Who Spilled the Snake Oil?

As we draw to the end of Holy Week, I have spent considerable time reflecting on what is happening today, particularly in America. Regardless of one’s religious or non-religious perspectives, please bear with me as I allegorically express some real-life situations and events.

Going briefly to the mid-1700s, I am reminded of a recipe said to have been printed in Spain by Juan Loeches that gave instructions to take two pounds of live snakes, mixed with three ounces of sesame oil, and cook slowly until the meat fell from the bones. The mixture was then strained and stored for later use for various remedies, such as cleaning the skin and removing pimples, impetigo, and other defects. Traditional Chinese medicines have included such techniques for centuries. Chinese migrant workers may have brought these medicines to bear in the U.S. through the grueling labor they performed building the transcontinental railway. While snake oil may have had some validity due to its high levels of Omega 3, officials have never delivered any specific benefit of the concoction with any conclusive results. The facts, or lack thereof, did not stop patents in England from being issued, and soon, English inventors began manufacturing Snake Oil, a practice which spilled over (pun acknowledged) into the U.S. In time, chemical analysis showed the substance was a little more than mineral oil with some added herbs and fragrance.

Many of us over a certain age have no doubt seen Western Movies where the Snake Oil Salesman, purported to be a doctor but with no credentials, comes to town to peddle his miracle snake oil to those in pain seeking relief—let me say that again, those in pain seeking relief. A shill planted in the audience might attest to the oil’s magical powers to increase sales. The wanna-be doctor would sell his product and get out of Dodge before his trusting and desperate customers knew they had been duped.

Similarly, have you ever wondered how anyone using a fake resume, espousing bogus philanthropic pursuits, finances, and other significant falsehoods, got elected to a sizeable congressional district? Was it because we were all feeling too poorly, drowning in our attempts to deal with life situations, to see the signs, and needed a new face—any face—to bring a new sense of hope? We are too sophisticated to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid—that’s already been done; we needed something new—we needed snake oil.  

And did we play any part, for the same reason mentioned, that allowed one of the most prominent Snake Oil fraudsters, marauding as an American financier and executing one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history, defrauding investors out of billions of dollars for close to twenty years before being brought to his knees by a 150-year prison sentence? Was it because we could not get those college funds together fast enough, buy that new home for our growing families, or live the American Dream on a grander scale that we needed something more? We required more—snake oil.

And, how could we ever consider a man with so many failed business deals that we can’t keep track of to lead us in the government’s business? A man, although ousted from public office by the people, once again, running for the same highest office in the land with close to ninety million followers, a man with numerous criminal charges, including being indicted for using campaign funds to pay off a porn star to coverup his sexual encounters. At the same time, unphased by the knowledge, we knew his unsuspecting wife dutifully waited at home with their newborn son. How, after comparing himself to Jesus Christ, and with the audacity to stand before the nation on television, and like a cheap local ad, during Lent, when eighty percent of Americans celebrate the holiest period of the year, hawk his version of the Bible for $59.99, to raise money to pay his legal debts? Take the snake oil, and watch the madness magically disappear! Warning: Results may vary!

Snake oil, once considered some innocuous product used by a door-to-door salesperson, has suddenly become like some 11th biblical plague spewed from the mouth of a serpent. It is a hazardous substance slowly and menacingly spreading across America to prey on the credulity of a nation that continues to seek remedy as it runs around the snake pit desperately trying to find more—snake oil.