What's in a Name?

Jack Hanson on the many shades of Martin Shkreli

UNTIL RECENTLY, THE name Martin Shkreli was not likely to register if you worked outside of certain finance sub-industries. Within those circles, by all accounts, Shkreli was a name associated with savage short-selling and youthful abandon, a glee in risk that largely paid off (and paid out). Then, the name made waves by becoming attached to the field—biotech—that it had previously made a living sharp-shooting. Why I know the name, however, and why its owner’s exceedingly childlike mug shows up in every major news outlet and social media feed, hinges on his decision to ratchet the price of a pill that cures toxoplasmosis (a common infection which for HIV/AIDS patients can be fatal) up 5000+%, from $13.50 per pill to $750. Following that bit of philanthropy, the name bought the only extant copy of Wu-Tang Clan’s most recent album, reportedly for $2 million, then live-streamed its owner’s unutterably boring activities on YouTube (although, to be fair, it does seem to know quite a bit about playing the market). All the while, just a name.

...Shkreli seems in the end more like an Internet troll. And so our contempt was really just distaste, since a troll can’t really inspire hatred.

What was slightly more human—albeit unsettlingly so—was how Shkreli racked up ever-worse karma by smirking and baiting his way through interviews and public appearances, insisting on two main points: first, his price-gouging was indeed humanitarianism dressed up as cut-throat capitalism, and second, his critics were stupid. A bold strategy, and one which distinguished Shkreli from most others caught in a similar situation. He seemed genuinely not to care, and it was both fascinating and repulsive. As sick as it may have been to consider, there was a possibility that there had cropped up a genuine, unabashed villain, without a base of support to appeal to (like a certain depraved hotelier), but a villain who would not be bowed. The villain’s antics fleshed out the name, and made it an image. An image we could hate.

That image, however, now seems to be fading, since the one recently plastered across the Internet is that of Shkreli, decked out in a hoodie clearly taken from a glass box marked “wear in case of hangover/arrest or in front of your start-up’s investors,” being marched out of his apartment in handcuffs, under arrest for securities fraud. The charge, for which he posted the $5 million bail, is to do with his former biotech company, Retrophin, and his alleged use of its funds to pay off losses in previous hedge funds. There could have been no more total a reduction, no more perfect a collapse. 

But the cycle is not complete. 

The hoodie-edition Shkreli (see above) has been replaced with dark-sunglassed Shkreli, which will likely be followed by a return of the nice-suit, slightly-less-appalling Shkreli. The standard pattern of a shamed public figure in the midst of a media farce. And that’s what it has been: a farce. 

This is who holds sway. This is what we pay attention to.

While some attention has been paid to the gravity of what his decisions could result in, most of the conversation surrounding the former biotech CEO has been concerned with his appearance, his attitude, and his general demeanor. “Pharma-bro,” “Asshole,” “Douchebag,” take up space in headlines from respected news organizations. And that was what everyone wanted. His actions, however horrible their consequences, were of the number-crunching variety. So, far from the tyrant who captures the public imagination with the extent of his corruption, Shkreli seems in the end more like an Internet troll. And so our contempt was really just distaste, since a troll can’t really inspire hatred.

Already he has begun to distance himself from his “experiment” in behaving badly. A few charming interviews, some charitable giving—Shkreli could patch up his public image in an instant. It’ll be even easier if he does go to jail. 

This is who holds sway. This is what we pay attention to. In the New York Times, an opinion columnist wrote, “Can Wall Street change or is human nature beyond repair?” As if the two are synonymous.

JACK HANSON is a contributing editor for Partisan.

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