By Noah Bergam ’21
Ask almost any Pingry student who Billy McFarland is, and the response is quick: he’s the Fyre Festival guy. The fraudster. The former Pingry student.
For me, that last part has always been an afterthought, a small irony. I heard about it back when the festival came crashing down in 2017, and whenever the name came up it was a fun laugh.
But when I watched the Netflix documentary about the Fyre Festival, something about the whole disaster was brought to life in a disturbing way. Witnessing plans crash in real time, with the livelihoods of so many people put at risk, the amount of time and money and pride put to waste on a fraudulent business model — it all makes you wonder what kind of person it takes to remorselessly allow this to happen.
Sure, he was a person who went to this school. But he’s also a person that a lot of us will now immediately characterize as “crazy” or “malicious.” Someone whose mind just works in a different, broken way that we can’t relate to. Someone who we can frame as the butt of endless SAC memes of the week.
But I believe that this mindset of quick assumptions is deeply flawed, and I don’t say that in defense of McFarland. I think we have to understand him and his intentions in a much more complex way in order to properly learn from his mistakes.
I would argue that Billy McFarland is the product of a greater generational shift, a far-reaching phenomenon that I like to call Fyre. It’s an addiction, an obsession with attention, in which one’s ambitious words and the attention they gather outpace their abilities to make those promises come true. This is what allowed Billy to get investors on his side and to turn his impossible festival into a sellout show — he had an excessive Fyre, a pride in his lies. The people around him mistook that for true, entrepreneurial fire – and were proven utterly wrong.
But this idea applies to much more than just fraudulent tech startups. We all, at some point, have set out on a course of action with faulty ambition and pride, saying things that we can’t fully back up. This Fyre manifests itself everywhere across this very school — in promises to friends, club announcements, resumes, memes of the week, and probably even some Pingry Record articles. And the reason I ask Pingry in specific to look inwards is because, in my experience, we reside in an extremely success-oriented community.
I don’t think that statement would come as a surprise to anyone. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with that; in many ways, it inspires students to put their best foot forward. That being said, this focus on success translates into an even larger focus on ego, on reputation. Whether social or academic, these reputations can be boosted by exaggerations or small lies, which, over time, can add up. Often, especially in an environment as trusting as Pingry, these words can successfully create the desired illusion of wit or success, and thus be fostered further.
Perhaps more often than we as a community are willing to let on, people get away with this, and nobody gets hurt. But when this Fyre becomes an ingrained habit in our everyday lives, bubbles of lies begin to form. These bubbles can burgeon in importance, until at last, the needle of reality catches up, and the hard truth comes crashing down.
Hence, the story of Billy McFarland. A millennial Icarus, whose Fyre was enormously amplified by the distinctly modern power of an Internet Age. We, too, perhaps on a smaller level, are liable to make those mistakes in our Pingry community if we let lies or exaggerations overtake our reputations.
McFarland may be insane or malicious to some degree, but he showcased a Fyre that is present within all of us. We all need to recognize that instead of simply treating his mistakes as jokes. And hopefully, with that recognition, we all can create a school environment that puts out Fyres rather than encourages them.