You might argue then that America is not only a gene pool of adventurers, idealists and go-getters but also a gene pool of saps. A 18th century cant word for a con artist was a sharp (as in cardsharp) while the suckers and the gulls were called flats. The still sad sweet music of American humanity is full of accidentals you might say – full of sharps and flats. The tradition of con artist, grifter and schemer continues to this day up to that prize exhibit of peculation and malversation, Bernie Madoff as in ‘Bernie Madoff his cap as much as he likes, but Bernie Madoff with our money.’
But you can only con – it is an absolute rule of fraudulence – someone who wants something. Cons are about presenting opportunities, building castles in the air with words, offering visions of gold: in the case of Joseph Smith and the founding of Mormonism, literal gold in the form of inscribed gold plates delivered from heaven to an improbable address in New England. The more staggeringly absurd the promise the more likely, it seems, are you to find Americans willing to believe it. But the point is, if you don’t want for anything, you can’t be conned. And all Americans want for something. It is in that restless, insatiable DNA. It drives their capitalism and it defines their hopeful, confident can-do spirit of idealism and improvement as well as their belief that answers to life’s financial and spiritual impoverishments can be written down in a book. The very openness and optimism we love about Americans has a credulous and gullible obverse side. And maybe the things we routinely despise about ourselves as Britons, our scepticism, cynicism, doubt, pessimism, miserablism and suspicion – maybe they have a positive obverse. Empiricism, the great quality, the great and especially British quality, that fired the Enlightenment is essentially predicated on distrust. It distrusts convention, it distrusts revealed divine texts and it even distrusts reason (Newton famously aced the rationalist Pascal over the theory of light and optics by taking a piece of card and piercing a hole in it – something few continental intellectuals would deign to do). So perhaps our grumpy British fatalism and reluctance to trust or believe is not wholly to be deprecated after all, unattractive as it undoubtedly is.
Now in case this is sounding like an attack on American values and traits, let me say that my love, admiration and fascination remains intact. I am taking a line for a walk, I am playing with ideas here, not denouncing America and America’s characteristics, but delineating them as I see them from my wholly secular and idiosyncratic pulpit, this lectern.
But let me risk further strictures on American style by returning to what for me is the real lesson to be learned about America from that popular dictum about turning lemons into lemonade … let me illustrate my point with a story.
I was filming around Bilbao and environs in Northern Spain some years ago. The cast of our film was invited to the San Sebastian Film Festival premiere of a new Polanski movie called The Ninth Gate, not one of dear Roman’s best, but perfectly enjoyable and always a pleasure to be in St. Sebastian, or ‘Donostia’ as the Basques call it. I won’t go into the plot of the film, perhaps you know it anyway: suffice to say Johnny Depp plays an art dealer who gets involved in some sort of satanic Hammer House of Horror brouhaha or other. The opening reel takes place in New York (not filmed there of course: Mr Polanski can’t go to America) and there is a scene where Johnny Depp’s character arrives at his apartment, goes to the fridge, takes a pizza box from the freezer section, removes a frozen pizza and pops it into the microwave. Cue howls of laughter from the audience. I am sitting one row behind Johnny Depp and can see that he is rather perplexed by these helpless gales of Hispanic merriment and I hear him whisper to the Festival Director next to him, “Why are they laughing?” to which the Spaniard replies, wiping tears from his own eyes, “Because they cannot believe that anyone would do that to their stomach!” Genuine perplexity on both sides. An American thinks: why would anyone find placing a frozen ready-made pizza inside a microwave amusing? – a Spaniard, especially a Basque, whose cuisine is exceptional, thinks: why would anyone, above all somebody cultured and prosperous, insult their digestion with such complete rubbish?