Monday, March 21, 2011
WWJC - Who Would Jesus Cheat?
For a combination of sanctimonious BS, unwarranted hubris and plain old meanness it's hard to beat the American evangelical movement. I've had a couple of run-ins with them lately worth sharing.
A few of the many thrift stores I'm constantly in are run by an evangelical group which raises money for actual charity and what appears to be "charity." (I make two categories here - actually helping people meet their physical needs and proselytizing to people, the latter a unique form of harm inflicted on the stupid by the evil when it works as intended. A good deal of the many hundreds of billions in charitable giving by the American public is for the latter, without which the world would be a better place.)
Why keep shopping there, you ask? In a country in which this is true:
"Half of all Americans believe they are protected by guardian angels, one-fifth say they've heard God speak to them, one-quarter say they have witnessed miraculous healings, 16 percent say they've received one and 8 percent say they pray in tongues, according to a survey released Thursday by Baylor University."
... if I started shopping only at places run and staffed by secular humanists I wouldn't be able to buy much of anything any longer. And if I stopped buying from people with wretched political opinions on top of that, I'm not sure I could even feed myself any longer. On top of this I've visited and worked in a number of religious nut places around the world, and my money has no doubt supported all manner of holy charlatans and bigots. It's damn near unavoidable. At least the places are clean and the staff largely polite.
So I bear the constant Michael W. Smith - apparently God is a mighty God, as opposed to one of those weak ones, and this Jesus fellow likes constant praise - playing in the background while doing my thirft shopping and bite my tongue a lot. Besides, people who have religious monomania are seldom interested in anything else (Christopher Hitchens derides the religious for proudly proclaiming they only have use for one book) and therefore sometimes let cool stuff go for low prices because they don't know what anything secular is.
The flipside of this dynamic is that they sometimes think that things of absolutely no value are quite valuable, and have the same ease in convincing their born again customers of this that they had in convincing them of the reality of miracles and the necessity of tithing, which is how the money really comes in. This plays out mainly via silent auctions, in which people bid objects beyond any reasonable value they actually have, in part I'm convinced because an overtly Christian organization has set them aside in display cases so as to add context that implies greater value.
I've bid on only one or two objects out of the hundreds in silent auctions, mainly because to me almost all of the items are self-evidently crap that isn't worth a fraction of even the opening bid.
Over a month ago at one store I noted in the auction binder what was described as a "signed Dali print." Dali toward the end of his life cranked out a lot of signed prints of generally low quality and there are a lot of them out there, so this seemed a realistic donation for someone to make to the store.
Looking at the item, however, it was easy to determine in a few seconds that this was just a reproduction in a nice frame and not signed by any human. In fact I was stunned that any adult would not realize that the "signature" on the piece was in fact the signature in the original painting. We're not talking about needing to call in an art expert - it was like realizing that the Mona Lisa wasn't actually for sale, but that a photo of the Mona Lisa was for sale.
Worse, even though I could see this thing selling for $50 or so as a nice framed repro, bidding was fast and furious on the item and up over $450. Obviously a lot of the credulous customers thought they were making an art investment for their families, not buying a piece of generic wall art.
I brought the fact that this was a repro up to the cash register girl, who directed me to the store manager. What I thought was going to happen was that I was going to walk him over to the piece and point out as patiently as possible that an error had been made and a repro was being sold as a signed original.
What actually happened is that a Xian alpha male type who is likely used to "having authority" over his terrified wife and children in his retro household began arguing with me that the fine print of the auctions state that the thrift store could not be held responsible for any specific claims, and that since we couldn't 100% prove that the print was not signed by Dali that he felt he could make claims in that direction. (Having looked things up later, this is not valid contract language as even fraud through genuine ignorance of the nature of the item is still prosecutable as fraud. This aside from the print not having been signed by any human hand...) I argued in return that they had a severe ethical problem and that I would be contacting the police to investigate their fraudulent behavior, as it became clear that the manager was fully well aware of what he was doing, fleecing the flock.
I did call the suburban police force with jurisdiction once I got home, and they indicated that they would only investigate if I filed a claim in person, which was highly inconvenient. This was on a weekend, so on Monday morning I called the executive offices of the small chain of thrifts and had what turned into a fairly fruitful conversation after I noted that my next steps if they continued to claim they were selling a signed print would be to contact the Better Business Bureau, follow through with local police and with the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office, as well as sending a note to whatever PA agency grants them a non-profit tax status.
I don't much like a George W. Bush-supporting Jesus freak laughing at me in public about assuming that he's going to get away with fraud, and that there isn't anything I can do about it.
Within a day I got a call back stating that the claim that the print was signed was removed and that the most recent bidders were called and told the print wasn't signed after all.
This, I learned today, did not stop one woman from submitting a winning bid for over $500 for the piece. Lord knows (pun intended) what she thought she was buying, or what its retail value was. Surely a Christian organization wouldn't screw her... would they?
I was also told that the managers of the stores were being instructed on how to phrase the descriptions of the items so as not to be committing fraud. (How about this - how about not bearing false witness - maybe we could chisel that into a stone tablet or something so that people could remember..?)
Everything seemed hunky-dory and I thought this sort of thing was unlikely to happen again.
Until this weekend. At another store, they are silent auctioning (I believe this is ongoing as I type) what are self-evidently (to me) reproduction Confederate paper bills in a cheap frame which thrifts generally sell for $1-2. I'd hope that an adult with decent vision could immediately tell that 3 notes that were supposed to have been printed in three different states and have been circulated in the 1860s would not be A) in perfect condition, B) the exact same size (this varied by bill and by state or city of issuance) and C) all the same color, that being sepia. A lot of actual old bills have real human signatures from bank officers on them, but these look photocopied. I have no idea what the reverses look like since they were in a glass case, but for all I know they might be blank.
According to the link above, in the 1960s alone Cheerios all by itself put out more Confederate money than the CSA itself did as a cereal box prize. There are also dozens of companies which print repros for reenactments and to sell to children at historic sites. Until the 1980s no one was required to print something like "VOID" on fake money, so there are billions of dollars of worthless bills out there. It's as if they were auctioning off Monopoly money.
The bidding sheet in the binder reads "CONFEDERATE MONEY."
As of Saturday afternoon bidding was up to about $30 and climbing. Some well-meaning person will no doubt end up buying these for over $100 as an "investment" for the grandkids.
I called the same woman back on this that I did on the Dali print this morning and this time my reception was a little hostile. I was pushing for the inclusion of the word "REPRODUCTION" on the sheet as this would put the onus on the buyer.
I was informed that they might decide to do that, but with the tone of voice suggesting that that wasn't going to happen. The claims were then made that A) the fine print once again stated that no claims of authenticity were being made (although clearly the opposite is true and the fine print as covered above is legally void) and B) some customer added the word "CONFEDERATE."
The second point, I argued, was silly for three reasons. The first is that I saw the handwriting myself and the same person wrote both words on the page. Someone is lying already. I pointed out that the problem was actually the claim that this was "MONEY", the issue was not who issued it, but that's it's fake to begin with. The bills are not "MONEY." Third, the store is legally and ethically responsible for the bidding regardless of who wrote "CONFEDERATE" on the page, and I'm not sure why they would think otherwise.
This is what you get logic-wise from people only interested in reading one book.
I was passed to the CEO and founder, who went off about how Jesus came into his heart and changed his life and how he isn't growing rich from the store, is doing a lot of good (as per above, how much of that is doing material good and how much is just financing missionaries?), etc. He also had a laugh about how people bid worthless items up in a silent auctions, most recently a steel penny worth less than $1 on eBay selling for over $12.
I largely held my tongue to press for adding the word "REPRODUCTION" to the sheet to put things in the legal and ethical clear. He seemed possibly open to this, but I don't think it will happen. I repeatedly asked what the problem would be for Christians to add one honest word to a product description and never got a good answer. At one point I made reference to the "Christian angle" of the marketing of the store,and the constant playing of praise music in them, and how that might suggest that minimal levels of legal acceptability should not be their ethical target in product descriptions. Apparently offense was taken to my use of the word "angle" and that was the end of the phone call.
For me the placement of the items in an auction context along with willful omission of pertinent facts is at best shaky ground. So you can make up your own mind as to how to spend your hard-earned, non-CSA, actual dollar, these are the stores in question. Caveat emptor.
I honestly don't think these people think that they're doing anything wrong (one exception being the store manager with the Dali; that bastard knew exactly what he did). Religion makes all manner of crime holy if the plunder at least in part goes to promote the religion itself. And that's the problem. The people shooting abortion doctors and launching cruise missiles all over the Middle East think they're doing Jesus' own work too. Who will save us from the saved?