How Did We Get Here Again?
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One day a villager was walking by Akşehir Lake when he saw Nasreddin Hodja pouring a bowl of yogurt into the water. “What are you doing, Hodja?” the villager asked.
“I’m making yogurt,” he replied.
“Come on, Hodja, that won’t work,” the villager said. “The lake can’t turn into yogurt.” Hodja looked up, and said with a gleam in his eyes, “But what if it does?”
— Turkish fable, c. thirteenth century
Nasreddin Hodja is a well-known character in Turkey and throughout the Islamic world, and as you might surmise from the story above, he’s a trickster.
Tricksters appear in stories and tall tales throughout history, sharing surprisingly similar characteristics and traits. They’re rule breakers who violate the principles of social order, and though not explicitly evil, they engage in deceit, deception, and sometimes outright thievery to get what they want.
Tricksters can either be cunning or foolish – or both. They are known to openly question and mock authority, with an eye to upsetting the natural order of things, tearing down normal life and re-inventing it in their abstract vision.
They are often referred to as disruptors.
Hermes plays the trickster in Greek myths as does Loki in Norse mythology.
Germany has Till Eulenspiegel, who delights in playing practical jokes to his advantage, not unlike Hershel of Ostropol, a prominent trickster in Jewish humor.
Whether it be Hitar Petar in Macedonia, Akhu Tönpa in Tibet, Anansi the Spider from West Africa, or Reynard the Fox in the Dutch lowlands, almost every culture throughout the world has a trickster whose exploits serve as a cautionary tale.
And despite our relatively recent entry onto the world stage and reputation as too young, modern, and forward looking to believe in myths and fables, we here in the United States also have our fair share of tricksters.
Not unsurprisingly, they seem to occupy a particular sub-section of American society - that which has to do with business - and have become part of the fabric of our culture.
Is there a child alive who hasn’t cowered under the covers, too paralyzed with fright to sleep, after being told the bedtime tale of Bernie Madoff.
Oak paneled boardrooms and governance committees across the land are regularly plunged into bouts of sheer terror upon learning that they may have a budding Martin Shkreli or Elizabeth Holmes occupying the C-suite.
And what investor hasn’t been taken in by the bombastically comedic shenanigans of that cunning fool, Cramer of CNBC?
This week, with his arrest by Bahamian officials on behalf of the U.S. Government, we officially add Sam Bankman-Friedman to the pantheon of great American tricksters.
This latest development in the SBF/FTX saga has prompted many of us to ask the standard questions.
Will he really go to jail? And if so, for how long?
Where is all the money that went missing?
Will investors ever be made whole?
Of course, floating out in the collective ether lay a pair of questions, tacitly asked, yet explicitly unspoken for fear of what the answer says about us as a society.
How could this happen again? Haven’t we seen this movie before?
But maybe we were paying attention to the wrong movie.
Being There is a 1982 movie starring Peter Sellars, who, in one of the most elegantly understated performances of all-time, plays Chance Gardner, a man who has gladly spent his life living within the gilded walls of his benefactor’s estate.
All he does is garden and watch TV, his worldly experience limited to those two activities.
Through a series of random events, he finds himself thrust into one of the highest echelons of the real world: politics.
Despite having no idea what he’s doing, those around him interpret his vague comments about gardening and television as insightful political commentary, assuming he speaks wisdom in metaphors, and, as a result, he rises higher and higher in the opinions of the politerati, who openly discuss the possibility of having him run for President.
Though he’s a simpleton, everyone around him is too stupid to see that he has no idea what he’s talking about because Chance is a blank slate on which they can project their own ideas - then admire him for it.
His failings are further camouflaged by his nature; a kind and gentle man who never gets angry or passionate in any way, with a deep reverence for the earth due to his passion for gardening.
These are the traits that make people love and trust him.
From what we’ve seen so far of Bankman-Fried’s sputtering, sophomoric defense, voluminously delivered across platforms as diverse as email and Twitter Spaces – all of which I’m fairly certain, despite my lack of jurisprudence, can be used against him in a court of law – it smacks of a stunning hubris, the kind of which is the hallmark of the trickster, or fraternity president.
It's as if he believes, truly believes, deep down in his ADD, vegan, polyamorous heart, that, if he bro-speaks long and passionately enough, the state trooper will disregard the Breathalyzer results, the mangled mass of steel and rubber that once was a car, and the silvery, comet-like trail of empty Natty Lights strewn behind him down the interstate.
Yet his pleas ask us to ignore reality, to avert our eyes as he publicly shapeshifts from the cunning to the foolish. From the product of Stanford professors, who double majored at MIT, to the stubble bumbling effective altruist who, aww shucks, didn’t think to have internal controls or risk management procedures.
Oh, Samuel Benjamin Bankman-Fried, what are we supposed to do with you, you ole four named, nine syllable trickster you.
Unlike SBF, Chance is not a trickster. There is no malice or intent in his actions.
Yet both their successes were fired by the same fuel – our willingness to believe.
That that oh so simply sincere man, with a deep love of Mother Earth, can do us no wrong.
That projecting our beliefs and high standards onto others relieves us of the inconvenience of having to live up to them ourselves.
That there is a free lunch, on Wall Street or otherwise.
When the cell doors close for the final time, when all the story rights have been optioned, and the grandstanding of politicians who were aggressively asleep at the wheel is all but a memory, choose your prayer for the future carefully.
Don’t ask for more oversight, more regulations, or more restrictions on business, which, as has allegedly been proclaimed by every president from Calvin Coolidge to Ronald Regan, is the business of America.
Because, despite our best efforts and well intentions, we can’t contain the trickster with laws or legislation. He – or she - will only lose his, her, or their power when there is nobody left to trick.
When everyone can recognize the next Nasreddin Hodja, and categorize his question as rhetorical, instead of answering it cloyingly and hopefully.
“What if the lake really does turn into yogurt?”
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