The Distinctly American Ethos of the Grifter

EVERY AGE HAS its iconic minor characters, those who temporarily ignite the imagination of the audience not because of their achievements, because of how they personify our anxieties and individual needs. Recalls half-Chinese Princess Caraboo, who in 1817 was captured in the Indian Ocean by pirates from her home island of Java and selling ships all over the globe until she finally leaped overboard and swam onshore in South-Gloucestershire, England, along Bristol Bay, and on Almondbury Parish. Or so the story went that benevolent people could pull out of the young woman who emerged on the doorstep of a cottage speaking “gibberish” and wearing a dress “in imitation of the Asian outfit,” as chronicled in a leaflet published later that year. She recounted to the admirers for ten weeks — a woman with black teeth and a baby’s face. A father of such senior petitioners only confronted her on their knees. Before she introduced to Mary Willcocks, raised in Devonshire, a cobbler’s daughter, and an illiterate wife. She continued to sustain a live supply of leeches — poetic justice — to a local infirmary.


They have our cheats and impostors, so many,  these days that some writers have pointed to grift as our time’s ascendant ethos. Among those who have been convicted or sentenced over the past year is the bogus European trust fund baby with a hundred-dollar bill, although their credit cards have denied; Hollywood mid-list celebrities accused their children of having been bribed to school. Party planner who bought luxurious villas in a resort on the white-sand Caribbean, which was a hydrangea relief settlement on a gravel field, and a single drop of blood vacating a scientific rebellion at Stanford University on a Steve Jobs suit. Such reports are easy to see as a sign of our collective miasma of fakery then skepticism. Everybody’s on the make; everybody gets identified. Yet not all of these situations are formally defined as grift, which in its highest nature goes beyond pure deception to challenge and destroy the mechanisms which govern us, the structures which prohibit us from going forward—and the world as we know it.

Nearly a century after the Cariboo caper, the word “grift” first entered recorded use in a 1914 American underworld slang dictionary compiled by Louis E. Jackson and C.R. Hellyer. Hellyer. The meaning is entirely vague: “an opportunity to pursue illicit abilities,” implying not so much the promotion of illegal gain as an endless pleasure in deception. (Some of today’s so-called grifters are more bumblers than professional swindlers, making promises that they can not satisfy logistically.) Note that there is a difference between grift and straight-up fraud, in terms of scale and intent. Politicians and financiers may connive continuingly, but they aren’t grifters because they’re part of the system — actual art practitioners thrive on the margins. Grifters are tiny lawbreakers, not the kind of epic liars that leave in their wake the wreckage of life and nations. They’re not even bad people by themselves: they’re out of ethics, defying the cultural concept between good and evil. They tend to steal to disrupt but not devastate just enough.


Crucially, they are working against the odds, working off from the outside. They don’t rejoice when, like those involved in the Hollywood university admissions scandal, the already wealthy trick their way through more privilege; that’s just plain old cheating. Among the otherwise invulnerable, the grifters who join legend, whom we worship as real heroes, pick their victims: the rich and powerful, whom they bring down to scramble with the rest of us, if only briefly. America may be the rightful home of grifters in this, because where else in the world is so profoundly associated with the prospect of transcending humble origins and becoming a modern and robust person? (Princess Caraboo twice tried to run and hop on a boat to America before she unmasked, probably hoping to find a more credulous follower.) Our land exalts the opportunity to encourage its exploitation. (Princess Caraboo twice tried to run and hop on a boat to America before she unmasked, probably hoping to find a more credulous follower.) Our land exalts the opportunity to encourage its exploitation. As cultural critic Lewis Hyde wrote in 1998, we accept the grifter as an embodiment of what is “actually true. In America but can not be openly declared “— such as” the degree to which globalization encourages us to loot from our neighbors, “or the amount of unfounded belief demanded by the stock market.


GRIFTING IS ARGUABLY, an inevitable natural byproduct of American democracy. In “Democracy in America” (1835-40), the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville, gimmicked at the brash young nation, wrote, “When all birth and fortune prerogatives abolished When all careers are available to all. And a man’s efforts may carry him to the peak of any one of them; an ambitious man may find it easy to embark on a great career and believe that he has not called to a specific destiny. “But this is a delusion; with the widening of opportunities, there is a resulting flattening of aspirations, as more and more people compete for the same limited number of places. And since nothing seems to stand in the way of success in this brave new world (at least its perfect vision), no recognized social or systemic bias, we expected — nay, mandated — to rise, our value measured not only by the height but by the speed of our ascent. Failure is entirely individual; if we fumble, we are not allowed to blame anyone other than ourselves. No wonder de Tocqueville felt desperate even among the wealthiest Americans he met: “It’s odd to watch with what feverish ardor. The Americans are seeking wealth and how the dark fear constantly torments them that they might not have taken the shortest route to get it.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *