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Archive for July, 2011

The Dutch at Srebrenica

with 13 comments

This is a story I did not know.  It came up in the Bourgeois Virtues book, and I’ve been walking around it ever since.

On July 15, 1995, a Dutch force under the command of the United Nations handed over 8,000 Muslim men and boys to the Bosnian Serbs–without firing a shot.  They did this even though the Dutch forces were where they were to prevent just this sort of thing.  And, when it was over, the resulting inquiry found that they did it because their commander did not want to incur any Dutch casualties, which would have been inevitable if the Dutch forces had resisted the Serb demands.

Okay, I know, you all probably knew all about this.  All I can say is that in 1995 Bill was sick and I had a child under the age of 2 in the house.  I wasn’t paying attention.

But what actually struck me about this story isn’t something I would have known about if I’d been paying attention to the news at the time, and that I might never have heard about except in the way that I did, by chance.

In the aftermath of the massacre–and there was a massacre, of those 8000 men and boys plus some women and some children and infants in arms; the largest massacre in Europe since WWII–the Dutch army and a vast majority of the Dutch people were not only not ashamed of themselves, but positively vociferous in their insistance that it wasn’t their fault.

It was the fault of the Canadians, who had had control of Srebrenica for a couple of years, but had pulled out to let the Dutch move in.

It was the fault of the French, who had failed to provide air cover.

The Dutch commander had done the right thing, because he knew that if he opened fire some of his men would be killed, but he had the word of the Serb commander that none of the men and boys would be killed, they would just be examined to find the ones among them who were war criminals. 

Since the Dutch commander knew that he could get some of his forces killed by resisting, and he couldn’t know that the Serbs would slaughter all those 8,000 people, he’d done the right thing.

Now, there are a few obvious things I could say here.  The Serbs were not known for their honesty, and they’d been carrying out “ethnic cleansing” raids all over the area for years.  Anybody who’d thought about it for thirty seconds could have figured out what the Serbs were going to do.

This was especially the case since the UN forces were in Bosnia to begin with precisely because of the possibility of precisely this kind of thing. 

The attitude of the Dutch commander seems to have been that the worst possible scenario was not a genocide of the Bosnian Muslims, but any harm at all to Dutch forces, who were–what?  Armies sustain casualties in war.  If this army wasn’t supposed to sustain any casualities, maybe it wasn’t actually an army?

The first thing I thought of was that, if this army had been commanded by an American, a number of things would have happened that didn’t happen in the event.

First, the entire world would be outraged.

Second, the American people would have been outraged, the commander would have been court martialed, and the term “heads will roll” would not have been metaphorical.

But, you know, let’s get past that for a minute.

What really gets me here is this:  I’ve talked a lot on this blog about how we all live inside narratives.  I’ve always felt that we have to live inside narratives in order to live at all.   We tell ourselves stories to explain ourselves to ourselves.

From this side of the Atlantic, the contemporary European narrative seems to be:  we’re the ones who will stop the genocide forever.  We had it in WWII, and as a result, we’ve built the first truly anti-racist society on earth.  We’re better than the Americans and the Russians and the Chinese because of it.

What strikes me about the actual events and their aftermath in Srebrenica is that there doesn’t seem to be any narrative at all in it.  There’s no story there, just the kind of sullen, self-righteous excuses  you get when you catch a petty thief shoplifting pantyhose.

There’s no there there, as Gertrude Stein said.  There’s no shape.  There’s no arc.  There’s nothing. 

I spent a couple of hours yesterday evening looking around with Google, trying to see if the Dutch had ever come up with a cohesive narrative for this, but they seem not to have. 

I kept wondering if I looked long enough if I would find a kind of metanarrative for pacifism–some story that would justify the idea that no matter what the consequences to other people, it is important for you to make sure your own are not in danger of any harm.

It can’t be impossible to come up with such a narrative, or another narrative that would explain away the same facts.  The Germans have managed to come up with two or three to encapsulate Naziism.

It doesn’t even have to be true.  As far as I can figure out, the French managed to invent a brave resistance movement nearly out of whole cloth, and to place in it men and women who were seen to collaborate during the occupation–and nobody has ever really and definitively called them on it. 

The lack of a narrative–the seeming lack of a need for a narrative–I find really astonishing.  It seems to me to speak to something very deep rooted, a conviction that self preservation is all that matters and that everybody must feel that way, that there is no other way to feel, that everybody really feels that way, and ought to, and lies when they say they feel differently.

That it is wrong to feel differently.

I’m probably blithering here.

But for years I’ve heard that the US went into Bosnia and did what they UN did not, and now I know what all that is about.

And I must admit, I’m feeling very glad to know that we did, in fact, think differently.

Because that thing–that lack of a need for a narrative to explain what should have been an obvious horror–that seems scarier to me than Fascism and Communism put together.

I’ve got work to do.

Written by janeh

July 12th, 2011 at 7:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch

with 7 comments

Every once in a while, I do this thing where I post questions on FB in order to get answers that mean…I don’t know what.

The questions are always about mysteries, and mystery writers, and mystery reading.  Sometimes I don’t do questions so much as I do comments.

I also always do this from my phone, which means that the proofreading is even worse than usual. 

Over the last couple of days, I posted two things:

First, a question about the detectives in detective series, asking what age people preferred them to be, and if that age was different if the detective was a woman.

Second, a complaint about one of the Great Cliches of long-running series:  the book or episode where the murder victim is the wife/husband/significant other of the detective.  Sometimes this isn’t a book or an episode, but merely the back story.  Either way, I have become heartily tired of it.

The complaint generated very little in the way of response.  I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of people like the Great Cliches of the genre, and that I’ve just got professionals’ disease.  I read so much of this stuff and with so much attention, I’m sick of what other people can love because they don’t run into it so often.

The quesion about age, though, did generate a lot of response, and I found those responses odd.

Most people wanted their detectives to be around 40 or 50 if a man, and around 30 or 40 with a woman. 

And a lot of the people who said this were considerably older than those ages themselves.

The general opinion seemed to be that a detective much younger than that wouldn’t have the wisdom or experience to be a good detective, and a detective much older than that wouldn’t be in good enough physical shape to make a good story.

Since I’m of the little grey cells persuasion not only of detective writers but of detective readers, I found this odd.  My detectives never spend their time racing around chasing crooks or escaping from psychopaths. 

But I also found it odd because a fair number of the people who responded in this way read Christie on a regular basis, and both Christie’s most famous detectives are elderly.  Poirot is at least 60 when we first meet him in A Mysterious Affair at Styles.  Miss Marple is over 70. 

Maybe it’s just my age and my predisposition, but I find myself drawn more and more to older women detectives, even when that means the woman has to be an amateur.  I’m not really big on amateur detectives.

Maybe this is a case of What It Looks Like.  I’m Getting On, so to speak, and I’d like to see some examples of women who are also Getting On who are living what I think are interesting lives.

Interesting is a rather loaded word.  It seems to me that whether or not you believe in God and the afterlife, the simple fact is that we get only one chance at this life here, and the best idea would be to put it to good use.  All of it.  The thought of sort of just sitting back and letting the last twenty or thirty years spin out doing not much of anything does not please me.

Nor does the fact that so many of the people around me seem to just hate the idea of being older.  I live on the edge of a couple of Upscale Enclaves of the sort where aging seems to have become the equivalent of leprosy.  Women, especially–but also men, more and more frequently–not only dye their hair but get face lifts, they work out and diet until they’re more skeletal than they ever were at twenty, they force themselves into three inch heels that would have killed their feet long before they got arthritis.

And there are others that are even worse–except that I don’t know how I’m using the word “worse.”  Consider Carolyn Heilbrun, the mystery writer Amanda Cross, who killed herself a few years ago because, she said in a note she left to her friends, she didn’t intend to endure the indignities of getting older.  Here was a woman in good health, with a successful career, financially comfortable, surrounded by friends–and she didn’t want to endure the indignities of getting older? 

What did that mean, exactly?  She didn’t want to get sick, or watch her body breaking down?  She didn’t want to be increasingly invisible because people don’t look much at older women?  She didn’t want to live around a lot of old fogeys in a retirement community?

Miss Marple did her best work because she was mostly invisible–and because people assume that “little old ladies” must be vague and naive and sort of stupid, none of which she was.   She sat and she knit and she had tea and she listened, and she knew more about evil than a case-hardened homicide detective with twenty years on the job.

Okay, Miss Marple is fiction–but certainly there are many older people, and especially older woman, who do a great deal with their lives.  They’re not all breaking down physically, or even slowing up very much.  A friend of mine posted on FB that she had just spent the day with her 85 year old aunts, and they’d run her ragged.  My own father was vigorous and independent in his own  home well into his eighties.  His father was an absolute dynamo, walking almost ten miles a day every day until he just fell over from an illness he’d decided to ignore on the conviction that he was eighty three, and there was no point in fussing about it.

Okay, I agree, it would be a little silly to watch a detective chase a murderer across the rooftops of New York when he was 85, but then I don’t read the kind of book–or write the kind of book–where people chase other people across rooftops.

And most 83 year olds are not in the kind of shape my grandfather was in.

Still, it seems to me that people get a lot done in that interval between 60 and 80, and maybe people like Carolyn Heilbrun wouldn’t feel it necessary to kill themselves rather than face old age if the fact of that was a little more evident in things we read and watch.

I really love Miss Marple, but there are only a few books of hers available, and her more modern imitators tend to go heavy on the cute.

But then, I watch the Joan Hickson A&E Marples–and remind myself that Hickson herself was in her eighties when she made them. 

She died at ninety two.

Written by janeh

July 11th, 2011 at 8:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah

with 2 comments

The day before yesterday, a woman I had once gone to kindergarten with, died. 

She was not a woman I knew well.  I don’t think I’d see her since I was sent by my parents to my eventual girls’ school. 

I remember her very distinctly, however, because for some reason–completely inexplicable to me–she forms one of those sharp and distinct memories of childhood that will not quit, no matter what.

For a long time, we rode the school bus together–Patty and her sister and me.  Her family had a small house on an absolutely enormous plot of land, all lawn, sloping up into the distance past where we could see. 

And Patty and JoBetty had the reputation, in school, of having the most wonderful and distinctive clothes.  I think their mother made them, but I’m not sure.

What I remember is Patty getting off the bus, clutching a little stack of books in her arms,  while the starched layers of crinolines under her skirt swayed and bounced with her movements.

I have no idea why this memory should be so clear for me, but it is.   And because it is, I found hearing about her death sort of shocking.  It came via a FB post by a member of our once mutual school class, a man who has grown up and stayed in town and kept in touch with everybody.  Periodically, he invites me to come to the annual quasi-reunion gathering of the tribe, even though I went away to school and didn’t graduate from there.

Patty Foshay is dead, and in my mind I can still see her walking down the aisle of the school bus, books clutched, skirt flashing.  I have no idea if JoAnne Coffey is alive or dead or what, but I can still see her, too, in a set in a middle of a row at the Palace Theater downtown, just behind me, screaming her head off.

She wasn’t ill or wounded.  We were at a matinee showing during the theatrical release of A Hard Day’s Night, and she was screaming at the Beatles.  We were not, by the way, together.  I remember her and what she was doing, I think, at least in part because I was so astonished at it.  I had heard of girls screaming at the sight of the Beatles, and I had seen the Ed Sullivan Show when the Beatles were on (and half the audience was screaming girls), but I think that somewhere in the deep wells of my brain I didn’t quite believe it.

When we all came out of the theater into the day, JoAnne had screamed herself hoarse.  We all went down to the little coffee shop owned by my brother’s godfather and JoAnne sipped at something, unable to say a word.

Sometimes it seems to me that all my memories of the time before I was in college are essential trivial–that they’re about things that didn’t really matter very much.

There were some, of course, that were not trivial.  I can remember where I was and what I was happening when each of my grandmothers died.  My mother’s mother died when I was very small and we’d just moved into the house in Stony Hill.  My mother waylaid me in the bathroom there and sat down on the edge of the tub to explain it to me.  The bathroom was a riot of Fifties elegance.  It had black wallpaper with pink flamingos on it.

My other grandmother, the one I’m named after, died when I was twelve, on a bright day in late spring.  I was in the kitchen of that same Stony Hill house when the call from the hospital came.

But then, I remember something else.  I remember my grandfather, my father’s father, clambering onto our back porch in the middle of the night, pounding and pounding on the door and saying, “George, George, come quick now.  Mama–mama is passing away.”

My father’s father imigrated in his twenties from Asia Minor, sick of being a citizen of Constantinople in Istanbul.  He never got rid of his accent.

My grandmother, my father’s mother, came from Samothraki, and by the time she died she had no accent and owned half the town she lived in.  Sometimes when I’m down that way, I make a point of passing by the place she owned, a solid little house with a long building to the right of it.  My grandparents bought it when my father was still a boy, and raised chickens there.  My father sold hot dogs from a stand built a bit to the left. 

By the time I came along, the chicken coops had been refitted as cabins for a cheap motel.  The hot dog stand had been refitted as a single apartment for rent.  I spent long week-ends in this place, playing Communion at a window with a wide ledge just a few steps up from the living room on a strange little landing. 

I was going through a period of violent envy of all the girls in my class who were Catholic.  They got to make their First Holy Communion in special white dresses with veils.

Here’s something else I remember, so well it might as well have happened this morning.

My father had a friend with a daughter who was about my age, but went to school in a different town.  One afternoon, our entire family went over to visit them, and I was left outside on the lawn with the girl.  I don’t remember her name. 

I do remember that there was a croquet set on the lawn, and I had never seen a croquet set.  She offered to teach me how to play, and I agreed.  She proceeded to knock her ball through all the hoops and declare herself the winner.  I not only never got a turn, I still don’t know how to play croquet.

A couple of years later, she stole my brand new Girl Scout knife while we were both at girl scout camp.  My father explained to me that she had “problems” and we weren’t going to make them worse by causing an uproar about this.  He bought me a new Girl Scout knife, a better one, thick and green with the Girl Scout logo on one side of it.

Actually, my father was always showing up with the daughters of friends of his, I think as his way of trying to find me somebody to be friends with in years when I didn’t have many. 

One of these was a girl named Kelly Tartanis, whose mother had left the family and who was having trouble finding friends herself.  We ended up going out to the movies together–same theater as the Beatles one–to see a matinee of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.  When we came out, all the telephone wires on both sides of the street were lined with birds, packed together as if they’d been glued wing to wing.

It was also my father’s idea that I should join the Rainbow Girls, which was the teenage girls’ auxilliary to the Masons.  It fascinated the hell out of me that they actually used blackballs to decide to keep or reject new members.  I also learned the colors of the rainbow there.  Other than that, I remember very little about it.

Sometimes, it seems to me that memory is a very odd thing.  I don’t seem to remember the kind of things I’m supposed to.  I remember a lot that shouldn’t really matter, and that certainly couldn’t have made much of an impression at the time.

But it’s been that kind of day, and it’s what I’ve been thinking about.

Now I think I’ll go see if I can do something sensible.

Written by janeh

July 10th, 2011 at 10:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Virtue, And Collateral Damage

with 6 comments

For some reason or the other, I’ve spent the last couple of days having the worst pollen-induced sneezing fits so far this summer.   They’ve been bad enough so that I’ve sometimes sat around thanking The Universe Broadly Conceived for the fact that they didn’t happen a week ago, because sneezing like this I’d never have gotten my revisions done. 

They may having something to do with the fact that a) last night we had a power outage that lasted about three and a half hours and b) today, I had to go running around in a car without air conditioning.

Whatever the reason, I’m sneezing.

But I’ve also been reading the comments, and checking out a few things, so here goes.

And I’ll get to the hedgehog–and Trollope’s Paliser series–sometime, someday.  It gets a little crowded in July.

But here goes.

1) I did a little further checking into Western Sky Financial and found this:  although I’m sure it’s much easier to get a loan from them than it would be to get one from your local bank, it isn’t actually easy.

The loan application is long and detailed, and requires all the information that your bank would ask you, and lots more than your ordinary credit card application. 

As far as I can figure out, you’d need to prove at least $3000 a month in income, which isn’t riches but isn’t living in a cardboard box poverty, either. 

They also check your credit rating, so they can’t be accepting just anybody, for just any reason.

This brings us to the question of why somebody in this position–with at least $36,000 a year in personal income, with a steady job they’ve held for a while–would want a loan like that.

And of course there are reasons that obviously stem from desperation:  the hospital won’t operate without a downpayment, you need bail, whatever.

But my guess is what we’re actually looking at is this:

2) The runoff from the new credit card consumer protection laws that went into effect a couple of years ago.

There was a time back there when somebody–it might have been Bank of America, but I’m not sure–said they’d pretty much issue a credit card to anybody who walked in the door and had or opened a checking account. 

The Feds were understandably worried about this, because the banks issuing these credit cards were FDIC insured, which meant that if they went bust the Federal Government had to make their customers whole, up to $250,0oo per depositer.

New banking law went into effect, further regulating such things as what interest rates banks were allowed to charge on credit card debt, when they were allowed to charge it, and what fees the banks could collect.

Contrary to what some of us believe sometimes, banks are not usually raving full bore loonies.  They want to make money, and they expected to make money on the credit card debt they allowed to the bottom rung of their credit card holders.

The problem was that, with the new limitations on interest and rates, they could no longer make money on those bottom rung holders.  You have to charge a lot of interest to make sure you can make up for the truly astonishing rates of default in that bottom rung.

Once the banks couldn’t charge those rates, they started dumping their bottom rungs of card holders and refusing cards to bottom rung applicants who asked for them.


3) Those bottom rung applicants still needed credit. 

And in step people like WSF.

Like Robert, I’m not happy with the idea that the government should step in to protect me from myself by making sure I shouldn’t be able to make the deals I want to make, even if those deals are demonstrably and objectively idiotic.

(I have no trouble with the credit card regulations, because their real purpose is to protect the government (and the taxpayer) from having to bail out federally insured banks.)

But the simple fact is that most of the people who are going to qualify from WSF’s 139% (or worse) interest loans would have qualified in the old days for a bank credit card with a 45% top rate and a punishing but still restricted fee schedule–and been better off.

They are, in other words, collateral damage–but not the kind of collateral damage that can be easily solved by “getting the government off our backs” or “putting in place consumer protections with real teeth.” 

Both of the usual responses leave something to be desired. 

The consumer protections people simply will not deal with the problem of where the people on the bottom rung will go to get loans.  They seem to think that lenders will continue to lend to that bottom rung even when they can no longer charge the highest interest rates.

The government off our backs people have two choices:  advocate the end of federal insurance for banks or tell me why I should keep bailing out the depositors of banks who do stupid stuff like give credit cards to people who think “financial planning” means making sure you have enough left over from the keg party to hit the casino.

There is, in fact, no answer here, no actual way out of the problem.  But that’s a gloom and doom scenario for another day.

At the moment, I want to suggest a book, one that oddly intersects with all this talk about bottom rung borrowers and usurious finance companies.

The book is called The Bourgeois Virtues:  Ethics for an Age of Commerce by Deirdre N. McCloskey.

This is one of those books I recommend that I know, instinctively, most of you will never touch.   It’s long, it’s complicated, it’s nonfiction, it’s on an aggressively “intellectual” subject–bleh.

What’s worse, in this case, is that I can’t actually pin a genre on it, and it’s only the first of what is supposed to be at least a four volume investigation of the topic (it may have expanded to six).

The topic is an attempt to prove, through historical example, that capitalism both requires virtue and inculcates it in those who practice it, and that these virtues are not the self-interested ones of Ayn Rand but a combination of the pagan ones (justice, temperance, fortitude, courage) and the Christian ones (faith, hope and love (caritas/charity).

I can’t pin down the genre because this woman has one of the most distinct writing styles I’ve ever encountered.  Reading this book is like getting drunk with somebody who has an IQ of 250, the reading habits of Father Tibor Kasparian, and virtually total recall.   You go from Anaximander to Madonna videos to Napolean to the rise of Dutch mercantilism to the Tokugawa shogunate to Thomas Aquinas to…

I want this woman’s mind.

She knows and has worked with practically everybody (both Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson, for instance), and teaches Economics, History, English and Communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She seems to read about eight languages. 

Oh, go here:


Oh, and she’s a transsexual, and a practicing member of a liberal Episcopalian church who definitely identifies as Christian.

The whole thing is just sort of dizzying.

The book, in the meantime, is very, very good. 

And the works cited is 30 pages long.

And other people should look into the subject–which includes the subject of why the bourgeoisie is so thoroughly vilified even though what they’ve actually done is generally positive for the welfare of human beings. 

And after that–well.  All I can say is that a friend of mine just send me a HUGE box of golden age fair play mysteries (lots of Sayers), I’ve still got to talk about the hedgehog, and the passing of the News of the World will surely put fans of the page 3 girls into mourning for weeks.

After all, you could say she was attractively built.

Written by janeh

July 9th, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Without Shame

with 7 comments

It’s that part of the summer where I have to turn on the air conditioner as soon as I wake up, which is not something I’m fond of.  It also means that my allergies tend to need about an hour to cool out before I’m completely competent, and that has some interesting consequences for the writing.

Yesterday, both that and the after-project fuzz put me in the position of sitting on the loveseat, running a bunch of cable news stations on the television set, and periodically being brought up short by the airing of a very strange ad.

I don’t know how many of you out there have seen this ad.  I’ve only noticed it myself over the last week or two, and only really noticed it yesterday.  This may be because it hasn’t been running long up here–and I think there are indications that that might be the case–or simply that I’ve had my mind on other things. 

Yesterday, however, I had no such impediment to noticing it, and I noticed.

It’s a clumsy ad.  The production qualities are not good.  It comes off as the kind of thing the local cable company helps local small businesses to make, except that it’s even less entertaining than that. 

I’m actually very fond of some of the local ads.  There is this guy named Carl who owns two Tru-Value hardware stores up north of me, plus a carpet place.  He runs ads with his wife and with one of his favorite employees.  Then there’s Family Ford, which features the family.  So far, the wife’s the best actor of the bunch.

This ad, though, is just sort of flat.  A woman who looks Native American comes out and asks if you could use $2500 in your bank account by tomorrow.   Then she gives a little spiel about how this money is expensive, but if you’re in a bind it may be worth it, call this number.

Apparently, there is small print showing on the bottom of the screen that gives the first clue as to what’s going wrong here, but I don’t actually look at the television when I “watch” it, so I didn’t see it.

I did get the distinct impresson that there was something very, very wrong here.  So I went and looked it up on the Internet.

And that’s where the fun started.

You’ve got to understand, up front, that I am not the sort of person who claims that I’m “good at math.”  I’m not particularly good at math.  I managed to pass two semesters of calculus in college, and my board scores were very good, but I’m limited, and I know it.

All of this makes me better than the average American math phobic, but still.  My father in law, who never graduated from high school, could stand at the cashier’s in the grocery store and total the bill up in his head before her machine did it.  I am not that good.

I am also not the kind of person who feels that government needs to rush in to save people from themselves whenever they do something I personally think is stupid.

I don’t even think government should rush in and shave people from themselves when they’re doing what is demonstrably and objectively stupid. 

That’s why I don’t oppose “payday loans,” where people go in and borrow $300 on Monday and pay it back in two weeks and the interest amounts to $50.  The interest is awful, but if you’re making minimum wage and that’s the only way you can get the electric bill paid, it serves a purpose.  People who want to run the payday loan companies out of business need to establish a different process by which the kind of people who use them can get done what they need to get done.

All that being said, however, this was a kicker.  The ad was placed by a business calling itself Western Sky Financial.  If you go to their website


you get some very interesting information.  And you do get the information.  There is no attempt to mislead anybody.   That’s a very important point.  Somebody took a lot of effort to make sure that they could not be criticized for running a scam. 

Of course, they have been accused of running a scam, but that’s because the whole thing is so outrageous, a lot of people assume that it must be one.  What it is, I think, is the legendary “tax on people who can’t do math.”  Yes, I know, that’s supposed to be the state lotteries, but this really comes closer to the mark.  You spent a dollar or two, or even ten, a week on lottery tickets, you’re being foolish.  You get involved in this thing and you’re ruining your life.

Everything about this thing is bizarre.  First, there’s the question of the company, which the ad tells you is a Native American owned company.  Then it lists a single individual living on a reservation in South Dakota as the owner. 

There’s a lot of other Native American language in the ad and on the web site–the agreement for that loan, for instance, includes a provision that the terms will be adjudicated under tribal law (and not the law of the federal or state US government) and that you give up all rights to do things like bring complaints with state and federal agencies or file a class action suit.

Whether the company is actually run by Native Americans is not so clear.  When you look at the application process, you see that when you apply for a loan, that loan is processed not by WSF, but by a California payday loan company called Cashcall. 

Nobody seems to know if WSF has contracted with Cashcall for processing services, or if Cashcall has contracted with WSF to provide cover for its own activities. Whichever way it is, Cashcall has a very bad rep and literally thousands of complaints against it with BBBs across the country.

Of course, that may not matter much, because the real interest in the small print.  Remember that these are not payday loans in the usual sense.  People take on loan agreements that last for years.

And the lowest possible rate of interest you can get on these loans is…115%.

That is not a typo.

Of course, not very many people get that prime rate of 115%.  The company will quite cheerfully tell you that it’s much more normal for the rate to be 139%.  And it can go higher.  As high as 300%.

And the fees are incredible.

For instance:  if you take out a loan for $1500, the company charges you a one-time initiation fee of $500, which comes right out of the loan.  That means you only get $1000 in actual cash, but you pay back the entire $1500 over the course of a few years.  Your final tab?  Over $4000. 

If you take $2600–the largest amount available–your fee is only $75, which doesn’t sound bad.  Unfortunately, the total cost at repayment is at over $11,000.

And you’re not guaranteed to get off even that cheaply.  One of the provisions of the contract you signed is that the company gets to change the terms any time it wants, for any reason it wants. 

Just because it wants to.

I know, but now, most of you are probably thinking that nobody would enter into a contract like this without being brain dead.  Even people who are not good at figuring out how much their dinner at TGIFriday’s costs if they put it on the credit card and pay only the minimum should be able to figure out this is awful.

Even desperation doesn’t completely explain how people get sucked in by something like this.   Yes, desperation can make your mind go blank.  This requires your mind going vegetable.

I’m happy to report that the Internet is full of people who are good at this kind of math and willing to help out the people who aren’t.   If you plug “western sky financial scam” into Google, you get whole lists of financial and debt blogs with very full and complete and comprehensible explanations of the deal, the problems with the deal, and the various problems people have had dealing with the company.

And there have been a lot of problems.  Some people complain that after they called the company, they started getting dunning phone calls even though they never took any money.  Other people say their phones were innundated with voice mails and text messages–hundreds in a single day–trying to sell them payday loans and other high-interest financial “services.”

In the meantime, the states of West Virginia, Maryland and Colorado are all going after the company to force it to cease doing business in those states and to stop it from collecting any more payments on any loans it made in those states.   The states don’t seem to buy the idea that if the thing is run out of an Indian reservation, it doesn’t have to follow state and federal laws.

My guess is that I’m seeing these ads in Connecticut now because the company is looking to replace lost territory with new territory–and because Dick Blumenthal is no longer our attorney general. 

Blumenthal is a good man in a lot of ways, although he’s a little too much of a welfare-state liberal for me–but on stuff like this, he was stellar.

This will be the first test of his successor’s resolve and drive and intensity.  I’ll be waiting to see the result.

And in the meantime, I keep trying to think of a character caught in something like this, or perpetrating something like this.

People are very odd about money.

Written by janeh

July 7th, 2011 at 8:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

And Finally…

with 2 comments

Well, the ms went back yesterday–hard copy UPS, electronic copies of corrections in the e-mail.  I spent all night having weird dreams about how my back yard–a flat, straight expanse that runs down to a brook–was really hilly and hard to walk on and full of logs with their bark stripped.

There was always some guy knocking on a back door that doesn’t exist to see if he could have the wood.  I was always coming out of the back door that does exist and telling him he was welcome.

I have no idea what any of that means, although there is a pile of wood out there, near the garage, from when we trimmed the bushes on either side of the front porch steps.  They needed a lot of trimming.  The forest was on the verge of taking back it’s own.

Still, I have no idea what it means, and I suspect it’s just a variation of my usual mental state after finishing a project.  I get sort of floaty and disoriented, as if the world isn’t working right.

This morning I even managed to oversleep the alarm clock until eight.  I’m not going to make sense at all today.

Yesterday, though, didn’t make a lot of sense either.  I get up very early to work, so I was done early, and out and doing errands before eight thirty.  By the time I got home I was exhausted, and it was barely even lunchtime.

So I sort of drifted around the house, and when I finally felt half awake, the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial came in.

Now, to be reasonable here for a minute or two:  I do understand that the public reports of a trial are not the same thing as the trial, and that what we see on television is not what the jury sees in real time in the courtroom.  It’s not really all that surprising that the verdicts that come in are often not what we expected them to be.

There’s also the problem caused by that endless series of commentators.  Even TruTV, which used to be CourtTV, and which broadcasts trials in their entirety, tends to use the time when the court breaks for lunch or the lawyers ate at the bench whispering to the judge to bring on legal experts to discuss what’s happening, which usually comes down to telling the audience what they should think about what’s happening.

The legal experts were close to unanimous in this case–it looked to them as if Casey Anthony would end up guilty on at least one of the murder counts.  There was a weight of opinion out there that the only real question was whether Casey Anthony would get the death penalty.

I didn’t watch the trial in real time on TruTV, which stayed in session right through the Fourth of July week-end, including Saturday, Sunday, and the fourth itself.

In fact, the Anthony trial was in session at least on Saturdays for a couple of weeks–is this something new in Florida, or did the court make some kind of exception for this trial in particular?  I’m sure most trials, even of heinous serial murderers, would not be in session on July 4th.

At any rate, I didn’t watch the trial in real time.  I had work to do.  What I did do was watch the closing statements and the prosecution’s rebuttal.

And I will say that, from what I saw there, I was surprised at the verdict. 

I am not one of those people who yelled and screamed that the O.J. verdict was all about race.  I think Johnny Cochrane was right–if the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.  That needn’t have been the case, but the prosecution made such a big deal (beforehand) about how important a piece of evidence the glove was. 

Right after they did that, and O.J. stood up and couldn’t get the glove over his hand, my father called me from Florida and yelled for six straight minutes about what an idiot the prosecutor was.

Yesterday, the jurors weren’t talking to the press, which is of course their perogative.  I expect that sometime in the future one or more of them will agree to talk to one of the true crime shows.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re not a little worried, at the moment, at being attacked by outraged members of the public.

Certainly there’s enough outrage out there.  Last night there was a “put your front porch light on for justice for Caylee Anthony” thing going on, and my sister in law was among the most enthusiastic participants.

Casey Anthony, in the meantime, will very soon be free.  She’s been in jail for almost three years.  The counts on which she was convicted–four of giving false information to a police officer–carry only up to a single year each.   The only reason the judge shouldn’t release her immediately when she comes up for sentencing tomorrow would be if he didn’t agree with the verdict either.  Even if he does send her to jail, it can only be for a few more months.

What’s interesting to me about all this is this–there were 10 counts for the jury to consider, four murder counts, one count of aggravated manslaughter, one count of aggravated child abuse, and four counts of lying to a police officer.

The jury deliberated for ten hours.  That was it. 

Given the enormous complications in this case, I expected them to be out for a week.  The press expected them to be out for an hour and then back with a guilty verdict.

The only way the jury came back so quickly with acquittals is if the jurors didn’t believe the prosecution at all.  And I mean at all.

And they didn’t believe the prosecution in spite of the fact that Casey Anthony herself seemed to have spent much of the investigation trying to end up in the electric chair.  There were so many different lies, so many different evasions, so much crazy behavior–at one point, Casey told her parents that she had a rich boyfriend in Jacksonville and she was taking Caylee with her to see him on a long weekend.  The boyfriend never existed and Caylee was already dead.

At the trial, the defense seemed to me to be doing the real world equivalent of a mystery writer’s “throw garbage at it”–they came up with scenario after scenario, speculation after speculation, and threw in the “Casey’s father sexually abused her when she was a child thing” just for good measure.

The result, of course, is that Casey and her parents are now estranged, and may be for ever afterwards.

It was, to say the least, a very strange case. 

And I don’t know what to make of it, even now that I’m reasonably awake.

Written by janeh

July 6th, 2011 at 9:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Deed of Gift

with 13 comments

So, it’s the day before the fourth of July, and I’ve just spent three hours trying to find instances of people in dialogue talking about things that “don’t make sense,”  and then get them to say something else.

And then I decided that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to take a short break.  So I went reading through the comments on yesterday’s post, and there I found something that sort of startled me.

Robert says that a man (or woman, I suppose) has to go “through Good to get to Great.”

And I’m not really sure that’s true.

One of the first things I ever learned in American history, once I got beyond the elementary level, was this:  John Adams was a good man but not a great one;  Thomas Jefferson was a great man, but not a good one.

Here’s exactly the sort of thing I should be talking about before the fourth of July.

Anyway, the reason for that particular truism in my history classes in complicated, but let’s just say that I came along at just about the point when high school history classes were trying to find some way to acknowledge both Jefferson’s achievements and the unholy mess he made of almost all his personal life.

But that kind of distinction between great and good comes up other places, too–the one that keeps popping into my head is actually from the first Harry Potter novel, where Olivander tells Harry that Voldemort did great things–terrible things, but great.

All right, the reference is silly, but it’s early in the morning and I’ve been working.

Given that kind of distinction, however, Hitler would be a great man–and if a great man is in some way a genius, he probably was one.   Jonas Salk would be both great and good.

If you see what I mean.

I want you, however, to contemplate the live and times of a man of whom you have probably never heard:  Robert Carter III, master of Virginia’s Nomony Hall through the American Revolution and Subject of Andrew Levy’s The First Emancipator:  Slavery, Religion and the Quiet Revolution of Robert Carter.

 Before I get started, let me say this:  this is one of the best books I have ever read in my entire life.  Ever.  It’s well written and well researched.  It covers territory I was never aware of before I read it.  And it outlines the life of a man nobody has ever heard of–until recently, when Levy decided to make a point of it–but whose story has implications for virtually everything about American history and our understanding of it.

Robert Carter was of the same generation as Jefferson and Madison, and he knew them both.  In some ways, he did them one better.  He was the richest planter in Virginia during most of his life, and he had sense enough to start investing in manufacturing when the planter class was trying to hunker down and pretend that economic change hadn’t already come.

He was also the owner of 485 slaves–and one day in 1795, he showed up at the county courthouse with a “deed of gift,” which freed them.

Okay, the actual operation of the Deed of Gift was more complicated than late, and took longer to unwind.  Carter actually freed his slaves over a period of years, although once he’d made the decision he had a tendency not to worry if one of the slaves ran off under his own power. 

But the fact of the matter is that he did free them, along with teaching them skilled trades so that they had something they could use for work when they were out on their own, and teaching them to read and write even when it was against the law, and worshipping next to them in the same pews and taking communion with them in the early revolutionary Baptist church.

He did all those things, in fact, that I was always taught in history class it would be impossible for a man of his time and station to do.  The contradictions in the life of a man like Jefferson, for instance, are explained by saying that in that time and in that place, he did (almost) everything he could do.  The same is said of Washington.

But here is Robert Carter, and the time and the place did not stop him.

What started him, though, was almost as important.  What started him was religion.

One of the things Levy’s book is good for is the way in which it illuminates the complicated place of religion in Revolutionary War sympathies, especially among those people who were not among the pantheon of Founders.

That pantheon was mostly highly educated and either Deist (like Jefferson and Madison) or “rational Christian” (like Adams, who favored state established churches but did not believe in the divinity of Christ).

Among more ordinary people in Virginia, however, the religion of the Revolution was Baptist.

And the Baptist Church was not the Baptist Church you see today, in either the north or the south.

I suppose the closest you could get today to what the Baptist Church was then would be the Pentacostals and the Holy Ghost People–and then you’d only get close, not all the way.

Baptists in the Revolutionary War era spoke in tongues, got slain in the spirit, wailed and screamed and jerked around on the floor–and sat side by side, black and white, slave and free, rich and poor.

And took communion together, black and white, slave and free, rich and poor.

And all that kind of thing was actually illegal in Virginia at the time.

In fact, one of the other things this book is good for is explicating just how complicated and detailed were the laws of Virginia regulating slavery.   Before the end of the Revolutionary War, it was illegal for a slaveowner to manumit even a single one of his slaves, and Carter only got away with teaching his to read and write and practice trades because, being Robert Carter and the richest man around, the authorities were too deferential to touch him.

But the other thing Robert Carter was was an American original all out religious loon.

I’m not saying that because he converted from the establish Anglican Church to the Baptists, or because he took communion with his slaves. 

Actually, Carter was a pretty tame Baptist, as that kind of thing went.  He had been brought up a Virginian aristocrat.  He wasn’t about to start dropping to the floor and wailing in religious ecstasy.

The Anglican Church at the time had strict customs for separating the races and the classes.  Families “bought” pews, and the richest families bought the most expensive ones, near the front.  Blacks, free or slave, had their own churches elsewhere.

That Carter would reject this in favor of the more egalitarian arrangements of one of the dissenting sects isn’t crazy, nor do I think he’s crazy because he came to his decision as the result of a religious experience. 

Most of the people I have known in my life who have converted to Christianity from something else, or from indifference, have done so because of an intense personal experience in which they were sure they were directly in contact with God.

No, what makes Carter such an odd figure religiously is that he kept converting.  Having moved from the Anglicans to the Baptists, he became disenchanted with the Baptists as they became more conservative (no more everybody side by side) after the War.  He then founded his own Baptist Church on the old lines, then moved away from that to Swedenborg’s Church of the New Jerusalem, and finally.

He was in the midst of Swedenborgian enthusiasm when he made the Deed of Gift.  Living in a small house in a working class neighborhood of Baltimore in the years afterwards, he morphed into a kind of Deist.

He was, in fact, almost as much of a religious mess as Jefferson was a personal one.

And yet it was religion that made Robert Carter want to free his slaves, and want to meet with them on as much of a plane of equality as possible before that. 

And it was religion of a particular kind–anti-rationalist, depending on revelation and not reason, rejecting the entire Enlightenment project in favor of an emotive connection with the radical equality implicit in Paul to the Corinthians, but never explicit until then.

No, I’m not advocating that we should all go off and start speaking in tongues–although, when I was a child, I was sometimes taken to tent meetings by a babysitter, and in those days I could get slain in the spirit with the best of them.

I’m just saying that it would be hard to decide if Robert Carter was a great man, or a good one, or both.

And that the actual relationship of religion to the American founding, and the American present, is a lot more complicated than either side of the church/state debate likes to make out.

Written by janeh

July 3rd, 2011 at 9:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Start of a Long Weekend

with 7 comments

So, here I am.  The day is beautiful.  The pollen count is virtually nil. 

And, for once, I’ve gotten what feels like serious work done.   At least, it’s work I’m pretty sure I’m not going to have to change tomorrow.

Considering what things have been like around here during these revisions, that’s not a small thing.

I’ve now reached the point, however, where if I do anything more, I’m going to start messing things up.

Mostly what I have been thinking about is those bad books–the ones we can or cannot say are objectively bad, or objectively good, although I still think it’s easier to put a finger on the bad.

But what about Bad books–Bad with a capital B, books that are in some way morally wrong, or socially dangerous.

I’ve spent enough time around the kind of people who–like me–tend towards Free Speech and Free Press absolutism to know that the usual argument for the uninhibited right to say or publish anything at all, no matter what, is:  no girl was ever ruined by a book.

I forget who said that–Clarence Darrow?–but it comes down to saying that we should all have freedom of speech and publication because such speech and publication doesn’t really have consequences anyway, and because this is especially true of fiction.

It’s an argument that’s always bothered me, because it seems to assume that the only reason we should have a right to speak and publish is because it doesn’t matter anyway.  It has no consequences.

This seems to me to be demonstrably untrue–although not untrue in the way people who want to censor think it is.

I don’t think, for instance, that Mortal Kombat or Natural Born Killers can or does cause teen-agers to run out and imitate the action.  It is probably the case that, given somebody who is already predisposed, playing video games or watching movies or reading fiction might give concrete expression for future action.

On the other hand, I think that such people, completely deprived of any fictional enactment of the things they want to do, would figure out specific ways to get them done anyway.

What I think fiction does do is a lot more subtle and a lot more insidious. 

I think fiction can make the impossible look possible.

Let me see if I can find a way to put this that makes sense.

Back when I was in college, there were several novels that came out purporting to show the shape of things to come.  One was called Walden Two, and it was written by the behaviorist pscyhologist B.F. Skinner.

In this novel, children who have been raised from birth in a completely controlled environment now live in a paradise where there is no jealousy, no ambition, no greed–Communism with sex, more or less. 

And it seems perfectly plausible.  Skinner wasn’t a great writer of fiction, but he wasn’t a bad one.

Novels and movies teach us things about human behavior, but a good enough writer can make behavior sound plausible that is not true to the real world at all.

I’m not talking, here, about behavior that is “realistic” in the way that, say, Jane Austen is realistic and Stephen King is not.

I can say that fiction can present behavior that is simply not true to human functioning and make it seem as if it were real.

In the real world, the strong prey on the weak whether they’ve been preyed on themselves or not.  In lots of fiction, the strong prey on the weak only because they’ve been preyed out, and they can be fixed by learning the truth about themselves.

Think for a moment about Patient Griselda, the abused wife of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, who by meekly accepting her husband’s endless beatings and bowing to his will, eventually shamed her into treating her well.

There are hundreds of thousands of women on this earth who buy that particular fiction.  It’s been made plausible in hundreds of stories throughout the course of time.

And it’s a lie.

Fiction is the art of telling lies. 

Good fiction is the art of telling lies well.

Only great fiction is the art of telling the truth.

I don’t really know where I’m going with any of this. 

But here it is.

Written by janeh

July 2nd, 2011 at 10:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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