Category Archives: Scumbag studies

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.

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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 419eater.com 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 “messingwithtelemarketers.com,” 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.

Fun with car dealer service departments

Car dealerships do not get it.

My truck has, or had, a leak somewhere in the cab. My truck is a quarter century old, I am its only owner, and I like it. If someone gave me a free Rolls-Royce, I would sell it. No, I would never want to drive it just the once. I simply don’t get a kick out of driving new cars. Because my truck is that old, there are many potential failure points: rusted floorboard, deteriorating window seal, maybe even a drain line from the heater.

Unless I wanted my well-preserved truck to smell like mildew sooner rather than later, this needed handling. A post on an automotive forum alerted me to the possible causes, got me lots of encouragement to try fixing it myself (no, thank you), and did not get a single respondent answering the question: would I take this to a mechanic, a body shop, or an auto glass place?

So I ended up at the Toyota dealership where most of my fellow Beaverts, or Aloverts, would be likely to go. I made an appointment several days out, kept putting paper towel rolls on the truck floor, and tried not to drive when the weather went full Portland. No matter what I did:

  1. I could not see where the water was leaking in.
  2. It was definitely related to driving, as in, if left to sit in peace, it did not leak.

Clear as mud, right? Now, the Toyota dealer (a species often condemned by Martin Shkreli for low morals) had quoted me $110 to diagnose the problem. With no real idea where to begin, this seemed that rare situation where going to a Toyota dealer service department could benefit a customer, since a dealer has to be able to address (or job out) all the different issues that could arise with their brand. All right, if it costs $110 to figure out what the deal is, if I don’t like the repair quote, I can always take it elsewhere to get the work done. I pull into the service bay, where I sit in my truck reading a book for ten minutes before a service writer comes out to talk. I explain the problem and what I’ve observed so far.”

“How long are you able to leave it with us? We’d really like a few days.”

That got my attention. “I was under the impression you’d spend an hour diagnosing the problem.”

“It can take a lot longer. We have to pull up your panels, rugs, take out your seats, then basically run it under a huge shower and see where the water comes from. Sometimes takes up to eight hours.”

I did some mental math. “In other words, you’re suggesting that you might charge me up to $880 to figure out where the truck cab is leaking. This is not what I was told over the phone.”

“I’m sorry. They’re hard to find. But we–”

I rebuckled my seat belt and turned the ignition key. “You understand, of course, that this means I was deceived over the phone in just about every way. Therefore, I agree to no service today and will not be needing this appointment.”

He stepped back without a word and opened the far bay door, and that was that.

Then I went to the backup plan. When you use Toyota dealer service departments, you need a backup plan. I took it to a mechanic who had gotten a lot of good reviews as an honest guy. He suggested I take it to his favorite auto glass place, and tell them he’d sent me. I did that. They charged $68 to leak-hunt, determined that my windshield was sealed properly, and discovered that all the crud in my vents was preventing water from draining as it should, thus it was overflowing into the firewall. For $50, they would clean it all out. I said “please do so.” They did. $118, please. Here’s my Visa.

$8 more than what the dealer wanted to charge me for diagnostics, problem addressed.

I do not know why Toyota dealer service departments are so typically bad, so underskilled, so overpriced. I know I have yet to meet one I believe should remain in business. While this wasn’t quite as satisfying as when my wife told the sales manager in Hillsboro to go fuck himself (I still get a little misty with pride when I think of it), I’ll admit a thing. The reason I was okay with setting an appointment there was because I was going to benefit either way. Either I would get a solution to my problem, or I would drive off without paying anything, or I would give a Toyota dealership hell’s fire. Couldn’t lose.

In the meantime, everyone who loathes car dealerships can have a little glimmer of joy from today.

Scumbag studies: SS-Oberführer Dr. Oskar Dirlewanger

When you go rooting around in the scumbag files, WWII Nazi Germany is fertile ground. Therefore, to achieve historical notice as one of the most loathsome officers to serve the Third Reich, that person must be abnormally messed up. While he lacked the level of authority to match crime for crime with the likes of Adolf Eichmann, or Rudolf Höss, Dirlewanger was a war criminal of a different sort. He commanded an anti-partisan unit held in low esteem by many even in the Waffen-SS: what began as SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger, and ended as the 36th Waffen-Grenadier Division-SS “Dirlewanger,” carrying out his own personal Holocaust in command of some of the worst cutthroats ever to wear the uniform of any German army in history.

At least on paper, the Waffen-SS eventually fielded thirty-eight divisions. Some were elite, some were failures. Some have no record of atrocities; some existed only to commit atrocities. Many weren’t even German. But of them all, what became the 36th Division has few rivals for the title of worst of the worst.

The histories of Dirlewanger himself and his signature military unit are not quite the same, and this is about the man, so let us dispose of the Dirlewanger Brigade and its successors. Nazi Germany had a partisan problem in its occupied Soviet and Polish territory. Simply put, the locals had decided against accepting consignment to the status of ‘Slavic subhumans,’ and were resenting this designation in arms. The Nazis, always eager to wring maximum value from human resources, had decided to release enough convicted poachers to form a military unit. It soon expanded to incorporate SS men convicted of crimes not quite vile enough to warrant the gallows.

The Dirlewanger Brigade soon became the Waffen-SS penal unit. It made the French Foreign Legion look like a Mormon Boy Scout troop. In time, a fair number of recruits came from concentration camps. The unit spent much of the war hunting partisans and committing atrocities in eastern Europe. In May 1945, a flood of Soviet flame and steel wiped out Dirlewanger’s unit.

Thanks, Premier Stalin. That nullifies at least a small portion of the other things you did in life.

As for Dirlewanger, one might best describe him as a harmonic convergence of awful. Born in 1895 in Würzburg, he served with distinction in World War I. Rising from the enlisted ranks to Leutnant, Dirlewanger suffered six battle wounds on the way to the Iron Cross 1st Class. That’s the only good part. By then, he was already an alcoholic, a predatory sexual brute with a taste for minors, and a sadist with a tendency to run amok. Even then, twenty-five years before his WWII infamy, one may very reasonably suppose that atrocities were done under his leadership.

War changes most who see it, and especially those who fight in it. In Dirlewanger’s case, war made a bad mind worse. He spent the 1920s and early 1930s fighting in nationalist/fascist militias while embezzling from his employer and, somehow, obtaining a Ph.D in political science. When a court convicted him in 1934 of raping a fourteen-year-old girl, the Nazi party kicked him out. He even spent time in a concentration camp. What saved him then, and would save him later, were connections. His old army buddy Gottlob Berger had since risen to high rank in the SS, and sprang Dirlewanger from confinement. Finding the Spanish Civil War most convenient, Dirlewanger volunteered for the Spanish Foreign Legion. When Germany intervened, Berger got Dirlewanger transferred to the ground component of the Condor Legion. Cowardice was never one of Dirlewanger’s many deficiencies. His performance in combat gave Berger the necessary ammunition to reinstate Dirlewanger in the Nazi party.

Then came the outbreak of war, and in 1940, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler assigned Dirlewanger to the battalion of paroled poachers that represented the beginnings of the Dirlewanger Brigade. What we learn from his conduct at the helm of this unit, or at least what I take away from it, is what can occur when a man with a perverted code of morality receives absolute power in a situation where nothing he can do in the enemy’s general direction will earn him reproof. Dirlewanger spent the remainder of the war leading the most loathsome unit in the German armed forces with ferocious bravery, and committing rape, arson, torture, and murder with equal ferocity.

There is no evidence Dirlewanger ever asked a trooper to do a thing Dirlewanger would not do himself. What would normally be a commendable military leadership virtue, in this case, becomes one of the few ways to make a bad record worse. As bad as some of the Latvian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian SS police were–and if you do not know how bad, you have no idea how much currency Premier Putin’s accusations against modern Ukraine carry in the minds of those who know anything about eastern Europe–Dirlewanger’s polyglot force of condemned criminals, failed officers, and conscripted POWs was worse than any. The unit spent minimal time in frontline combat until very late in the war. It made war upon partisans and defenseless civilians in the occupied western USSR and Poland. All that they did, they did under the orders of SS-Obf. Oskar Dirlewanger.

After the German military collapsed, and his eponymous unit fell to broken bits, Dirlewanger tried to hide out. Acting on a tip, French occupation authorities detained him. Considering that the French knew exactly who they had, and considering that the detention camp had Polish guards, and considering that the French are not fundamentally naïve, I find it asking too much for us to believe that the French ever intended Dirlewanger to face a trial. While some of the details are murky and disputed, there seems no reasonable doubt that sometime around 5 June 1945, Polish guards beat Dirlewanger to death.

Merci. Dziękuję.

Naturally, it didn’t take long for rumors to begin that Dirlewanger had escaped beyond justice. A 1960 exhumation put those to rest in most evidence-oriented minds. Fifty-five years on, and seventy after his death, the modern mind often forgets Dirlewanger. At least, until one sees a photo of his gaunt, high-cheekboned face, with deep-socketed eyes that gaze out at the viewer to warn: if you’re soul-searching, don’t bother looking here. If you found one, you’d wish you hadn’t.

Every time someone does something truly awful–a school massacre, for example, or a day in the life of ISIS/ISIL–a number of wonderful, kind-hearted, truly decent folk will lament: “How can people DO that? WHY?” I understand that they do not understand. Their inability to see the world from the perspective of a Dirlewanger, or a Joseph Kony, or their like, is an enviable virtue. I hope they preserve it. One suspects that you rarely hear such a question from, for example, a Supermax guard, because they work in surroundings saturated by evil. As for me, I have never seen evil on that scale, but I’ve seen and felt enough of the real deal to answer the innocent lamentation. The answer’s simple:

“You wouldn’t understand. Rejoice in that. I wish I didn’t.”