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The Global Grifter

by Brandon Edmonds / 08.09.2009

There’s a great scene in Steven Frear’s largely overlooked neo-noir film ‘The Grifters’ (1990) when John Cusack buys a beer and shows the bartender a twenty he then palms handing him a dollar instead (pocketing the change). It’s a classic bait and switch ‘grift’ and its part of the film’s sly moral realism that the bartender soon realizes and viciously beats him up. Cusack nurses his wound until the end of the film (much like Jack Nicholson’s sliced nose in Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1974) – another film obsessed with what lies behind appearances). Violence has real, lasting consequences in life as it does in great films (a truth Quentin Tarrantino might want to process given the wantonly asocial bloodletting of his work). Actually Polanski has a great tale of artifice and deception from his own personal history. It’s said that as a boy escaping the Nazi’s in Poland, he fashioned a makeshift foreskin out of candle wax in case of a strip search. From such horrors are directors, those epic conductors of make-believe, made.

It’s dangerous to dissemble (ask Carl Niehaus, Milli Vanilli or Bernie Maddoff) and yet danger often forces dissembling. The CIA’s recently disclosed ‘War on Terror’ torture memo’s (grounds enough to have Bush’s entire cabinet indicted and charged for war crimes) are repugnant – not only in the way they routinize immoral acts in the name of national security – but in refusing to grant suspects the human understanding, the empathy required to imagine that physical threat will make most anyone say or do anything to make it stop. Torture reduces suspects to Pavlov’s dog – break an arm get a response (then repeat ad nauseam until the oil flows free).

Danger forces dissembling. This reveals the genius behind Brandon Huntley’s great refugee grift. We know, as South Africans, that he’s lying. That ‘racial assaults’ against whites are seldom chiefly racial. They’re criminal and even inevitable given the staggering wealth divide (a racially encoded inequality of an extreme found nowhere else on earth) generated by settler colonial history and a half century of apartheid (notwithstanding the recent parasitic layer of BEE self-enrichment). But what Huntley has done so well, so smartly is paint a picture of clear and imminent danger to himself purely because of who he is – an unemployed white male. Great strides in diversity recognition and identity politics since the 1980s have set white males back. Not in real terms, white men still earn more and wield more power than anyone else in the West, but by damaging their sense of sovereignty and entitlement. Much like Copernicus rocked the early church by revealing a
universe quite indifferent to the earth. Huntley struck this nerve (quite knowingly) and called these currents strategically into play turning what he’d hoped would get him a few more months in Canada after his visa expired into a symptom of the unsettled, ever deferred complex of race relations not only in this country but as migration proliferates, the world. The man should have his own talk show at the very least.

Huntley has called on the associative demons of affirmative action and ‘reverse racism’ to make himself out to be a victim of wider social forces rather than individual, criminal acts (alleged assaults he tellingly failed to report): he has thereby turned himself into the Anne Frank of white fears. The chairperson of the refugee board, William Davis, who handled Huntley’s case, stated, in what is one of the most ironic and disturbing quotes yet uttered in the name of post-apartheid SA, “I find that the claimant would stand out like a ‘sore thumb’ due to his color in any part of the country”. Huntley must have been on fire in that room. He must have found within himself a vein of rhetoric worthy of King Lear. The refugee board were convinced by the end of the session that Huntley’s, “subjective fear of persecution remained constant and consistent”. Constant and consistent again points to wider social factors at work, the living reality of social life of this nation, rather than an instance of singular paranoia. Being here now, this ruling suggests, literally victimizes whites as whites. Racial profiling sanctioned by the State: the refugee board found “clear and convincing proof of the state’s unwillingness or inability to protect him”. No wonder the ANC are a tad ruffled. Huntley dissembled and they believed him because they wanted to believe him. It’s Huntley’s race-baiting, fear-mongering genius to have gambled that they would. He is the flip side of 2010 and its shiny happy version of the new South Africa. A global grifter muddying the water of a complacent Rainbow nation.

Image courtesy and © Jason Bronkhorst. Check more of his styles here.

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