The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Welcome to the golden age of scammers

Disgraced financier Bernard Madoff leaves U.S. District Court in Manhattan after a bail hearing in New York on Jan. 5, 2009. (Kathy Willens/AP)
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Everything is a grift nowadays.

There are individual scammers, sure, and there always have been: the Billy McFarland’s of the see-and-be-seen party circuit, or the Bernie Madoffs of the world of wealth management (or mismanagement). Yet increasingly the headline-making cons of the moment seem like full-fledged cosmologies — personal, professional and political belief systems. And the adherents are trying to fool others even as they fool themselves.

Recent weeks are rife with examples.

Start with the so-called University of Austin, or UATX, co-founded by former New York Times writer, editor and warrior for free speech — or is it speech free from criticism? — Bari Weiss. This school boasts a professorial roster of right-leaning scholars, many of whom made their names by being canceled and complaining about it. The country’s venerated houses of higher learning, this group alleges, are plagued by “illiberalism and censoriousness.” Their venture, in contrast, will be dedicated to the "pursuit of truth.”

Truth? Sounds good. Except that however much of the “deepest wisdom of civilization” students manage to extract from UATX, there is one thing they’ll never get: a degree. “DO YOU OFFER DEGREES?” reads a frequently asked question on the dedicated page. The answer: “We do not confer degrees at this moment.” Nor is UATX accredited (yet!). Oh, and its nonprofit “fiscal sponsor” listed no assets when it last filed in 2020.

Certainly, college campuses could do with a measure more tolerance for ideas that are out-of-step with the prevailing mood of modern academia. But why not work within schools to squeeze every educational drop out of this clash of cultures? Why build your own bubble where you can indoctrinate kids with your own ideology instead?

Bubbles are in, though. Consider another libertarian pet project promising to haunt our fragile nation: the wacky realm of cryptocurrency, even wackier now that non-fungible tokens have turned into the fad of the year.

The crypto rip-off known as a “rug pull” is practically a rite of passage for the wide-eyed investor who hopes to challenge the predominance of the mighty dollar. See for an example the currency inspired by the Netflix survival series “Squid Game,” which traded at $2,856.65 and then $0.0007 within five minutes this month. Suddenly, millions of dollars had disappeared: The creators had abandoned their project after cashing out en masse, leaving other investors holding a bag full of absolutely meaningless “money.”

This may seem about as dumb as can be, but don’t worry — there’s even dumber. The “Evolved Apes” project enticed participants to purchase NFTs of, uh, cartoon monkeys wearing human clothes. The monkeys were supposed to “fight for survival,” but the game necessary for the realization of this vision never materialized, and the anonymous developer overseeing the promised kingdom vanished after siphoning off nearly $3 million of the enterprise’s funds. Now a bunch of people are left with, well, JPEGs of apes certified on the blockchain as unique originals. Or, really, they are left with links to JPEGs of apes certified on the blockchain as unique originals.

Which is to say, they are left with nothing of value, unless enough of these ape-holding chumps continue to believe the apes are valuable. That’s the key to the whole show of cryptocurrency, whether you’re hanging on to a bearded orangutan wearing aviators or a bitcoin: The participants in these markets buy and sell and buy and sell again to juice up their own holdings. Enough people lose interest, and here comes the crash.

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Of course, you might say the same thing about the value of a non-degree from a non-accredited non-university.

The host of little lies that organize us may seem to have nothing to do with the “big lie” — the evidence-free conspiracy theory that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential race. Yet look closer.

Everyone is living their truth, not the truth. Reality is kaput, shared neither in theory nor in practice. So, many have discarded what faith they had in institutions, and they’ve also discarded the idea that institutions can be improved at all. Small victories don’t exist. Only total victory exists, zero-sum.

Where this thinking leads is obvious. No point in trying to reform politics — better to rebel for your own regime. No point in trying to root the ugly out of Wall Street — better to invent your own kind of money. No point in trying to improve higher education — better to design your own insular network of alt-academia.

But the legitimacy of a home-brewed belief system depends exclusively on the continued belief of those within that system. While to the rest of society, it might as well all be an illusion: non-degree degrees, non-money money, nonwinning winners. The believers might wonder who’s really getting scammed.

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