How really, really, really not to get your book reviewed

Lately I’ve had a rash of review requests that seem to emanate from a website about African American books. The fact that the books have AA themes is neutral to me; for me, the key question of interest is the genre and quality of writing. If it’s high-quality travel writing, for example, whether it is AA-themed or not means nothing; I will want to read it. If it’s religious YA, likewise, whether it has an AA theme or not means nothing to me: I wouldn’t have a reason to read it.

Most of the applicants are receptive to my typical reply. I explain that I’m not sure how the website got hold of my email, but that it was not my doing, and that I’m more concerned with genre and quality than with ethnic composition. And that I do very few book reviews nowadays, and that the applicant’s book as described doesn’t fall within my areas of interest. Nevertheless, best of success with your literary endeavors. Most authors respond with respectful thanks.

Two weeks back, I got duplicate mass-mailed emails from one Paula Wynne, asking if I were still interested in reviewing AA books, and proposing that I go edit my profile. I replied in my usual way, did not hear back, and figured that was the end of the matter.

It was not. Four days ago I received another mass mailing from Ms. Wynne, complaining that I had not opened her recent emails (I’m interested in how she would deduce that), and asking if I wished to remain on her contact list. I was again directed to update my “reviewer profile,” or offered an unsubscribe link.

Here’s my theory on unsubscribe links: I can validly be asked to use them only if I initiated a subscription in the first place. Thus, if someone else added me, I’m not jumping through hoops. I will simply tell them in the clear: yes, unsubscribe me. That is not what they expect. I don’t care. So in response to this email titled “Do you still want to hear from me?” I answered: “Won’t be necessary, thanks.” I figure that’s clear enough. For Ms. Wynne, doesn’t seem it was. She responded by saying that I had sent her an email with no text, and what did I want to do?

This had gone quite far enough. Figuring things needed spelling out and repeating, I said:

“I wrote something on the email; please look below “Do you still want to hear from me?” in the quoted emails.

In short: I never requested to be subscribed to this list, it appears my name got there due to an entry on a website that I did not myself initiate, and therefore I most definitely do desire to be unsubscribed from a situation that in no way reflected my will. I responded to your original email to explain the situation and did not receive a reply (normal when one has inadvertently disturbed a person), so when it was obvious I was still on the list, assumed that this was one of those lists that ignored common civility. I’m heartened to see that this may not be the case.

In any case, let me reiterate that I wish to be removed from this involuntarily ‘subscribed’ list.”

Of course, rather than offer a fairly dumb reply, it would have been better to simply unsubscribe me in silence. Instead, I got:

“Thank you Kelly, you won’t be contacted again.”

How’s that? Addressing me by last name, like we’re boys on a junior high school bus, and misspelling it into the bargain? If she was out to piss me off, I guess she can count coup.

Lesson for self-published writers is:

if you send mass review-soliciting emails based on some source website, and;

if you are politely told “not interested, thanks, but good luck,” and;

if you can’t take that as guidance and just go away, and;

if you then must have it spelled out for you, as if you were a child, then:

whatever you do, do not turn around and address this person whose time you have wasted, who could get irritated enough to give you publicity you would not desire, in a way that will convey your contempt rather than your respect.

Really, seriously, for true, no joke, don’t do anything that stupid while promoting your books.

A boy and his telescope

Some time ago, there was a terrorized, traumatized early teenage boy. He lived in a small industrial town, in which he did not fit, and he was socially awkward on top of that. For seven years, he would be the prime target for every form of social mistreatment that the minds of teenagers could imagine. This would leave him with PTSD, to the point where it would be perilous to come up behind him or surprise him with even a pretend threat. The experience and aftermath rewired his brain, as PTSD does. Its effects would haunt him even as his hair thinned, then faded to silver and white.

Few of the boy’s peers shared any of his cerebral/nerdly interests, and none shared his interest in astronomy. The town’s river valley was not an ideal region for stargazing, but one takes what one can get. On his eleventh birthday, his parents got him a new Sears, Roebuck 60mm telescope. The literature billed it as a 350x (with Barlow lens), including an image erecting prism, spotter scope, solar projection screen, and right-angle lens. Three eyepieces, from about 35x to 175x.

The telescope opened up an amazing world, though it also introduced the boy to the concept of deceptive advertising. The Barlow lens, which was supposed to double the power, ate up too much light to be useful at night. The image erecting prism and right-angle lens, at least, worked as advertised. It was only a 175x altazimuth mount telescope, without an equatorial mount or other bells and whistles, but for him it was great. On any clear night, the boy would be out there getting a closer look at the Crab Nebula, Saturn’s moons, the Andromeda Galaxy, the gorgeous array of tiny electric sapphires known as the Pleiades, the surface of Mars, and many more.

A nearby observatory was always willing to help when he phoned them to ask where a planet was, since he lacked those resources himself in pre-Internet days. By the time he was ready to graduate and leave the hellhole forever, he could always identify the planets unassisted. Jupiter? If it’s brilliant white, brighter than any star, and isn’t at sunset or sunrise (if it is, maybe it’s Venus instead), that’s all it can be. Mars? Like Jupiter, not quite as brilliant, and distinctly reddish. Saturn? About like a very bright star, but doesn’t flicker like one, and yellowish. Even a binoculars would show its rings, like a little flying saucer, but the telescope showed them in full clarity.

Life happened; college, graduation, underemployment, marriage, life crises, moves, healing, bereavement, surgery, technological advances. In spite of the PTSD, he gained enough perspective not to dwell upon the horrors of the past. With help from his wife, he overcame much of his social awkwardness; group events would still be work rather than play for him, but the man-once-a-boy would at least walk away from most such events feeling he had not embarrassed himself. And through almost half-a-dozen moves, the man still had his old boyhood telescope.

The man had always taken good care of it. He still had the documentation from Sears, Roebuck. It lacked only one small bolt to hold in place the little lamp on the accessory platform. A trip to Ace hardware, some lens wipes, and it could be ready to go. But there was a problem: it was forty years out of date. He would never again use it, and deep down, the man knew this. He was of an age when excess things were becoming impediments, especially fragile things–however beloved–that he would never use and enjoy. If the man wanted a telescope, he would buy an excellent modern one for the price of four or five hours of his labor.

The telescope, an old friend from the bad days, needed to begin doing someone some good. The man advertised on Craigslist for a deserving family with a precocious child, but didn’t advertise in the free section even though the telescope would be free of charge. The free section was the haunt of people who would happily say anything to make a gain. Other than a couple of kind comments, the man received no responses.

Then it occurred to him to phone the nearby elementary school. It was a STEM school, in a state where public educational funding was parsimonious. Would they like a telescope in good working order? Why, yes; yes, they would!

The man gathered together all the telescope’s parts, checking to see what might be missing. He loaded them into his vehicle, and went to meet the elementary school’s vice principal. She was excited at what the telescope might mean to her young charges. She explained that it was a high mobility school, that they typically saw a child for two years at most due to short apartment leases. She asked whether he would mind assembling it, and as he put it together for the last time, the man assured her that even a couple of good educational years–like those he had enjoyed in early youth, before his parents had moved him to the small town where he had been given the telescope–could get a child through ten years of hell. He held back most of the worst parts, but told the vice-principal enough about how hell looked that she got a little misty.

When it was assembled, and time to go, the man felt his own eyes watering. He laid a hand on the telescope’s white side, undented, unscratched, and cared for all these years. “See you later, old buddy. Teach the kids.”

It wasn’t the parting from a thing that made the man’s eyes moist. It was the memories the telescope had meant. It had been a rare thing of joy in a time with few joys.

He shook the vice-principal’s hand, thanked her for her time, accepted her polite thanks, looked one last time, and finally walked away from his old friend of the hardest times.

Sometimes, he thought, one has to give one’s old friend a chance to make some new friends.

Scumbag studies: Arnold Rothstein

He’s the perfect subject for this series, because he was a complete scumbag–just not in the ways most people imagine.

  • He didn’t fix the 1919 Series.
  • He was a gangster of Jewish heritage, but never part of a Jewish gang.
  • He may have been the brightest underworld figure of his time, a lock to succeed in legitimate business had he chosen to do so.

Arnold entered the world in 1882, son of Abraham and Esther Rothstein, of Manhattan. His parents were respected well beyond the observant Jewish community in which they lived, Abe being well known as an honest straight shooter (and not in the literal sense). Arnold was the family’s black sheep, quitting school early and marrying a non-Jew. To Abe, that was equivalent to his son’s death, and the father performed all the mourning rituals of Judaism. Arnold never outwardly repudiated the faith of his culture and upbringing; he simply did not practice it. He would one day be buried in a skullcap and tallit (prayer shawl).

A.R., as many referred to him, built his fortune as a professional gambler. Cards, the racetrack, didn’t matter; he was in. If he could fix it, he would. Many sought to clip him with fixes of their own, and in those circles, the rule was that the winner was the winner and the loser was the chump, and still had to pay up. He was no greedier than the rest of his ilk for that era, just better at it for most of his life.

My assessment: the 1919 World Series fix was the worst thing that could have happened to him. He didn’t do it, but the bum rap stuck to him. A couple of the players initiated the fix, and pitched the idea to Rothstein through intermediaries. Rothstein didn’t believe it was feasible to fix a Series; one biographer says A.R. respected the national game too much to do such a thing, and that’s where that author loses me. I know of no other evidence that A.R. gave a damn about the integrity of anything except the obligation to pay whatever portion one must of one’s bets and debts, and if bought, to remain bought. What the Series fix did to Rothstein was make this intensely private and reserved man into a public figure. It didn’t matter that he didn’t put the fix in. Enough people believed it that his innocence didn’t matter; plus, in fairness, as Aunt Polly said to Tom Sawyer, he didn’t get a lick amiss. Before that, the public mostly neither knew nor cared about A.R. After the Black Sox Scandal, the public knew it ought to hate Arnold Rothstein–and from 1920 on, he had scrutiny like never before. He had never wanted public notice, and he now had the worst possible kind.

Rothstein was a gangster, but not as many modern folks view a Prohibition- and pre-Prohibition era gangster. The modern tendency is to see those gangs in ethnic terms, and in many cases that was so. In that of A.R., not so much. There is no evidence that he ever put heritage above money; he was an equal opportunity opportunist, if one may pardon the clanks that emanate from that descriptor. As a gangster, his genius was constant evolution and a formless organization. One could look at, for example, Dion O’Banion’s mob in Chicago and say: “Irish gang.” It was an organization, well known, and those who were in, were in. Rothstein never had anything of the kind. He had deals going, with whomever for whatever reason, and when a line of trade became less profitable, he walked away with what he had earned. He gambled, bootlegged, sold insurance, whatever came his way. Until the last years of his life, he never followed a bad play off a cliff, which explains his enormous wealth. There were always new opportunities, and payoffs were the price of doing business. He did business with Tammany, but was never their creature, nor were they his.

As a personality, he was calm, reserved, urbane, polite, private, and patient. I have no way to know, but I watched the whole run of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and I find Michael Stuhlbarg’s portrayal quite credible. A.R. was so reserved that his wife, Carolyn, eventually moved to divorce him. To go by her memoirs, he loved her as much as he was capable of loving any person, but hers was the proverbial gilded cage.

There is so much we don’t know about A.R. and never will. His 1928 shooter did not kill him immediately, and Arnold didn’t squeal; we still don’t know who did it. There were elements of the police that did not much want to solve the case. Toward the end, Arnold’s gambling wasn’t going as well as it had before. It is hard to imagine that his death was not a result either of some past grudge, or some scheme or bet more recently gone against him.

Was he a scumbag? Fair to say, but he wasn’t one for the oftenest-thought reason. He was wealthy, introverted, brilliant, and private. He was deeply corrupt, and he had plenty of company. Whatever other names we might call Arnold Rothstein, there is one I am sure no one ever used.

He was not dull, in any sense of the term.

Retiring jerseys is unsustainable and makes no sense

It’s unsustainable because one eventually runs out of numbers to use. Including 0 and 00, one hundred and one numbers are available without resorting to triple digits.

It makes no sense because it kicks the can down this unsustainable path, leaving future generations with the headache (much as my generation has done with most of the real problems it has faced).

It is least dumb in basketball, with its small roster sizes. One could go on retiring a jersey number per year for fifty years without much crowding the available pool of numbers, provided the rule against numbers using integers 6-9 is repealed). It is dumbest in football by far, and especially in college football. Including walk-ons, a college football roster typically tops out around 115 (enough to outfit ten basketball teams, six hockey teams, four or five baseball teams). Take a look at a roster some time. The majority of numbers are used twice, and most teams have to keep a few numbers back without names or assignments, as jerseys to put on a given player in potential number conflict situations.

Most retirement of numbers comes in the heat of an emotional moment: a recent retirement, a death, what have you. I do not look down on collective grief or adulation; I just don’t believe a retired number is the best method. Rings of honor, team halls of fame, anything sustainable: excellent. Retired number? It can’t go on.

In college football, sooner rather than later, it will get to the problematic stage. The pros, with their 53-man rosters, already run into problems because of the prevalence of numbers below 20 (mostly quarterbacks and kicking specialists, until recently) and between 80-89 (mostly tight ends and receivers; nowadays the receivers are taking the teen numbers) that get retired.

When a given team starts to run out of numbers, be it ten years from now or fifty, it will have to begin unretiring them. What then? How will we decide that the kid whose number we retired in a fit of grief over his auto accident, “uh, gee, well, we really need some numbers back, sorry, kid’s family?” At Tennessee football, there are four retired numbers for players who died in World War II. They have since retired three more. At some point, it will get harder to retire more numbers. Are those future kids less deserving than those of yesteryear?

It just has to end. Even if each team maintained just one retired number, there will be a quandary when another loved or mourned great comes along. Do you unretire the old number to retire the new one?

Rings of honor. Halls of fame. Put up a statue. Name something after the player. There are so many better options than taking a number out of the pool. My own pet idea: unretire all jerseys, but for those numbers that were retired, or are in a ring of honor, authorize a name tape to be worn on one shoulder in honor of the recognized past holder. If West Point can wear different units’ shoulder patches on its uniforms, surely we can run to this.

As for retiring them, let’s just stop already, before this gets sillier.

All about Messing With Telemarketers

It’s not just a fun hobby; it’s now a website, whose author has written a great book. Much of the insight presented here emanates from my interpretations of Haven Riney’s methods, for which I extend him his due full credit.

Where Riney’s mind and mine meet is where most disagree with us both, to wit:

  • Problem: telemarketers waste our time and annoy us.
  • Most people: just hang up on them, not worth your time.
  • Riney and I: torment them and waste their time in creative ways that amuse us.

I can’t speak for Riney, but the way my mind works is that we make the world a better place every time we make bad behavior less profitable. I also believe we should find ways to enjoy making bad behavior unprofitable.

Riney draws a valid distinction between telemarketers (who intend to deliver a legitimate, if stupid and/or useless, product or service) and scammers, whose work is to steal. I agree with his recommendation, that one show telemarketers a little more mercy than scammers. In my view, the scammers are fair game for everything including a scam of one’s own. There is plenty of e-mail scamming going on, as all of us who know and love are aware, but Riney covers only phone scams. The most common one at this writing is the fake IRS collector. Among others, in the book Riney reacts to many iterations of the Windows Security scam. I’ve had lots of those.

Riney, it seems, is a born actor and improv comic. His dialogues with telemarketers and scammers are genius. He nearly always knows how to run with any reaction he might encounter. I hope his book sells quajillions of copies, makes him rich, and inspires so many people to take up telemarketer-tormenting and scammer-tormenting that both become unfeasible economically, horrible work, and die out. (This will unfortunately destroy the economy of Boise, which is the Unaccented English Call Center Capital of the world these days. Can’t be helped.) I doubt Riney’s skill can be taught.

For some of us, it’s harder. I’m not very good at handling surprise lines of inquiry off the cuff. I need a plan, some prompts, a little preparation. I don’t think I’m the only one. So what I’m going to do is glean from Riney some tips that will enable others, who might also need a little advance prep, to screw with these people. I’ll add my own inspirations, in case they help.

One of Riney’s best methods, which won’t work for me, is to react as if one were a given film character. It helps if one can pick a suitable film character for the line of inquiry. For example, Riney responded to a health insurance query by pretending to be Steve Austin, the character on the 1970s show The Six Million Dollar Man. He presented as Star Wars characters. I think it’s a great idea if you watch much pop culture (I don’t) because you can adopt a persona and react as that person would. If it’s someone that few foreigners would probably suss out, better still. In my case, I’d have to think of a few in advance so that I could react on the fly.

Another method is to adopt a made-up, bizarre persona. Riney did several of these, usually with names that would read very comically. A given persona might desire to re-enact the battle of Gettysburg with rodents as the actors, or claim to be in the process of actually holding up a convenience store during the call. I’m not able to do this at all without time to process, but some people can.

One that occurred to me: why not claim to be an animal of one’s choice and knowledge? “My name is Mr. Ursus. I like honey and salmon.” Then give the sorts of responses that would be reasonable for a bear.

Other methods used or inspired by Riney:

  • Adopting a very odd manner of speech, such as like a Star Trek computer voice or somesuch.
  • One of my inspirations would be to do a very heavy foreign accent, such that it was difficult for a foreign speaker to understand. Even a very heavy domestic accent: if you’ve always wanted to see how your drawl sounded, that’d be your chance.
  • Random quotes would work, if you were encyclopedic and quick enough. Riney is; I’m not.
  • One of my favorites with the Windows Security scam is to pick a random non-computer device, such as my microwave or toaster, and pretend that I think it’s a computer. That gets them very frustrated. “It doesn’t have the key you are talking about. It has this sliding thing alongside.”
  • Claiming to be occupied doing something fairly gross while talking. The funniest one in Riney’s book was the one about getting a rectal piercing. You could claim to be eating live mice if you thought that would rattle them.

Just as people advise writers to write what they know, the common thread here is to act out what you know. If you know your cat’s personality well enough, act it out. If you’re a huge fan of Tatiana Maslany (and you should be), pick one of the Orphan Black clone characters (I vote for Helena). If a cow could speak in response to a telemarketer or scammer, what would that cow say? You could pretend to be your Prius, your conure, your schnauzer. I think the key is the ability to imagine a different perspective and play pretend.

Many telemarketers are so wrapped up in the script that they don’t use any active listening at all, as Riney’s results illustrate. In many cases, he even answered the phone with “,” yet people just rolled through their scripts. Riney got so many calls from the same scam artists that he got to know a few of them, even had candid conversations with them about how the scam worked. One of the more interesting revelations is that scammers use the MagicJack device to fake phone numbers, but that they themselves get hacked by other thieves, and it bothers the scammers a lot.

I have no patience for the argument that there is anything wrong with being unkind to them. When you are in a bad business, people will be unkind to you. That’s because it’s a bad business that deserves unkindness. Suffering goes with its territory.

If you question whether it’s worth your time, which is a valid question, consider this. While you’re wasting this person’s time (by donating some of yours), you aren’t wasting yours. While he’s talking to you, he’s not available to run game on Mrs. Edna Miller of Wausau, WI, who is a little confused nowadays and is thus vulnerable to such tactics. If every telemarketing or scam call resulted in wasted telemarketing or scammer time, the world would be a better place. None of us can stop it singlehandedly, but if we all pitched in a little time, we’d have a little fun while helping the vulnerable.

I feel energized. I think my next scam caller will hear that I am Sarah Palin, or Johnny Manziel, or Octomom, or Ban Ki-Moon, or a grackle.

The Strange Second Life of Thomas Weaver, Bowl 6 and final

This, now out in Kindle, completes the serial novel Shawn began some time back. I was developmental editor.

Some time ago, Shawn proposed the saga of a middle-aged loser who commits suicide in his early fifties and awakens in his fifteen-year-old body, over thirty-five years back in time. Writers often bomb at time shifting and travel, because it keeps creating thorny issues that most authors gloss over or mishandle. When Shawn brought the idea up to me, I hammered on that point. If he must do it, and couldn’t be dissuaded, very well; but he should know that I wasn’t going to sit quietly and accept crummy shortcuts without vocal objections. He expressed an interest in my vocal objections, then got to work.

We had our first big disagreement during Bowl 2, if memory serves. I should put this in perspective: by a disagreement, I don’t mean we had harsh words, hard feelings, or anything negatively affecting the relationship. Rather: Shawn wanted to do what he wanted to do, I told him it was a very unwise idea, he explained his reasoning, and we ultimately worked out a plot solution that didn’t give either of us heartburn. During Bowl 6 the last, we had another round of these, both of which centered around the nature and timing of the rebirth of souls in his universe. Shawn was leaning toward actions and solutions that he felt would be more emotionally satisfying to the reader. I was arguing the side of situational ‘physics,’ used in the loosest possible sense given that all of this time travel stuff–and angels, for that matter–go against all our known conventional physics. By physics in this context, I mean what a thinking person could logically infer given the altered assumptions in play. I guess it’s fair to say I prevailed, though not in some overwhelming way, because when I object to a plot choice, it doesn’t very often mean that I am insisting on a specific alternative. It means I feel strongly that we need something other than what the author is proposing. If that’s how I feel, I must participate in helping the client perfect a solution that will pacify me.

I also did a thing the reader has no way to notice, but that I think will affect Shawn’s writing going forward. As I see my job, to the extent my client wants to grow, I always have some duty to teach. Difficulty: I am a very linear thinker who tends to dial in on a given mode and stick to it. This can result in very disciplined, consistent work, but it can be fundamentally uncreative since it may disregard for too long signs that the chosen mode is unsuitable for the best outcome. In this context, it means that when I am reviewing, I am not editing. At all. I salt the ms with little margin comments, always in lower case to distinguish them, so that I make sure to fix certain things when the real editing begins: “nts ghastly phrasing” “sp” “nts punct” “tcfkao”* and so on. (‘nts’ = ‘note to self’.) I don’t want or expect the client to fix these, though if s/he chooses to, what am I going to do, complain? I am better at review and commentary and teaching when I’m not being the punctuation mechanic.

Here, Shawn had a section that was well isolated from the rest, about a third of the way into the story. For those who end up reading it, it’s the very significant discussion Thomas has with Anne. The original was full of overtell, enough that it would be more like rewriting than editing. I don’t mind doing that, but it’s hard for an author to learn from tracked changes. So, this once, I did the editing early and asked Shawn to go over it with great care, and in each case put his takeaway lesson in comments. Afterward, I found it very hard to get back into the I-will-read-and-comment-without-changes mode, and I probably did some minor edits without thinking about it. No harm done, just one of the situations we encounter, germane to a piece on how the sausage is made.

The end result is something that keeps taking on the tough questions even as it rides into the sunset. I think readers will love it.


* The Comma Formerly Known As Oxford. I’m in full earnest about my rejection of Oxford’s moral authority over the English language after they sighed and said that ‘literally’ can mean ‘metaphorically.’ It can’t, they’re wrong, that decision was moneychanging in my temple, and I will drive them from it with scourges. However, the comma situation still remains, and we need a reference term for it. Ideally it would be a reference term that aims a banderilla at Oxford’s overhyped withers in every feasible instance. Therefore, “tcfkao.”

Things many people say that are illogical

I hear them all the time. It’s my belief that we should examine the things we tell others and ourselves. Maybe they just don’t make any sense. Many are mindless, some are untrue, and most emanate from the tendency to believe that a clever-sounding slogan acquires truth.

My abhorrence of these had its genesis when I was about eleven, watching All in the Family with what passed for a family. That show was one of the best sitcoms of my lifetime, because it combined some drama with good comedy and powerful social comment. Since some of my audience is younger, I should take a moment to explain. The stars were Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton, who played a row-house Depression-kids-era working-class couple with heavy accents in an eastern city, maybe in New Jersey. Archie Bunker was a pudgy working-class xenophobe. Edith was the matron of the era, self-sacrificing, trying to please everyone, pretending less than her full intellect. Their daughter, a standard issue baby boomer, was married to a guy with longer hair who didn’t get along with Archie on politics, social issues, or much of anything. Their debates and arguments were those of the day.

At one point, Mike (the son-in-law, played by Rob Reiner) was talking about a commune. “People who live in comm-unes are comm-u-nists,” snarked Archie. In those days, calling someone a communist was like calling him a terrorist today: it was the demon word, the thing we are all programmed to hate and fear. And my father said: “I guess that’s right.”

It wasn’t until college, a decade later, when I came to realize what a stupid statement that was. A commune is a group of people living together, pooling their efforts and resources. A communist is someone who believes in the abolition of personal property and the striving toward a utopian state where all wealth is shared. If used to define people who live in communes, it loses that automatic meaning unless the individual in question advocates actual communist change in society.

To understand the prevailing social hatred of the day, understand that my debating the point in such a fashion would have been tantamount to failure to confirm the demonization of communism, which in turn would make me suspect as a communist sympathizer or ‘com-symp.’ In the 1950s, that could get one an FBI file. It went so deep that in 1990, when the Warsaw Pact collapsed and the Cold War was over, our leaders had a temporary quandary: whom do we tell the people to hate and fear? Since most of those leaders weren’t bright enough to adjust, and intuitively knowing that we were (and remain) a people who must have an exterior enemy to distract us from our own leadership’s greed and evil, they just kept doing them. They picked on Russia, spiking the political ball in eastern Europe, helping create the climate in which a dictator like Putin would arise. Only 9/11 rescued them from the dilemma: at last, a suitable hate target to hand the people.

The day will come when the millennials have children, who will have no more memory of 9/11 than I had of Khrushchyov’s “We will bury you” shoe-pounding moment, and their kids will not understand why they are required to hate and fear all Muslims and Arabs but especially Muslim Arabs, and the divide of unshared experience will repeat itself in different form.

Archie’s statement was just a dogmatic snark, but it was a snark that sounded good enough for even someone as well educated as my father to swallow. Dad surely had no idea in the moment that he had planted a key seed of dormant discontent, one which would destroy his intellectual credibility with me. Once I began to deprogram myself from the obligatory religious and social beliefs repeated at me over and over growing up, I would question everything he had tried to ingrain in me, with the tendency to believe his views tainted by association with a tainted source. I would reject his religion, his bigotries, even his notions of love and family (which amounted to “Family is abusive, that’s just how family love is”). And for all my days, religious missionaries trying to lecture me about Christianity would have no idea what a hornets’ nest they were breaking, as they tried to promote a belief system that I had experienced as a blunt instrument of conformity and abuse.

Albeit lengthy, that explains why I despise stupid statements that people repeat without thinking. I associate sloganeering with cheap mind control, oppression, anti-intellectualism, and most of what I loathe about humanity in mass. Over the course of many months, I began to collect stupid statements and debunk their stupidity. When I had enough, it was time to publish this piece. Therefore:

“If you don’t exercise your rights, you’ll lose them.” Evidently untrue, considering the many rights many people do not exercise, but do not seem to lose. A more sensible thought: if you abuse your rights, you might lose them, so exercise them with some sense.

“You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.” Oh, yes, you can. Some family members need to be fired: to wit, anyone who considers the familial relationship a reason to be pardoned egregious wrongdoings.

“Tastes like chicken.” Why do people blurt this about any new form of meat, and think that it’s high comedy? Some things taste like chicken. Some don’t.

“It never hurts to negotiate.” Oh, yes, it can. If it’s already a good deal, and you’re just beating the seller up for more money, especially if the amount is piddly, he or she may just tell you it’s no longer for sale to you, period.

“If you don’t like the weather around here, wait [insert length of time], and it’ll change.” People blurt this even where the weather is so predictable that it is the preferred destination for meteorologists who flunked out of college. I used to live in such a place. They blurted it all the time. They were the same people who said that everything tasted like chicken.

“Hate only hurts you.” Not necessarily true. Anger, while it has its place, does take its toll. It should be rationed, applied only where it will do some good. Hate, on the other hand, I consider essential to an ethical outlook. There is a lot of evil out there. Loving evil does not cause it to stop being evil. If someone can’t hate evil, I’m not sure s/he and I can ever understand one another, because I do not see how one can have a functional moral compass without the extremes of judgment. We may not concur on the definition of evil, but surely we each must have one. The trick is to consider hate a judgment, a status, a consignment–something that just is, rather than something dwelt upon. The Ku Klux Klan, for example, needs and deserves to be hated. Hating them doesn’t hurt me a bit. If I ever stopped properly hating them, though, I’d hurt myself plenty, because I would compromise what matters to me. Frank Herbert said: “What do you despise? By this you are truly known.” Dune is one of the great marriages of subversive social comment with science fiction.

“If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” Declining to participate in or validate a process is irrelevant to one’s right to speak one’s mind. One may say that one will not validate the opinion of a non-voter who complains, but not everyone wants or needs (or even values) such validation. Anyone wanting to tell me I can’t complain should first step up and offer to pay my tax bill.

“Everyone has a story to tell.” Nah. Take it from someone in the business of trying to fix stories: not everyone’s story is interesting or should be told. Some are, some are not. Writing and storytelling are different arts, and storytelling is the more difficult in my opinion. I’d rather review a ms written in atrocious English (which I can fix), that tells a great story, than an impeccably written but soul-numbing tale.

“Who are we to judge others?” I don’t think even the speaker ever believes that. Whether you buy into our social model (in which case you validate the right of judges and juries to judge), or you simply have a functional moral code (in which case you feel you have every right to make judgments as you see fit), you do believe someone has the right to judge, be it you or somebody else.

“Profanity is a sign of limited vocabulary.” Really? I have been accused of many things in life, sometimes with cause, but never yet a limited vocabulary. I swear now and then. It says nothing about my vocabulary and everything about how I feel right then, what I seek to convey. In any case, just because one has a substantial vocabulary does not mean one must show it off at every opportunity. To let vocabulary hinder communication is to miss the entire point of language. You’d think that those asserting expertise in this area would realize this.

“All children are precious.” No, they are not. There are children who are downright evil, just as there are adults who are downright evil. Not all of either will permit themselves to be salvaged, or have the capacity to permit it. That doesn’t mean we should be too quick to throw in the towel, but the statement itself is demonstrably false.

“Names can never hurt you.” This lie is fed to nearly every bullied child in this country, over and over. Names can only not hurt someone who is completely sociopathic, immune to all desire for peer respect. Tell someone that names can never hurt him or her, and you may get that exact outcome: a person who simply does not care how anyone else feels. As I remember it, those saying this are generally trying to persuade a victim to just suffer abuse rather than fight back. They are the enablers of abuse. The enablement of abuse, the siding with the harmful over the harmed, is morally bankrupt. And whether we admit it or not, siding with the bully is one of our cultural ethics.

Godwin’s Law. (For those unfamiliar with it, this arose in reaction to the tempting tendency to compare anything to Hitler or the Nazis. It states that whoever does so concedes the argument.) Its threat does restrain some of the more mindless and extreme comparisons, and it does serve a useful purpose in discouraging trivialization of the Holocaust. That acknowledged, in fact our observation of the rise of Nazi power is too valuable and pertinent to disallow as an analogical tool. If someone is twisting reality and manipulating simple people through hammering away at the same semi-truths and outright lies, that is exactly how Joseph Goebbels manipulated German public opinion. It is just fine to call that ‘Goebbelsian,’ for example.

“Everyone deserves [insert benefit or right].” Very few people believe this when they articulate it, no matter what the deserved item or condition or benefit may be. What most mean, but refuse to admit to themselves: “Everyone, except for a few people I happen to consider exceptionally heinous, deserves […].” As I see it, there are plenty of people who do not deserve certain things. Not every kid deserves a trophy. Not every kid deserves to graduate. Not every adult deserves a decent job. Not every [insert member of deified profession] is a hero. Do you think everyone deserves a decent meal? Great; when you hear of the next long-term animal abuser, looking at the pathetic images of the poor creatures, and you’re saying what should be done to him, be sure and leave starvation out of your proposed penalty. Do that for everything you believe “everyone deserves.”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right.” It just sounds so good, and our parents repeated it so often, that we forgot to ask ourselves whether it was dumb. Someone punches you. You punch them back, partly to show them that being punched hurts, and partly to defend yourself. You just used violence. According to this infantile saying, you are now wrong too. We don’t even believe it as a society. Unless, that is, we believe that attacking Axis forces during World War II–thus using violence to drive them out of lands they had conquered and begun to oppress–made us just as bad as the Axis, or even worse (since we dropped more bombs on cities, including two nuclear weapons). By this saying’s reasoning, all assholes should always be allowed to get away with all bad acts without being struck back in consequence. Now: is it always moral and suitable to respond exactly in kind to a wrong done? Of course not. There are times when it definitely is not. If a four-year-old stabs you with a fork, and makes you bleed, clearly you must not stab the child in return. There are times when it makes more sense to respond with greater force, such as when a woman’s date rape has begun and all he’s done so far is tear her blouse open. Suppose she can lay her hand on a screwdriver. Should she not then shove that thing into his neck, thus ending the rape before it reaches its logical conclusion? Don’t tell her “two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Society floats along on a sea of slogans and gnomic sayings we have heard so often that most of us no longer question them. If you do question them, you’ll become one of those weirdo freethinkers who does not fit into one of the accepted pigeonholes. Your intellectual life will be much more interesting, since media will daily serve you bowls of falsehood and bad assumptions. Full disclosure, though: only do this if you dread being invited to vapid parties.

Blogging freelance writing and life in general.


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