Saturday, January 21, 2023

Six Degrees of Santos

Compulsive liars exist - in excess, today.

The Santos saga goes on.  The latest grab-your-popcorn revelation is that Santos, who ran on an "anti-trans" and "anti-drag-queen" platform was, himself, a drag queen in Brazil.  Frankly, I think it is more important that he is wanted for check fraud there - should we extradite him?

But it struck me that we've been down this road before - people who are compulsive liars who just don't seen to give a damn about how improbable their lies are.  There was a book written - and then a play and a movie made - about a young man who plied the upper East Side of New York, claiming to be Sidney Poitier's son.  He would tell wealthy (mostly white) people he had been mugged and they would take him in - and he would stay for weeks.

If you are going to lie, it seems, it pays to lie big - and apparently that is right out of the Goebbels playbook.  If a lie is so outlandish, people will think, "Well, no one could tell a whopper like that!  There has to be some truth to it!"

Recently, there was an almost identical repeat of "Six Degrees of Separation" when a young woman did basically the same thing, claiming to a wealthy heiress - and running up bills all over town and indulging on the hospitality of others, until she was finally found out and sent to prison.

But is it not much different from the Theranos disaster - where a high-school aged girl (with a fake low voice) claimed to have invented a ground-breaking blood-testing microchip.   Yes, that could happen, while you are in high school.  Many people, including Henry Kissinger, got sucked in and lost a lot of money and people rightfully went to prison.

Bernie Madoff is really the same idea - he told whoppers of lies and got people to throw money at him, all while suspending disbelief.   Again, many went to prison.

In those examples, no one felt very sorry for the victims involved.  They were rich people who had a lot of money and not a lot of common sense.  Someone would have come along and harvested their cash, eventually.

In other cases, well, it is the little people who send off what little money they have, to MLM schemes, evangelical pastors, or for Donald Trump NFTs.   Yes, the last few years have been a golden age for the silver tongued.  Compulsive liars have had a field day, aided and abetted by the Internet.  We have Trumpism, we have Qanonsense, we have a "Queen of Canada" (Besides Dougb Ford).  People, it seems, are willing to believe anything that is convenient to them - take "sovereign citizens" for example.  Please.

Why are we so willing to believe these tall tales?  And why is the truth having such a hard time of it?  At first we tried calling these sketchy "news" sites online as "fake news."   But he of orange skin and yellow hair turned that right around and called mainstream media "fake news."  If you control the language of the debate, you control the debate.  So then they tried "fact checking" but the far-right decried that as "biased" and besides, no one believing the lies bothered to read the fact-checking.  Often these were people who were flummoxed by facts while in school, and this was an opportunity to turn the tables on "smart" people.  Alternative facts to the rescue!

There were - and are - other techniques.  If someone says horrible things about you, the best defense is to say even more horrible, but easily disprovable, things about yourself.  Once you have debunked one false "fact" (that you planted in the first place) you can then argue that all arguments against you are just sour grapes.  The most outrageous example of this was the "60 Minutes" story where a planted false document claimed that George Bush skipped out on his National Guard duty.  The document was a clumsy fake - made using Word 2000 but supposedly from an era where typewriters would have been used.  Bush was able to turn the tables on Gore - arguing that he was the hero and Gore was the zero.  We called it "Swiftboating" back then, and it worked.  Well, that and Florida.

A similar thing may be going on here with Santos.  His lies are so many and so bizarre, he is sort of "Gish Galloping" us - we can't even keep up with the number of lies he has told.  And the lies are so bold as to make some wonder whether they could be true.  How did he think he could get away with it?  No one would make that bold a lie!  The latest story - that he was a drag queen - might in fact have been planted by Santos himself, as a false flag.  If he can prove it was clearly false, he could then argue that all other allegations against him are similarly false. It's so crazy it just might work!

On the other hand, maybe he is just grifting us.  If you want a sweet deal in life, run for Congress.  People will throw money at you.  Although you have to serve a number of terms to end up with any sort of pensionIt's worth the risk, though.  Win or lose, Santos will no doubt write a book and the GOP will buy thousands of copies to hand out as "gifts" (or for landfill) and line Santos' pocket.  We'll see.

The problem for logical thinkers is that the compulsive liars simply don't play the game of marshalling facts and making logical arguments.  To them, political debate is a fun sport, and the more outlandish a lie, the more you've "owned the libs" - whatever that means.  (It apparently doesn't mean governing).

And this effect is nothing new and has been noted upon in the past:

“Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.”

― Jean-Paul Sartre
Given the recent rise in antisemitism, this quote is doubly relevant today.  Jewish space lasers?  "Jew will not replace us?"  It makes no sense and was never intended to.  The fact that Trump's own son-in-law is Jewish just doesn't register with the recipients of this nonsense.  The fact that the far-right supports Israel doesn't seem to register either.  It is, in fact, a form of mental illness - schizophrenia.

On a more personal level, chances are, you've had to deal with a compulsive liar at some time in your life.  Most people, once they figure out someone is a compulsive liar, move on and distance themselves from such folks.  I recall a guy like that when I was a teenager.  He just couldn't tell the truth - even about trivial things - and just lied all the time.

What causes people to do this is a mystery to me.  And apparently there are subtle differences between pathological liars and compulsive liars.  Both conditions stem from early childhood, being raised in an environment where lying is necessary for survival.  Maybe that explains Trump, who was constantly trying to please his Father - and saw firsthand what happened to his older brother when he told the truth.  In both cases, people seek an advantage by lying, even if it just means not having to deal with inconvenient truths.

You can't build a house on a foundation of lies, however.  Again - and I harp on this a lot - people who are successful in life are the ones who see the truth for what it is.  People who live in fantasy worlds never do well, and often their world crashes down around them when fantasy collides with reality.

We see this today with Elon Musk.  Early on, he wasn't too far removed from reality - he had the good luck or insight to invest in PayPal and then Tesla.   But then something snapped - maybe the pressure of running these companies and having to deal with labor strife and government regulations - and of course, taxes.  He went far-right, moved his company from California to Texas and then inexplicably bought Twitter for far more than it was ever worth.  Since then, his behavior has become more and more bizarre and erratic, and his lies are getting wilder and wilder.  It will not end well, when reality collides with fantasy.

Like I said, people who say that truth is "relative" and based on perception of the individual are selling bullshit.  "Everyone has their own truth, their own reality," they claim.   But there is an underlying truth to the universe - it is just often hard to see.  The man who claims they can fly like those people in The Matrix might jump off a building, and for a brief few moments, convince himself he is "flying."  But sadly, mean old reality steps in, in the form of the concrete sidewalk below.   Fantasies come crashing down, quite literally.

I suspect we will see the same thing with Mr. Santos - in spectacular fashion.  I doubt he can build a long-term career in Congress based on a mountain of lies.  I doubt the people in his district will re-elect him, particularly after claiming to be "Jew-ish." Whether he lasts out his two-year term remains to be seen.

It may seem liars are "getting away with it" and in some rare instances they do.  But the wheel of karma spins around pretty quickly.   It just seems to take forever.