Con artist?

中国日报网 2016-03-15 11:18



Con artist?

Reader question:

Please explain “con artists” and this sentence: “They mix some truthful reporting with the lies, as all con-artists do.”

My comments:

Con artists are just con men – cheaters and swindlers?

The title of “artists”, I think, is given to those good ones, you know, those who are really great at it, those who, if you don’t mind, have elevated their con game to an art form.

With tongue in cheek, I mean for you to remember “con artist” is a pejorative term.

Now, the “con” in “con artists” and “con game” is not the con in “pros and cons” but is short for the word confidence.

That explains the quintessence of the con game, i.e. the confidence game. Con artists are able to turn adults into suckers because they’re good at winning your confidence and trust.

In our above example, when “they mix some truthful reporting with the lies”, the truthful part is what wins your confidence, which is also what helps, later make you fall for their lies.

I once had a friend describe to me how some con men were trying to sell the moon to him.

Not the whole moon. Just a piece of it, like, a square inch. For 100 yuan.

First, he said, these con men ask us whether we are aware of the fact Americans have landed on the moon, and things of that nature. When they find some of us are interested, they then tell us that because of the moon landing, etc, the race to colonize the moon has begun.

The long and short of it is, that they, the con men, have, in co-operation with various American agencies, secured the ownership rights to certain parts of the moon, for sale, at 100 yuan per square inch.

They have all sorts of papers and certificates to prove that every word out of their mouths is true, of course.

But, the funniest part to my friend is, he pointed out at last, “one look at the papers is enough.”

“It’s full of spelling mistakes,” he said. “So full of mistakes that I actually felt pity for them.”

“What kind of spelling mistakes, do you remember?” I asked.

“Nothing specific,” he replied. “Just every sentence is wrong. It’s much worst than, like, the other day, what I saw on the back of a young woman, with these words printed on her sweater: ‘I am not perfert, but I am vmited edition’.”

That is, by the way, “I am not perfect, but I am limited edition.”

All right, back to media examples of “con artists” at work:

1. This summer, members of Congress are expected to introduce legislation that would give a foreign woman the chance to look at a U.S. man's criminal record before accepting a commercially brokered offer of marriage from him.

The proposed legislation would mandate disclosure of past restraining orders against the man and would require immigration services to inform the woman about domestic violence protections available to her. Washington State recently passed similar legislation.

The legislative push coincides with the case of Nataliya Fox, a so-called mail-order bride who sued Encounters International, a well-known marriage agency based in Bethesda, Md., that specializes in matching Russian and Ukrainian women with U.S. husbands. Fox sued Encounters International in the U.S. District Court of Maryland for failing to give her information about domestic violence and for fraudulently informing her that she would be deported if she left her abusive husband, James M. Fox Jr., an Encounters International client. No trial date has been set for the case filed in April 2002.

Natasha Spivack, founder and owner of Encounters International, denied the charges. “This is a major scam and she happened to push all the right buttons,” Spivack said of Nataliya Fox, “If you look at her, she looks very honest, like all con-artists do.” Spivack, who emigrated to the U.S. from Moscow, claims that Nataliya Fox manufactured evidence of abuse and lied on her immigration applications. Spivack started Encounters International in 1993 using a fax machine and regular mail services before shifting to Web-based services as the Internet became widely available.

“In July 2000, James Fox attacked me,” Nataliya Fox wrote in her declaration to the court in June 2002. “The beating lasted approximately two hours.” James Fox was arrested for Nataliya’s attempted murder in July 2000.

- Mail Order Brides Find U.S. Land of Milk, Battery,, June 22, 2003.

2. Con artists are greedy hucksters who sell us dreams that never come true. But Americans have a soft spot for them. Witness the current success of “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle,” films that celebrate (sort of) the art of the grift. Somehow, living through two bubbles in which plenty of investors and homeowners were suckered by sugarplum visions hasn’t dampened our appetite for watching spectacles like Christian Bale duping almost everyone he encounters, including F.B.I. agents, and Leonardo DiCaprio hypnotizing a mark into buying worthless stock.

It has ever been thus. The phrase “confidence man” was popularized in an 1849 New York Herald article detailing the arrest of William Thompson, a man of “genteel appearance” who for months had been approaching strangers on the street and somehow persuading them to trust him with their watches until the next day. (Needless to say, they never got the watches back.) Almost immediately, a play titled “The Confidence Man” débuted; Thompson was soon bragging that he was “a great man in the eyes of the world.” In the decades that followed, the con artist became a classic American antihero. The curious thing, as the University of Pennsylvania historian Walter McDougall writes, is that, “far from despising flimflam artists as parasites or worse, American popular culture habitually celebrates rascals as comedic figures.” Think of the movies of W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers; think of “The Sting” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” Even bleaker depictions, like David Mamet’s, get us to admire the dexterity with which con artists persuade people to part with their money.

It seems that con artists, for all their vices, represent many of the virtues that Americans aspire to. Con artists are independent and typically self-made. They don’t have to kowtow to a boss—no small thing in a country in which people have always longed to strike out on their own. They succeed or fail based on their wits. They exemplify, in short, the complicated nature of American capitalism, which, as McDougall argues, has depended on people being hustlers in both the positive and the negative sense. The American economy wasn’t built just on good ideas and hard work. It was also built on hope and hype.

In the nineteenth century especially, the line between crook and businessman was fuzzy. Take the building of the American railroads, which both spurred industrialization and laid the foundation for a truly national economy. When the Central Pacific Railroad (the western spur of the transcontinental railroad) was built, the four men who started it, including Leland Stanford, set up an outside construction company in which they were the sole shareholders, and used that company to milk the Central Pacific for tens of millions of dollars in excess construction costs. The building of the Union Pacific Railroad led to the same kind of self-dealing and pocket-lining and reckless overbuilding, while railroad financiers like Jay Gould made enormous sums via stock schemes and dubious takeovers. The result was one of the biggest cons the country has ever seen, with huge losses for investors and huge fortunes for the moguls. Still, we ended up with a national transportation system.

In the twentieth century, the relationship between commerce and con artistry became subtler. Never mind the out-and-out scammers, from Charles Ponzi to Bernard Madoff, or the long history of questionable behavior on Wall Street. Entrepreneurs have skills that are very much like those of the con men. To raise money to start a business, you’ve got to sell an imagined future—a dream. Before building a single car, Henry Ford had to persuade his major supplier to take stock in lieu of cash, because he didn’t have the money to pay for thousands of dollars’ worth of parts.

As the sociologist Alex Preda writes, “Talent for persuasion is key: after all, the public must be convinced to part with their money on the basis of the simple promise that an idea will yield profit in the future.” Successful entrepreneurship involves hucksterism, the ability to convince investors and employees that they should risk their money, their time, and their effort on you. Like a con artist, you’re peddling optimism. As Mel Weinberg (the model for Bale’s character in “American Hustle”) put it in Robert Greene’s book “The Sting Man,” “It’s my philosophy to give hope. . . . That’s why most people don’t turn us in to the cops. They keep hopin’ we’re for real.”

- Do the Hustle, The New Yorker, January 13, 2014.

3. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Friday opened a new line of attack against billionaire Donald Trump by declaring the front-runner is a “con artist,” just hours after the two Republican presidential hopefuls grappled with each other in Thursday’s GOP debate.

“A con artist is about to take over the conservative movement and the Republican Party and we have to put a stop to it,” Rubio said on CBS’ “This Morning.” “[Trump] is wholly unprepared to be president of the United States.”

Rubio, who criticized Trump Thursday evening for hiring illegal immigrants and failing to put forward a detailed healthcare plan to replace Obamacare, used the phrase “con artist” at five separate points in the interview to describe his GOP opponent.

“I mean this is unreal. Again, this guy is a con artist,” the Florida senator added moments later during a separate interview on NBC’s “Today” show.

- Rubio: Trump is a ‘con artist’,, February 26, 2016.


About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

(作者:张欣 编辑:丹妮)

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