Wednesday, October 06, 2004

The Gold Rush

As we wait for further broadcasts of the exciting episodes of the Menagerie staring our community of saviors in Los Angeles, I’d like to tell you about a certain bizarre matter in Iran which would have been rather amusing had it not been so grotesque.

There have been numerous legal actions and popular calls and support for filtering a company website, the Hongkong-based GoldQuest’s(having gained access to Iranian markets via Dubai), with the twist that some authorities are now questioning the wisdom of such censorship long-term just as some of our public is most vociferous in calling for their continued filtering.

The said company has been running a standard pyramid scheme in Iran for some time now. They have promised Iranians quick reward and access to unlimited riches if only we purchased some of their “collector’s items,” to include gold coins with engraving of various famous historical figures, assorted jewelry and numerous watches.

The “cream of the crop” of the Iranian society has been involved in this scheme. Upward of one million and one half Iranians have recently coughed up a minimum of 600,000 Tomans each (average office or factory work earns you 100,000) to participate in this get rich quick scam.

According to Central Bank figures, in a short span of time and overall, Iran has lost around 3 billion dollars in foreign currency.

Doctors and surgeons, educators and students, engineers and lawyers among so many others have been madly trying to persuade their colleagues, friend and relatives to get involved in this (latest) quest which has ultimately proved (yet again) a dud.

I have been following this matter for some time now. I was asked by exacerbated parents to look into the background of this company and have a chat with their ambitious sons who were being persuaded by some professors to milk their parents so they can participate and “invest in their future.”

It was another one of those great secrets that only a select few were fortunate enough to know about and join.

The company itself just asked for 40 dollars to begin with. But our entrepreneurial citizens had even added their own scam.

Now pyramid schemes are nothing new. All societies have them. But the pitch that caught the attention of these young men and women, and in retrospect, most of those other, older Iranians participating was new and rather revealing.

“Tejarate be la vasete va soode kalane shakheie!” Or roughly, “international trade, unmediated, involving branches that yield high rate of return!”

Goodness knows I tried. I tried to explain to the kids the nature of pyramids. I tried to explain that if something is too good to be true, it probably is. But our discussions quickly became an exercise in close reading and interpretation.

I tried to focus on the sentence that appeared to have appealed to their imagination the most. “How can you characterize an activity as unmediated,” I kept asking them “if you strive to establish branches below you and your activity is an integral part of the branches above?”

I asked them to carefully consider the meaning of collector’s items. Only time, I argued, would naturally make something worthy of the name.

I asked them to consider the nature of the products they were trying to sell and the cultural context of our lives. “Do any of us have hobbies?” “Where are all the collectors?” “When was the last time you encountered a picture of any East Asian celebrity in any of our houses?”

I had some success. But my words mostly fell on deaf ear. Yes, just another “idiot” afraid of money and success. They wanted to believe and there was nothing to be done.

The gold coins turned out to be silver with only the shiny appearance of gold.

“Why would anyone,” I kept asking, “in our society obsessed with famous brand names be interested in a watch sold by GoldQuest?”

The watches too are now recognized as obscenely overpriced.

Why would so many smart, educated people fall for this scam? Why so many miss the obvious warning sings? Why do so many not want to grasp some elementary concepts and simple contradictions?

I really don’t have answers. What is obvious, though, is that some of our best and the brightest were willing to risk everything-- their professional lives, familial bonds, trust of peers, social obligations and responsibilities, once they could imagin themselves rich--quickly and rather effortlessly.

Quite a few people lost their taste for life as they knew it in order to get involved in this illusory gold rush.

No words could dissuade them. No existing relations could restrain them. No risk deterred them. And no logic discouraged them.

One question is becoming all the more urgently existential for me: have we, as a nation, become unwilling or unable to imagine ourselves free?

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