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It's All Grift for the Mill Now
Or, Why Words Don’t Mean Anything Anymore
I have a new piece out in Queer Majority about Amazon’s “Cinderella”, and how the left and right both hate the film for different reasons. Read it here!
Time was, the streams of information were few, and whatever flowed down them didn’t need to be all that remarkable, sensational, or earth-shattering to capture folks’ attention. It’s not like they had anything better to do — you could only smoke so many cigarettes, play so many card games, and wave hello so many times to the milkman. Society went from so few avenues of information that you took whatever they gave you, to a perpetual content-tsunami no one could ever keep up with. With infinitely more competition, countless voices vie with one another in this attention economy, many having discovered that the easiest way to stand out is to dial everything to 11 and pump it full to bursting with superlatives. Nothing is bad anymore; it’s the worst thing ever. No one is merely wrong about anything; they are an evil villain. In such a culture, the most alarmist, tribal, melodramatic, and hyperbolic voices float to the top. Nuance? Not so much.
This dynamic, along with increasing political polarization, has skull-fucked language beyond recognition. What does it mean to gaslight, harass, assault, stalk, groom, threaten, target, dismantle, oppress, dog whistle, engage in hate speech, or commit treason? These terms, and many others, are bandied about so commonly, so casually, and so carelessly, that they’ve lost the weight they once carried, and in some cases have been abused into near-meaninglessness. No Spanish Inquisitor tearing heretics limb from limb could torture them as much as what’s being done to language.
Language is always shifting and evolving, of course. I’m reminded of Upton Sinclair’s 1935 book chronicling his unsuccessful bid for governor of California, titled “I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked.” And there have always been people who misuse certain terms. But what we’ve seen over the past few years isn’t the natural evolution of language. Billions of people walking around with supercomputers in their pockets, connected to one another in ways never before possible, have enabled a rapid shift in culture and communication that incentivizes maximum hyperbole at all times.
Racism is perhaps the example that springs first to mind. Everything is now racist, apparently — except, it’s not, so what do we call an actual racist? We seem to require a new term for this. What’s worse than “racist”? White supremacist? Nazi? These terms have been wolf-cried just as thoroughly. We must either somehow intuit when the word “racist” is being thrown around performatively and when it’s more serious, or we must find a superlative not yet corrupted, though that too would only be a matter of time. In practice, what happens is the linguistic equivalent of inflation, where the word “racist” loses some of its sting and impact to most of society. Where once we might have taken accusations of racism seriously, now our default knee jerk assumption is that there’s a good chance it’s bullshit, because its currency has been devalued. Of all the words we’ve flogged to an unrecognizable pulp, however, the one that most sets my eyes a-rolling is “grifter.”
What is a grifter? Well, from its first known use until about 30 seconds ago, it meant a petty swindler or small-time con artist. Now it means something between “A dishonest person” and “Someone I don’t like who makes money, or would like to.” There are real grifters in society, like scammers, street hustlers, bogus crowdfunding campaigns, rackets like Trump University, or fraudulent causes like “Stop the Steal” (which raised over a quarter billion dollars, most of which was pocketed). But in today’s political culture, everyone from anonymous internet randos to professional journalists and political operatives call anyone they don’t like a grifter, provided they are at least trying to make money in some way. If I had a dollar for every person unfairly called a grifter, I suppose I'd be called a grifter too. Someone you don’t like has a YouTube channel or podcast with ads? Grifter! Someone you don’t like has a paid subscription service? Grifter! Someone you don’t like authored a book and would like people to purchase it? Grifter!
It will come as no surprise the term “grifter” is disproportionately slung in left-of-center circles. There are many superlatives used to attract attention, and many epithets used as cudgels to shut down dissent. But the prevalence of “grifter” illuminates some deep-seated beliefs of those who abuse it. What makes “grifter” stand out isn’t the charge of dishonesty or corruption it carries, but the imputation that there is something inherently evil about money itself, and the implication that bad people™ should not be allowed to make a living; that any gains or success a person deemed morally impure could ever achieve must be, almost by definition, ill-gotten.
I have always wondered if the sort of person who thinks bad people™ shouldn’t be able to make a living also thinks they should be barred from collecting public assistance. The notion of their own tax dollars subsidizing such scum must irk them as much as any conservative. If they had the power to do anything at all, I would not doubt for a moment that the grift-criers would consign those they hate to lives of indigent street squalor, and lose not a wink of sleep over it. But I digress.
The “Everything I don’t like is a grift” brigade is constantly advertising their near-total ignorance of all things money — how much various ventures realistically pay, how much money one needs to live, and how much a given person could reasonably expect to make doing other work they’re qualified for. People are routinely called grifters for endeavors that yield them not only substantially less money than other forms of work they could obtain, but in some cases nowhere near enough to even live on. You can always point to outliers at the very pinnacle of any domain, but that doesn’t necessarily make a certain enterprise profitable on average. Eating hot dogs is not going to make you any money. The existence of Joey Chestnut doesn’t change that.
Underlying it all is this idiotic notion that money is somehow evil, a particularly ironic view given that the online and professional-class left who do most of this grift-crying are themselves usually quite affluent and financially secure. Let’s set the record straight here. It’s insane that it has to be said, but there is nothing immoral about trying to make money. If you’re not bamboozling people, breaking any laws, or hurting anyone — actually hurting them, not this “words are violence” horseshit — then you’re not a grifter. And the balls it takes for leisure class youths to demonize people trying to make a living with poolside tweets from their parents’ spacious suburban homes is simply breathtaking. It’s like an onion of bullshit, each layer revealing different foul notes in the bouquet of hypocrisy.
There is a futility to diatribes such as this one, I realize. This is the way things are going, the direction the incentives and culture are corralling us all in. I could no more stop this trend than I could hold back a tidal wave by standing on the beach with my arms outstretched. But I can complain about it, and resolve not to contribute to it. And you can too. Our language police might get everything else wrong, but they are right about one thing: words matter.
See also: “On Cancel Culture and the Successor Ideology”
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