Let’s begin by stipulating that Mohammed Islam, the Queens teen who lied about making dozens of millions of dollars via after-school financial investments, probably is a dingus. He is a teen boy. It’s a safe assumption. He is also, in his way, a hero.
In case you haven't been following along, Mohammed Islam is a Stuyvesant High School student who gained some fame a couple days ago when New York magazine profiled him as part of its "Reasons to Love New York 2014" series. Yung Mo, the story went, was a teen investment wiz; he'd made himself $72 million playing the stock market after school, and planned on starting a hedge fund on his 18th birthday.
The story got aggregated around, credulously, for a very short while, but fell apart completely once people bothered actually scrutinizing it. Mohammed recanted the entire thing yesterday: Not only hasn't he made $72 million in investments, he never made any investments at all. All he'd ever done was some dummy—but theoretically successful!—simulated investments in his high school's investment club.
Which, actually, membership in a high-school “investment club” is the most worrisome of Yung Mo’s confessions. In the catalog of adolescent ambitions, “I would like to make money off the movement of money through our economy when I grow up” is a pretty shabby one, and a pretty reliable indicator of incipient assholism. Investment Club Teens are like Future Business Leaders of America Teens: bad. Bad teens.
The adult world is one of cynical and craven compromises, shaped by a grotesque value system that exalts conspicuous wealth above all else and an economy that holds that wealth perpetually just beyond the reach of all but those who already possess it. Eventually, we all make our gross bargains with that world, and are diminished by them, even when they pay off. That is what adulthood is. Good teens insist, bravely and futilely and petulantly, that they won’t participate, or won’t have to. That is what adolescence is. Bad teens, by contrast, rehearse.
Of course, even the best teens fantasize about (and sometimes invent tall tales about) having outrageous wealth and fame and power; they’re steeped from birth in the American notion that these things equal freedom—and, more crucially to the teen, coolness. The responsibility of good teens is to imagine this happening as the result of an unprecedented triumph in some silly, wildly unrealistic field, like poetry, or sports, or fashion blogging, or moping outside of the convenience store until a famous person decides to heap money at your feet. Bad teens bone up on the techniques of financial parasitism.
So, yes. Mo probably is a lame teen. Probably Mo is—or was—on track to be that weenie young adult who styles himself after Gordon Gekko and scoffs at any behavior that does not yield a profit. Probably he has been the sort of bought-in capitalistic dweeb that the good teens, the teens with less realistic plans (if they have plans at all) can’t stand to be around.
But, if that’s true, then bullshitting a credulous reporter about world-historic investment success is almost certainly the coolest thing Mohammed Islam has ever done. Making adults look like idiots—especially when those adults are slick journalists looking to push these-kids-today-with-their-computers narratives—is the best thing teens can do. In fact, getting New York magazine to publish this flagrantly, blatantly, hilariously fictional story of impossible investment success is, like, at least 91 times cooler than if Mo had actually made $72 million on the stock market.
Pictured: New York magazine's hilarious correction, above the lede paragraph.
And: Look at what Mo gave us. It’s the best story of the year! No, not the (fictional) story of his investment success; that story was dull as hell, and even kind of depressing. The story of Jessica Pressler and New York‘s editorial and fact checking apparatus falling for such a transparently baloney story: that is, without question, the funniest and most wonderful goddamn thing that has happened in this bad year full of awful news, and it is Mohammed Islam’s gift to us, and we should thank him for it.
These donkeys ran with the story of a high-school senior who made himself many dozens of millions of dollars in stocks, on the basis of no evidence more solid than the over-the-top boasts of a few precocious, giggling teens, plus a few-seconds-long glimpse at a phony and partially blacked-out bank statement with a big number on it. That's amazing! It couldn't be flimsier or more immediately suspect if it'd involved Mohammed running to the restroom, putting on a fake mustache, and presenting himself as Phineas J. Moneybucks, King of Wall Street, to certify his own earnings.
He claimed to be worth "high eight figures." That's a lotta fuggin' money! And neither Pressler nor New York's fact-checker bothered to whip out a calculator and check whether that's even remotely possible! He claimed to have rented a Manhattan apartment. Rented! With $72 million! And apparently neither Pressler nor New York's paid fact-checker asked him where the apartment is! He claimed to have purchased a new BMW (that his parents wouldn't let him drive until he got his license). A BMW! With $72 million! And as far as we can tell, neither Pressler nor New York's paid fact-checker asked to see the car, or the registration, or even the goddamn keys!
Oh, well, this 17-year-old doofus says he's achieved the greatest return on investment in human history, so I guess I'll just take his word for it. Inspector Clouseau is a sharper detective than these goddamn people. Stevie Wonder could have seen through this nonsense, and not just because he's not actually blind. When can we expect New York magazine to report on the magical Pee Fairy who sogged my kid's sheet last night?
My very favorite thing about this story is how instantaneously it fell apart after publication, and how obviously ludicrous the whole thing became the very instant anyone expressed any skepticism about it. A professional reporter—one only just recently hired to go work for, God, oh God, Bloomberg's finance investigation unit, ha ha, Jesus fucking Christ—bought this utter nonsense, this half- and half-assedly-formed Pecos Bill yarn, and the fact-checker took a glance at a fake bank statement and said yep, checks out, and they published it, and within about nine minutes the entire rest of the goddamn world was all, "Nah."
And Pressler's defense of her story—that she hedged on the actual dollar amount of Mo's investment earnings, and therefore the only journalism error is New York mag's, for putting the $72 million figure in the article's original headline—is pretty great, too. She reported his "high eight figures" worth! $00,000,000 is not an eight-figure number. The inaccuracy isn't in the amount of Mohammed's earnings; he never invested at all! He is not an investor! No investing occurred! Mohammed Islam's existence is the only part of her entire story that checks out. Something tells me "Teen Exists" was not her original suggested headline.
I just love this story so goddamn much. As Kyle Wagner pointed out, it's the journalism equivalent of Barf Pit Guy: meaningless, low-grade triumph transformed nigh-instantaneously into brutal and total failure. It's the best! I live for these moments, and this is a perfect one: It hurts no one and harms no cause; it's just purely and flawlessly hilarious.
And Mohammed Islam gave it to us. Let him live. For now.