he once did.

Link: Our con story – and yours


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