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Opinion: Bill Walton, The Big Con

There is no such thing as a free lunch.
20220619 lunch walton

My grandfather used to warn me, when I was just growing into long pants, to watch out for con men.

The term used back then was ‘snake oil salesmen’, a term now likely inappropriate now to environmentalists because of the oil thing. Back then, about 75 years ago, peddlers would travel the countryside selling cure-alls and new gadgets, only some of which worked, as described in flowery words that made up a banter guaranteed to catch your attention.

By the time my father was warning me about con men they were selling slightly more legitimate goods such as Fuller Brushes and Watkins and Raleigh remedies, although I never did understand exactly what the Extract of Strawberry had to do with summer flu. Maybe the bitter taste was enough to cure a person of any complaints. Both Grandfather and Father used the word ‘bamboozle’; Grandpa saying it meant to make a monkey (baboon) of one by deceiving them; Dad said it was to ‘dupe’ or ‘hoodwink’ a person out of their money or goods.

The snake-oil salesmen evolved into door-to-door salesmen and eventually into salespersons. They sold everything from Encyclopedias to sewing machines, which seemed legitimate products worthy of your hard-earned dollars. Still, there were some shady con men who had money-making schemes that transferred money from your pocket to theirs; schemes that in retrospect seemed too good to be true. After Dad was stung by a stock market slicker on some penny stocks, he had some good advice about trading on the stock markets. Similarly with a used car salesperson who sold us that 58 Fairlane. Con men.

My progenitors said a good education was a shield against the con because knowledge was the best defence. We learned about Tom Sawyer and his fence-painting con; Aesop Fables had many tales that were supposed to teach us to be wary of the con, and later as our reading expanded into the great books, we could and should have been aware of the cons people play on each other. Alas, I can still be conned by a pretty smile or a sincere handshake. Although I am leery of the credit card phone calls.

Some skeptics and agnostics will say that religion is the biggest con, and that may be, but the con that I find is most concerning now is the con of democracy. It is easy to find a definition of democracy on the web or through one of those old paper dictionaries: a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives; or control of an organization or group by the majority of its members.

Digging a little deeper, you can find that in about 500 BC in Athens an archon named Cleisthenes wanted power and he persuaded the popular assembly that they ought to take over governance from the nobles. The responsibility for the government should rest with the citizens, not the lords. Any guesses who would lead this new type of government?

This novel idea of power to the people slowly spread in the West and people began to question the Divine Right of Kings (and Queens). This gave a great opportunity to con men to form governments: gather some people to vote for a new leader and overthrow the monarch or dictator. And if you did not have the willingness to pick up a sword yourself, rally the citizens to pick up the pavers and march on parliament. Or in the case of frozen streets like Ottawa in winter, rally some truckers.

The thing is, and this comes from watching, reading, and listening to newscasts (and you must be aware that some of these presenters are cons too) from around the world that people are learning that too many of our democratically elected politicians are con men and con women.  I would not denigrate snakes by calling them snake-oil salespersons, but I think they are trying to bamboozle us with social media, fake news, lies, and other prevarications.

We elitist Canadians may snicker at the almost 50% of the voting Americans who fell for Trump’s big con but really, are we not just as gullible when we vote? Does anyone really believe the hogwash we are fed by our politicians? Is Justin, who can snake-oil spiel in two languages, any more than a better-educated Donald? Sure, some of our politicos started with altruistic ideals but once they get wrapped in the coils of the party and get a taste of political power – sheesh!

Judging by the pre-election news coming out of Columbia, the next leader there may be elected by people who are following him on TikTok where he is making wild populist claims, much like Trump, Justin (via Freeland), Macron, and Boris do, using the snake-oil of social media. If Cleisthenes had thought that he could grab power with 20% of the voters in Athens he might have rethought this weird idea of majority rule. However, the idea that every citizen had the right to vote was novel, whereas now, in Ontario, more than 50% of the people seemingly have given up any hope of influencing the government. The big con has worked – it has lulled us into complacency.

The big question is: do we really have democracy if not everyone (eligible) votes?

With the municipal election pot beginning to simmer on the back burner here in North Bay, it would be pretentious to say we ought to be watching for the big con or even a medium-sized scam.

That Community Centre Rink Walking Track Conference Hall with Change Rooms down in West Ferris (that’s a suburb of North Bay for any out-of-towners) must have some strings attached to it. When they gave us some of our own tax money to sweeten the pot, there was a mention of having to meet some new environmental guidelines that might increase the cost to us (you and me) but I’m sure someone will promise not to go over budget. With full transparency promised by all candidates, at least we will know how much the Centre goes over budget.

Already we are hearing promises of revitalizing the downtown. That may not be a con but it surely looks like pizza in the sky. How many times will that one be dangled before us? Some candidates, new or used, will say they can attract more doctors to town. It will take more than a bottle of Watkins Extract of Mulberry to entice those wily physicians.

I expect someone will promise to do something about affordable housing and more rentals with the caveat that we, the City, will have to squeeze more money from Vic or Anthony. There must be something we can promise V&A other than our votes, although those are becoming a rare thing. I am wondering whether either of them believes in democracy anymore or is it all part of the big con now.

As dear old Dad used to remind me: “There is no such thing as a free lunch! Are you buying, Bill?”

“Sure,” I’d say, once again feeling conned by the good story about the ten-point buck that Wimpy Buchanan missed because he had his pants down answering a call of nature.

Bill Walton

About the Author: Bill Walton

retired from City of North Bay in 2000writer, poet, columnist
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