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Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The false idolization of crooks and villains as heroes, because ‘they nearly made it to the holy grail of richness and success’

To save my steeple, I visited people;
for this I'd gone when I met Little John.
His name came, I understood,
when the judge said "You're a robbing hood."

Last weekend, the Dutch financial newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad (FD) printed a two-page ‘exclusive’ interview with Jordan Belfort, aka The Wolf of Wall Street. The interview was held by Gerben van der Marel, the well-respected Wall Street correspondent of the FD newspaper.

Jordan Belfort, a typical crook-becoming-hero has now passed his time in jail and is now sturdily on his way to become a global celebrity and secret inspirator for numerous ‘hoping-to-become-well-to-do’ people. These people see him as a ‘villainous, but nevertheless very exciting’ guy, after the blockbuster movie with Leonardo di Caprio.

Jordan Belfort is currently giving ‘up-to $100,000’ speeches, which he apparently uses – just like the royalties coming from both his best-selling book and the resulting movie – to pay back the €110 million in damages that he caused at his victims, according to the justice that judged him.

By the way, Belfort himself claims that the company that he founded – Stratton Oakmont – had been operational for four more years, after he left it. He claimed that the $110 million in damages was an unjust and exaggerated number and stated that the real damages that he caused, were south of $50 million, at most.

On the pictures in the article, Jordan Belfort looks like a mixture of a hot-shot, celebrity lawyer and a movie star: goodlooking, sun-tanned and well-manicured, with an open collar shirt and a wide-shouldered American powersuit that Italians/Brittons hate so much. And… to top it off, he wears a Swiss gold(?) watch, in seemingly the $10,000 plus category. 

Clearly not someone, who went through a very rough time in prison and who is now hellbent to pay back all his dues and live a life of sobriety and abstination, ashamed as he is about what he did to other people in the past. This impression is perfectly in synch with the text of the interview

Although Van der Marel goes ‘through the motions’ with some critical questions to Belfort, the whole interview breathes the atmosphere of a junior editor for a pop magazine, who is encountering a relaxed Justin Bieber, after his concert:

GvdM: Not everybody believes your story that  you ‘stumbled into’ this business. Some people think that you are a born imposter. Cunning, misleading and manipulative. Until this day…

JB: Who told you that?! My ex-wife? Then you can call every person, who brought himself in trouble, a sociopath. Ridiculous. I’ve been in therapy and I really don’t have these characteristics. I made big mistakes, but other things I did very well actually

GvdM: Like?!

JB: Listen. I’m not like Bernie Madoff with his enormous Ponzi Scheme. We traded in existing stock. We didn’t make it up. We did operate in a grey zone all the time. The SEC (i.e. Securities and Exchange Commission) investigated us for years and they didn’t have a case. Where we did clearly enter into illegal business, was with the cash money, which we stashed in Switzerland. Even FBI agent Coleman, who is very smart, had trouble displaying the illegal parts of it. It was not shamelessly criminal, what whe did.

GvdM: You pleaded guilty for all kinds of stock market fraud.

JB: I was not so bad. On a scale from one to ten, Warren Buffett is a one and Bernie Madoff a ten. I was a seven in my worst years. I never stole money from the accounts of people.

GvdM: You sold them worthless stocks.

JB: No, I didn’t!

GvdM: You palmed stocks off on people for much too much money.

JB: Correct. Welcome to Wall Street. I don’t approve of it, but it was very usual to act like I did. Especially in those days. Everybody knew that my stock arrangements were very popular. Everybody in Wall Street also participated. However, we bought large packages of stock at bottom prices and later we rebought this stock. That is called 'free riding' and that was our real crime.

You catch my drift with the rest of the interview, as these were the most critical parts of it.

Summarizing: “Bernie Madoff was a real crook, but I’m not. Everybody did it on Wall Street in those days and consequently, I’m merely the victim of my circumstance. What I did was just a teeny weeny bad and not very bad at all! By the way: wasn’t Gordon Gekko your ultimate hero too?! Ooh, he was mine!

Nevertheless,  I did my time and I’m doing my veeeeeeeeeeeery best to pay back my damages…  By the way, did you read my book or did you see the movie. I look so much better than Di Caprio, in my humble opinion!”

Unfortunately, not everybody has the greatness to feel really ashamed about doing bad things in the past. It happens far more that such people rather feel victims – they really do – than perpetrators of crimes. In this case, however, it were crimes, which ruined numerous middle-class people. Normal, simple people, who were trying to earn their 401k or who were trying to gather a nest egg for a rainy day, at the stock exchanges with their savings’ money.

Belfort’s behaviour is something that I can understand, however…

What I don’t understand, on the other hand, is why people and institutions, like Gerben van der Marel and the FD (but also every other newspaper in the world, and the US visitors of Belfort’s $100,000 speeches), are so fascinated with such people: they almost immediately lose their critical stance and virtually turn into worshippers.

Seemingly, the media are almost driveling, when they have the opportunity to have an exclusive interview with this guy. I bet that when Bernie Madoff would be released today, he would be offered a multi million dollar book contract for his (auto)biography, as well as the opportunity to organize $500,000 speeches, per evening…, every evening.

And I even dare to say that Monica Lewinsky’s cigar raised the "post-Presidential" market value of former president Bill Clinton by at least 100%, when it comes to paid speeches and fund-raisers, as his affair with Lewinsky made a much longer lasting impression than his whole presidency, to be frank.

In case of Jordan Belfort, I suspect that the fact that he is a ‘reversed Robin Hood’ (i.e. someone who steals from the middle-class, in order to get rich himself) and a goodlooking gentleman, turns him into the favorite scoundrel of many neo-liberal / neo-conservative ‘Captain Entrepreneur's’:

Of course, he is a crook, but hell… did he live life to the fullest and did he nearly get away with it. And damn, what a beautiful watch has he got. I want to have one of those myself. And those middle class people are so frigging boring… Groce-me-out”.

Yes…, of course this is an overly moralistic article on my behalf and yes… there will definitely be a much broader story behind this guy than meets the eye, and other blatant scoundrels at Wall Street and beyond. And yes, of course it is interesting to hear this guy’s story of his life! 

But in the month in which BBC’s Jeremy Paxman threw the towel, with respect to his television career as master interviewer, a new generation of Paxman’s is so dearly missed in the current media.

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