Ever Grifting in Uncertainty

We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end.

—Blaise Pascal

The first rule of writing is to have something to say.

We write to express ourselves.

Just as the advent of language, invented to express the ineffable feelings of the rational soul, became the medium of invention, so too does writing self-catalyze, building ideas upon words and words upon ideas.

While writing, ideas are developed, challenged, and even sometimes generated from a seeming vacuum.

The reader, the audience, the response—these come after. Conversation is had, responses posted. And then the process begins again.

These are the best conversations: naturally arising from a shared interest in an objective third thing.

For the grifter, the opposite is true. The grifter turns this entire natural process inside out.

He assesses his potential audience, decides how they can be best manipulated, and then creates content to fill that void. He doesn’t have anything he really wants to say—he’s purely reactionary. He’s an artificial intelligence studying mankind, making bets on an ever-changing popularity contest. He appeals to the lowest common denominator, sacrificing interesting or elevated ideas for baser clickbait. The grifter is an empty shell, ready to mold himself to fit the public fad du jour. He’s a projection of the perceived pulse of the public. He’s a re-brandable brand. Standing for nothing, he could, conceivably, stand for everything.

Applied to the grifter, the term “influencer” is really quite ironic. A grifter doesn’t sway influence because of his original ideas; he invents the ideas in order to influence. His ultimate goal is not truth, but clout. “Whatever sells” is his motto. The snake-oil salesman of old is today’s podcaster slave to the algorithm. He obsequiously bows before the idol of popularity, sacrificing truth if that’s what it takes. His opinions are performative and changeable.

Edward Bernays, the father of Public Relations, was a master manipulator who developed an entire industry based on lying. The nephew of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, Bernays adapted his uncle’s theories to hack human psychology in order to sell products. His method was hypnotic, and his services were in high demand by politicians, corporations, and industries alike—he popularized, among other things, bacon and eggs for breakfast. Bernays’ 1929 campaign “Torches of Freedom” exploited American women by branding cigarette smoking as a sure ticket to autonomy and adventure.

Bernays took market principles—creating demand and providing the supply—and applied them to the realm of ideas, changing the way we consume forever.

And now, when the majority of what we consume is information, the line between propaganda, sales pitch, and authentic statement is disappearing.

George Orwell astutely observed that “all art is propaganda.”

We can evaluate the 20th century and conclude that all advertising is, in a sense, propaganda.

In this next information wave of the 2020s, all content is become propaganda.

Increasingly, you are becoming the product. Your clicks, purchasing habits, opinions, and social behavior are all fair game for this sneaky new wave of industrial psychological warfare.

The aphorism “vote with your feet” now applies to the digital realm.

Adrift in this arbitrary feedback loop, unanchored from any objective standard or reality, many popular “grifts” have arisen in our current moment.

In addition to the Woke, Inc. narrative that has overtaken mainstream secular voices, conservative politics & media and the Catholic Faith have become prime targets for the grifter personality.

Like lemmings, wannabe influencers all fall into (Party) line on the next pet topic, violating principles they previously held in the all-out race to be heard.

(The recent “conservative” media glorification of pornographer Andrew Tate is a disturbing lesson in the politics of grifting.)

Catholic grifters are among the worst breed because they commodify and manipulate the Faith, the source and summit of our lives, the only thing eternal and spotless and true. They are a new generation of moneychangers in the Temple.

What may begin as a pious, well-intentioned desire to spread the gospel can easily devolve into a self-serving vanity affair of clout chasing. This is why priests and religious have historically been discouraged from celebrity. All people with public platforms would do well to keep humility in the forefront of their minds, lest they lose sight of God among the clicks and applause (or hate mail).

Having pondered on the difference between authentic thought leader and grifter for awhile, I was thrilled to see that one of my favorite Catholic authors, Dom Hubert van Zeller, had addressed the topic decades before the invention of the internet. In his books We Die Standing Up and We Live with Our Eyes Open, works of general spiritual direction recently re-released by The Cenacle Press, Dom van Zeller addresses the qualities of true leadership and influence.

First of all, we must dispel the notion that a leader is defined by the quantity of his followers. Van Zeller defines leadership as “the vocation to influence others,” and writes that everyone is a leader in some way: “God gives to every soul the chance of being an apostle.”

Whether his audience is a thousand, or merely a circle of twelve, “the point is that each is working his talent, each is being true to himself, each is developing his own technique.”

Second, leadership is defined by humility and sacrifice. The leader, like St. Joseph as leader of the Holy Family, takes the joys and sorrows of others upon his back.

Finally, leadership is the natural consequence of a life well-lived: “if our lives radiate outwards instead of remaining folded up within, it is inconceivable that there should be none to take our proffered lead.”

Ultimately, to be a leader is to be an ambassador for God, an apostle. Like writing, leadership is teleological, leading the soul to a destination. Grifters, with no destination in mind but the temporary satisfaction of their own vanity, drift aimlessly. Leaders point toward something else.

Van Zeller warns of the inherent temptation the leader faces to sell out, to turn inwards and place self in the center:

“All work for others is in danger of becoming an end in itself: stopping short at a level of selfishness and not going on to the unmeasured giving which knows no level of any sort. The writer, the preacher, the reformer, the priest—each can forget his public and think only of his publicity.”

The last person the true leader thinks of is himself. While conviviality, magnetism, and allure are qualities that captivate a public, they must be used as a means to and end, not the end itself: “to exploit allure in the search for a following would be fatal.”

Van Zeller notes how the world’s definition of leadership is often no more than grifting: “What the world at large doesn’t realize is that leadership isn’t just whistling for admirers and then sitting back to enjoy adulation.”

The internet has proliferated them, but there were grifters even before modern technology. Writers—especially in the days when newspaper serials were paid by the word—could easily fall into crowd-pleasing, sacrificing their intellectual integrity for money and influence. Orators, similarly, were either truth seekers or Sophists. Just like today, some writers were original thinkers, some were shills.

Social media has revolutionized communication, and placed the tools of expression in the hands of all. But we need to make sure that we are using the tool for its purpose of communication: of an idea, a principle, a beautiful sunset, an opinion on a movie, a fleeting thought. Tolstoy defines art as nothing more and nothing less than the transmission of feeling. Something has to be communicated. The only requirement is that you have something to say.

For all of its downsides (and many more I have not discussed) I actually do enjoy social media very much. It has been a wonderful way to connect to people across the globe with similar interests, make friends, and express myself in an accessible and dynamic medium. I don’t pretend to have unlocked the secret to using social media well, and appreciate the arguments of those who say it cannot be done.

My favorite social media platform (other than Goodreads!) is Instagram. I am not immune from being caught up in the endless scrolling, wasting time, and following trends. But the platform has also been a great source of joy, contemplation, and inspiration in my life. So who do I follow? What makes them different? In a word: authenticity. I tend to gravitate toward influencers who are “real,” who are unapologetically themselves, and who are genuinely excited or interested in a topic.

Regardless of topic, level of seriousness, or faith, my favorite people to follow have this unpretentious authenticity in common—even when I disagree with their take. If they review a product, I know I’m getting a good, honest opinion. If they discuss canon law, I know it will be a well-researched and well-thought-out reflection. Even if they just post a picture of a cake or a flower or a vacation destination, I know it comes from a place of genuine enjoyment and desire to share, not a veiled attempt to manipulate me with an ersatz passion. They have something to say, something inside their souls that must be expressed at all costs. They do not simply parrot what they think will please the crowd of millions.

Grifters, however, have a completely different, slimy feel. They create a fake arena of ideas fit more for tribalist rage than for intelligent discussion. They have nothing inside, bursting for self-expression. Their takes are empty vessels for popularity, belonging, and money. They want you to conclude something specific, but won’t tell you outright. They ask loaded questions, and spit tired talking points. They are intellectual Quislings, traitors to the vacuum where their core beliefs once lived. As van Zeller says, “they can become childishly vain, mistaking flatterers for followers, they can prostitute their gift and wallow in the power it gives them instead of using it for those whom they are meant to help.”

Most of this is sensed subconsciously by the follower—if you don’t like the way a certain influencer presents themselves, if you get a bad feeling listening to them, if their jingle or branded merchandise causes you to cringe, then listen to that. (You probably have someone specific in mind as you are reading this.) If something feels fake, it probably is. If it feels like a sales pitch, let it be just that. You are not a commodity to be influenced; you are an equal with whom to share ideas.

I’m not going to tell you who to follow (or who not to). Not everyone with a microphone or a Twitter following is a grifter. On the contrary, many, many media personalities and influencers create good content with value to public discourse (and even the spiritual life).

But the rise of the grifter and the ease of his dominance necessitates that Catholics become more than passive consumers of media; using our judgment more fastidiously and praying for discernment.

Dom van Zeller says that we follow people because we see something of value in them, something that reflects part of our own personality: from our taste in fashion, to our deepest wishes and desires. “We are drawn by the conviction, the virtue, the particular doctrine which is represented by the person we admire, and we are drawn by the sincerity with which that person represents it.”

So what is the best antidote to grifting, as an influencer or a follower? Live authentically. Step back from constant performance and approval-seeking and get back in touch with your authentic self. Make sure that this authentic self seeks virtue and integrity. As van Zeller advises, “being true means acting up to the best that you are capable of, not the worst. Conformity with the picture God has of you, not with the devil’s.” And then selectively follow accounts and personalities that best resonate with you. In this way, your best self—the one God is calling you to be—influences the influencers.


Image: Shipwreck, 1883 by Ivan Aivazovsky.

We Live with Our Eyes Open is available in the United States via Sophia Institute Press.

We Die Standing Up is available from The Cenacle Press.

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Kristen Van Uden is the editor of Catholic Exchange and author spokesperson at Sophia Institute Press. She has degrees in History and Russian from Saint Anselm College and the College of William & Mary, and studies the persecution of Catholics under communist regimes. Her first book, When the Sickle Swings: Stories of Catholics Who Survived Communist Oppression, was published by Sophia Institute Press in November 2023. She has been featured on a wide range of media platforms including Coast to Coast AMFirst Things, and Sensus Fidelium. Book information, original articles, and links to interviews can be found at her Substack, On the Wheel.

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