‘This game is rigged, y’all’.
Ok, so it wasn’t Colonel Mustard in the library, but that’s only because in the age of the ‘kindle’, libraries have largely gone the same route as free school milk, double entry book-keeping or any number of arcane throwbacks to yesteryear.
In its place, and doubtless much to the good Colonel’s confusion, a state of the art ‘home entertainment suite’ with an equally baffling lack of tangible controls. Docking pads and something quadrophonic but the sounds, like the books, curiously out of sight, out of mind. Perhaps during ‘Cluedo’s’ seventies’ heyday, he could have brained his victim just as easily with a book, a heavy, old-school tome, as a candlestick; but his options are more limited now, the reading material mainly online and rarely to hand.
On this occasion it turns out that the offence is altogether more snide: poison in the patio. Worse still is the self-appointed winner, a 10 year old who ‘calls’ the result in a move worthy of Fox News and offers his own method to navigate the homicidal madness.
‘I cheat at every game except basketball,’ is his frank admission.
‘Why would you do that?’ I ask him.
‘Because that’s my plan, and it works,’ he tells me, unabashed and clearly unashamed.
‘Doesn’t that spoil the game?’
‘Not if you’re doing it right.’
Enron take a bow. Bankers exhale. Michael Corleone was wrong, but not by much.
If history teaches us anything, it’s that any huckster with the requisite ‘moxy’ can trick his way to untold riches. It’s what this culture does best, trickery and deceit. How it came to be, no less, no matter what they might tell you about hard work and merit. Or about the original inhabitants and their savagery and indolence. Seems like these newer Indians – the kid is a Tamil Brahmin from affluent Orange County – are happy to buy into the original American lie and its promise of productive citizenship. Frontier mythology rewired by relative newcomers and with the net, and desired, effect of acting as a distancing strategy: the requisite bulwark separating their partial claims of providence from the older, simmering resentments of the abject. These particular hyphenated Indians, frequently at great pains to point out how they differ from those ‘other’ Indians, either of the folkloric West or the wearily chaotic East, have made the gated community their reservation, or habitat, of choice. They are professional, to a fault, a ‘model minority’ – testament to the ‘managed migration’ of the sixties’ and seventies’. Their lives, albeit Bengali rather than Tamil ones, beautifully chronicled in the diaspora fictions of Jhumpa Lahiri or satirised as harmless, if eminently employable, spice in prime-time comedy vehicles such as ‘The Big Bang Theory’ or the risible ‘Mindy Project’. The geeks who never quite inherit the earth but seem to do ok anyway with a string of small businesses or professional occupations.
Ok, so it’s a bit of a leap from the frontier mythologies of the ‘Founding Fathers’ to the self-justification of an underage cheat, but the principle that unites them has remained largely unchanged. And broadly speaking it goes something like this: the bigger the lie, the more people allow themselves to be wilfully duped. It’s an adage that runs through much of American, and therefore popular culture, from corporate kickbacks to board game betrayal. Indeed it’s the fulcrum upon which so many psychotic conceits of the modern era are balanced, from WMDs to the War on Terror. Closer to home, The Wire’s Slim Charles tellingly observes the bogus foundations of internecine drug war in Baltimore in his sad admission – if all we’ve got is a lie, then we fight on the lie.
And it’s this last part that does so much damage. One might argue that we’re all fraudulent, to a greater or lesser degree, from the moment our social knowledge reconfigures our place in this world. The dye is cast for instance once you inwardly rejoice the addition to your year 9 class of a fat, freckly ginger; his late arrival assuring your own survival in the Hobbesian jungle of in-crowd adolescence; your sense of his abjection within the pecking order removing some of those sticks and stones, or more likely these days an internet bullying campaign or trauma by text – formerly your exclusive domain. So if you’re going to be honest, then the chances are we’ve all been implicated at one time or another, but it’s not something you boast of, not if you’ve any ‘couth. And, maybe this is the really important bit, it’s not something you actively pursue or encourage, even if you passively benefit from it. So while it might have been tough for ginger, you never actually wished him any harm.
Which brings us back to our young friend, the Cluedo gamer.
‘Not doing it right’ if by ‘right’ you mean the rules as endured by every other dupe. He’ll doubtless go far, this kid. Age 10 and already a cheat, though his family won’t thank you for pointing it out. And if it’s easier to bury the offence in Sociology, let’s be honest, he’s not the child being left behind. Never has been, his follies inoculated within the protective walls of upscale suburbia. And just as much as it’s a physical space, it also provides a semi-permanent buffer zone between cunning and consequence or to borrow from the old Russian master, between ‘crime and punishment’. It – the offence itself just as much as the physical dimensions of suburbia – remains intact because it has to: to support all those other lies which percolate the privet hedges and religious bumper stickers. In much the same way as The Sopranos is both an indictment of suburban America’s monstrous underbelly but also seems to revel in its own corruption. This is the OC of the ‘Real Housewives’ – a place where the fruit, after all, rarely falls far from the tree. And these are the poisonous little berries of privilege and entitlement.
No, there’s little consequence here. Navel gazing and self-obsession aplenty but it’s only apparently ‘special pleading’ when poor people register any kind of complaint. More likely in this case, the kid, the bent rules and the rigged game fall under the umbrella of ‘mischief’. A catch-all to run concurrently with life itself, airbrushing juvie, the ‘big house’, disappointment or failure from the big picture for the well-heeled.
A boardgame cheat at 10, and in times past a draft dodger at 20, and who knows, a presidential incumbent by late middle age?
These days though he’ll more likely move from privet to hedge fund manager; or asset stripper; or currency speculator, or realtor, or any number of rapacious, socially useless, late capitalist occupations.
The kid will do well, and if he trims an ethic here or a principle there, who’s counting really? Even if his deception adds a little, or more likely a lot more to the national debt. And who can blame him? The rewards are massive, and as he’ll recall from his formative experiences playing Cluedo, the penalties are rarely enforced. So he’ll speculate to accumulate, and the decimal point in his current account will, like all good imperial careers, head ever further east.
But there’s no ledger which counts the cost of his myriad betrayals, from child Machiaveli to full-blown adult fraudster. His won’t be the desk that’s cleared or the home that will fall under the hammer. He’ll find a way around it, a loophole here, an offshore tax haven there. Even though it’s nearly always Gecko on Wall Street, poor old Mustard will continue to carry the can. And we’re all the poorer for it.