I started watching White Collar a couple of weeks when it landed on Netflix. It’s the usual USA formula, fits right in that sweet spot of entertaining enough to keep your attention but not gripping enough that it keeps you from just putting it on in the background whilst cooking dinner. Mostly I like it because it revolves around cons and heists, and I love those.
Why are con-men appealing to us though? Hint the first, it has nothing to do with piles of money. Take Now You See Me for instance: the joy of it is not in the fact that they take money since they give it all away, and it’s not even that they screw over people who had wronged the world, it’s that they through brains and trickery do things that they shouldn’t be able to do.
What all con men do, whether with staged magic, or long-cons, or elaborate heists a la Danny Ocean, is hit above their weight class. They cheat. They get something for nothing.
And at face value, we condemn this, it’s counter to all sorts of cultural conditioning. Protestant work ethic and all that. There’s an old joke that Ted Kennedy used to tell, about how a man came up to him at a campaign event and with all seriousness said something to the effect of “you have never worked a day in your life and yet you’re rich and powerful, you’ve earned nothing you have” and after a long pause of what seemed like mounting hostility and tension, the man said “so you’re my hero and I’d like to shake your hand.” There are two responses to that: thinking that it’s clever and thinking that it’s monstrous. Those who fall in the former categories are the ones who love stories about con-men on their purest level.
The catch is that we’re an entire civilization of thieves. Con men are the closest thing to avatars we have of our one true and universal god: cheating to get more. And I don’t mean that as the cynical negative it implies. What is life but cheating the laws of thermodynamics? Things falls apart, the center cannot hold, everything falls to ruin and coasts into less complexity, thus spake the eternal laws of entropy. Fuck you says the cell as it splits and makes more of itself and watches its descendants evolve all the complexities of limbs just to give the finger to physical law.
Technology, science, all of our engineering and discoveries, they are the product of lazy monkeys trying to get something for nothing. Heinlein liked to say that there was no such thing as a free lunch, and that’s a fair point for social cause and effect, but our species will die the day we actually believe it. We’re irrational little things playing with borrowed money against the casino of the cosmos, counting cards and rigging the dice at every opportunity.
Scientists once believed that non-alpha males were evolutionary dead-ends. Everyone knew that the new chief killed all the children and monopolized the mating, so that all of those other males never bred at all. It made no sense because it suggested that biologically primates shouldn’t have a 50/50 gender ratio, because most of the clan never passed on their genes anyway. Hidden cameras solved the problem, because it turned out that the non-alphas got just as much action as the alpha. They just hit it on the sly, and genetic studies showed that the non-alphas were passing on just as much genetic material as the alphas, to put it in coldly clinical terms. In less clinical terms, we’re talking about the scientific conclusions gained from filming voyeueristic monkey porn. Pass the popcorn.
We are the sons of Loki, the hidden tricksters who avoid the conflict but still get away with the prize. And that’s why we dig con-men. They’re the spirit animals of our species.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.