CONNOLLY: Honest day’s work

Although cheaters can become successful, students can achieve their goals honestly, too

Some who saw Martin Scorsese’s latest romp, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” might have dismissed it as a pornographic exaltation of hard drugs, an ode to excess, a glamorization of trophy wives and private jets and yachts and cocaine and the other trappings of wealth that Wall Street scammer Jordan Belfort (a brilliant Leonardo DiCaprio) so hedonistically relishes. Viewers with a more discerning eye, however, might find it a penetrating critique of the modern American dream, with the sobering implication that those who cheat are the ones who win.

The adage that nice guys finish last is hardly new. But at the University, we like to think that our peers who succeed do so honestly. We assume that students who excel academically earned their A’s while obeying the honor code. We assume that students who win elections win them fairly. In my experience with the University, this has been true. Yet the possibility exists that someone could cheat to attain success. Someone who violates the honor code without detection could theoretically achieve success, both in academics and extracurriculars, and could do so at the expense of people who pursue success without recourse to cheating.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is about someone who scams others to get ahead. Belfort is a wickedly fun character, but he is also a wicked character. Early in the film, Belfort instructs his loyal band of misfit salesman on the finer points of duping investors, taking delight in his victims’ stupidity. And what rewards it brings. Belfort’s ill-gotten wealth buys him satisfaction at every turn: hookers, drugs, planes, boats and not to mention the strange and often sadistic — yet, somehow, simultaneously hilarious — office stunts. To be frank, it looks like fun. The viewer will probably find himself rooting, in some form, for Belfort’s caper to continue.

Belfort’s activities attract the attention of the FBI, and while I will not spoil the finer details, his life does take a turn for the worse. Nonetheless, as viewers of the movie and people familiar with Belfort’s real life story will recall, he retains much of his wealth, and now tours the world as a motivational speaker. Perhaps the most devastating reality of the movie (from an ethical perspective, anyway) is that Belfort wins. The dogged and honest FBI agent trailing Belfort, played smartly by Kyle Chandler, is last seen riding a dingy, unpleasant subway, looking particularly unhappy, while Belfort speaks to a rapt and eager audience, anxious to learn his path to success. Belfort might be morally degenerate, might have scammed honest investors of their money, but his is a twisted, modern American success story. He cheated, and he won.

Belfort’s success appears indicative of many success stories in modern America. Steven Cohen’s famed hedge fund, SAC Capital Advisors, pled guilty to an insider trading charge and paid a $1.2 billion dollar fine. Prosecutors lacked the proof to convict Cohen himself, although he personally signed off on many of the illicit trades. Cohen’s fortune of approximately $10 billion remains intact.

Students from this University who see “The Wolf of Wall Street” should enjoy its hilarious hijinks and exploits, but should also be cognizant of this movie’s implications. Cheating and scamming, this movie seems to say, comprise the foundation of the modern American Dream. If you want to get ahead, cheating is the best way to do it, the movie’s final scene suggests.

The code of ethics that the University seeks to instill in students — most of all through its honor code — resists the fatalistic view that cheating is the best path to success. The world can be grateful to institutions like the University that promote a strict code of honor and ethics in their students. As students become graduates and move into the “real world,” the world of Jordan Belforts, I am confident that they will act in a manner that resists the movie’s conclusion, and proves that success in America can still come through honest hard work.

Published January 15, 2014 in Opinion

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