What if vampires were really, really lame?
Martin Shkreli was found guilty on three counts of fraud last Friday in a Brooklyn court. It took the jury five days of deliberation to end the business. To quote the New Yorker’s Sheelah Kolhatkar,
A former hedge-fund entrepreneur and drug-company C.E.O., Shkreli came to prominence while he was running a company called Turing Pharmaceuticals. During his tenure, Turing bought a drug called Daraprim, which is used to treat rare but serious parasitic infections in aids patients, and Shkreli raised the price per pill from thirteen dollars and fifty cents to seven hundred and fifty dollars, sparking public condemnation and outrage.
Much as he weaseled his way into the financial-pharmaceutical industry, Shkreli oil-slided himself into public consciousness. Being a wealthy aberrant in New York is as hard as getting a guest spot on America’s greatest war crime, Entourage, but Martin played the card for all it was worth. He used the leverage of being That Guy to become even more of That Guy, capitalizing on it to become “an aggressive and obnoxious user of social media, ultimately getting himself banned from Twitter for harassing a female journalist,” Lauren Duca. He called (and still calls) himself “Pharma Bro.”
This recent trial had nothing to do with Daraprim. Shkreli was accused of defrauding his fellows in the hedge fund game, and looting the till of Retrophin (a drug company). Our Man Martin allegedly exercised the kind of small-bore malpractice which is habitual to a certain class of Wall Street man-child. Nothing more, nothing less. The trial itself was hardly worth noting in the old dream journal. The prosecution was impetuous; their style, impregnable. Shkreli’s advocate, a lawyer by the highly-anagrammable name of Brafman, took the novel strategy of persuading us that Brother Martin was a hip, with-it Prince of Darkness, a visionary, a Greyjoy of the pillaging mercantile set. And Brafman’s defense used this line:
“We’re not presenting a defense of insanity, but every single witness told you they don’t see Martin as normal,” he went on.
That was the best they could do. No wonder the trap shut on him. He was weighed, measured, and found wanting. At some point his sentencing will begin. Shkreli will score a possible twenty years away, but, knowing how justice works in this country and who it works for, it will almost certainly be much less.
That was Act one of the comedy. Act Two followed, and was the real joy of Friday evening. After his first mistake—going to prison—Shkreli wisely decided what the world really needed was to see his face live. Shkreli returned to whatever Manhattan-Dracula castle he broods in and gave us a live stream. It was a mistake. Oh, it was a mistake. Pasty New York Thirtysomething Does Reenactment of the film “Downfall.” It began with his soliloquy and ended with an interview.
The price-gouger sat in a white-walled room and New York Daily News journalist Ellen Moynihan asked him questions. Moynihan, a professional, tried, but there wasn’t a lot of there there to interview: it was like watching a reporter investigate a Reddit thread, and just as pleasant. There was a Marshall amp behind Shkreli, and above that, another Marshall device with a Bernie sticker on it. He drank a pale ale, which I thought suited him.
Moynihan wrote a feature about being in “the belly of the bro” for the News. In her account, she describes the encounter:
Shkreli, alone in his apartment except for about a dozen guitars and his pet cat, said he asked me up despite his belief that the media was his “natural enemy.” Unbeknownst to me, he was live streaming the interview on YouTube, where legions of his followers provided running commentary. ... While I never got to meet his cat Trashy, he played the $2 million Wu-Tang Clan album for me — and talked over it.
Pharma Bro is the kind of person who would buy a one-of-a-kind album, livestream it, and then talk over it. That is what Moynihan experienced. What I saw was a little different. I came in a little later: my colleague Jacob informed me Pharma Bro was delivering his sermon online, and I just had to see it.
When I turned on the YouTube channel, my first glimpse of Casual Shkreli immediately drove me to identify him as Michael Bolton from “Office Space.” That was it: the creepier, mirror-universe version of David Herman. It never got any better for Shkreli after that. According to CNBC:
“It is what it is,” Shkreli told [Moynihan], when she asked about the split verdict in Brooklyn, New York, federal court. The jury convicted him of three counts of securities fraud and acquitted him of five other counts. “It’s a complicated case. They reached a complicated verdict,” Shkreli said, somewhat breezily, before bantering with Moynihan about his having raised the price of a lifesaving drug by 5,000 percent in 2015. Shkreli also said that despite the verdict, “I’m Martin Shkreli; I’m going to live a great life.”
Yes, why not? The public hates him, but according to the standards which rule this country and determine power—lucre—Shkreli is a more exalted, more cherished member of our society than any number of charity workers, nurses, teachers, or nuns. Here is what American society is: a machine that values Martin Shkrelis.
Can I recreate the fleeting feeling of this interview? A basic physical description of the encounter is easy enough: a man and a woman sit in a bedroom and the man talks over her, with no end in mind. Think of a a car trip with a teen who has just discovered Freakonomics and Tucker Max during the same summer. Shkreli is incapable (or unwilling) to understand how his actions echo on others. I’m not talking about his spiking drug prices, I mean his direct interactions with the other talking mammal faces which belong to his species.
Here was Shkreli opining about the great moral victory of having a jury hand him his ass. Sitting there, shoes off, legs curled up in his chair, dreamily handling a beer bottle in a messy room, he might have been a college student complaining about campus feminism, and not a possibly jail-bound public enemy.
The room was not too different from every other undergrad’s digs. Which led me to think: there’s too much talk about the banality of evil; what about the dorkiness of evil? Scratch that: Shkreli isn’t a supervillain, just an avatar of poshlost. “Poshlost” is a Russian concept which Wikipedia describes as follows:
It has been defined as “petty evil or self-satisfied vulgarity”, while Svetlana Boym defines it briefly as “obscenity and bad taste.”
Shkreli is poshlost made flesh. I genuinely believe that infamous people who agree to this kind of interview do not understand what is happening. Which is odd. Most people who stay powerful and famous are obsessed with how they are presented. Reputation management is to fame what double-entry bookkeeping is to being rich.
If you watch enough interviews with reviled people, you will notice certain tics. Shkreli indulged in each of these tells: the rambling defenses of indefensible actions … an unnecessary focus on grievance-based trifles that needn’t be covered … the free-associating humble-brags … a lashing out at the very media which made them so famous. Shkreli’s talk was a cliché-prover. “You don’t know how bad you look” might have been invented for this interaction. Several hours after the Shkreli stream, I went to Atlanta’s Plaza Theater to watch Flying Lotus’ new horror movie, Kuso, which the site Verge described as “the grossest movie ever made.” But Kuso was mimosas to this: easier to watch.
“Why do people troll?” Shkreli asked. “What do wars achieve? ... This is psychic war.” Nerd Mussolini in exile. That’s the image that kept leaping to mind. Shkreli seemed for all the world like the fleeing princeling of a developing country, railing against his real enemies in the press and his make-believe foes in the walls. According to Shkreli, fake news was everywhere, in every corner, peering out of closets and from behind dust bins. Like every club-tongued Gamergate troll, he was concerned with ethics in journalism. In the creep elections, the man has a mighty plurality. Where does he come from, where is he going, and why isn’t he there already?
Let us speak frankly. Shkreli is Paris Hilton without the redeeming qualities, and that’s the nicest thing I can say about him. I can’t say I ever felt sorry for him. At some point during the interview, I began to wonder if we were being mean to an emotionally-maladjusted kid. Then I remembered how many people he’d indirectly hurt and my empathy circuits clammed right up. Pharma Bro isn’t actually a bro; he’s an awkward guy who desperately wants to be a bro—of any kind, really—and that’s his tragedy. Man, Ayn Rand has a lot to answer for.