"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, May 22, 2020

You Can Fool All Of The People All Of The Time–Bella Figura, Semantics, And The Art Of Deception

When Billy Battles heard Lincoln’s famous quote, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”, he was surprised. All his life he had been able to fool everyone all the time - his parents, his babysitters, his sister, his priest, his teacher, and his friends.  He was not a liar per se – he never told injurious lies, just small untruths to make things easier.  He never was exactly forthcoming in the confessional, for example.  Old Father Murphy had heard it all, forgiven it all, and paid no real attention to any of it.  Billy would have loved to hear the confessions of Nancy Levin – the hottest girl in the eighth grade – but if she was anything like him, she would have kept the juicy bits to herself.  So Billy spilled only the sins of disobedience and taking the Lord’s name in vain.  He withheld ‘impure thoughts’ because that was likely to wake Father Murphy and next he would be asking embarrassing questions. 

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Henry Tuttle had said that when the old priest had asked him to specify  what impure thoughts exactly, he demurred.  The reputation of Father Murphy preceded him.  The question was a fishing expedition, and the priest always threw over a line when he thought the bass were biting.  If a boy told him what he had thought about a girl - her breasts, her warm smell, her soft mouth – the priest fidgeted behind the screen, cleared his throat, and asked for more.  So after he had made the one mistake of confessing impure thoughts, and once the padre had started in on his panting questions, Henry excused himself from the confessional, and ran outside into the rain.

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So Billy never had a problem with sins of omission – omitting some of the things he had actually done with Nancy Levin, for example – and found that this stratagem worked outside the confessional as well.  A well-known advisor to a recent president had once said, when questioned before Congress on some dubious activities, “There are known knowns, things we know that we know; and there are known unknowns, things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns, things we do not know we don't know”, a man who would always be Billy’s role model.  Once he had gotten past the easiest hurdle, sins of omission – leaving unsaid things that didn’t need to be said – Billy turned his attention to the art of untruths and partial truths.  It was surprising how many people would swallow the bait if it was tasty.  If he said a few things that could be true, a few more that were but inconsequential, and a number that were untrue but could be viewed as forgetful or inadvertent, he was home free.  It worked for incomplete chores, missed classes, late-for-dinner, oversleeping, and temporarily unexplained absences. 

“I was riding bikes with Herbie Swanson” was not exactly true, but could have been.  Billy did hang out with Billy and the considered riding bikes but decided to go down to Jimmy’s Smoke Shop to see what new girly magazines Jimmy had gotten in from New York; and from there it was not much an elision of truth to smoke cigarettes on the golf course and peer in at Nancy Levin getting dressed through her bedroom window which looked out on the Fourth Hole.  Intent, he knew, was a key element in sin and morality.  If you intended to kill someone before killing them, then the punishment was far worse than if you had no intention but did it anyway. A mortal sin for which you could be sent immediately and permanently to Hell, was only a sin if you knew it was a sin.  Both concepts were vague enough to provide cover for just about anything.  A good lesson learned.

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Billy had many girlfriends as he grew older.  He was an attractive, athletic, smart, and confident young man, and girls fell for him easily.  When he realized that they were such easy pickings, he found that he could keep them faithful by telling them what they wanted to hear.  He never told them he loved them – a lie – but never told them that he didn’t love them either, the kind of verbal dexterity shown by a former president who when asked a particularly invasive and potentially damaging question answered, “It depends on what is is”; and then he went on to concoct a most inventive semantic evasion over his alleged sexual relations with an intern.  “I never had sex with that woman”, he said, which to the letter of some legal interpretation was true.  He never had intercourse with her, and therefore had never had ‘sex’.  All other activities – fellatio, manipulation, and fondling – were, according to his legal semiotics, not having sex.  Brilliant, another one of Billy’s heroes. 

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It was no surprise at all that Billy became a lawyer, the one profession where knowing the truth is irrelevant, telling it is never necessary, and that the only successful trial is one where the defendant is found not guilty.  Even if a defense lawyer is convinced that his client is guilty as sin, getting him off is the only right, honorable, and ethical thing to do.  Morality never enters into a legal equation, nor should it.  The law was perfect for Billy.

His semantic dexterity, his savvy understanding of human gullibility, and his amorality got him very far in life; but he never really accelerated until he had mastered two non-intellectual talents – bella figura, the art of looking good; and a silver tongue, the art of convincing fluency. Bella figura was an Italian thing and meant not only dressing well, being properly manicured, coiffed, and shod; but acting well with grace and charm.  Even if his un- and semi-truths were not as persuasive as usual – too much truth perhaps, or not enough – charm, flattery, smiles, and a friendly embrace erased all doubt.  Not only did his charm, personality, and graceful good looks work wonders with the most irritating juries, it worked well on the street.  He created his own art of the deal, borrowed in part from a master, now President of the United States,  In addition to the master’s canny intimidation, veiled threats, and questionable compromise, Billy used his charm and personal engagement to seal the most iffy of deals.  Women lawyers in particular, supposedly feminized and masculine in attitude, nerve, and pursuit, were his easiest marks.  No matter how well-educated, how severely brought up, or how indoctrinated in feminist ideology, they couldn’t resist Billy’s charm.  While they might be almost as good as he in semantic merry-go-rounds, they could never match his Mediterranean manners, dress, speech, and looks.

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There were some moralists who saw through Billy’s disguise and asked, “Where’s the beef?”.  He had no substance, and again in the words of the former Presidential advisor, “there was no there there.”  He was a suit, a silhouette, a diaphanous piece of fluttering scrim.  They secretly envied his success in the law, on the street, and with woman; but publicly criticized him.  Those on the Left in particular were appalled at his insincerity and his manipulation of those who trusted him.  Such laissez-faire predation was not only immoral, it was intolerable. 

To Billy this was all sour grapes.  Not only had he always remained honest to his pledge – to do no deliberate harm and to take nothing from others than that which they want to give – he had been open and transparent.  He never claimed to have or know the truth, or to be an arbiter of right and wrong.  Everything was relative to Billy, and the laws of the marketplace most accurately described the essential randomness and amorality of life.  Anyone trying to subvert those natural laws, avoid them, or reform them was just whistlin’ Dixie.

There are some, like the President, who have mastered the art of what he calls ‘fake news’.  He deliberately and knowingly not only distorts the truth, but concocts wholly fantastical stories.  He knows that his supporters so believe in his essential populist, anti-government, anti-progressive message that they will never question his veracity.  The truth simply doesn’t matter.  But on his way up he had to work the street.  Tactics of muscle and threat took work.  Marks didn’t always cave the first time around and needed more persuasion and more ‘correction’, all of which took attention and effort.

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Billy’s way – quiet charm, subtlety, sophisticated use of semantics, a silver tongue, and bella figura was effortless.  Lincoln was almost right in his aphorism.  Most people, he should have said, can be fooled most of the time.  In fact it is as easy as pie. 

Did Billy Battles do anything wrong? Did he break any laws? Did he deliberately harm or deceive anyone? Did he ever take unfair advantage of an opponent? No, no, no, and no.  He was a model of rectitude.  People let him take advantage, and they gave him the store.  Caveat emptor has always been the law of the marketplace, and while governments have persistently tried to dismiss it, reform it, or distort it to fit their more idealistic, progressive views, no one has succeeded; and the Billy Battles of the world who understand its fundamental, essential, ineluctable nature, profit with ease.

There’s something wrong with the country, then, charge those who were never able to deter Billy and his likenesses.  It is the capitalist system that feeds off the willing and the defenseless.  Unless the system itself is changed or radically reformed, there will be Billy Battles ad infinitum.  True enough, for not only is caveat emptor at the heart of market economics, it is the wisdom of human nature.

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