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The Moral Con

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The creators of Cards Against Humanity recently pulled an interesting and illustrative stunt. They purchased land on the Mexican border, with the goal of preventing the Mexican border wall.

“Donald Trump is a preposterous golem who is afraid of Mexicans. He is so afraid that he wants to build a twenty-billion dollar wall that everyone knows will accomplish nothing. So we’ve purchased a plot of vacant land on the border and retained a law firm specializing in eminent domain to make it as time-consuming and expensive as possible for the wall to get built.”

Whatever you may think of the border wall, positive or negative, one of the virtues of this stunt is its creativity. It is neither violent nor destructive, is entirely legal, and appears likely to be an effective impediment.

Yet even if you disagree with the wall and applaud the clever means of opposing it, there is something off about the motivation behind it. Their statement from their website begins with a somewhat immature insult, and a straw-manning of a very serious and reasonable concern among many Americans, particularly on border states: the job-loss, crime, and cultural dilution that comes with the scale of immigration we’ve been experiencing. It may be wrong, but it isn’t unreasonable.

More telling is their line about making the wall as expensive and time-consuming as possible. Given that two of their stated reasons for opposing the wall are its cost and its projected ineffectiveness, this tactic specifically designed to increase the cost and reduce  the wall’s effectiveness indicates another motive, especially when we consider they made no positive case for the Mexican migrants. They aren’t pro-immigration, they’re just anti-Trump.

It is entirely possible–likely, in fact–that their motives are entirely economic. As a marketing scheme for promoting their game, immediately before the holidays, it’s pretty brilliant.

That it may cost taxpayers millions of dollars would be just an unfortunate side-effect.

Even if their motives really are civic, and their positions are–contrary to all appearances–clear and thought-through, there’s something suspicious about the timing and the pandering. It’s very popular to signal against Trump these days. Isn’t this the very reason why so many dislike Trump in the first place?

The whole situation reminds me of a video Davis Aurini put out about two years ago, in which he describes the mechanism of the con man:

The important thing you need to remember about con artistry is what the ‘con’ stands for, what a con-man is. He’s a confidence man. He’s someone who gets your confidence and uses that to steal your money. You know, there’s an old saying, that “you can’t con an honest man.” You can defraud an honest man, but conning him? Much, much more difficult.

Why is this?

Aurini explains a basic confidence trick called the “pigeon drop” that involves two cons and a mark. One con engages the mark in conversation, while the second sneaks up behind him and drops a wallet on the ground. He then points it out to the mark and the first con, asking if the wallet belongs to either of them. The first con and the mark both say they don’t recognize it, and so the second con–with the tacit approval of the first con and the mark–opens the wallet, to find it loaded with cash; maybe $3,000.

The first con verbally notes “that’s  $1,000 each.”

The second con puts the cash in an envelope (and through some sleight of hand, swaps the envelope with an identical envelope filled with sheets of paper, simulating the $3,000). He then hands the dummy envelope to mark to hold on to the cash; he’s going to take the wallet inside the nearest building and see if he can find the owner, on the condition that the other two don’t leave. The first con volunteers a few hundred dollars of his own to the second con as collateral and proof he won’t wander off… thus pressuring the good-natured mark to do the same.

When the second con-man doesn’t return, the first says he’s going to look for him, leaving the mark with the envelope full of paper, left to eventually to realize he’s lost a few hundred dollars and gained an envelope of nothing.

There’s one critical key to all of this […] a real con-man gets his mark complicit in the crime. See, look at that pigeon drop; what happened there is these three people found a wallet with $3,000 in it, and you don’t know who this money belongs to. That could be their first and last month’s rent, maybe they’re on to a new apartment. It could be money they desperately need. And here the three of them are talking about splitting it among themselves, because this poor, imaginary fellow dropped their wallet? They get the mark complicit. If you’re going to be a con-man, you get the mark complicit.

What would be the point in putting your own money into a collateral pot if you weren’t planning on taking some of the found cash? The sly observation “that’s $1,000 each” primes the mark to participate in the theft. Putting his own money in the plot seals it, and in doing so, opens him to the con men’s ploy.

Where does Cards Against Humanity fit into all of this?

For people on the right (the ones who tend to support the border wall), traditional values are important, if not sacred values. Even for those on the left, the “traditional values” are valuable, even if they don’t beat out compassion, openness, and fairness.

Cards Against Humanity is not just a game like Risk, Monopoly, chess, or hearts. It is an invitation to creatively practice inverting these values and embracing the inversion. We are not laughing at the incongruity of the cards when we play Cards Against Humanity; we’re laughing at the dark creativity of the players. This form of irreverent creativity is a skill, and like any skill, is refined and even habituated with practice.

From the perspective of a right-wing traditionalist, it makes absolute sense that the designers of such a game would be the type to not only support left-wing policies, but do so of their own accord, in a creatively dickish manner, once given the power and resources to do so.

To summarize the mechanics, Temkin, Dillon, Dranove, Halpern*, Hantoot, Munk, Pinsof, and Weinstein* functioned as moral and civic con-men. They invited us to participate in a game that mocks the moral character and values that a traditional conservative should take seriously. It was only a joke, you see. When we discover that the creators of such a game don’t actually share the values we do, and are actively working to thwart our civic goals, it is like being the mark, standing alone, and discovering that he is holding an envelope full of paper.

(In fairness, gun-stores which sell guns to liberals, and who then donate some of the proceeds to the NRA, function in a similar manner. Here, the con-man label is not analogous to the motives of the con, but the experience of the mark).

This may sound a bit puritanical. What, are we not allowed to laugh? Are we not allowed to enjoy irony and make jokes?

This is a very tempting line of thought, and curiously, a sort of intuitive one. Curious, because a rejection of a particular kind of humor is no more a rejection of all forms of humor and laughter than a rejection of sweets constitutes a rejection of all forms of food or even tasty food, nor is rejecting theft a rejection of making a little bit of money. There’s an interesting question: exactly how much theft can we reject before we become puritans? There is no reason the “puritan” thought should be intuitive, and yet it is. C.S. Lewis was right when he observed — in the voice of his demon-tempter, Screwtape — that the word “puritanical” and its associations has become one of the greatest tools for facilitating habituated sin.

In fact, it may be useful to go over the four sources of laughter outlined in The Screwtape Letters, Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy:

You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such time shows they are not the real cause.

Fun is closely related to Joy — a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct.

For Lewis’ demons, neither joy nor fun are particularly useful for tempting mortals, except as a distraction. Where the real usefulness of laughter begins is with the Joke Proper:

The Joke Proper, which turns on sudden perception of incongruity, is a much more promising field […] The real use of Jokes or Humour is in quite a different direction, and it is specially promising among the English who take their ‘sense of humour’ so seriously that a deficiency in this sense is almost the only deficiency at which they feel shame. Humour is for them the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life. Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame. If a man simply lets others pay for him, he is ‘mean’; if he boasts of it in a jocular manner and twits his fellows with having been scored off, he is no longer ‘mean’ but a comical fellow. Mere cowardice is shameful; cowardice boasted of with humorous exaggerations and grotesque gestures can be passed off as funny. Cruelty is shameful–unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke […] Any suggestion that there might be too much of it can be represented to him as ‘Puritanical’ or as betraying a ‘lack of humor.’

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place, it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be made to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armor-plating against the Enemy [God] that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.

There are times when laughter is useful in dealing with difficult situations; the light side of dark humor. And of course, in the realm of what is allowed to others, we can’t make special exceptions or bans. “All of it’s okay, or none of it’s okay,” as they say, and there is good reason for this. But allowing others to target anything does not oblige us to participate in their particular forms of humor.

Laughter is immensely powerful. It is persuasive, because it makes us participants, but sometimes the participation is in more than the punchline.

We don’t need to become conspiratorial investigators, doing deep reconnaissance on the backstory behind every comedian, every Onion headline, and every satirical cartoon that rolls across our feed, just as the man in the street doesn’t need to know everything about everyone to have a basic level of trust. He just needs the will to be an honest man.

And we need the will to be honest and serious in our own values.

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