Sunday, February 17, 2013

Democracy In Action

February 17, 2013

Monrovia, California

Every week I get at least one or two urgent email messages, typically from Africans, typically living in England, who are having trouble getting access to their fortunes, tied up in the bureaucracy or turmoil of some civil war down in their mother country, and need me to help.  All these emailers generally require from me is certain personal information, such as my bank account number, the routing number, my ATM card number, or maybe just a small monetary deposit, and I will be rewarded with millions!  Sometimes they are sick and dying, and have no heirs.  One woman described in detail how her throat was rotting out from cancer, how her husband not only died young but also had a low sperm count and left her with no children, and how she now wished only to give the bulk of her fortune to the church, to help the poor starving orphans in her native country.  My job would be to facilitate this, her last task on earth, for which I would be well-compensated.  (A few come from even more rarefied realms.  For instance just yesterday I got one from someone identifying himself as "The Rt Hon David Cameron MP, Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service British Government," offering me an immense sum, apparently just for being me.) Sometimes there’s no explanation, as if I’ve just won the lottery without buying so much as a single ticket.  But they’re willing to give me a few million for helping them out with a bit of personal information!  

I often ask myself: What prompts such generosity from strangers? And more to the point, from whence comes this vast British and African monetary wealth?  For centuries Europeans, Arabs, and Americans have been plying the sub-Saharan regions of the great Dark Continent, taking at will the resources they contain—precious metals, diamonds, slaves, you name it.  Now it seems the Africans are having their day—assuming the authors of the spam emails are indeed Africans.  I suspect that many are speakers of English as a second language, from the stilted and often comical syntax of their messages.  They're at last reaping some of the vast wealth of the Western world, most particularly that of the United States, where people are correctly known for having a great deal more money than sense.  As with Indian gambling here at home, this might be viewed as an excellent, albeit less aboveboard, example of the adage that turnabout is fair play.

Of course this African wealth doesn't really lie in helpless repose in some bank in Nigeria or the Ivory Coast, captive to the whims of yet another in long line of Idi Amin-style dictators or Tupac t-shirt-wearing AK47-wielding warlords.  It comes from right here in our very own mother country, siphoned from the savings of the elderly, the simple-minded, and the greedy.  Con schemes like this are as old as bank accounts themselves, going by various names in various countries, but they always have one thing in common, which is that they “prey” on people who are themselves of a somewhat predatory turn of mind--greedy, in other words.  Like hungry game fish that ought to have learned, individually or collectively, not to bite at brightly-colored lures when the shadow of a boat darkens the waters above them, the “victims” of these cons are people who are attracted to the promise of something that any child could tell them is simply too good to be true.  It is not folks who lack wealth, I submit, who comprise the primary target audience of the Nigerian Scam (as it is most commonly known), but those who already possess a modicum of money, and whose exchequers are worth looting.  Oh sure, if you cast a wide enough net (altering the fishing metaphor just a bit) you will get both big fish and little ones, and if you’re hungry enough you’ll eat a lot of smelt instead of a few fat cod or mackerels.  But the victims we read about most often aren’t hand-to-mouth pensioners from the 47% but retirees from the suburbs who lose thousands of dollars.  Over $5,000 per pigeon on average, if you believe the experts.  As for the poor, well, when you ain’t got nothin’ you got nothin’ to lose, so you cash your Social Security check and go to the casino to give it away a quarter at a time.
As a means to the accumulation of wealth, this confidence game, as unscrupulous as it may seem to many, is in the finest and most time-honored tradition of money makers everywhere, whether they be Wall Street or London brokers or sellers of Amway products.  Find a customer base with at least a little money to burn, but with the desire to have even more of it.  What despicable crooks these scammers are, many say.  But for some reason I tend not to blame the con men so much as their marks.  This feeling might spring from the same well of admiration I have for the wolf over the sheep or the lion over the gazelle.  I’m not sure. Foolishness, in any event, never garners as much sympathy as do other universal human conditions such as poverty and illness.

You have to ask yourself, are these victims just dumb chumps?  Who could be so naive as to believe that out of the blue they have been chosen to receive, say, $10 million for helping someone liberate a sum twice that size from a bank somewhere?  Few of us would mind having that much money.  But if someone tells you that you can have a fortune just by giving out your bank account number, and you already possess the native intelligence and basic skills necessary to use a computer, can you really fall for such a line of bullshit?  The answer should be a resounding no, of course, but it isn’t.  Experts estimate that hundreds of millions of dollars are made each year through such schemes,  a great number of which emanate from the U.K. and Nigeria.  Someone with a computer and a list of email addresses and some patience and cunning can rake it in.  For some reason it puts me in mind of what Willy Loman’s brother said in Death of a Salesman: “When I was seventeen I walked into the jungle.  When I walked out I was twenty-one.  And, by God, I was rich!”

Now, to wade into deeper philosophical waters, I strongly suspect that a person who believes there is a pot of gold waiting at the end of the Nigerian rainbow is likely to be the same person who is convinced that a reward greater than all the earth’s riches will be there for him after he dies.  Of course I can’t be as certain about the realistic chances that the latter reward exists as I am about the former.  My only prayer is, Lord, if you’re up there, don’t make me foolish enough to answer an email from a dying African millionaire, and when I die, keep me on the other side of the streets of gold from the likes of Billy Graham and Pat Roberston.  In fact, keep me here on the wider and more friendly road to Perdition.

My mind easily slips from these well-known email scams to my regular mail, the great majority of which begs me to help end diseases and inequities of all kinds, and features grotesque photos of cleft-palated children and the bloated stomachs of the skeletal, starving kids of Africa.  Please help, the little waifs beseech with their enormous flyblown eyes and crusted lips.  Here, I hope, the inducements are more legitimate.  I give to the disease-fighters and the doctors who treat the wretched refuse of the earth, but not without some pangs of doubt or absent some concerns about the way the solicitors of the donations go about their business.

I have some pet peeves about these do-gooders.  For instance, why don’t they all leave off the postage on the return envelopes?  (Some do, I know.)  What person of even moderate generosity, once induced by conscience or a sense of social duty to contribute a few dollars, would begrudge a charity another few cents for postage?  And why must they give away so much crap along with their requests for contributions—gaudy floral return address labels I wouldn’t be caught dead using, greeting cards, wrapping paper, silly trinkets allegedly made by Indians, or blankets so thin and flimsy they can be vacuum wrapped into packages the size of postcards?  Then there are the ones that send actual money, usually a nickel, in the envelope.  From those I tear out the nickel and promptly throw away the envelope.  That, to me, is a particularly counter-intuitive way to solicit money from potential donors, and I have no respect whatever for those charities.  “Here’s a nickel.  Now how can you possibly refuse us?”  It’s like a beggar in the street offering YOU money in exchange for a donation, or the ones who say, "Will work for food."  And what type of work would that be?  Cutting up corrugated cardboard into sign-sized pieces?  My  point is, if you want some of my money, just ask.  The worst I can do is to refuse you, and I'll be the one who decides whether it's worth my while to give.  Giving, whether it be to weighty causes or merely alms to the guy at the end of the freeway exit, should be a free act of generosity, period.  Psychologists who are paid by  solicitors for charities probably say that sending trinkets and nickels actually works, and increases returns, but it doesn't work on me.  Its tawdriness, not to mention silliness, is so off-putting that I wouldn’t even think of giving to such an organization.  But thanks for the nickels anyway.

Most irritating to me is the sheer volume of solicitations I get—not, that is, from all of them combined, but from each one of them.  If they took the trouble to check their records they’d know I give to each of them just once a year, usually in the same month.  They could send me an envelope once a year at the same time and save the paper, postage, and whatever else they stuff into the letters.  And please don’t tell me they don’t possess the electronic technology to do just that.  They buy and sell my name and address to one another, they have me typed according to my donative proclivities, so surely they could keep track of when and how often I give. Think of how much more money there would be for the sick and dying if they just economized a bit more and paid attention to the giving patterns of their donors.  When they dun me with three or four requests a month, notwithstanding that I only give once a year, they waste their money and my time, and wear down my patience.  That’s okay if you’re running a scam, where the wider you cast the net the better your chances of reeling in a fat fish, but it’s a bit unseemly when the likes of Oxfam or UNICEF use the same approach.  

So now I’m fantasizing about a world where the Nigerian Scam and the efforts of Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children are united into one grand enterprise.  I can imagine it being a topic during the Prime Minister’s Questions on CSPAN, one of my favorite shows.  (If you’re unfamiliar with the Prime Minister’s questions, you probably won’t quite get this.)  The well-dressed men and women sit on the long shiny green benches of the House of Commons, as "The Rt Hon David Cameron MP, Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service British Government" (and those indeed, true to my spam email of yesterday, are some of his titles) rises and sits, rises and sits, fielding friendly and unfriendly questions with his notebook in his hand, while the zany gowned Speaker calls out “Order!, order!” from the head of the table.

I picture it this way: The member from Baggley Wells is recognized by the Speaker and rises.  This question will be a friendly one for the Prime Minister.  “Would my Right Honourable friend agree that all moneys he collects from his email scam, and for that matter all moneys from all the email scams perpetrated by our own people and by our Nigerian friends here in the United Kingdom, ought to be donated to causes which are dedicated to the alleviation of starvation and disease throughout the African continent?”  The Right Honourable Mr. David Cameron, Prime Minister, rises and places his portfolio upon the table with an emphatic slap, not bothering to look down at it.  “My Honourable friend is absolutely correct, and indeed, as he knows, this government has consistently advocated such generosity and has encouraged the raising of millions of pounds for such relief efforts,” (murmurs of “hear, hear” resound from the Conservative back benches), “notwithstanding,” and here the Prime Minister looks directly across the table at the Labour leader and his shadow cabinet, amid jeers from the opposition benches, his voice rising above the din, “notwithstanding the efforts of the other party to stifle this spirit of generosity by characterizing such scams as crimes, and advocating, yet again,” (more jeers from the Labourites and shouts from the Conservatives and cries of “order, order” from the Speaker) “the intrusion of the government into what should remain the private charitable efforts of both the scammers and their victims!”  With this the Prime Minister takes his notebook and sits down, looking to his left and right for nods of approval from his own ministers.

Ah yes, democracy in action in the Western world, a world where right thinking leaders have always fought fiercely in the causes of both unbridled theft and unfettered generosity.


Billie Bob said...

It wasn't all that long ago that I congratulated you on the 20,000th hit on your blog site. I see that you are now well past the 25,000th. Lookin’ forward to seeing the 50,000th. When will you publish the book of essays?

Peter Teeuwissen said...

Hey, Billie Bob I do think 25,000 plus hits are a lot, and I'm not complaining, but if you take away your 10,000 and my cousin Suzanne's 10,000.... Naw, just kiddin', I know there are more readers than that, and shucks folks, thanks for hanging in there, and we'll leave the light on for ya. Guess in order to "go viral" I'd have to be a bit more notorious, or do something involving puppies, or maybe be one of those fat people from England with the great voices. Have you seen that kid Jonathan who looks like someone took Tiny Tim and inflated him?