With apologies to Erving Goffman for liberties taken with his now-classic essay. But seriously, if you have been paying attention to the debt ceiling “crisis of the past few weeks, this will resonate:
“In cases of criminal fraud, victims find they must suddenly adapt themselves to the loss of sources of security and status which they had taken for granted. A consideration of this adaptation to loss can lead us to an understanding of some relations in our society between involvements and the selves that are involved. In the argot of the criminal world, the term “mark” refers to any individual who is a victim or prospective victim of certain forms of planned illegal exploitation. The mark is the sucker‑the person who is taken in. An instance of the operation of any particular racket, taken through the full cycle of its steps or phases, is sometimes called a play. The persons who operate the racket and “take” the mark are occasionally called operators.
The confidence game‑the con, as its practitioners call it‑is a way of obtaining money under false pretenses by the exercise of fraud and deceit. The con differs from politer forms of financial deceit in important ways. The con is practiced on private persons by talented actors who methodically and regularly build up informal social relationships just for the purpose of abusing them; white‑collar crime is practiced on organizations by persons who learn to abuse positions of trust which they once filled faithfully. The one exploits, poise; the other, position. Further, a con man is someone who accepts a social role in the underworld community; he is part of a brotherhood whose members make no pretense to one another of being “legit.” A white‑collar criminal, on the other hand, has no colleagues, although he may have an associate with whom he plans his crime and a wife to whom he confesses it.
The con is said to be a good racket in the United States only because most Americans are willing, nay eager, to make easy money, and will engage in action that is less than legal in order to do so The typical play has typical phases. The potential sucker is first spotted and one member of the working team (called the outside man, steerer, or roper) arranges to make social contact with him. The confidence of the mark is won, and he is given an opportunity to invest his money in a gambling venture which he understands to have been fixed in his favor The venture, of course, is fixed, but not in his favor. The mark is permitted to win some money and then persuaded to invest more. There is an “accident” or “mistake,” and the mark loses his total investment. The operators then depart in a ceremony that is called the blowoff or sting. They leave the mark but take his money. The mark is expected to go on his way, a little wiser and a lot poorer.”
Let me argue that a big con has just been accomplished in which the American people is the mark and the political class constitutes the operators on behalf of larger financial interest. The venture was investment in “Obama” as brand, the chance to be part of a transformative movement larger than oneself. That venture, of course, was fixed. The marks won a little (Lilly Ledbetter), in order to keep investing (the pro-LGBT legislations are also part of that).
But as Goffman continues, sometimes, the mark is not happy with being fleeced and that can mean trouble for the operators and the higher interests they serve. There is then a need to cool the mark down:
“One of the operators stays with the mark and makes an effort to keep the anger of the mark within manageable and sensible proportions. The operator stays behind his team‑mates in the capacity of what might be called a cooler and exercises upon the mark the art of consolation. An attempt is made to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.”
That would be a variety of media commentators and the swarms of supporters online and on various social media sites providing all sorts of rationalizations: “Obama couldn’t do anything”, “it’s really the GOP’s fault”, “this is the best possible deal under the circumstances”, etc. And there are, of course, retroactive rationalizations for having supported the con from the get-go: “who could have guessed?”:
“It is well known that persons protect themselves with all kinds of rationalizations when they have a buried image of themselves which the facts of their status do not support. A person may tell himself many things: that he has not been given a fair chance; that he is not really interested in becoming something else; that the time for showing his mettle has not yet come; that the usual means of realizing his desires are personally or morally distasteful, or require too much dull effort. By means of such defenses, a person saves himself from committing a cardinal social sin‑the sin of defining oneself in terms of a status while lacking the qualifications which an incumbent of that status is supposed to possess.
A mark’s participation in a play, and his investment in it, clearly commit him in his own eyes to the proposition that he is a smart man. The process by which he comes to believe that he cannot lose is also the process by which he drops the defenses and compensations that previously protected him from defeats. When the blowoff comes, the mark finds that he has no defense for not being a shrewd man. He has defined himself as a shrewd man and must face the fact that he is only another easy mark. He has defined himself as possessing a certain set of qualities and then proven to himself that he is miser ably lacking in them. This is a process of self‑destruction of the self. It is no wonder that the mark needs to be cooled out and that it is good business policy for one of the operators to stay with the mark in order to talk him into a point of view from which it is possible to accept a loss.”
And rationalizations are also used from the perspective of the operators:
“One may also note that coolers in service organizations tend to view their own activity in a light that softens the harsher details of the situation. The cooler protects himself from feelings of guilt by arguing that the customer is not really in need of the service he expected to receive, that bad service is not really deprivational, and that beefs and complaints are a sign of bile, not a sign of injury. In a similar way, the con man protects himself from remorseful images of bankrupt marks by arguing that the mark is a fool and not a full‑fledged person, possessing an inclination towards illegal gain but not the decency to admit it or the capacity to succeed at it.”
See all the accusations from Obama supporters to critics that they would never be happy anyway, and there is no pleasing them.
Goffman mentions all different ways of cooling the mark out based on different social settings in order to avoid a blowout, an explosion. So, in our present case, how do you prevent a social explosion? Well, this article offers eight reasons (cooling strategies) why young people in the US have not taken to the streets to protest a system (con) which is offering them an upcoming lost decade:
- Student-loan debt
- Psychopathologizing and medicating non-compliance (see the new DSM V and here as well)
- Schools that educate for compliance and not for democracy
- No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top
- Shaming young people who take education—but not their schooling—seriously
- Normalization of surveillance
- Television + media
- Fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist consumption
Consider this all different ways of cooling the mark out for the global and digital age. So far, it’s working and the con game continues.