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Lee Wolverton

Lee Wolverton

America in its modern form, and West Virginia with it, knows nothing of Becky Sharp and the fictive realm she occupied, but the country and state are plunging at breakneck speed into her world.

She was the master work of British author William Makepeace Thackeray, who cast Becky as the central figure in “Vanity Fair.” For the unaware, who’ve likely flitted like moths drawn to light to another topic by now, “Vanity Fair” was a novel published in 1847, nearly two centuries before the magazine of the same name, another anachronism requiring those drear and arcane activities, reading and thought.

Thackeray drew the title for his signature tale from John Bunyan’s 17th-century Christian allegory, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” A year-round fair is set in a town called Vanity, where “there is at all times to be seen jugglings, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind. Here are to be seen, too, and that for nothing, thefts, murders, adulteries, false-swearers ... .”

Becky would have fit well in such a place just as she acclimated seamlessly into her own. She begins as a penniless orphan and, by way of guile, charm and absence of moral restraint, relentlessly ascends, leaving the easily manipulated — mostly men — in her wake.

Like every great con, Becky makes her way leading people in directions they already wish to go. Writing for Psychology Today, Cathy Scott explains that “con artists often prey on people’s trust and their propensity for believing what they wish was true.” This is commonly associated with money because, as Bruce Springsteen observed, “poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything.”

But an aged category of con particularly thrives today, specializing in a line of cunning that enriches the artist by relying not on relieving victims of their money, at least not directly and not initially, but on winning their allegiance. The politician deals in money, requiring it and amassing it to grease palms and political machines and line his or her own pockets, but the politician’s key currency is neither coins nor paper, but votes. Without them, the politician is powerless.

These conceivably could be obtained by honorable means, by the means politicians tell us they obtain votes, by laboring in the halls of power on behalf of the best interests of constituents. Surely, some among those in the Legislature and Congress fit this description. It is more assured that many do not.

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Many are forms of Becky Sharp, only homelier and less intriguing. Many are manipulators, some pure in form and others a toxic mix of the bilge they spew.

A message from Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” is important. Becky as the antiheroine succeeds by playing the character deficiencies of her victims against them. The victims’ principal weakness, in many cases, avarice, is the cons’ primary asset.

Understanding this could be useful to voters amid the legislative session that has just begun and with an election season looming after it. Politicians in the Capitol can use these months to find ways to advance West Virginia, and this work is badly needed in a state sunk deep in economic rot. Those who seek to grow the state economically are worthy of consideration.

Nucor Corp.’s plans to invest $2.7 billion in a sheet steel mill employing 800 people in Mason County, West Virginia, in a deal announced last week by Gov. Jim Justice, could represent a step in this direction. Healthy skepticism is warranted. The company with $20 billion in annual revenue could get $315 million in federal pandemic relief money from West Virginia. Ensuring the deal delivers a large payoff to the state and its people is of tantamount importance. West Virginia cannot afford to waste its investment.

Economic development is where this state’s leaders ought to set their sights. Social issues dominated last year’s session. Transgender athlete bans will not right West Virginia economically. Such legislative piffle feeds red meat to the masses but does nothing to improve their lots or that of the state. That should matter to the masses.

Modern Becky Sharps in the supermajority in an election year will gravitate not to what the state needs to hoist itself from its economic malaise but what they think will capture the allegiance of conservative voters.

It is up to the marks to reject the appeals of cons, or else they will keep playing the game, leaving the marks with nothing but thin, useless vanity in return.

Lee Wolverton is the vice president of news and executive editor of HD Media. He can be reached at 304-348-4802 or lwolverton@hdmedia

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