Tag Archives: charlatans

Bread, Circuses and Snake Oil

Abraham Lincoln summed it up pretty well: you can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but not (so he said and so we hope) all of the people all of the time.

From itinerant peddlers selling snake oil to today’s more sophisticated propagandists selling political nostrums, there have always been hucksters preying on our very human yearning for simple solutions for what ails us.

Drink this, and your brain tumor will vanish/your belly fat will disappear. Believe that, and you will no longer feel disoriented/diminished. Vote for him (rarely if ever her) and he’ll make (your preferred version of) America great again.

A recent column in the New York Times put a name to those who pander to that all-too- human yearning: charlatan.

It’s impossible to characterize a historical period before it’s over, but I think one plausible name for our era will be the Age of the Charlatan. Everywhere you turn there seems to be some kind of quack or confidence man catering to an eager audience: Fox News hosts like Sean Hannity have moved from pushing ill-informed opinion to flat-out conspiracy mongering; pickup artists sell “tried and true” methods for isolated young men to seduce women; and sophists pass off stale pedantries as dark and radical thought, selling millions of books in the process. In politics, too, our highest office is occupied by a man who was once aptly called a “carnival barker.”

What makes us so vulnerable to charlatans today? In part it’s the complexity of the modern world and the rate of technological and social change: Quackery provides what Saul Bellow once called a “five-cent synthesis,” boiling down the chaotic tangle of the age into simple nostrums.

The author refers us to a long-forgotten 1937 book titled “Die Macht des Charlatans,” or “The Power of the Charlatan.” It was a history of the quacks who roamed Europe in the Middle Ages and early modern period, written by an Austrian journalist  named De Francesco (but published, for obvious reasons given the date, in Switzerland).

Ms. De Francesco explains that the word “charlatan” comes from the Italian “ciarlatano,” itself probably related to the verb “ciarlare,” which means to babble or to go on incessantly without reflection. The original charlatans would babble on and on to mesmerize their audiences.

Babble without reflection. A perfect phrase to describe the noises that come out of President Trump’s mouth…

Nor was that the only parallel to be drawn. The book described the “often elaborate” shows mounted by Medieval and Renaissance mountebanks, with musicians, clowns and even performing animals. ( Presumably, too early for cat videos..)

Ms. De Francesco observes that this was the beginning of the mass communication techniques perfected by the public relations and advertising industries.

Crucially, the charlatan provides palliatives for a confused public. These nostrums can be either literal pills or phony ideas, for as Ms. De Francesco notes, “a quack is a quack — whether he sells opinions or elixirs.” Frequently they sell both. See for example Alex Jones, one of the most popular charlatans of the present age. He peddles bizarre conspiracy theories, including that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax, but also his own line of snake oil in the form of dubious dietary supplements.

Bottom line: when reality bites, entertainment that distracts you, easily grasped “explanations” for your predicament– and especially some “other” to blame for your problems– will ease your discomfort. In Roman times, it was bread and circuses. 

Today it’s Fox News….