Category Archives: Scumbag studies

Scumbag studies: Reichsleiter Rudolf Hess

This story is weird because its subject is weird.

Hess, a WWI veteran, was one of Adolf Hitler’s earliest kool-aid drinkers. You might say that he was even a kool-aid taster, helping develop Hitler’s kool-aid vintages and varietals. Hess would have swallowed fishing sinkers and jumped into the Rhine if Hitler jumped first. While Hitler did time for the Beer Hall Putsch, Hess typed up the manuscript that became Mein Kampf. Call him whatever else you will, with just cause, but Hitler was very loyal to those whose loyalty to him never flinched. Hess rose to the position of Deputy Führer.

Hess’s brain wiring was unlike that of others. He was definitely an anti-Semite and instrumental in the rise of the Nazi party as well as the persecution of Jews, so he fits my definition of scumbag. He had a streak of hypochondria. Today, he would probably be an anti-vaccine activist. It seems reasonable to suppose that he was prone to mental illness. But for a plane trip, he would have stayed in Hitler’s shadow throughout the war. He would have continued to lose influence due to Martin Bormann’s machinations, and would not have cared, so long as he retained Hitler’s personal affection. As one of the few men Hitler addressed in the familiar form ‘du’ and called “Hessrl” (‘Hessie’), Hess could do whatever he wanted provided it never ran counter to Nazi aims. By war’s end, surely he would have accumulated enough wrongdoing to hang. I am not alone in believing it a poor form of justice that he did not.

He would eventually correct that injustice himself, if indeed he did hang himself in Spandau all those many years later.

The official version is that on 12 May 1941, in defiance of Hitler’s orders and perhaps due to a decline in sanity, Hess jumped in his Bf-110 aircraft and flew to Scotland. He behaved as though he expected to be able to return. His goal was to broker peace between Germany (which he knew would soon be at close quarters with the Soviet Union) and Britain. The British heard him out, but did not find his proposals compelling. (Short version: “Herr Hitler never wanted to destroy you and still does not. If you get out of the war and give him back our African colonies, he will let you live.”) They debriefed him, but kept him under comfortable yet strict confinement for the duration of hostilities. At one point he attempted suicide and failed. The British made sure that didn’t happen again.

Came war’s end, Hess was among the high-profile Nuremberg defendants. He had behaved strangely in captivity, and put on a convincing display of missing marbles in court. Despite this infirmity or act, the tribunal sentenced him to life imprisonment. He would be the final prisoner held in Spandau Prison, West Berlin, purportedly hanging himself on 17 August 1987. My own weird connection to the situation is that my college days ended just one year before that, and I happened to know a young woman (I delivered mail to her dorm and she would chat with me while I stuffed the boxes) who was a distant relation of Hess. I once tactlessly asked, “Any relation?” Best I can describe it is that a shadow passed over her eyes as she said, simply, sadly, “Yes.” Perhaps that is why the case has interested me.

Anyway, not everyone swallows the official version. Did you really think they would? When have they ever? All right, let’s consider Team Tinfoil’s claims. It may surprise you that I believe they at least have a couple of valid insights.

The real Hess died in a flying boat crash in Scotland during the war. This story goes that a double replaced him, acting the fool at Nuremberg, then spending decades in Spandau. Far as I’m concerned, this is stupid. Who would agree to do this? Where would they find such a person who also resembled the very distinctive-looking Hess? When Hess finally agreed to start seeing his wife and son again in the late 1960s, they seemed to think he was the real deal; in what universe could a double have manufactured the shared memories to fool them? What on earth could they gain from being in on some cover-up?

And those questions don’t even touch on why the British might cover up Hess’s death in such an accident. It’s not a war crime to fly prisoners around, especially important ones. This theory is so goofy it impairs the credibility of anyone who advances it.

Hess had Hitler’s permission and encouragement to go. In the past, I thought this was likely because of the problematic nature of stealing an escort fighter in the notoriously fascist Third Reich, but I have learned that Hess had his own Bf-110 on permanent assignment and knew how to fly it. There are reliable reports that Adolf chucked a trademark Hitlertantrum when he heard the news, which at least suggests the flight was unauthorized. A better reason to doubt Adolfian approval is that the odds were high of an outcome involving propaganda adverse to Nazi interests. How would it look to the Italians, at grips with the British in North Africa, if Nazi Germany seemed likely to make a deal with the Allies? What if Italy were to react by abandoning a war in which they had so far gained little and lost much? Nah, I don’t think Adolf sent him. It does, however, look very weird that Hess flew his mission on the very day after the Blitz ended. Whether or not the British knew that the concentrated raids were over, the Nazis did.

The British expected him. I strongly doubt that the Churchill government in power expected a visit from Hess. That some members of the upper classes might have been defeatist, and hoping for a substantive peace proposal…I am distrustful enough of ruling elites to imagine that possible. I can easily see where, after months of bombing and lost shipping, with no evident end in sight and no Americans riding to the rescue, wealthy elites might seek to act so as to save themselves and their riches above all.

We aren’t supposed to believe that. We’re supposed to believe that the wealthy deliberately stepped up for the noble sacrifices. Experience suggests I shouldn’t accept that comforting assumption so readily. Certainly our own wealthy elites in the modern USA would sell out Mom, country, Constitution, and people if it meant saving their own butts. Hell, they’d do it for a tax break. I do suspect that at least some in the British aristocracy were ready to see a way out of the war. Did Hess travel there in answer to back-channel communications of such nature? I don’t know. What one conspiracy book says, and not unconvincingly, is that an unspecified source got a look at the file folders still being held back from public release, and that each contains a single sheet stating that the material is on permanent loan to the Windsor Archives. If so, that puts it in a place beyond any force in British law save one: the personal command of the reigning monarch.

If that’s where the actual material has gone, why put it there? If isn’t true, why invent that story? My suspicion is that there was indeed some evidence that at least some of the aristocracy weren’t as committed to the ultimate victory as public morale demanded that the public believe. If that were true, wouldn’t it suck for them to have that become public knowledge? Where could such an multi-generational embarrassment be stashed where it could never come back to haunt anyone? That would be the place.

I am reminded of a passage from John T. Molloy’s Live for Success, in which the author talked about a study his company did regarding chief executives’ résumés and potential fiction therein. Short version: so many of the résumés were so loaded with bullshit that Molloy ordered the report destroyed. Inexact quote: “It wouldn’t kill them; it would kill us.” I have little difficulty imagining a highly placed peer in the British intelligence community saying to an underling: “Give me that. Understand that you never worked on it, for it never existed.” And then taking it to Churchill, and it then being passed along to the King, who would have had the power to sequester it. But I do not know.

Hess was murdered, and thus did not hang himself. Possible. The usual reasoning advanced is that it was to prevent him from revealing WWII secrets. If so, I wonder what secrets he had not yet found a way to share with his now-adult son and aging wife, but it’s possible. I consider “they would never stoop to such a thing” as a terribly naive statement to make about any intelligence agency when it comes to perceived national interests. Some of the claims on both sides are facile, though it would not shock me if he were murdered to prevent any possibility of his being released if the Soviets finally relented on their longtime commitment to make sure he would die behind bars.

Hess didn’t expect to become a POW. To me, this is obvious. Toward his family, before departure he behaved as though he would be back within a few days. He expected that the British would grasp at any chance to make peace. To grasp this, we need to try and view the world from Hess’s rather muddled perspective.

Suppose you’re Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s BFF. Hitler = bae. The Adolf Hitler you know–and you believe, with cause, that you know him as well as any living man–is all-powerful, yet a kinder and more merciful man than the cruel, intolerant, blinded world can be allowed to see. You have often heard him say that he never wanted to crush the British. As things stand, obviously he will destroy them because obviously no one can stand against the obviously insurmountable Third Reich when led by such an incredible mind. However, the Führer is planning to invade the USSR soon. You fought in a two-front war just a generation ago; you were wounded there. You know that the Blitz is about to end, but the British don’t; all they will know is that a day will soon come when they aren’t being bombed.

Your BFF might lose face if he approaches the British now, but you can see he urgently needs a loyal friend to help him out by getting Churchill’s stubborn Spitfires and enormous Royal Navy out of the war. You’ve gotten word that the British aristocrats are beginning to see reason, thanks to the fierce might of the German Blitzkrieg and a good pounding by the Luftwaffe. Of course they do. Neither you nor Hitler ever imagined the British stupid or cowardly. In a sane world, of course, they would have sided with their Aryan brethren to begin with. Only after a pummeling could the British consider honorable terms, and they have had a rough lesson in German dominance. They’ve been softened up nicely.

Is not now your moment to be your BFF’s hero, by doing that which he can not? You can ensure that there will be no two-front war, win peace without giving up anything Germany has taken, get the hated obstinate wiseass Churchill pushed aside, avoid the need for a potentially disastrous cross-Channel invasion, and be the Fatherland’s man of the hour. Since it is obvious Germany will triumph, surely it is impossible that the British will be so suicidally stupid as to do anything like throw you in a POW camp. After all, you are a very important person, high in the favor of the Führer. You are responsible for the spilling of pages of adverbs. You are no one to trifle with. The British may have been foolish enough to be drawn into the Jewish conflict, but surely they would not show indignity to an important plenipotentiary entrusting his life and future to them as a sign of the Führer’s good faith. They are misguided, but they aren’t animals. Surely they have manners and are still sane. They will fall all over themselves in haste to do the only logical thing, and in gratitude for the magnanimity that lets them retain empire and honor.

If you were Rudolf Hess, with Hess’s experiences and his years in the Nazi rabbit hole of fascism, egotism, and delusion, might your thought process have worked that way?

We don’t know, but I have heard far less plausible scenarios that do far less to explain the known facts.

So no, I don’t believe it was a fake Hess at any time. I strongly doubt his Baedolf encouraged him to go, or knew about it. I think he saw his chance to be the big hero, and misjudged British resolve based on hints about Lord Fothersail or the Duke of Flatbroke having some doubts about the war effort. I don’t think he realized that the Allies already considered his people brutal barbarians led by a serial liar and bigot with whom the only peace could be had at the point of an Enfield barrel–or an air-dropped avalanche of fire and steel.

Summed up, I believe that the best way to understand more about this situation is to toss away idealistic wishful thinking about our side, and overtly myopic assumptions about the subject himself, and ask ourselves why each event might happen. Then dismiss those that are too stupid to dignify.

What remains is at least possible until we have trustworthy reason to reject it.


Scumbag studies: what’s wrong with “Hunting Hitler”

You may have seen this series on the so-called “History Channel,” if you could spot it in your program guide against the wall-to-wall junk about ancient aliens and auctioning off abandoned storage units. Hunting Hitler purports to gather a dream team of ex-military, intelligence, and police operatives in order to prove that Adolf Hitler did not die in the bunker in Berlin, but escaped to South America.

The show jumps around between Europe, the U.S., and South America as teams of investigators look into various possibilities of Adolfian escape. Its first hurdle: why shouldn’t we believe the official version–that Adolf and Eva Hitler (née Braun) committed suicide in the Führerbunker on April 30, 1945? The airy dismissal: evidently the bone fragments in Russian possession have been tested and found not to be Adolf Hitler’s, but of a woman under forty years old. What’s wrong with that? Well, assuming the fragments in Moscow do come from the Hitler burial/cremation site just outside the bunker (not proven, and probably not provable), there would seem to be the chance the tested portions belonged to Eva Hitler. She turned 33 in February 1945. There are more questions one should ask and the show does not: so what if the Russians have the wrong bones? All that would prove is the Russians are not showing Adolf Hitler’s bones; it does not prove they do not have them. They might not have them, but that’s a negative beyond our power to prove. But even if they don’t have Adolf’s bones, that doesn’t prove he survived the war. It only means we are not supplied physical proof of his death.

The Russian version, released after the fall of the USSR, is that the NKVD conducted an extensive examination of the bunker’s surrounds. They found the charred remains of the Hitlers, two dogs, and the Goebbels family (children murdered by parents, who then committed suicide). To identify Adolf, they hunted up his dentist and checked his extensive dental work against the records. They gathered up all of it and buried it at an airbase near Magdeburg, in what would become East Germany, without any special preservation efforts. There the remains lay decaying until the late 1960s, when the Soviet Air Force prepared to hand the base over to the East Germans. Someone realized, Oh scheisse, we buried Hitler and Goebbels and all the other bones at that base. You nincompoops! Go dig it up, all of it, incinerate it, pulverize it, and dump it in a river! This was done, say the Russians. In the mood to evaluate the presentation for yourself? Good. Think and research for yourself, rather than just taking me at face value. Hitler’s Death, by Vinogradov, Pogonyi, and Teptzov, presents the evidence. Decide for yourself whether this is all an elaborate hoax. I don’t think it is.

Until the fall of the USSR, we might have dismissed the Soviet version as unreliable for all sorts of reasons. Had they offered it, we might have asked: why then? What would they gain? One thing Soviet leaders did not historically do was reveal hidden truths simply to clear up misunderstandings, especially as Stalin’s stance in the postwar period had shifted to hinting that the Americans had helped Hitler escape. (We didn’t exactly get a lick amiss, as Aunt Polly said to Tom Sawyer, considering that we did cover up for some German and Japanese war criminals where we felt it suited our interests.) Post-Soviet leaders revealed a number of hidden truths, though; logical motives might include improving relations, a spirit of new beginnings, and just to put the matter fully to bed. What is more, the Soviet version makes a fair bit of sense. They had much on their minds in the postwar period, what with half a dozen new satellites to absorb and control, a vast military to stand down in an orderly way, plus the growing tension with their former allies. In order to believe these Hunting Hitler people, we first must dismiss the Russian version. I do not see why we should.

Then there are the real Nazi hunters: Simon Wiesenthal, Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, and Israel’s famous intelligence agency we know as the Mossad (failing that, the Holocaust Center at Yad Vashem). Wiesenthal has passed on, but he left behind the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Surely all of the above have at least considered the possibilities behind hunting down every unaccounted-for Nazi of noteworthy infamy, even just to learn what became of him or her. If you and I decided to go chasing Hitler, kind reader, I’d probably say: “All right. My first idea is let’s get in touch with the Wiesenthal Center, the Klarsfelds, and if they will talk to us, the Mossad. If you can think of anyone else, great, let’s contact them too. I speak some Hebrew, which may or may not help. If Mossad ignores us, Yad Vashem probably won’t. Let’s ask all of them what they think happened to Hitler, without agenda, and why they believe what they believe. Then let’s examine their reasoning and see if we’ve got a sound basis to think that all these highly intelligent, sophisticated, focused, and very personally motivated people and institutions have somehow given up too quickly.” Then I’d listen to what you thought of my idea, but I’ll take a guess you’d consider that a sound start. The show doesn’t even bring this idea up. Why not?

Even if we do reject the Russians’ version and others’ conclusions–for without doing so, the producers have no show; thus we proceed from here on a “for the sake of argument, let’s assume” basis–we then have to figure out how this frail, decrepit drug addict managed to escape the Soviet encirclement of Berlin. This encirclement was neither lazy nor casual, not with over two million Soviet and Soviet-allied troops ringing Berlin and thousands of Soviet aircraft blanketing an airspace perhaps ten miles in diameter. The show spent much time on one escape bolthole that would have provided a route to Tempelhof Airport, south and east of the bunker. It spent another batch of time on a long street that perhaps could have served as a runway for something like a Fieseler Storch (the Germans’ marvelous scout aircraft). This does not withstand scrutiny. The valid questions: all right, which was it? And why did you spend all this time on one route, then stop talking about it and develop a theory of another route? Unless the researchers answer that question, they’re just trying to establish the possibility. That is not the same thing as demonstrating proof; the most it can do is sow reasonable doubt, which I do not believe it does. Then there’s the question of the long odds against any German aircraft having the good luck (and avgas, in minimal supply) to take off from anywhere in encircled Berlin and escape Soviet combat air patrols. And then, to go where?

Again the show can’t make up its mind, and thus puts forth a couple of theories. Both lead to the southern cone of South America. One departs from northern Germany and then takes a U-boat from northern Norway to South America. The other escapes first to Bavaria, then Austria, to a Spanish U-boat base, then to South America. They can’t decide between these, either, but they find plenty of evidence that could more plausibly be explained by submarine warfare (a staple of the Nazi war effort) and postwar escapes under the aegis of ODESSA, the SS organization that certainly did help numerous war criminals flee the long arm of justice.

All along, the show salts in evidence of weapons manufacture, with dark hints that it could be nuclear. It refers to Hitler’s pipe dream ‘Amerika bomber,’ a series of prototype aircraft culminating in the Junkers Ju-390. Did Hitler want to bomb the U.S.? Of course he did. He also wanted non-Aryans to submit peacefully to slave labor and extermination, and he wasn’t going to get that either. Does that have any relevance to his supposed escape? Not unless one is positing that he somehow had a clandestine way to make these bombers in Argentina, or that he used one to escape–which the show doesn’t do. In any case, if he were to attempt escape by air, it would seem more sensible to use the proven, reliable aircraft used throughout the war for diplomatic missions to South America: the Focke-Wulf Fw-200 Condor, which existed in modest numbers, and could make it to and from Buenos Aires with suitable refueling stops. So that’s a nothingburger. Another such is when the team finds a supposed small arms manufacture plant in Argentina or Chile (I forget which). It drops the inference that this is where Hitler must have been planning his Fourth Reich. Yeah, makes a lot of sense: at most a few hundred guys and some homebrew weapons are going to Make Adolf Great Again. The host government surely won’t mind its territory used this way, right?

Case in point about weapons hints: the team ‘discovers’ that the Nazis were using the facilities at the Norsk Hydro plant near Rjukan, Norway, to manufacture heavy water. This substance can play a role in the manufacture of nuclear fuel. This is not terribly far, they discover, from an obsolete four-gun coastal defense battery near Kristiansand, which they have decided must be Very Special and perhaps part of Adolf’s bugout route. There must be a connection, and this must have been part of Hitler’s Fourth Reich plans! The actors’ eyes grow very wide. Those of their Norwegian guides do not.

Wait, why not? Doesn’t that sound at least a little suspicious? In 1943, Norwegian commandos with balls the size of watermelons sabotaged the heavy water production at Rjukan, generally accepted as the knockout blow to any remote possibility of a Nazi “nucular” weapon, as one of the cast members persists in calling it. This may hint at the educational level to which the show expects to appeal. The Nazis tried to ship out the remaining D2O, and got it as far as a boat in a fjord, which the Norwegians sank. That’s it. That’s the story of Norway and the Nazi atomic bomb, and everyone who knows much of anything about World War II understands this. The fact that the Nazis had a coastal defense battery in south Norway means nothing by 1945, because as a 15.5″ gun battery, it was outgunned more than double by a single Iowa-class US battleship. In an age of air power, the only reason not to bomb such a battery flat is that it was too useless to bother plastering.

So the battery means nothing, the heavy water plant activity is well documented and seriously impaired by 1945, and yet out of this the ‘investigators’ act as if they might find an elderly, disheveled Hitler alive in some hidden hole. In fact, they spend a fair bit of effort trying to find the basement of a long-demolished building which they opine will produce Big Revelations. What big revelations? That the Nazis used the hydroelectric plant to produce heavy water? I hate to think what Knut Haukelid, the senior Norwegian commando on the raid, would make of this garbage.

There is stuff like that in every episode. Found a Nazi coin? Proof of Hitler! Found some discarded Nazi decorations? Hitler Wuz Hear! A Nazi slogan or graffiti? This must surely be part of Hitler’s escape route! We’re onto Something Big!

This is a bad version of what we call historiography: the methods of researching, studying, and presenting history. Its key component is critical thinking. “OMG this fortress-like compound was armed and making weapons right here in Argentina! Proof of Hitler!” Oh, really. Yeah, looks like there was some weapons manufacture going on, but if anyone thinks such a location needed to be heavily fortified to protect itself from the Argentine government, ask yourself who could prevent the Argentines from sending a rifle division to surround and reduce this place as a field training exercise. Then ask yourself who else could do so without Argentine consent to the deed. Short of dropping an airborne regiment (which would be an act of war against Argentina), no one. There is no way such a compound could have existed without the assent, silent or otherwise, of the Argentine government. Then why build it?

Here is one reasonable speculation: Argentina was known for sporadic military coups in which the losing side’s leaders might well need a place to hide out for a while. Might some such leader work out a deal for such a hideout to be built for him with expatriated Nazi gold, and have it harbor a small private army loyal to this coronel (or whatever rank), useful in case of sudden security needs? Perhaps. There are many possible speculations as to why a few Nazi coins might be found in an abandoned jungle fortress, beginning with “Some SS cutthroat did indeed escape with a crapton of money, and did this because it made him feel better and he could afford it; the Argentines were glad to receive their regular payments for looking the other way.” That I could imagine. “That it was built to hide an escaped Hitler” is among the farthest-fetched. Historiography works out this reasoning, asks why people would or could do this or that, and seeks plausible explanations that fit the existing evidence and common sense. This show counts upon an audience with no grasp of historiography. It produces various little bits of interesting detail, then skips the whole reasoning process and leaps directly to the desired conclusion.

And what of local witnesses who seem to confirm rumors, or make statements? Don’t underestimate the motion picture industry. There is a term: the ‘frankenbite.’ A frankenbite is a manufactured speech clip, and the short version is this: if Hollywood wants to make you answer “yes” to “Did you have sex with ourangoutangs?”, that isn’t even a challenge for them. It’s a little more work to put a completely false sentence in your mouth, but they can do it. This is how reality shows work. It’s very interesting to talk to people off the record who have signed all those enormous NDAs (sorry, no names; I’m not Hollywood).

Those aren’t my only examples. I have a very close friend who appeared on a documentary as a subject matter expert, and they manipulated his footage so as to make him appear to confirm material he knew to be without substance. So just because some old Argentine granny seems to say in translated Spanish, “Yes, we saw Hitler every day; he liked gardening and hanging captured rats”, that doesn’t mean she actually said that. It means that the show needed her to say that. Hollywood lies. It’s in the lying business, and that’s not a slam; it is just what Hollywood does. It does it very well after many years of refined practice. When Hollywood wants someone to say something, it makes him or her say it. Never cooperate with Hollywood if you have any expectation that you will be presented with integrity. Hollywood does not do integrity.

Ah, but the scanned documents we see the investigators excerpting? Certainly look like the real thing, do they not? I expect they are real–but look what the producers do. Splatters of blocked-out text all over the document, hinting at classification (which is ludicrous in context)–and then the blacking peeled away to show you the five or six context-deprived words that seem to support whatever the show is pitching. Without the context, of course, the words are meaningless, even potentially distortive. For an imaginary example:

“Arcega claimed to have seen copies of Hitler‘s book on many occasions. He reported seeing a number of suspicious German-speaking Argentine nationals around town.”

Does the show go so far as to warp the meaning that badly? We do not know. If not, why do they not want us to see? We are given more than ample grounds to suspect any level of imaginable deception, and the sleight-of-hand here is the hint that the viewer is learning Very Big Secrets. The viewer is not supposed to ask: why are you hiding the majority of the text? Why not just show it all and color-highlight the relevant portion? Are you afraid that viewers will pause the DVR and read the whole document, discovering that it really doesn’t say what you imply it does? This one is so obvious I don’t see how anyone gets past it. It would insult a child’s intelligence.

While the show offers regular insults to the intellect, some of them are beyond the pale. One of the cast members is “Special Forces Tim Kennedy.” I have no reason to doubt that Tim was in SF. However, if he was in SF, he would know that this is not the way they say this. He would say he was ex-SF. He would not say he was “a Special Forces.” He might say he was Special Forces-qualified, or a Special Forces veteran, etc, but if he used it alone as a noun it would refer to SF as a whole. He would use it adjectivally to refer to a member, tactic, facility, or something else owned by SF. But that isn’t the comical part. Another ‘investigator’ is introduced, and we are told he is a ‘Green Beret.’ This term, of course, refers to Special Forces. Yes. I am serious. The show introduces one guy as ‘a Special Forces,’ one as ‘a Green Beret,’ and counts upon us not asking why they used two different terms for the exact same thing. Because it sounds cooler to the audience, is my guess.

I guess they figured that anyone who understands anything at all about World War II, military history, or even the modern military is not part of their audience. This one is aimed at the “too ignorant to know any better, too uneducated to think” demographic easily lured toward a TV by a whiff of Hitler.

Or, these days, perhaps they figure Hitler has enough closet fans (and nearly all of those are too dumb to think much, or they wouldn’t be closet Dolphies) to make a pretty big market for the demographic that would love to hear of Hitler’s escape.

I suspect the first. I don’t rule out the second.

The Depression Americans who went to the USSR

Back in the early 1930s, several thousand Americans packed up and went to work in the Soviet Union. Few ever returned. Few survived to the Cold War era.

When we look back on an historical decision that might seem nuts to us, we should subtract our hindsight and seek to understand what was known at the time before making judgments. In this case:

  • While there was some information about the large-scale suffering and death of the Holodomor and the liquidation of private agriculture, few Americans understood how bad it truly was, and few cared. We’re ass-ignorant of the world today, even though a network connects us with the news sources of our choice via devices held in our hands. Who would expect us to be less ass-ignorant back when the information was pre-selected by a newspaper publisher?
  • In 1933, the USSR was just sixteen years old. It presented itself as the fiery champion of working-class interests. In those days, working-class people were willing to strike, fight, and die for better conditions. It wasn’t insane for a typical American worker to wonder whether those Russians might not have come up with something good, even if at first they’d had a messy civil war. The more educated Americans realized that, to a large degree, our own revolution was a civil war with foreign intervention as much as it was a revolt against a foreign power. If our independence came with a civil war, why not that of other countries?
  • 1933 could be described as the heart of the Great Depression. Unemployment was the norm. Homelessness was commonplace. Workers with skills, such as laid-off Ford automotive employees, wanted only a place to use what they knew. The USSR was playing industrial catch-up, and that made them very receptive to Ford technology and those who understood it.
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had not yet written The Gulag Archipelago. There was no way to foresee the purges of the late 1930s, still less the long-term pathology of penology as an economic and social control mechanism lasting into the 1960s. No one knew, either, that a wildly gesticulating little World War I Austrian corporal would, within six years, launch a war of genocidal conquest, much less who would be on which side. Americans were more concerned about ending Prohibition so that those who could afford to do so could legally escape into alcohol, long a very American habit. Hoover had failed, new leadership was in place, and it was hard to imagine anything worse.
  • There were no nuclear weapons; there was no Cold War; there was only one avowedly communist country in the world; the United States professed non-alignment. Eastern Europe had not been handed off to Stalin, who was relatively new to power. Mao Zedong was holed up in the mountains of northern China figuring out how to get into power against a powerful foe like Chiang Kai-Shek.
  • This country seems always to have had, and even to require, a designated enemy. Sometimes it’s a race, sometimes it’s an ideology, sometimes it’s a country–but this country has rarely if ever not had an enemy and I’m not sure it would know what to do without one. (Some of us think that if it doesn’t have one, one is designated for us, just to keep us marching along, but that’s a personal view.) The specter of world communism was an easy demonization, because: it tied into our own social dissent, it promised to run absolutely counter to the ruling interests, and it had already been seen–at least by those in the know–to bring on convulsion, shortage, repression, and state-sponsored murder. (That not everyone believed those tales is also a factor, but in this case the stories were if anything an understatement.)
  • With any designated enemy, there are two sides, usually both about half wrong. One side will always be making that enemy out to be less than human, meritless, the ultimate enemy of all that is decent, unworthy of the least sympathy. The other side will always be looking for mitigating factors, exceptions, reasons to believe otherwise. It’s still with us today. There are still people, for example, who will try to deny or minimize the Holocaust. But there are also still people who will make any excuse necessary for any people or nation that opposed the Holocaust. In 1930s US society, the side demonizing the USSR was obvious enough, though it also went so far as to view the average Russian (or other Soviet citizen; barely half were Russian) as a half-civilized Asiatic. The side mitigating for the USSR was not too ignorant to realize that the side demonizing the USSR and its constituent peoples had a vested economic interest in avoiding state-planned economics, in breaking organized labor, and in continuing to sit on its pile of inherited wealth. Reality: while some of the Soviet government’s actions were barbaric, a people who produce the cultural landmarks of Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoi, and many more, are certainly not barbarians. And while a massive slave labor camp system and a period of mass starvation almost defying comprehension may fairly be said to overshadow any social advances, social advances there still were; they just were not sufficient for a balanced mind to consider them worth enduring mass starvation. I’m not sure what could be, since the dead are no longer around to enjoy social advances.

Our view of past times will always be more balanced when we remember what the people of the times did not know.

In this timeframe, in this economic situation, several thousand working-class Americans, mostly out-of-work automotive laborers, accepted the Soviets’ open invitation to come and work. A few were communist ideologues who had bought into one extreme of the pro-Soviet narrative, but most were more interested in a better way to provide for their families. The USSR was buying one of Ford’s old plants, and it would need workers familiar with auto manufacture. (The Soviet weakness in this area would persist for many years. During WWII, they considered our Lend-Lease tanks and fighter planes mostly substandard, but without our humble trucks, the Soviet Army would have had a far harder logistical time.)

The US government and industrial leadership generally did not care if a bunch of laid-off laborers wanted to move overseas. If they didn’t want to be at home, great; they were no longer our problem. If they represented useful propaganda for the USSR, oh well; there weren’t very many, and with or without them, domestic conditions were such that it was best not to draw the competing propaganda sword with a country lacking a free press. (Even into the 1970s, the USSR would use old Depression breadline photos and footage as anti-US propaganda. Then again, in the 1970s, I very well remember that we were still talking of the USSR as if the Stalin purges had never abated.)

What most of those Americans did not realize was that the Soviet government automatically granted most Soviet citizenship upon landing, whether or not they applied for it. According to US law, accepting a foreign citizenship meant renunciation of US citizenship. Ah, but what if they never accepted Soviet citizenship? If they were in prison, and the State Department asked about them, and the USSR said “They have become Soviet citizens and are no longer your concern,” there wasn’t much State could do about it unless permitted into prison to verify the situation.

In order to do that, the State Department–seen from its perspective of the time–would have to care about a bunch of lousy commie sympathizers who actually thought it was better to have a job with the commies than to be at home starving in the land of apple pie and baseball. (The Americans in the USSR in fact missed baseball enough to establish a league.) While the USA has rarely done much to prevent anyone from expatriating, it also rarely continues to care about anyone who does so. That went double for anyone who expatriated to a society whose ideology proclaimed capitalism an evil to be torn down, and most Americans felt likewise. They don’t want to be at home? Hope the door hit them in the ass, and they don’t come back.

Americans have never taken especially well to the notion that anyone would voluntarily choose to be anywhere but the United States, given a choice in the matter, because Americans have never taken too well to the notion that there could ever be any better place. Thus, in a case like that of these American expatriates, there would neither be government interest in their cause, nor any public groundswell to pressure it. Just a few isolated relatives writing to the State Department to beg its intervention on behalf of people it fundamentally did not want to assist, let alone get back.

Stalin’s purges began in 1937. They decapitated the Soviet Army, leaving corporals leading platoons (normally led by junior lieutenants) and majors commanding brigades (normally led by brigadier generals). They ripped through every ethnicity and social class, a concept the USSR had done nothing to eliminate. The pattern was arrest, beatings and torture, confession and implication of others, a show trial, and a sentence either of death or a quarter century at labor intended to cause death. Many were shipped to the Kolyma gold fields in eastern Siberia, where they died by the thousands. A good many were sent to mine uranium, with predictable outcomes. They came in waves, and it continued into World War II and after.

Against a sum of arrests reaching mid-eight figures, and eventual deaths estimated around twenty million, a few thousand Americans didn’t even count as an arrest wave. Many of the arrests were by quota in any case, with people picked up simply because this or that region had been estimated to contain 200 Enemies of the People, thus that many must be arrested. Any NKVD officer declining to do this was guaranteed arrest. Anyone who did comply would probably be arrested in turn later. It wasn’t genocidal in that it wasn’t specific or discriminate enough to target a particular class, ethnicity, faith, or whatever. Just because it doesn’t meet the definition of a genocide does not lessen its enormous brutality.

What of the American embassy? There was no help there. Ambassador Davies, a political appointee who had married into a fortune, said and did nothing to upset Stalin or his Soviet hosts. He did spend a lot of time collecting artworks, but he and his staff generally ignored or dismissed the representations of family members concerned for relatives who had vanished. While the record indicates that Davies was a nest-feathering toady and complete invertebrate, we should remember that there was limited effective pressure at our disposal, as there would always be. Americans have the tendency to think of their country as all-powerful, that if we do not do something, it’s because we choose not to rather than we cannot. Let’s imagine an interview with the shade of Ambassador Davies, in which I come ready to blister his bureaucratic ass and have an accounting:

“Ambassador, the charge is simple. Americans went to the Gulag, most died, and you flitted about collecting art. Every one of those Americans deserved less than you to be in a Gulag.”

“That’s a very harsh charge, young man. Would you have had me go to Stalin and demand the handover of Soviet citizens?”

“They were not Soviet citizens by choice. It had been assigned to them.”

“So you say. You may well be correct. The only way for us to know that would be to interview the captives in a setting where it was safe for them to speak the truth, and you can say all you wish that we should have demanded that, but the demand would have been refused. And angrily; we would have been accused of calling them liars. Again, probably they were–but if they were, what then would you have had us do?”

“You’re telling me we had no economic pressure to bring to bear?”

“Not without harming our own country. Our ability to guide the economy through the late Depression depended in part on our ability to buy gold, and the Soviets were selling.”

“Gold often mined by your countrymen until their deaths from starvation, disease, and protracted abuse.”

“My former countrymen, all of whom on some level chose to live under the Communists rather than stay home. Just to put this in perspective.”

“All right; I’ll accept that you had no practical leverage to verify their changes in citizenship. You were appointed a diplomat. Could you not have made at least some representations on behalf of people?”

“I could have done more of that, at the risk of being expelled and the Russians completely cutting off all communication. They weren’t in a very forthcoming mood. As you may recall, they were killing their own people by the millions. But very well; let’s say we did that, and they told us to butt out of their internal affairs. What then? You cannot seriously be proposing that the United States should have gone to war over it. We had little economic leverage. Furthermore, there was the risk of driving them into Hitler’s camp, and with the Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 it looked as though that had happened. Do you, my inquisitor from the lands of lumberjacks and cowboys, in your hindsight, believe that US interests would have been well served by forcing a longer and more enduring cooperation between a resource-rich USSR and a resource-poor but technologically advanced Nazi Germany?”

I would not be able to help seeing the old bastard’s points. That is why we put our history in the context of its times, so that we subtract our modern hindsight in the effort to make a reasonably informed evaluation of the past.

Few of the Americans ever saw home again, and those who did typically didn’t get home until the Khrushchyov era (beginning mid-fifties, ending mid-sixties). While the Gulags didn’t go away by magic when Khrushchyov admitted they’d gone way too far, they gradually became less brutal, less prevalent, and less indiscriminate. Make no mistake; a Soviet citizen still had to watch his or her words, and the Lubyanka and Lefortovo would remain dreaded into the 1990s. But there’s no evidence the repression maintained the Stalinist level. As a practical matter, it could not have; lest they run out of people to kill, or to guard those on their way to die.

And what of later inquiries into the fates of Americans, during and after Khrushchyov? In the first place, admitting an embarrassing truth with comfortable ease is not naturally a human trait, and it is especially not a Russian cultural trait. Where records had been kept in full, many had been destroyed by people seeking to cover their own culpability. Many were falsified, as in “died of stomach cancer” could mean “died during gang rape when thrown to criminals” or “starved and fell dead on the spot while mining gold.” Sometimes it helps to ask nicely, rather than make demands; the one making demands may puff up with his or her Great Moral Rightness, but s/he doesn’t get what is desired. A lot of French nationals all went missing, and the evidence indicates that many of their fates were eventually learned. Many of ours’ fates still remain unknown or obscure. It may be that the French weren’t as pushy and rude as our people.

But even then, in the second place, here’s the question that can’t be evaded. Suppose we had become insistent, from the 1950s even to today. Fine; and what if they just said “go to hell”? Would we then move closer to a potential nuclear exchange? Invade? Stop selling them grain (hardly good news for our farming industry)? In the end, if the Soviets or their successors didn’t or don’t want to answer, nothing realistic could compel them. And there’s more, one of the most uncomfortable realities to face, one with implications hard to face even today.

To wit: let’s imagine you are a foreign leader aware of an embarrassing number of carefully sequestered American prisoners your country holds. If proof were released of their survival–that your country had held them all this time just because letting them go would be to release a thousand accounts condemning your country’s deceit and inhumanity–what would you do? At some point, acting in brutal self-interest and national interest, what is there to stop you from doing the most logical but brutal thing? I think it very likely that this occurred in Vietnam, for example, that some of our POWs remained in captivity into the 1980s, and that when it came time for relations to thaw, the Vietnamese government most likely made all traces of them disappear. How much easier would this be in a country whose territory includes the vast expanse of Siberia?

It follows that, if that had occurred, there will never be an admission of it. If proof even exists, it may always be beyond our reach.

So yes: several thousand Americans disappeared into the Gulag system. Most may safely be presumed to have died before Stalin, based upon those fates we do know. A few eventually found their ways home during political thaws. Yes, they were naïve to buy into the bright future offered by Stalin’s USSR, but very few ever renounced US citizenship in a conscious way, nor ever meant harm to the country most still considered theirs. And they were fools indeed if they imagined that FDR would aggravate Stalin by lifting one finger on their behalf, especially (as we now know) with presidential advisor Harry Hopkins either a Soviet agent or near enough to render the difference unimportant. I find it very uncomfortable to face, but some truths are uncomfortable: as much as my evidence about Davies makes me loathe everything the man stood for, I don’t have an answer for the ultimate question in any era: “Okay, smart guy. Tell us how we do that without blowing up the world and screwing our whole country. I’ll wait.”

It doesn’t make Davies a fundamentally decent man who wanted to do the right thing. He wasn’t and didn’t; he didn’t want to do anything for anyone but himself, as it looks to me.

Perhaps you know you are getting near to some historical understanding when you uncover enough nuances to destroy any clear-cut feelgood angels-vs-demons outcome.

Even if you uncover demons, their enemies are not always angels.

My Archie Bunker experience

Everyone over forty knows exactly what I mean by that. Many under forty may not.

In 1971, the nation was divided and distressed. The Middle East would probably boil over again. We were losing in Vietnam, trying to tell ourselves it wasn’t really losing if we simply quit and abandoned the RVN government to its fate. Back in those days, there was a left wing, including on the world stage where the Soviet Union worked hard to export its authoritarian-left perspective. It seemed to make inroads everywhere. For our part, we talked big about exporting democracy, but the truth was that we’d throw money and support at any dictator who supported us over the Soviets. We lived in daily fear of global thermonuclear war.

At home, the civil rights movement had won its war but would find that winning the peace was much like the difference between de jure and de facto. The women’s movement was still called ‘Women’s Liberation,’ and it was nowhere near winning its war. Men who had fought in World War II did not understand why their sons not only refused to fight in Vietnam, but did anything possible to avoid it. Cowboys and hippies exchanged insults, and at times punches. In the previous year, Ohio National Guardsmen had opened fire on protesters at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine. The year before that, the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers by a platoon of the Americal Division at My Lai had gone far to shake our sense of ourselves as the good guys.

The Pirates won the World Series in 1971, and I turned eight. That year, the sitcom All in the Family first aired. The show depicted a crabby, selfish, bigoted, working-class, staunchly right-wing World War II veteran, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). Jean Stapleton played his wife Edith with great comic genius, keeping a straight face when it was hard imagining anyone could; she was far more tolerant than her husband, but just as old-fashioned. With the Bunkers lived their daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), a somewhat dimwitted partner to her husband Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner). Mike, whom Archie typically addressed as ‘Meathead,’ was attending college while he and Gloria lived with the Bunkers to save money. As Archie was a parody of the day’s right wing and social conservatism, Mike parodied the left wing and social liberalism of the day. He was sexist, condescending, self-righteous, and inconsiderate.

I don’t remember Archie ever saying “nigger”–by 1971, that was the first (and only) racial slur that had become unacceptable on a broad social basis–but I’ve been watching old episodes, and I did hear him say “chink,” “spic,” “Hebe,” “gook,” “bohunk,” “fag,” and “Dago.” In nearly every episode, he called Mike a “Polack.” It must be quite jolting to the younger ear; it jolts mine, and I remember when such talk was just starting to go underground, throughout the seventies. (Some of us thought it had been eradicated, but that was wishful thinking. One can prevent a person from articulating bigotry, but that will not change that person’s beliefs.)

The show was so popular because it held up a mirror to the culture of the day, with nuanced characters and some good comedy. It may have been the catalyst for some self-awareness growth. We all knew at least one Archie Bunker. All in the Family ran for nine years, with a couple of middling spinoffs.

The reasons all this matter, at least to me, are:

  1. If I don’t help to tell the history of my times, people will make up fictitious purpose-driven versions.
  2. It touches my life because I came moderately close to being the son-in-law of an Archie Bunker.

Back in my twenties, I got involved with a young lady–we’ll call her Katie–who was in a mode of post-collegiate-but-still-living-at-home rebellion against her parents. The father, who worked construction, might well have been somewhat grateful that this time his daughter had brought home someone of similar ethnic background to herself. The previous one had not been, and you can imagine what Archie (I think I’ll just call him that) had on his mind about that. He was an ugly flat-faced SOB who looked like he could eat wallpaper off a wall, and not without virtues; unfortunately, among his virtues was not multicultural tolerance and acceptance. He was also a troll, and knew that his racism offended me, so he made the most of that: he’d turn the channel to a boxing match, for example, and talk about how much fun it was to watch a couple of “niggers” beat each other up.

Unlike TV’s Archie Bunker, whose wife Edith had a heart of gold, Katie’s mother was as mean and bigoted as her husband, and considerably more vindictive. On some level, her husband was human; the mother was not. In fact, Katie did not have one single relative I could bear: a brother and cousin, clones of the father; an absurdly dumb sister; a stereotypical drunk, deaf uncle. The price of dating Katie, and of later being engaged to her, was to be required to endure these people most weekends.

Can you believe I tried for five years to make this relationship work? Good lord. I had my flaws, and I contributed my share of mistakes, but in the end it was time to bow to reality. Significantly poorer, I moved on in relationships. We still have a few friends in common, but Katie moved on and married (this time, to a Hispanic man; Archie must have just loved that). We haven’t spoken in nearly a quarter century; both her parents are gone, but I’ll be glad just never to have any reminder too direct of that experience.

I guess the point of this tale is that if you’re young, and you happen to be watching old TVLand reruns of All in the Family, and you simply cannot believe they could get away with talking like that on TV (except maybe on premium movie channels), much less that such views were commonplace, believe it. And they are by no means all gone even today.

I hope your generation sees the final die-off of those attitudes, because with their current remalnaissance*, mine will not live to see it.


*For those of you who are not French speakers, this is my neologism for ‘re-misbegotten.’ ‘Renaissance’ means ‘rebirth’ and ‘mal’ means ‘bad.’ It is not meant to be correct French, but to modify the English term to indicate that the original birth was no good either.

It is nonsensical to expect shame from those who have none

Spanish has a beautiful word: sinvergüenza. It means “shameless,” but is culturally loaded. (Don’t make the mistake of thinking it changes by gender; it is a compound word, “sin vergüenza,” or ‘without shame’; thus as an adjective it retains the same form regardless of the noun it modifies, and if a noun, is the same whether describing a shameless man or woman.) To articulate it correctly, remember that the trema (two dots) over the U means to pronounce each vowel: seen-vair-hu-en-za.

In most Spanish-speaking cultures, one’s personal honor is an important thing, which may require actions or non-actions for the sake of preservation. A sinvergüenza is a person whom dishonor would not restrain, a person who has placed him or herself outside shared cultural values and ethics. It occurs to me that this useful word can help nice people to understand some of the assholes we deal with.

I began to think about this while reading a thread on my local Nextdoor. A salesperson or scammer came to lady’s door and knocked. While waiting for an answer, he muttered profanities. We know this because her video camera recorded him in full glory. Several responded to say they had seen him, or that he had come to their doors and behaved with anger and rudeness. Everyone was surprised and outraged.

My theory as to why they were surprised: they had ignored the most obvious clue. The guy was sinvergüenza. How did we know this? Because he was knocking on doors, even those with NO SOLICITING signs, intruding on people’s private property in order to bother them. It’s the same mentality that sends spam, or makes scam phone calls. All those who do these things, which a decent human being would be ashamed to do, are lacking in shame. If one is impervious to shame, a key moral restraint is not in place, and thus all behaviors are permissible (in that person’s mind) and all other persons are required and expected to tolerate them. If other persons do not tolerate the bad behaviors, those said other persons are intolerant, mean, wrong, bad. It all comes back to the statement of policy: “I may be an asshole, and you may not object. If you do, of course, I single you out for extended assholery.”

I recall one time back in Kennewick, I happened to see a guy snooping around our vehicles in our driveway. I went outside with the sjambok (not brandishing it) and asked him just what the hell he was up to. He was handing out flyers for a hypermiler event sponsored by a Toyota dealership in Yakima. He then proceeded to evangelize me on hypermiling. I told him frankly that he was being creepy and had better get the hell out of there. The verbal altercation deteriorated to the point where I had to advance with the sjambok. I laughed when he talked about ‘threatening me with that stick.’ (He’s lucky he didn’t turn around and put me in a situation where I worried for my safety. That thing feels like boiling water hosed onto the skin.) Here’s the point: to him, it was perfectly fine to pull into my driveway, start snooping around one of our cars unannounced, then behave as an asshole when told to stop. A normal person would be embarrassed to behave this way.

We see it in email spam. A friend of mine wrote, this very day, about an email exchange with a marketer. After his third email, she told him her firm wasn’t interested, and to stop mailing her. His response was that she could have said so the first time. Point being: to him, as a shameless person, sending repeated emails was just fine. Thus, it was her fault she got them, because she did not opt out. Every couple weeks or so, I find myself on some unwanted mailing list. If it persists, I reply telling them to remove me. They often tell me to use their unsubscribe link. See what they did there? They intruded upon me unasked for. If I wish it to stop, I am expected to do work. Asking them to do work to correct their own wrong work, that makes me a very mean person, and unkind. They assume that their initial contact was perfectly legitimate, and it was not.

The area where this is most punishable is U.S. Junk Mail, because most days someone sends a business reply envelope that gets to hold all the day’s junk. It’s still wrong, because I’m still asked to dispose of it in some way, but at least I can dispose of it by sending it to a junk mailer for disposal.

I realize that most of you are fundamentally nice, decent people. You get surprised when bad things happen, because you do not do such bad things, and you wonder how anyone could. Thank you for being as you are; you are appreciated. I’m here to help you. And it’s simple:

THEY ARE SINVERGÜENZA. They have no shame.

They don’t play by nor care for your rules of courteous conduct. Because you impose those rules upon yourself in dealing with the shameless for longer than they deserve, they bother you longer and behave more rudely to you when you voice objection. They may go away when threatened, but they will not act as you would. If you had done what they did, you would walk away wondering what had become of you. They will not do this. They are already on to the next mark. Nothing you said hurt them or caused them to reconsider their actions. They are not like you. They lack shame.

You did not have to allow this. If you were to realize that a sinvergüenza action is the marker of a shameless person, you would not make nice with him. You would respond in the beginning as if this person were unworthy of courtesy. In most cases that might mean not answering the door; it might mean toying with telemarketers; it could mean refusing to answer nosey questions; etc. But you already have the person’s personality marker.

Because only a shameless person does in such a way.

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.

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.