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Jewish World Review June 26, 2001 / 5 Tamuz, 5761

Dave Shiflett

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Consumer Reports

Scams To Live By -- A PRIME benefit of working at home is experienced during the summer months, when one is blessed by the presence of his children and their idle friends, who have banded together to slouch their way through the vacation break. The spectacle of able-bodied young men lounging about -- ordering pizzas on your account, checking the Lotto numbers, ringing up their chicks on their cellphones -- makes all the sweat and sacrifice seem somehow worth it.

But only for about a day and a half. Lately the old man has been singing the praises of the working stiff, in all his or her various guises. This is inspirational in purpose, though as one can imagine no kids want stories about how their father got along in his early marketplace days (recounted here a few weeks ago). Instead, they are much more susceptible to stories of how greater beings have lightened the purses of their fellow men, preferably by way of the scam.

There is no shortage of stories to draw from. Bottled tap water immediately comes to mind, a scam so unlikely that few people would have recognized its genius even had the idea popped into their own mind. "Nah, nobody'd be dumb enough to buy that," would be the typical response. As we now know, however, nobody's going broke underestimating the public's fear of being slowly poisoned by the utilities companies.

In the same spirit, a frightful number of adults apparently believe that burning various herbs in their homes has the effect of driving out "evil spirits." We are not talking about uneducated people who live in mud huts, but people living in houses with indoor plumbing, central air, cable television, and a few diplomas on the wall.

One can argue for the existence of evil spirits (for reasons of disclosure, I've never had much luck believing in devils, or angels either). But to suggest that supernatural beings will flee a wisp of burning sage is to bring the whole idea of the supernatural down several notches. Indeed, if these bad boys are so frightful, why would they be scared of burning herbs? And how do they react to a burning cheroot?

Because the young have been properly trained to admire diverse populations, it never hurts to include scams undertaken by exotic peoples, such as the eunuch population -- members of which happen to be gathering near Lucknow, India, today through the 29th for the purpose of discovering the best way of "promoting their role in politics."

Eunuchs are typically castrated at puberty and number about half a million (in India), and are very much misunderstood. In the West, when we hear the world eunuch we tend to think of sissy boys squeaking away in the papal choir, but in other societies they have held powerful sway. As the historian Daniel Boorstin reminds us, the greatest of Chinese seafarers was one Chen Ho, who, though a few stones shy of a full pouch, oversaw the most wide-ranging series of naval expeditions the world had ever seen (these took place between 1405 and 1433).

In any event, our time is not nearly so heroic, and so eunuchs have been forced to develop a scam in order to survive. Reuters sums it up this way: "They live mainly by collecting cash gifts from people on auspicious occasions, often by dancing to songs from Hindi movies. Groups of eunuchs dressed in colorful saris with heavy make-up and jewelry often turn up uninvited at wedding parties and leave only after receiving generous cash donations."

In somewhat similar spirit, the Yakama Indian Nation of Washington State recently attempted an even more inspiring scam. The tribe performed two rain "ceremonies," then sent a bill to the Bonneville Power Administration, which operates 29 hydroelectric dams. For an unknown reason, the government stiffed them.

Few parents, to be sure, would want their male children to become eunuchs (getting them fixed is another matter). Nor does rain-dancing promise a bright future. Then again, both are more noble than living off the courts, as we are reminded by a lawsuit filed by one Mary Lee Sowder of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, against a pet store in Roanoke, Virginia. Ms. Sowder says she slipped in a puddle of dog slobber and hurt her knee. She's demanding $100,000 to set things right.

Unfortunately, the Sowders of the world have an advantage over more honest scammers. They hold out the promise of easy money for little effort. That is why, in my house, Court TV has been electronically filtered out of the cable mix.

JWR contributor Dave Shiflett writes from central Va. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2000, Dave Shiflett