Con and scam artists exploit traits of the human psyche like the hunger for approval, popularity, wealth, success and social status. In the political arena they also exploit people’s insecurities. Really good con artists have managed to deceive quite intelligent and knowledgeable people. “The Forger’s Spell” by Edward Dolnick is a fascinating account of how paintings that did not look at all like Vermeers were sold as Vermeers for millions of dollars in Holland before and during World War II. The book was a recent read for the Art Lovers Book Club at the Attleboro Arts Museum in which Jean and I participate.
The book is disturbing because I had to ask myself: if these intelligent, knowledgeable people were deceived, am I also susceptible to deception in its various forms? Clearly I am. In the Vermeer scam the forger was Han van Meergeren, a Dutch artist whose work had received little recognition from his colleagues and the critics. He had some commercial success but was determined to revenge himself on the art elite who disparaged him. He was not much of an artist but he was a brilliant and painstaking con man, managing to use 17th century canvasses and to create paints that simulated an old master’s work. He also took advantage of the idea that there was a missing link between Vermeer’s early and later work, when he was influenced by the Italian artist Caravaggio. Then Van Meergeren created paintings for that missing period. He fooled most of the pre-eminent critics and art lovers in Europe at that time. The reason most people fell for the con was that during the 1920s and ‘30s Vermeer had only recently come to the awareness of the art world and there were so few paintings by him available, and everyone (including many wealthy American collectors) wanted to own one. Van Meergeren even sold forgeries to Hitler’s right hand man, Hermann Goering, who prided himself on his art collection (looted and bought at discount prices). Ironically Van Meergeren became a hero of the Dutch resistance because he made a fool out of the Nazis.
Art forgeries continue to do brisk business today, as do financial schemes that defraud people (Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and the Credit Rating Agencies’ inflated ratings for mortgage-backed securities are recent examples). One of the footnotes of Dolnick’s book (p. 81) shows how political scams work in matters of war. During the Nuremberg trials Goering revealed a famous insight into manipulation of people during wartime:
“Why, of course, the people do not want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally the common people do not want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany … it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship… voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
Politicians prey on the psychological weakness of people who fear the label “unpatriotic” and the shame that goes with it. And plenty of the flag-waving citizenry are ready to form a chorus to denounce those who give aid to the enemy by daring to criticize our own government’s policy. We saw these tactics used when President George Bush launched the USA into the Iraq War in 2003, and tried to justify it on fictitious grounds of weapons of mass destruction.
Cons are commonplace – in religious language we might describe them as “temptations”. They range from the false promises of gambling to Hollywood’s love affair with cigarettes to the lies promulgated by the NRA about guns. Churches have their fair share of scam artists masquerading as evangelists “fleecing the flock”. Cons are as old as the fruit in the Garden of Eden and as new as television ads promoting anti-aging vitamins.
The lectionary reading for yesterday, the first Sunday in Lent, was Luke 4:1-13, the temptations in the wilderness, during which the Devil tries to deceive Jesus. In John 8:44 Jesus calls the Devil “the father of lies”. When confronted with temptations to use spiritual power for material ends, to gain wealth and political power, and to bend God’s will to his own will, Jesus saw clearly the deceptions presented by the “father of lies”. He knew that the promises held out by evil were illusory and could not satisfy deep spiritual needs. He saw straight through the con and refused to be made the slave of such folly. Jesus not only called himself “the light of the world” (John 9:5) but he told his followers “you are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). He calls us to be wise and not gullible, to be pure in heart and to set our sights on God’s kingdom, and not let ourselves be made slaves to the many cons that assail us with their false hopes and false gods. It is amazing how many times we allow ourselves to be deluded, but Lent offers us another opportunity to wake up and enjoy God’s goodness instead.