The hustler in all of us

AT FIRST YOU HAD to wonder whether she wasn't just a little bit nuts. But then as you thought about, it was hard not to admire her wiliness and sheer determination. The exploits of 18-year-old Azia Kim, the Fullerton woman who passed herself off as a Stanford student for eight months, is a fabulous story that strikes a chord in our national psyche.

We Americans might be a sanctimonious bunch, but we also have a glimmer in our eyes. We may publicly embrace the Horatio Alger ethic of lifting ourselves up by our bootstraps through honest work, but we're also secretly fond of our crafty cousins who climb their way to the top by successfully gaming the system. Although American culture has been fully professionalized and credentialized, we haven't fully lost our lawless frontier spirit — particularly those of us in the West.

Sure, we teach our children that it's "not whether you win or lose but how you play the game." But as soon as they grow up, we know the professional world will teach them new axioms, ones we don't entirely disapprove of, like "act now, apologize later" or "it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission." We admire "self-made" successes who "played by their own rules" and did it "their way."

The rhetoric of multiculturalism, which encourages us to maintain our inherited collective identities, may have temporary triumphs, but this is still a hyper-individualist nation in which people are free to reinvent themselves and choose their cultures. This is where an Austrian-born bodybuilder can become governor of California, where Bronx-born Ralph Lipshitz morphs into Ralph Lauren, and Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (named after his father, who was named after a 19th century white abolitionist) recasts himself as Muhammad Ali.

At the core of the American dream lies the premise that your past does not predetermine your future. We still tell schoolchildren they can become whoever and whatever they want.

But let's face it, this process of self-reinvention isn't always pretty. Our cult of mobility encourages strivers not only to sell themselves but to pass, to play the part and to pad that resume. In other words, our penchant for reinventing ourselves is intertwined with our heritage of hucksterism.

Historian Walter A. McDougall has argued that, at heart, the prototypical American is a hustler. No, he doesn't mean that we are more prone to corruption or deceit than other people, but simply that we have had "more opportunity to pursue [our] ambitions, by foul means or fair, than any other people in history."

Throughout most of European history, only the elites could hope to manipulate the system; in America, he asserts, "all white males enjoyed the full freedom to hustle, white women had their own tricks, and even enslaved Africans (we now know) played the system as best they could."

And even as the U.S. population diversified, the tradition lived on. Indeed, the urban immigrant saga at the turn of the 20th century — the story of assimilation — brought new and more outlandish possibilities for self-reinvention. Our version of the English language, which as McDougall points out is "uniquely endowed with words connoting a swindle," is well-equipped to narrate our deceit with beauties like "bamboozle," "caboodle," "double-cross," "fake out," "grift," "hoodwink," "kite," "pinch," "rip off," "snooker" and on and on.

We still don't know exactly why Azia Kim wanted to dupe Stanford officials as well as her advisors in the Army ROTC program she enrolled in at nearby Santa Clara University. But you can bet it had everything to do with ambition, social status and perhaps her parents' desire to reinvent themselves through their child. (They do that sometimes.)

After the initial shock died down, news reports and discussion forums quoted Stanford students as holding a begrudging admiration for Kim's craftiness, and expressing sympathy over the pressure to achieve that many believe her parents must have applied. On the online message board of the Stanford Daily, students argued over the severity of her sin as well as the punishment it did or did not deserve.

Some saw it as cut and dried — she broke the rules, got caught and should be punished. Others struggled with what was fair and right.

An informal survey by the paper found that although three out of every four students thought she should pay restitution for whatever services she got for free (essentially eight months of room and board), a whopping 97% of students said Kim should not go to jail. Only 52% thought that, even if she were to be officially admitted, she should never be allowed to return to campus.

One precocious student nailed our hustler ethos, arguing that Kim's "prank" clearly exhibited an "artful bravado as well as [an] individualism and a determination to better herself despite the system. She deserves neither pity nor scorn."

Hear! Hear!

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