Tuesday

13th Apr 2021

Column

Why people want to be fooled

When people are in trouble, when they feel ill, lose their job or doubt everything, what is it they want most? To escape, probably. To get away from reality. To dream of extraordinary, even impossible things.

During the war in Yugoslavia, in the 1990s, two professions were in high demand: soldiers and fortune-tellers.

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  • Trump supporters often say they voted for him not despite his fairy tales, but because of them. The charlatan, wrote de Francesco, is "like a doctor who brings relief from suffering and pain"

Theatre directors, politicians, shopkeepers and the so-called 'weekend chetniks' (part-time partisans) often disagreed on the merit of the soldiers, but visited astrologers and fortune tellers like never before.

The Turkish government, up to its neck in military adventures abroad and deeply in debt, seeks to lift the morale of citizens. Elections are coming.

So, what does president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan do? He promises his people a space programme: a Turk on the moon in 2023.

Few believe what Erdoğan said, perhaps: "Our feet will be on earth but our eyes will be in space. Our roots will be on earth, our branches will be up in the sky.".

But surely many would like to believe it.

A Dutch far-right politician facing an electoral wipe-out after internal messages with racist and antisemitic content were published in the media, is trotting along the same path.

Dressed like Donald Trump, in a suit and baseball cap, Thierry Baudet suddenly started calling for a Dutch space programme.

Now he's rising in the polls again.

Venice, once a rich trading city, provides us with another escapist example.

At the end of the 16th century, Venice was outcompeted by Spaniards, Portuguese and Dutch who had found the route to the East.

Then, one day, a mysterious gentleman called Bragadino landed on its quays. It was said he came from Cyprus.

Bragadino sprinkled money around, gave sumptuous dinners, and helped people to forget their worries about Venice's downfall. Then the rumour spread that Bragadino was an alchemist who could turn money into more money.

He did not deny this, but cautioned this would take time and Venetians should be patient.

And patient they were. Hoping for a miracle, and no doubt eager to share in the booty, they waited for years.

Bragadino was worshipped and revered. No one enjoyed so many privileges as he did. Then, suddenly, Bragadino disappeared without a trace. Many Venetians realised they had been taken for a ride.

The question is, of course: why? Why had they been swindled?

Well, perhaps because they wanted to be swindled.

This is at least what Grete de Francesco - a Jewish-Austrian journalist born in Vienna in 1893 as Margarethe Weissenstein, and married to an Italian - wrote in Die Macht des Charlatans, a wonderful book from 1939 that has just been republished in Berlin.

"The charlatan's power is based on falsification," de Francesco wrote.

"Like a sinner, he strips truth, knowledge and words of all authenticity." People like metamorphosis because it liberates them from the harsh realities of everyday life.

In the 18th century noblemen attended Viennese balls disguised as farmers and chamber maids, while the working classes at their own balls dressing up as archdukes and princesses.

For a few moments, human dreams and desires were given free rein.

In the early 20th century, master swindler Charles Ponzi offered an investment with monthly returns of 50 percent.

As long as newcomers put money in, earlier investors were paid out handsomely. When the scheme finally collapsed, those suffering losses readily admitted it had all looked rather suspicious from the start - but they had wanted to believe in it.

Charlatans bring relief

Trump supporters often say they voted for him not despite his fairy tales, but because of them.

The charlatan, wrote de Francesco, is "like a doctor who brings relief from suffering and pain".

The word charlatan comes from the Italian 'ciarlatano': someone selling herbal brews and rejuvenating waters at street markets, often also pulling teeth and doing magic tricks.

In the early Renaissance this became popular in Europe.

Medieval religious dogma melted away, but science did not yet fill the void.

Charlatans jumped in eagerly. One of the most famous was Tabarin, a performer dressed like a clown with a wooden sword, who amused audiences in the Place Dauphine in Paris from a small podium or cart with farcical dialogues and hilarious acts.

A velvet curtain, a violin - inimitable!

He also sold magical ointments and quack medicines, like hot cakes.

The Enlightenment, when it came, didn't stop this.

The sudden appearance of 'experts' who disproved day dreams, superstition and conspiracy theories, didn't convince the people at all.

If anything, it filled them with hatred against experts.

According to Grete de Francesco, there was only one effective antidote: the presence of a small group of citizens who were completely unmoved by quacks and swindlers, and kept on living as they had always done.

Because of its imperturbability this minority "forced the deceived and the half-deceived to stop and think".

Their way of life, calm attitude and the fact that they were the only ones not fooled in the end proved that there is indeed a truth - and that charlatans are charlatans.

Grete de Francesco never mentioned the real charlatans of her time.

That is what makes her book so forceful, also for us today.

She lived in Vienna, Berlin, Paris and Milan, on the run from the fascists for several years.

She was finally arrested in Milan in 1944, and deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp. She probably died there in 1945.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in NRC.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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