On your mark

      3 Comments on On your mark

Recently Your Humble Blogger has seen a saying going around that’s a version of an old line: if you don’t know who the mark is, you’re the mark. I had heard it years ago (decades ago?) about poker: if you are playing poker with a bunch of guys and don’t know who the mark is, it’s you. In one version attributed to David Mamet it’s if you’re in a con game, and you don’t know…, but I don’t actually think Mr. Mamet would have said it like that, since (a) I am always suspicious of free-floating quotations like this one, with a supposed writer but no listed work, and more important (2) Mr. Mamet as much as anybody knows that the mark doesn’t think he’s in a con game—or if he does, the con men will provide him with someone else for him to believe is the mark. I mean, con men are, on the whole, good at what they do; looking around for the mark will not protect you against them.

And in seriousness—if you are playing poker with a bunch of guys, and you are looking around at who is the “mark”, stop playing poker with those guys immediately. Never play cards (or any game) with people you think might be confidence men. Just don’t. Whether you are the mark or not.

But I think that the reason people are using the line these days isn’t really to do with actual individuals and actual confidence men. No, this is just this season’s equivalent of Wake up, sheeple! As if all that was required was awareness to combat inequality and injustice.

And more than this, I believe very strongly that the world is more than grifters and suckers. Yes, the current leaders of the Republican Party seem to hold ordinary conservative Americans in contempt—and yes, that happens on our side of the aisle as well sometimes—but that doesn’t mean that they are nothing but grifters, or that the voters are nothing but suckers. Many people are doing politics as politics—that is, attempting as best they can to influence the nation’s self-government to have policies they think are better than the alternatives, and doing so out of patriotism as well as personal ambition. People donate to candidates and organizations, go to rallies, knock on doors, write blog posts (well, tweet) and run for office themselves for a wide variety of complicated and simple reasons, motivations they understand those they don’t, from altruism and fear and force of habit and cool reason and greed and hope. And sometimes because they are grifters, and sometimes because they are suckers, too. But not always.

And as strongly as I believe that in politics the world is more than grifters and suckers, I believe it even more strongly in the rest of life (if there is a rest of life outside politics, properly understood). Many businesses are run in the sincere hope that they are providing value for money—does the owner of the local pizza joint think of me as a “mark”? The franchise holder at the gas station? The lady at the second-hand clothing store where I get suits for $20? The guy at the meat counter at the grocery? The publisher of the novel I want to read? My doctor? My dentist? My heating-oil company? My insurance company? My garbage man? My boss? My siblings? My spouse?

The truth is—or at least my truth is, as far as I can live with it—that maybe somebody I am dealing with thinks of me as a mark, and is using deception to exploit me as much as he or she can. Or maybe it’s not somebody who is dealing with me, personally, but somebody in an office in some other town, playing some long con. Maybe! But looking around for the mark isn’t going to inoculate me against somebody at TIAA/CREF sending me a phony retirement statement, or someone having substituted cheaper ingredients for my organic treats, or even making fraudulent charges on my credit card. And most of my dealings—really, almost all of them—are not dishonest at all. Even the businesses who are trying to maximize short-term profits are doing so within a basically honest framework. I’m not saying that ethical capitalism exists, mind you, just claiming an important distinction between ordinary profit-maximizing and the pigeon drop.

Anyway, yes, there exist confidence men who cheat and lie and defraud the unwary, and yes, one of them is Our Only President, but you still retain the choice, as you walk around your own life, of deciding whether to look for the mark or not. And I strongly advise you not to. Partially, yes, because I don’t think it will preserve you from actually being a mark, if a real con marks you, but mostly because it will keep you from understanding what is really going on, in almost every one of the transactions and interactions of your daily life.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

3 thoughts on “On your mark

  1. irilyth

    Hm, it seems like you’re interpreting this phrase as saying something like: “You need to always be looking for the mark, because if you stop looking, you will become the mark.” Yeah?

    That’s not how I’ve typically interpreted it; I’ve taken it more to mean something like: “If you’re in this situation (e.g. a poker game), and you look around trying to spot the mark, and can’t, that’s because you’re out of your league, and you’re the mark.”

    In other words, that it’s warning that you need to realize when you’ve accidentally found yourself swimming with the sharks, so you can get the hell out of there. I never interpreted it as a warning that if you let down your guard, you’ll become the fish, so you always have to keep your guard up because everyone is always trying to screw you. (Eat you. Whatever.)

    (And for some reason, the “if you can’t spot the fish, you are the fish” version is the one that stuck in my head, and I would have attributed it to Rounders, but https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Rounders_(film) says it’s “sucker”.

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      The thing about the actual saying is that either (1) it assumes that you have some way of knowing if you are in a swimming-with-sharks situation, which in the case of actual sharks is probably true but human predators do not have dorsal fins, and (b) it assumes that you are always swimming with sharks.

      When I have seen it recently applied to politics and economics, or more usually to some combination thereof, I find it difficult to infer that the viewer has the option of walking away. But in truth, I think the person using the line is often simply using it to mean something like “the system is rigged”, which is of course true but as nothing to do with looking around for a mark.


  2. irilyth

    Yeah, I think I’ve mostly heard it in the context of a poker game, like “here is some advice for when you go to play high-stakes poker”, and less about politics and economics. Bleah.


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