It may seem cliché to keep telling my personal stories and twisting them into political allegories, but so often it just fits, so please humor me.
When I was seven or eight-years-old, I was given a short collection of “tricks” called, “There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute,” based on P. T. Barnum’s famous line. There was one ruse I used to love. It started out with me asking some unsuspecting friend, or even a random stranger, if they wanted to see a trick.
It was a fun little gimmick for a seven-year-old to play on unsuspecting “suckers,” and I milked it until I was around 11 or 12, at which point it wasn’t as cute. I actually tried it once when I was 15, but with $20 bills instead of quarters. My mark was a perfectly harmless guy who was trying to date my older sister. I thought I could get him in the old catch-22: if he beat me up he wouldn’t stand a chance with my sister, but if he let me keep the twenties he might make it to date number two. As it turns out, in 1985, 40 bucks was worth fighting for.
I remember that goof fondly, but that’s all it was: a goof. I realized that the folks I was relieving of 50 cents weren’t really suckers, just trusting people who had decided not to walk through life with their guard up at every step, but eventually it wasn’t nearly as much fun as it had once been. I got a paper route and started making money honestly, and I never had to worry about getting beat up for scamming anyone again.
Well, almost never. There was another gimmick in the book that I took a fancy to. This one didn’t involve money, just a little wounded pride. I’d ask some big guy if he’d like to arm wrestle me. Remember, I’m seven. It’s amazing how kind strangers can be, especially to some unthreatening, seemingly innocent kid.
“You’re 10 times my size,” I’d say. “Can I ask for a handicap?” If you put your elbow on the table and make a fist and pull it toward you, and I pull your fist back with both hands, I might be able to get your arm down to the table.” As it turns out, this is a bit of a disadvantage for the “mark.” They’d actually have to exert some force to keep me from pulling their forearm down to the table. We’d start the contest, and at the point of maximum tension, I’d suddenly let go of the guy’s fist, and he’d punch himself in the nose.
That one was pretty funny. People instinctively trust seven-year-olds, mom and dad, and Walter Cronkite. You’re not supposed to be wise enough to take advantage of people at that age. That’s why you can sucker two quarters from an unsuspecting stranger or trick them into punching themselves in the face. They’d never even imagined that a kid might be trying to con them.
(This is where the political part comes in.) This is where we are now, nationally and globally. The mind-numbing flurry of punches to the face while all the quarters are being stolen for generations to come is hair-raising. Our national government has abdicated its responsibility for the safety of its citizens in the face of a deadly global pandemic, while the Federal Reserve props up individual companies, something that’s never happened before.
Especially troubling, America is thumbing its nose at a broad range of international partnerships and alliances; government revenues are being blatantly and openly handed over to the wealthy; and the least secure among us are being scapegoated, targeted, taxed, and imprisoned. The list of weirdness is as endless as it is crazy, all in service of protecting a horribly corrupt president and his enablers. Saddest of all, Walter Cronkite has been replaced by Fox (ahem) “News” and MSNBC.
When I was seven, I suckered trusting neighbors out of four bits and got them to punch themselves in the face, but I never imagined such shenanigans could be taken to such an extreme. It’s as if this administration has replaced the constitution with that slim volume I was given as a boy. This time, however, instead of quarters, hundreds of billions of dollars are changing hands, and instead of punching themselves in the nose, hundreds of thousands of us are losing our lives. These days, all of us are suckers.