Sunday, August 29, 2010

Political Party Hats and the Great American Snake

Photo by Oliver Douliery - Abaca Press

I talk with friends in Italy almost daily and this past year it has been challenging to try to answer their questions about political images beamed to them from America. They are mystified by the clots of angry, mostly white and mostly “mature” Americans who wear strange clown-like hats sometimes with “tanti bustini di tè” (lots of teabags) dangling from them.

Friends in Naples ask, “Who are these people and why do they dress up like that? Is it some sort of folk tradition? Do they still not like dark-skinned people? Why are they so angry?” All are valid questions, especially with the steady stream of news, photos and video being fed constantly to Italy. The loud and bizarre gets lots of play there just like it does here.

Protests have their extremes in Europe, to be sure. French farmers dumped tons of manure in front of McDonald’s outlets protesting U.S. sanctions. And in Brussels it was not blood running in the streets last year, it was milk. Part of a continuing Pan-European farm fury included the scene below, protesting government controlled milk prices. Frustrated farmers presented a clear message that was milked for all it was worth with not one funny hat, misspelled poster or misplaced metaphor.

So, how to explain why those frustrated, not too well informed and very noisy Americans gather to “take their country back” while all decked out in giant Red White and Blue top hats and other strange attire? I was recently asked by my friend, Guido, "Larry, why is the woman with the yellow flag with the coiled snake on it telling everyone not to step on the snake? Is she a snake worshiper?"

For years Italians have seen documentaries about Christian sects in rural America who dance wildly inside their churches while holding and even kissing live poisonous snakes. So, coiled rattlesnakes on flags at heated political gatherings suggest to Italians a reasonable association with the American snake handlers they have seen. But snakes as a national symbol of American patriotism is neither quickly nor easily explained.

You can imagine the challenge in trying to talk about the why and who and what of raucous Tea Party gatherings. I have been unable to connect revolutionary Boston's dumping of crates of tea into their harbor over unfair taxation with today's small tea bags hanging off gaudy sequined hats. Not for my Italian friends or for myself.

The simplistic appeal of Glen Beck’s dreck, to the people in funny hats is particularly difficult for my friends to understand. Italians who have seen him think Beck is a game show host. I just agreed with them and continued on telling about the Great American Snake.

Explaining the yellow “Gadsden flag” to my Italian friends involved starting with a satirical article written by Ben Franklin around 1754 which included a cartoon showing a timber rattlesnake chopped up into 8 pieces. Each piece represented one of the eight colonies. Franklin, tongue in cheek, suggested that since the British had sent convicted criminals to America, we should send rattlesnakes to England by way of thanks.

Four years later Continental Congress Colonel Christopher Gadsden reportedly used the image of a coiled rattlesnake that had been painted on marching band snare drums of US Marines interdicting British naval supply ships arriving in the new colonies to create his “Don’t Tread On Me” flag.

Col. Gadsden presented the first feisty banner to his home constituency in South Carolina. It became one of several early American flags. The flag's image is still all over the place today, even on Nike's 2010 World Cup soccer ball images, at Boy Scouts of America camp sites and as the Tea Party's official flag.

Benjamin Franklin's woodcut cartoon from May 9, 1754. Image from Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons.
So somehow it makes perfect sense to lots of the disgruntled and fearful here at home to see a 62 year old American woman in an out sized floppy Uncle Sam hat waving the rattlesnake flag warning you not to step on her patriotism . . . however she may define that. Why she can't be just as patriotic in regular street clothes puzzles a large majority of Americans as well as my Italian friends.

I will hazard a guess that she and most of the other snake flag wavers have no more idea of the flag's history than Guido. But to her she is a tightly coiled patriot fighting fascism, communism, socialism and all the other isms that the new black American president and rabid liberals have in store for her. No real need to define or understand all those isms because "everyone knows what they are."

Guido, on the other hand, can give you a clear, quick definition of Fascism and communism. His parents lived under Mussolini's Fascist rule. Italy has a Communist party which is represented in its endless postwar coalition governments, and Italy is by and large a social democracy just like a most of Europe today.

Guido asks, still trying to understand the ladies pictured at the top of the page, “That lady in the hat with the colored horns on it, is that for good luck?” In Italy, an animal horn amulet made of real gold or even red plastic wards off evil. I deftly try to say that she is wearing a standard issue Statue of Liberty party hat that has nothing to do with the evil eye or with France who gave the statue to the USA. “So the USA never sent rattlesnakes to France?” I allowed as how I just wasn't sure about that.

Sarah Palin is easier for Italians to understand since they have had their own national nutcase, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who dominates the news with his benighted bumbling and endless internationally embarrassing pronouncements.

Berlusconi is a billionaire media mogul. Sarah Louise is hard at work Twittering her way to becoming a multi-millionaire from speaking fees for her illogical, vacuous God and Country utterances. Sarah Louise has a nice figure, nice looks and has great legs. If she married Berlusconi, whose wife divorced him for his diversions with underage girls, it could be a marriage made in heaven. And Sarah speaks in tongues. But I digress.

Trying to sum up the discontent, anger and bizarre headgear issues, I offered a list of suggested questions Guido could toss around with his friends over a cup of tea before we have our next political chit chat. The ladies at the top of the page might take a glance at these as well.
What happens when big government gets out of your life, starts spending less and each individual American State bears the responsibility for its citizens' welfare?

Will all the Tea Party folks turn in their Federally subsidized socialized Medicare cards and expect the state and their own private insurance to take care of their health?

When the already collapsing bridges, dams, highways and other infrastructure finally totally crumbles away while no one has been paying any higher taxes, will the states somehow take care of all those problems within their boundaries? You think Wall Street and your local banker might step in and help you while staying out of your life as well?

And when "the government" has been purged from your lives and "returned to The People," except for, "when Federal Government assistance is needed" what will the rules be that define when and how much assistance?

Finally, who will make those rules? Mad folks in funny hats who created their own brand of social democracy State by State?
I look forward to my next chat with Guido. He wants to talk about this great nation of America and how it is made up of immigrants. His great uncle Tonino lived in Brooklyn.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Amazon: Don't call us, we'll call you

OK, I should never have ordered a pair of shoes over the internet. But has always had good stuff, good prices and fast delivery. I've ordered lots of stuff from them over the years. A brand new iMac, top of the line bread baking machine, shelves of books and other stuff that has always arrived in great shape at a notable savings. But I had never had reason to ask questions or talk about an order with a customer service agent.

That's good, because Amazon's idea of customer service doesn't mean dialing a 1-800 number and talking to someone. Their approach to customer service is just like ordering merchandise on Amazon. You are expected to click your way through a series of drop down windows with fixed choices till you narrow down a specific item that requires customer service, and then you click some more for options on how you contact customer service. A toll free customer service number is not an option and was not handily located on their web site. Playing "Where's Waldo" to find a phone number is not customer service.

I really wanted to talk to a someone at Amazon about the pair of Rockport ProWalker shoes that arrived with the front sole and curved toe of the right shoe looking not at all like the left one. Someone in Bangladesh running the toe rounding grinder clearly dozed off, grinding most of the toe area off the right shoe even leaving a flat spot on what was supposed to be an ample, evenly curved toe. Not to worry, it was boxed up and sent right off ... to me.

Worse yet, the quality of the shoes was more like what one might see in a Big Lots or Dollar Store closeout, not anything like the Rockport shoes I have worn for years. So, at this point you really want to talk to someone when things get this messed up. And you would think someone there would want to learn about shoddy merchandise going out under the company name.

If you find the word help in tiny blue lettering in all the stuff at the upper right of the page and then click around enough you eventually get to their customer service page.

The first option is to contact Amazon by email ("Usually answered within 12 hours") the other option is "PHONE" and clicking that does not lead you to a phone number, rather you must enter your area code and telephone number and Amazon will call you back. And you can only email or be called back after clicking through a series of drop-down menus and selecting from a list of reasons why you need customer service . . . there is no drop-down option to simply "Talk to a human being."

After facing this inflexible wall of non-applicable options, for the hell of it I just typed " 1-800 number" into a search engine and got 4,540,000 returns.

Amazon has never published its toll-free customer service number it seems. And this has infuriated hundreds of thousands of Amazon customers. Checking the search results, the story of Amazon's inflexibility has been reported for years by major news media like NPR, The New York Times, US News and World Report and countless news blogs and web sites.

One personal blog called publishes not only all of Amazon's toll free numbers, but all the other Amazon business and departmental numbers and addresses in the USA and in the UK. This site also provides the hard, if not impossible to find direct toll free numbers to Yahoo, PayPal, E-Bay, and Netflix.

I dialed Amazon's toll free U.S. number, (800) 201-7575, and after a bit of a pause for clicking and connecting and the routine recording declaring "this call may be recorded for quality purposes," I got Maria in Manila. Very sweet girl, happy to have her job in the call center there. Her pronounced accent was lilting and understandable. She knew nothing at all about Amazon's quality control or about mismatched shoes, but did find the return policy and procedures on her printed flow sheet which she read to me.

I had already printed out the Amazon return UPS label and returned the shoes. But Maria was so nice, even though she clearly knew nothing about Amazon's quality control operation, I simply thanked her for her help with return policy rules and confirmed that my credit card had been credited with a refund.

I returned to the Amazon page and in the search bar under "All Departments" at the top of the page, I typed in "customer service number" and promptly got three returns . . . the first was a book in Kindle Edition from which I took the graphic at the top of this article, "Secret Toll-Free Customer Service Phone Numbers and Shortcuts to an Operator for Nearly 600 Businesses and US Government Agencies " Clicking this $3.99 bargain opens up information about the book's content, and lo! scrolling down we read:
Did you notice that it is hard to find customer service phone numbers on many web sites? Well, businesses hide their customer service phone numbers. They want you to fill out lengthy online forms. BEAT THEM WITH THIS SECRET YELLOW PAGES BOOK. It collects nearly 600 Hard-to-Find Toll-Free Customer Service Phone Numbers together. Better yet, we tell you how to skip automated prompts and talk directly to a human operator."
And there, on Amazon's own web site, topping the list of books for sale was this book, for sale in Amazon's Kindle eBook digital book offerings, loaded with a treasure trove of information. And who did the book's authors choose as an example of the most secretive and obfuscating practitioners of hiding or not even providing customer service numbers?  Yep, you guessed it:
Example for toll-free phone numbers (Cust. service): 1-800-201-7575; to reach an operator, do not dial or say anything. (Seller support): 1-877-251-0696; to reach an operator, do not dial or say anything. (Rebate status): 1-866-348-2492; to reach an operator, press 0.
Amazon Visa: 1-888-247-4080; to reach an operator, dial 00 at each prompt.
None of this would concern my college student granddaughter. I, however, am old enough to remember real customer service from the electric power company, the telephone company, catalog order departments and many others. You dialed a number, talked with someone and found out what you needed to know.

Amazon, AT&T, the cable TV company and any other place where I spend money really are not interested in talking ... they don't need to anymore. As soon as people willingly started to spend several dollars for a cup of coffee, who needed customer service any longer?

Graphic, with a tad of Photoshop: Mobile Reference