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David Arthur Walters

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The Rise of American Hypocrisy

9/18/2005 10:20:00 AM

by David Arthur Walters


ANALYSIS: The Confidence Men and Painted Women of the U.S.A.

Confidence Men and Painted Women turned America into a nation of hypocrites according to Karen Halttunen's book by that title, subtitled A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870. There are still a few dour puritanical characters around who persist for the greater glory of god; people who are sober, industrious and frugal, and who really believe honesty is the best policy. But such sourpusses are few and far between, far outnumbered by smiling hucksters out to win friends and influence people with a winning image for the greater great glory of the almighty dollar. Today a country bumpkin can become a virtual city slicker thanks to the all-pervasive imaginary world of our information age. And if he really wants to get ahead, he might as well sell the farm to the corporation, or let the bank have it, and take an apartment in town.

Money, not moral character, became the ticket to paradise after the Civil War, as carpetbaggers fanned out throughout the South and a multitude of young men went West after the golden Sun. All that gleamed was not gold, yet a sucker was born every minute and the sizzle soon sold the steak. What you see is what you get, therefore think positive.

Appearances were everything for the pioneering phenomenalist out to turn a buck. The American world was awash in success manuals. Manipulative man applied the science of manipulation everywhere. Dale Carnegie quoted Dorothy Dix: "Every man knows that he can jolly his wife into doing anything, and doing without anything." And every wife must want to be jollied, for "she has provided him with a complete diagram to work her."

Talk might be cheap, but it will help a man from rags to riches and even from log cabin to white house when combined with the right attitude and plenty of pluck. Character alone was not doing the trick. Funds were accumulating in disreputable hands. One could be honest for a profit, but honestly no longer paid that well. Truly sincere people were being left far behind by the sincerely insincere confidence men. And being nice got one nowhere - nice guys were finishing last.

Fortunately, the laws of the jungle were discovered and revealed to all who had the money to buy the book. Hypocrisy became the order of the day. Nothing succeeded like the appearance of success; lawyers at least tried to maintain an appearance of propriety. If he had no business to speak of yet, he pretended that his business was vast. Virtues were not good enough in themselves; they had to be displayed to the right people and marketed. A self-confident man trumpeted his prefabricated virtuous self in the right quarters of town. He printed his character on his face. If he had no inner character to draw upon, he bought a ready-made suit - clothes made the man. He smiled systematically and otherwise played his part. He was cheery and civil, joking and bantering with all. The charmer was also impudent and bold. The manipulator purposed to mould men with his magnetic, dominating personality. And, like Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick, he was not beyond playing practical jokes on people and laughing at their credulity. Nor was the master of impressions reluctant to pick a few pockets along the way to sacrifice to the god of business and thieves.

Once in awhile someone would step out of the shadows and shout, "Hypocrites!" A number of sermons were delivered to rebut the various doctrines of hypocrisy. The feel-good-faith-flock were duly adjured to abjure the deceptive ways of the Liar; little good that did the Liar's growing brood. Although they acted otherwise, they knew that god had been murdered some time ago and that the pious priests and pontificating puritans were the biggest liars and hypocrites of them all. To resist the master of guile in any event was futile and downright foolish. There was no profit in resistance, and long gone was the day when Joachim of Flora dreamed of turning the whole world into a monastery. Ironically, that would create an economic boom, and the spiritual generals would no doubt sell out to dissident profiteers. However that may be, man became god. Man is Jesus waiting for god's return. To this very day a few red-necked rubes in the fields still believe that nature's regularities are interrupted by divine punishments from unpredictable time to time, but the enlightened directors of the agricultural combines know better. Of course the laws of probability indicate that every system is fated to fail one day, no matter how improbable that might seem, but until then man is in charge, therefore let us seize the day and everything we can get our hands on - the fittest will win since God's hand is invisible...

Advice manuals prior to the Civil War condemned 'personal magnetism', the cult of seduction and manipulation - charlatanism. Youth were warned of the evils of the theatre, demon alcohol, painted women, gambling halls, obscene literature and such. The direst warnings added to Evil's allure, and war made the evils available, for war is the father of all things. Of course industry, sobriety and frugality were preached after the war, but their influence was waning. Derogation of the con man, however, was disappearing from American literature. Karen Halttunen tells us that "The major reason for the confidence man's disappearance from advice literature was the growing acceptance of the idea that the young American on the make had to become a kind of confidence man himself in order to succeed."

That is, we needed confident men, and eventually women, in our new social and economic order. The con man was reformed and became the confident, successful man, the idol of the New Thought Movement. He was still a hustler, if you will, a wheeler-dealer. Since the latest New Age, he represents a vanishing breed. Not all of them learn their trade from success manuals. I had the good fortune of working for one of them in my youth, and I look forward to recounting those good old days.

 

-Z-



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