The Oxford dictionary defines a spoof as “A humorous imitation of something, typically a film or a particular genre of film, in which its characteristic features are exaggerated for comic effect.” The Collins Dictionary offers this definition: “A spoof is something such as an article or television program that seems to be about a serious matter but is actually a joke.” This is how most people have understood the word since it was coined in the late 19th century by the English comedian, Arthur Roberts.
As with everything else, today’s technology and the crimes it now permits have not only transformed human relations but extended the meaning of words that had a simpler meaning in the past. Illicit activities are sometimes described by using existing words and adding the suffix “-ing,” such as “swatting,” “snowshoeing,” “waterfalling” and “subscription bombing.” Other nefarious practices have required inventing new words following the same pattern, such as “phishing,” “phreaking” and “doxxing.”
One word for an electronic scam most people were not familiar with emerged in the news this week with explosive impact when one of the world’s biggest banks, JP Morgan Chase, was fined $920 million for “spoofing.” Spoofing has multiple meanings in the world of cyber criminality, but until this week nobody would have imagined that the practice merited a billion-dollar fine by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).
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Investopedia offers this definition of spoofing: “Spoofing is a type of scam in which criminals attempt to obtain someone’s personal information by pretending to be a legitimate business, a neighbor, or some other innocent party.” The Federal Communication Commission has even produced a film to warn people about spoofing and what to do if they are spoofed.
In the world of banking, spoofing has a different meaning. Reporting on the JP Morgan scandal, Business Insider tells us that it describes the practice “where traders put in large orders to buy or sell a security with no intention of executing them, creating the appearance of demand or supply for a particular asset and helping move that asset in the trader’s desired direction.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A form of imitation derived from the world of literature and entertainment that implied both making fun of another writer and rendering homage by exaggerating aspects of style, employed now, in the era of electronic communications, to describe any means of deception focused on the serious business of making money.
The fine of $920 million is of course a “settlement,” meaning that undoubtedly the gain from the crimes committed will in the end easily cover the cost of the penalty. The Motley Fool calls the fine “the largest the CFTC has ever imposed for any spoofing case.” It may seem mind-bogglingly enormous, but it will undoubtedly be dismissed as just a routine “adjustment” to the balance sheet as everyone gets back to business as usual. JP Morgan Chase is still the biggest and most powerful bank in the Western world. Daniel Pinto, co-president of JP Morgan and chief executive of the Corporate & Investment Bank, as if surprised by this wrongdoing, predictably announced, “The conduct of the individuals referenced in today’s resolutions is unacceptable and they are no longer with the firm.”
Now that the evildoers have been identified and dismissed, the bank can get back to its normal business of purely honest and over-the-board dealings. The anthropologist David Graeber, who has written the authoritative book on debt, “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” likes to point out that at least in one year recently, 85% of JP Morgan Chase’s profit came from fees and penalties, which is certainly an honest and transparent way to make money. Graeber sees it as a sign of the fundamentally parasitic role banks play in today’s economy.
“The CFTC also said that JPMorgan Securities did not stop the trading practices even though there were many clear signs of the practice,” states The Motley Fool. Pinto’s dismissing the culprits only after the case began to be litigated demonstrates how the bank works. The chief executive either condoned the practice as it was occurring over eight years or was unaware of “the many clear signs” that it was going on. In such a case, either the law should pursue Pinto himself for aiding and abetting as well as covering for a crime or else his board should fire him for incompetence.
But the bank works much in the same way as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has acted in the face of the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi two years ago. The people who call the shots and manage the operations will never be held to account. Even those subalterns who are blamed as sacrificial lambs will likely receive a mild punishment, and everyone will go away on the promise never to do such dastardly things again.
In the world of literature, great wits have for centuries used parody, lampooning and spoofing of their peers. Think of Miguel de Cervantes who, with “Don Quixote,” written in the early 17th century, spoofed chivalric literature, or Henry Fielding’s “Shamela,” an 18th-century parody of Samuel Richardson’s sentimental novel “Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded.” A certain acceleration in the practice occurred in the English-speaking world in the 19th century, when writers as different as Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain excelled in spoofing other well-known writers. As The Guardian contributor Shirley Dent wrote back in 2009, “And still today literary spoofs can brighten up the most tedious in-tray of the most desk-locked literary lover.”
Spoofing has always been associated with fun, and even though in the literary world spoofs have always contained an element of serious criticism, the act of spoofing another writer or literary style invariably contained a message of respect for works that were successful. Pointing to a fault or a quirk of style is not a condemnation of another’s work. It can also be an invitation to engage with it.
Lewis Carroll mercilessly attacked the leader of the romantic movement and England’s poet laureate, William Wordsworth, in his wonderful poem, “The Aged Aged Man” or “Haddock’s Eyes.” Carroll parodies Wordsworth’s famous poem “Resolution and Independence.” By composing a poem that becomes increasingly absurd and doing so with a singsong rhythm so different from Wordsworth’s sober style, he renders homage to romantic poet’s literary importance while at the same time subtly suggesting that Wordsworth might, at times, have been slightly lacking in a sense of humor.
We can take it as a measure of the impoverishment of our general culture that the idea of a spoof has been transformed into something sinister rather than fun. The spoofing targeted by the FFC (telephone scams) or the CFTC (deceptive purchasing orders) contains no suggestion of fun and even less of homage. It is now simply associated with the quest for money and power over other people.
That is what our culture has become. No activity whose reward is something other than the gain of money and power can be taken seriously today. Merriam-Webster defines phishing as “a scam by which an Internet user is duped (as by a deceptive e-mail message) into revealing personal or confidential information which the scammer can use illicitly.” Even this practice mocks or spoofs the tranquility of the fisherman spending hours on the banks of a river, enjoying the summer weather, waiting for a catch. Lightheartedness itself and the simple enjoyment of existence died decades ago.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.