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A stomach ache in the heart: American frauds


We are all, as Americans – I speak as one of the flock – still at the low stage of civilisation of one of the Mississippi towns in Huck Finn.

By a fortunate coincidence, I’ve been reading Huck Finn each night for the last month  to Adam before he goes to sleep. We have an agreement – a page or three of Huck, then A. reads to him from the Vam-wolf-zom book. We are now deep into the Duke and Dauphin’s  greatest fraud, the imitation of an English minister and his deaf and dumb brother to bedazzle a rube Mississippi Valley family and worm out their goods. It is one of the great episodes. I’m revisiting it just as frauds of a larger scale but basically with the same mirthworthy unctuousness  – the FTX fraud, the Elon Musk twitter jamboree – are leading a dance though the papers, and, more importantly, through Twitter. Twitter has taken up the burden of the tabloid, because the newspapers – the WAPO, the NYT – have become so country club that they don’t know what to do with such rich materials, recognizing in the spoiled children who are the begetters of this scheme their own children from their own prep schools, and hesitating between the scolding and the “aren’t they adorable” talk that they give their progeny when they come home stoned with the fender bent Porsche.

Sad, that. At one time, when it had more hustle, the NYT played the role of a sort of choral character in Gesine Cresspahl novels of Uwe Johnson. No more. To find out what happened at the Bermuda HQ of SBF’s lemonade stand, you have to go to places like AutismCapital and tweets like those of Tiffany Fong. O brave new world, which has such trolls and trombones within it! That it is being shaken by the antics of one of the world’s dimmest characters – a damned good salesman cosplaying an engineer, Elon M. – makes it all the more slapstick.

But to return to the Duke and Dauphin. Their apotheosis comes from the most admired American virtue – the ability to keep a face in the light of discrediting circumstance. The poker face, the face of the stone killer cop, the face of the politician “with his pants down/and money sticking in his hole” going on the attack about his enemies – in Trump’s case, the politically correct, in Clinton’s case, the witchhunters who didn’t understand that running the executive office like the Playboy mansion was not sexual harassment, but mock-Kennedyism. It is all there in Chapter 29 of Huckleberry Finn. The Duke and Dauphin, imitating the Wilkins brothers and stealing their relatives blind, are confronted by the real Wilkins brothers, who have finally arrived at the little tree stump settlement. Huck, naively, thinks the jig is up:

“But I didn’t see no joke about it, and I judged it would strain the duke and the king some to see any. I reckoned they’d turn pale. But no, nary a pale did ¢hey turn. The duke he never let on he suspicioned what was np, but just went a goo-goo- ing around, happy and satisfied, like a jug that’s googling out buttermilk; and as for the king, he just gazed and | gazed down sorrowful on them new- comers like it give him the stomach-ache in his very heart to think there could be such frauds and rascals in the world. Oh, he done it admirable.”

A stomach ache in his heart. How much this goes right to the heart of the American dream, gone a little crooked! You do have to sit back and admire the audacity of it all.