That nice widow from Nigeria sent me another e-mail yesterday. It seems that she is stuck with several million dollars in "unnamed accounts" from her dearly departed husband. Her government, for some unfathomable reason, doesn't want the money. So she has chosen me, a complete stranger, to help her out.
With enormous sincerity, she writes that when I respond to her email I will receive further instructions. Undoubtedly, I will be required to send her my bank routing and social security numbers. Within minutes, of course, my retirement funds and my identity will no longer belong to me. And they won't belong to any widow in Nigeria, either.
Some scams are easy to spot, like the "African" money-laundering e-mails that flood our e-mailboxes, and the many attempts to enlarge the penis I don't have.
Some scams come in the mail. "Dear Joyce Marcel: Don't let your SkyMiles remain unused any longer...This special opportunity to redeem your unused miles for your favorite Awards is available now!" But my "favorite Awards" are lower airline prices, not magazine subscriptions. So for me, at least, this is less than a "special opportunity."
Delta doesn't give in quite that easily. Opening the mail the next morning, it says, "I'm writing to share some exciting news..." The exciting news? I qualify for an American Express card. Big deal. Who doesn't?
Scams are all over the television, too. Jon Bon Jovi will love me if I drink a certain brand of liqueur. My aging face will suddenly be as fresh and unlined as the teenage models who demonstrate Oil of Olay. General Motors generously wants me to enjoy an employee discount; it has nothing to do with the company's inability to find anyone to buy its cars.
Some scams take place in stores: "Oriental Rug Store Going Out of
Business: Everything Must Go!"
Scams are nothing new in this world. In fact, they're so old that the warning about them - caveat emptor - comes in Latin. But given how awash in lies we are today, it is no wonder that our politicians feel they can lie to us with impunity. Or, that they frequently get away with it.
"Weapons of mass destruction." "I am a uniter, not a divider." "Major combat operations in Iraq are over." In his television speech the other night, President Bush once again tried to make us believe that Iraq had something to do with Sept. 11, 2001. Dissenter Saudis attacked us, Mr. Bush. You remember the Saudis, the ones you literally hold hands with?
Telling the truth from the lies is a tricky, frisky business. When President Bush says, "My greatest responsibility as president is to protect the American people," he's telling the truth; that is his greatest responsibility. Is he doing it? No, he's not. He's protecting the interests of the wealthy. Is he fighting terrorism? No, he is not. When he illegally invaded Iraq, he created a entirely new class of terrorists there. When he tells young people that it is an honor to join the military, note that his kids are not serving in Iraq.
Truth has been so shaded out of our cultural discourse that our mainstream media can no longer be trusted. Fake newscasts like "The Daily Show" and the Weekend Update segment on "Saturday Night Live" are popular because they partially lift the veil of lies. But the audience for these shows only laughs and enjoys a slight feeling of superiority to the clowns
(read: voters) who continue to believe the lies. They never actually get out and vote themselves. And so the cycle continues.
Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow recently posted on his Web site
(thismodernworld.com) three news stories. In one, the chief of the credit card processing company whose computer system was penetrated by data thieves, exposing 40 million cardholders to the risk of fraud, acknowledged that the company should not have been retaining those records.
The second dealt with a decision that thousands of heart patients have to make now about whether or not to have their faulty Guidant defibrillators removed.
The third revealed a study that said law enforcement officials have made at least 200 formal and informal inquiries to libraries for information on reading material and other internal matters since October 2001. This news comes after former attorney general John Ashcroft denounced "breathless reports and baseless hysteria" about the government's interest in what people read. "Do we at the Justice Department really care?" Mr. Ashcroft asked. "No." "What's the common thread here?" Tom Tomorrow asks. "Someone lied. We won't misuse your data. There's no problem with our defibrillators. We won't invade your privacy. Trust us... How many times do we - as a society, as a species - have to learn and re-learn the same simple lesson: that when power and/or money are at stake, lies often result?"
Caveat emptor all the way down the line, baby. Buyer beware.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who lives in Vermont and writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.