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Politicians, Guns, & Money: 
The Profane Memoirs of a Justified Con Man

You can buy Stephen Paul Foster’s novel Toward the Bad I Kept on Turning here.

3,142 words

Stephen Paul Foster
Toward the Bad I Kept on Turning: A Confessional Novel
Independently published, 2020

“My cynicism I carefully dissembled.”

“The sapience of a post-modern philosopher attached to the commentary of a Chicago mayor, I think, would bring a perfect understanding of where late-20th-century America was headed.”

In previous reviews, I’ve emphasized that one of the great problems of writing “dissident” literature is the problem of how to handle the dreaded “info-dump.” This comes about because the author either views his work as primarily instructional anyway — the dreaded “didactic” novel — or else from a need to bring readers of varying levels of awareness “up to speed” on the Present Crisis, in order to appreciate an otherwise standard narrative.

To take an example from another genre, the Wachowski Sisters brilliantly solved the problem by having the protagonist choose to swallow a red pill — so brilliantly that it became the standard metaphor among the Dissident Right; by contrast, although brainwashing-defeating sunglasses work the same way, the protagonist of John Carpenter’s They Live has to engage in perhaps the longest fight in cinema history to get his pal to put them on. [1]

Stephen Paul Foster has devised a clever and satisfying solution: the confessional genre, specifically the confessions of a criminal; in this case, a conman. Rather than a series of “info dumps,” the reader is carried along as a more or less endearing scamp unreels his life story, which just happens to coincide with America’s postwar misadventures in Empire. It’s Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States as written by a combination of Hunter S. Thompson [2] and Chuck Barris. [3]

That is if it works. And here, it does. Foster is a professor of Philosophy, and while that may not suggest narrative skills, at least in the Anglo-American tradition, he does an excellent job, gaining the reader’s attention at the start — pulling his coat, as the jazzbos say — and never letting go.

Of course, the American Empire has given him a lot of material to work with, and seeing it through the eyes of a conman is quite appropriate. A conman is the perfect guide to American history. First, it’s a very American genre, as limned in fiction by writers from Poe and Melville to Mad Men, [4] as well as the whole “self-help” genre from P. T. Barnum to Jordan Peterson; all work with the uniquely American virtue of confidence[5]

Secondly, the conman can provide a unique, inside perspective on how to understand historical events. Our narrator (I don’t believe he gives his “real” name, though at one point he acquires the identity of a “John Davis,” without middle initial, which was “as close as I could get to ‘John Doe’, which made background checks on me a bit more challenging” [6]) is born and raised in a small town in Michigan, “a solid, stable place” where “without reservation or hesitation, you trusted those who had authority. . . I wanted to emulate them.”

Things begin to go South, literally, when his father, a “lay minister and a social worker,” takes him along on a mission to the Dominican Republic, just in time for the assassination of the dictator Trujillo (“Their weapons came courtesy of some guy named — I think it was ‘Kennedy’ — from the American government”). His father is swept up in the reprisals, and the dictator’s “goons put him through an intensive three-day interrogation that you might say permanently changed his perspective, generally, on the world and, specifically, on the power of God’s grace and the goodness of Christian love.”

As for the narrator, he learns that “The world was populated with two kinds of players — predators and their prey. I resolved that I would not be ‘the prey.’”

I became utterly skeptical about the goodness, ethics, spirituality, and morality “stuff,” the staple of the educational and religious establishments. This stuff I once took seriously. Those of us who embraced it, I thought, would be virtuous, wholesome, and trustworthy. No. This “stuff,” I realized, is epiphenomenal, something analogous to what magicians do to distract their audiences and pull off the illusion of their tricks.

“Morality-talk” diverts us from the realities of society and human nature; how people act and how their actions and motives get represented, or more accurately, misrepresented. Taken seriously, “morality talk” creates the illusion that human beings are not what they really are — easily corrupted, happily duped, frequently coerced and hopelessly deluded actors in a perpetual struggle that comes down to take or get-taken.

The “morality” epiphenomenon is there to distract the marks, the ones who “get taken.” Not only does it distract. It also deliberately distorts the reality of the outcome with a confusing and misleading picture of the players, particularly the takers who don’t want to look like takers and often successfully represent themselves as benefactors.

You can buy James O’Meara’s Green Nazis in Space! here.

And “the biggest collective con artists are governments. It’s in their nature. It’s axiomatic.” At this point, “conservatives” and many of the Dissident Right will balk. Surely our guys are the Good Guys, or at least the Better Guys. Our narrator admits to a slight moral superiority of Our Guys to Their Guys (Truman vs. Stalin, Nixon vs. Lenin) but counsels us to get shut of that as it is exactly what Our Guys want you to believe: “When your sense of moral superiority gets inflated, you quickly lose track of how dishonest the conmen in your own tribe are, which is what they most want you to do. That’s the point.”

The conman offers a “better way” to look at governments: “they are, all of them, fronts for coercion, corruption and collusion. They just can’t help it.” The “3-c’s” as he calls them, equip us with a kind of unified theory of government:

The difference between these two systems is not that one is rife with coercion, corruption and collusion and the other is not: the two systems differ only in the relative proportion of the cs. The proportions shift over time.

The Soviet Union, early days, was coercion on steroids; it eventually relaxed. The moral purity of revolutionaries gave way to establishment corruption. The coercion of post-democracy U.S. has ramped up so much in my lifetime, the country is unrecognizable. This coercion is softer than the Stalinist version; it’s the decentralized kind that threatens your job, career, reputation, and social standing.

Stalin’s dictatorship was “iron” — dissent got you a bullet in the back of the neck. Ours is mostly “velvet” (Vicky Weaver excepted). Stalinist tyranny was concentrated, radiating down from a single power center: late, post-democracy, the U. S. version, is faceless and decentralized, distributed through government agencies, corporations, educational institutions, the legal system and the media syndicates.

So begins our tour through the hot spots of the history of the American Empire, from the Weathermen to the Balkans to Sarah Palin’s ill-fated campaign, with stops along the way as a pioneer televangelist, “Gay Diversity Officer” and Castro’s emissary to the leader of Peru’s “Shining Path,” [7] guided by a true insider. Indeed, his obsessive “need to conform to the desires and expectations of anyone and everyone I happen to be around, often people I don’t particularly like or admire” soon brings him to the attention of the Deep State, where his “wise guy” amorality and Zelig-like ability to fit in make him a perfect wetwork operative, a kind of Forest Gump reimagined by Ian Fleming.

At times I even suspected he was becoming a kind of Doppelgänger for yours truly, from his Michigan upbringing, [8] his stint in academia as a “graduate of a crappy university nobody ever heard of” [9] — philosophy might bake no bread, but learning to generate postmodern gibberish is excellent preparation for a career in the socially legitimate sociopathy known as government [10] — to his tour of the corrupt underside of Kansas City. [11] 

Even his cynical observation that “any fiction, no matter how far-fetched or preposterous, can transition itself to self-evidently ‘true’ by constant repetition,” comes fearfully close to my own repetition of Neville Goddard’s mantra: “An assumption, though false, if persisted in, will become fact.”

I was homesick. Having recently been nearly abducted by an Argentine military goon squad and pitched into the Atlantic, or [nearly] having my tongue cut out by a Peruvian philosopher gone kill-em-all ape shit had finally taken a toll on me. I was flirting with a psychotic breakdown. Life was beginning to feel like Bill Murray in his memory-loop — “Ground Hog Day.” [12]

With what I sense is a similar lifespan though very different life, I was able to keep up with most of this crook’s tour, although some parts are still a bit murky. . . did Noam Chomsky really team-teach a class in “Linguistics and the Law” at the University of Michigan Law School with a Serbian ex-priest and terrorist? Foster also likes to give minor characters names that may leave you wondering, like angry Professor Sander Levin (another Michigan joke), Chuck Percy, or Herman Gering, [sic], although there’s no doubt about the identity of his two Rottweilers, Jurgen and Habermas.

If I had one minor criticism, a late chapter, bringing in the Paterno pedophilia scandal at Penn State while more or less continuing the conman theme, has little to do with the overall political themes and seems out of place; it could have been eliminated for brevity.

Foster can be a pretty funny guy, in a cynically non-PC way:

China was descending into chaos, a lesson for the outside world for what happens when you take teenagers seriously and encourage them to think they are in charge. It was around this time that the American government lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Guzmán gathered his impressions of the Middle Kingdom in fabulous disarray and took them back to Peru. He put them into his little Marxist theoretical crockpot, added some Peruvian spices, stirred and let them simmer for a bit. His recipe would produce a more potent brew.

This seamy little piece of high-government corruption [the mob working with the US government during World War II) would make one of today’s “Diversity” consultants burst with pride: Jews, Italians and government WASPs working together to stick it to the evil Germans. Not quite, but a promising beginning.

Jones’s “People’s Temple” was as much a “temple” of the downtrodden people in San Francisco as the “People’s Republic of China” or the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” are governed by the people who live in those places. . . . In a sane world a conman like the People’s Reverend would have been locked up far away in a psych-ward and heavily sedated with schedule 2 class drugs. But this was San Francisco. Given the state of the Weltgeist at the time, Jones was handed the keys to the city by the elite who clearly didn’t know shit from Shinola.

Governments in exile, you have to admit, are the best kind since they have no power — produce only hot air — and are far away from the people they claim to be governing.

Government commissions are to governments as get-away cars are to bank robbers.

He reigned there as you might predict a man with well-established corruption-credentials, hand-picked by nameless, unaccountable spies would. Well, his performance surpassed all expectations.

The mysteries of the “diversity” organizational culture can be demystified with just two words — “pyramid scheme.”

I noticed that the purpose of the “war on terror” after the 9/11 attack began to imperceptibly shift: from “defense of the American people against terror” to an offensive “save the world” operation with the easily attainable goal of making the Middle East, politics-wise, resemble Vermont.

But enough bad things happen to good people to make this tragicomic at best.

Now, I know a lot of “conservatives” will bristle at being marched through the worldview of the Chomskys, Cockburns, and Pilgers. But if anything should distinguish the Dissident Right from “conservatives” as well as liberals, it’s an awareness that, as Leonard Cohen sings,

Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich [13]

Indeed, after the election fraud, the pardoning of various Jewish criminals (including Jonathan Pollard, the most dangerous spy in American history), the inauguration of the pretender Biden while the Capitol remains under military occupation, can anyone seriously deny that America is, indeed, itself a banana republic?

Our narrator, however, has one final trick up his sleeve:

But I won’t concede my “moral inferiority” to any of them, even though I’ve confessed to being a conman. Most people, I think you’ll concur, will strenuously resist wearing the mantle of moral inferiority. Except. . .

The honesty that follows from the renunciation of self-justification and rationalization makes me unassailable and my confession devastating. In telling the truth about myself, I have nothing to defend and thus am invulnerable. J’accuse. I am an accuser, a genuine truth-teller, fearless in facing the pervasive and relentless ugliness and brutality exposed by my accusations. In so doing I also rise above my conmen colleagues. They still pretend to be something other than what they are.[/ind]

The talk of emulating the Confessions of Rousseau and Augustine at the start was all a red herring (or should I say a “false flag”?), and especially the Germanic allusion to Felix Krull — “I am a conman, (ein Hochstapler in German)” — it’s the French phrase here that tips his hand. The true template for these confessions is Camus’ last novel, The Fall, where a self-described “judge-penitent” uses his engaging conversational confessions (like Burroughs’ “routines”) to gradually indict the good citizens of Amsterdam and eventually the listener (for surely only the most naïve and self-deluded would not think that all of us are his “conmen colleagues”) for worse crimes than his own. Like the “Revelation of the Method,” once the listener has been shown how the world works, his silence implies consent.

My confession forces you to confront a terrible question posed by an ancient Roman poet, one I hope that never stops disturbing your sleep and haunts you in your quiet moments: Who will guard us from the guardians?

The reader of Toward the Bad I Kept on Turning will be highly entertained but ultimately will have no excuse for not knowing the world of shit we live in, and be faced with the question: which way will I turn?

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Notes

[1] Jonathan Lethem points out how this refutes the idea that people are eager to learn the truth; actually, truth is painful, and resisted at great length. See my attempt to read Lethem’s book They Live! (Soft Skull, 2010) while viewing the film itself here, and reprinted here.

[2] “Most of my non-Amish neighbors and friends lived on Four Roses and road kill.”

[3] Fantasy Merchant says that “Barris claimed in his 1982 memoir Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind to have been secretly working for the [CIA] during the sixties and seventies — around the same time he was developing kitschy and iconic television shows like The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show.” As Barris says, “My name is Charles Hirsch Barris. I have written pop songs, I have been a television producer. I am responsible for polluting the airwaves with mind-numbing puerile entertainment. In addition, I have murdered thirty-three human beings.” George Clooney directed a 2002 film version, which might be considered a warm-up for his role in the Coen Bros. 2008 film Burn After Reading (which, in turn, might as well have been the inspiration for the creation of the Alt-Right Corp.; see my review of Benjamin Teitelbaum’s War For Eternity: Inside Bannon’s Far-Right Circle of Global Power Brokershere.

[4] See my “Don Draper’s Last Diddle: The Finale of Mad Men” (and reprinted in The End of an Era: Mad Men and the Ordeal of Civility (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2015) and “Duper’s Delight or Draper’s Diddle?

[5] The locus classicus, of course, is Melville’s The Confidence Man, where modern goodthinkers are apt to be disconcerted to find Emerson and Thoreau among the disguises of the titular scallywag. Forster alludes to Moby Dick at one point: his motto for dealing with corrupt officials comes from Ahab: “Strike through the mask!”

[6] True enough, but I wonder, in the context of his style of humor, if Foster wants us to recall, if only subliminally, John W. Davis, founder of one of the three biggest New York law firms, and counsel for the losing side in Brown v. Board of Education.

[7] “Guzmán was a professor of philosophy. This, I suspect, goes a long way to explain a deeply warped personality that had turned homicide-in-service-to-humanity into his life’s sacred mission.”

[8] The family even drives back from vacation during the Detroit riots, just as mine did.

[9] His English professor recalls the one who tried to teach me about Heidegger: “a slovenly, chain smoking foul-tempered Jew from the East Coast . . . Trapped in the Midwest and having to teach . . . a bunch of hicks . . . like me was a cruel exile. . . . He compensated by turning his teaching into a form of raging, psychological projection. Educational it was not; entertaining, absolutely.” Heidegger, projection, get it? See “Lovecraft as a Heideggerian Event,” reprinted in The Eldritch Evola . . . & Others: Traditionalist Meditations on Literature, Art, & Culture; ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).

[10] “Maybe it’s the most important thing I want to say in this entire, non-self-serving, humble confession. The one form of corruption that is pervasive and yet imperceptible is the worst corruption of all. It’s the corruption of language, like those little, fake “we,” “we,” “we’s” in JFK’s inaugural pep talk. Words are the vehicles of thought. Manipulating, perverting them (the words), twisting their original meanings into their opposites makes it easier to change and control the way people think and to manipulate them (the people). Word corruption lets the lads in charge forego the cumbersome thumbscrews, the labor camps, the firing squads — in a word — the naked, physical coercion.

[11] See my review of Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parkerhere.

[12] Yet another intersection; see my “From Groundhog Day to The Gilmore Girls,” reprinted with other considerations of Groundhog Day in my collection Passing the Buck: Coleman Francis & Other Cinematic Metaphysicians (Melbourne: Manticore Press, forthcoming).

[13] “Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’ captures my philosophy in the first verse.” Like many Boomers, Foster likes to spike his writing with apposite lyrics, from Leonard Cohen to Merle Haggard, and I’m okay with that.

 

5 Comments

  1. Altitude Zero
    Posted February 10, 2021 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    I’ll certainly have to get and read this thing. Having lived through about two-thirds of the Cold War, it seems, from your review, to pretty much encapsulate the way I have come to see things; “Their side was totally insane, and very corrupt. Our side was significantly less insane, but if anything, even more corrupt”. I still don’t regret the choices I made, because when having to choose between Johnson and Nixon on the one hand, and Pol Pot and Guzman on the other, there was really no choice – but it was a pretty sh*tty choice. And of course, we have become, since our temporary victory, even more insane that they were; at least Professor Doctor Shining Path didn’t claim that Africans invented anti-gravity hovercraft, or that there are 147 different genders…

  2. Cicada31
    Posted February 11, 2021 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    I ordered the book. Support our team!

  3. Posted February 11, 2021 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    What no comment on the title?

    Despite all my Sunday learning towards the bad I kept on turning
    ‘Til momma couldn’t hold me anymore

    I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole
    No one could steer me right but momma tried, momma tried
    Momma tried to raise me better but her pleading I denied
    And that leaves only me to blame, cause momma tried

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted February 11, 2021 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      Merle Haggard, “Momma Tried”

  4. Mr. h.
    Posted February 15, 2021 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    Ordered. Looking forward to it.

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