• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Subterfuge: The Last Refuge of the Desperate

March 2019

Contrary to the prevailing, if not wholly cynical way of thinking to which our age has become inclined, politicians aren’t the only liars. They’re not alone in having secured for themselves a monopoly on perfidy. They aren’t the robber-barons of deceit, the Machiavels sitting atop the truth as if they were the moneyed class. This may come to the average auditor of American life as a surprise, but to those more discerning and less naïve, it’s no great shock. At least it isn’t if you’ve been listening to the ruffling sounds of the culture as of late. If you have, your ear surely has shivered upon hearing the yelps of feelings drowning out truths and the cries of narratives stifling facts.

Lying, as still it appears to be the case, remains to be the most open and inviting of all lines of work. Indeed, far from our politicians having cornered this market, this sector of mendacious art, lying remains an occupation—at times a veritable sport—whose access and whose mastery is tangible to all. To attain it, all that one need apply is a small investment of legerity and cunning. Add to this a slightly larger withdrawal of conscience. Tally it up, and the calculation is nearly complete. Deposit your deceit and sacrifice your scruple and viola—not only is the liar born, but he thrives in this new economy of treachery. The rogue within him breathes and the transaction begins. The rest works itself out, as we, the credulous audience from whom the lie is given the full scope of its life, are more than happy to believe and watch it grow.

Many and various are the people—politicians, of course, but also students, clergyman, and laity alike—who find themselves drawn feverishly to this sport of lying. It’s become almost welcoming and indiscriminately accommodating in a way. Lying has become the comfortable recourse to which a vast swath of bored, solipsistic, attention-seeking people ever in hopes of gaining “victimhood” status have turned. The strange people of whom this part of society is composed imagine themselves oppressed and mistreated under the great and asphyxiating heel of truth. They very earnestly want you to join in their malformed belief that, in this case, they’ve been preyed upon unfairly. What’s more, they’re willing to lie if only to garner your sympathy.

Today, lying has immense currency. It’s become less a demerit, more a readily fungible thing. Lying is rather “bullish” at the moment, morals bearish, if we’re to continue with our use of the parlance of finance. Its peddlers are enticed by its endless commerce and we pay to watch. It’s within the reach of all those who wish to transact not in truth, but in falsity—of those who value not veracity but blatant obfuscation of facts. All one needs is a sense of fearless irresponsibility that will make him unaccountable to his act. Add to that an audacious imagination and a callous disregard for the truth. Without these things, the three legs upon which the lie stands, its foundation falls in a heap.

But to stretch our currency analogy just a bit further than it ought to allow, lying is obviously an inherently unstable coin. Like a speculation in an emerging market or an investment overseas, lying is a fickle and uncertain thing. Enticingly auspicious, it tempts its buyer’s risk. It promises him no solid return and frightens him with absolute loss. And history (should it bother us to serve as a guide) has shown that the tendency of perfidy is rather to debase than to compound. Thus, the liar is advised to sell long before his losses mount.

For most people (we specifically call to mind the actor Jussie Smollet, whose lie inflated enormously until, like a financial bubble, it burst) such losses are mounting and mounting still. The unprofitability of Smollett’s particular lie—weeks in the making and weeks in the unravelling—will leave him criminally, unenviably disposed. As the facts of his case slowly emerge, it looks as if he were playing the role not only of agent provocateur, but of a Ponzi scheme amateur—one who couldn’t gather a profit from a nation and a media blindly willing to invest in him and believe. He’s left, for the time being, morally bankrupt and very much criminally on the hook.

Subterfuge, he revealed, is the last refuge of the desperate. So too is it the first recourse of the devilish. Perhaps, in proceeding with his crime in the way he did, Smollett was motivated by both. He was both desperate and devilish. As it pertains to the former, he was desperate to exalt his career at all costs. Piteously, though perhaps inaccurately, he felt as if his star were fading. Empire, the show on which he starred, was in his opinion becoming ephemeral; he thought he’d soon be written off the script. Whether or not this was true, only his producers and agents could say, but he certainly sensed it and was willing to purchase a scintilla of attention to preserve his career at the cost of a grave sin. He thought that only a real fabrication could succeed in keeping him on the stage. The farcical, though, became the felonious and he never did achieve the newfangled status of American icon on the silver screen. That’s not to say though, that he wasn’t close. So estimable a status would’ve been his had he not been found out.

He was also desperate in another way. He wanted to make that which was merely personal, national. Casting himself as the victim and the specter of a white supremacist as the predator, he was desperate to create a narrative about America-at-large that simply holds no truth. He put to work his morbid imagination—rife with racism, homophobia, violence, and Republican Chicagoans of all things—to poke a thumb at our nation’s most sensitive spot. A gay black man, Smollet knew that America would commiserate with him unquestioningly upon hearing his ghastly account. So reactive a response could only be the expected result of a nation acutely aware of its own unprepossessing past. America, for all her progress, is most persistent in her struggle to redeem herself from her original sin. It’s the blemish of which she’s invariably embarrassed—the one from which she’d withhold no effort if only to efface. But efface it she cannot. And so, his personal tale would rally national and unequivocal commiseration. The nation’s presumption of guilt would be on those white ruffians by whom he was accosted, and its presumption of truth, on Smollett himself. Ultimately, he wanted to make his personal desperation a national matter. And though the story diverged from his intended direction, he achieved just that.

Just as subterfuge is, as earlier noted, the last refuge of the desperate, so too is it in many instances the first recourse of the devilish. The devilish motivations in which Smollett was subsumed need not be explored here. Too much ink on this subject has been spilled already and the addition of mine would be of no great use. Certainly, though, his motivations were satanic in every way and his subterfuge infernally inspired. His intention was to raise from the ground the ugly demons of racism and bigotry—the frightful iniquities of which America has long since exorcised herself. But rather than celebrate this liquidation of these long-gone Lucifers, he wanted to bring them back and into life. You can see why I say that his plan was, in every way, infernal. Namely, it’s because his proximity to succeeding in convincing the nation of his lie was so miniscule. As he did in the desert, the devil very nearly won.

But we need not buy his subterfuge, nor anyone's for that matter. We must become conditioned to veracity, objectivity, and truth. We must protect ourselves from the devilish and harden ourselves to the desperate. We must give no quarter to lies.

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