Pitching Out Sales Pitches

Yesterday two men knocked at our door.  They represented an auto glass replacement company.  I pointed to the car in our driveway and said, “See the windshield.  There’s nothing wrong with it.”  One of the salesmen opened a binder and showed me pictures of chipped car windows.  He explained that my car might have micro fractures and chips that would gradually expand until the windshield collapsed.  I found the magic words to make him leave.  I said, “I just bought that car in November.  It’s new.”  My wife Judy asked me what I was doing as I stood by the door and watched the men cross our lawn and head down the street.  I turned away after they walked out of sight and told her, “They want to sell me a new windshield.  I watched them leave to make sure we won’t need one.”

Years ago a man surprised me as I swept leaves off the driveway.  He told me that he represented a pest control company and asked me if I had any problems.  I told him that carpenter ants invaded from time to time.  They congregated on the kitchen ceiling.  He offered to treat my house, but I told him that my wife didn’t want poisons sprayed inside.  We had small children.  The man paused for a moment to size me up, and then faked hysteria.  He cried, “But what are you going to do if you find ants in your house??!!”   “Squish ’em,”  I deadpanned.  He laughed, gave me his card and walked away.

Another man strode up to my porch–big gait, expansive gestures, everyone’s buddy.  I saw a pick up idling at the curb behind him.  A large cooler rested on the truck bed.  I knew this bit:  guys drove around town with steaks, lobsters, and shrimp on ice and sold them cheap door to door.  I never bought anything off a truck, so I tried to cut to the chase.  I met him before he could pound on my door and said, “We don’t want any.”  “But sir!” he cried.   “You don’t even know what I’m selling.  I’ve got the finest steaks, filet mignon and–”  “I don’t care what you’re selling.  I’m not buying.”  I  said.  “Hey, buddy.  That’s just rude,” he sputtered.  I could see him building up self-righteous rage–it was bad form to not let him deliver his spiel.  “Okay, I’m rude,” I conceded.  “But I’m not buying anything and it’s time for you to get off my property.”  “Mister, that’s just–that’s just—” he stammered.  “Go,” I said.  He balled up his fists and took a step toward me.  Then he thought better of it and stalked off across the yard.  He yelled to his friend in the truck, “Go to the next one.  This jerk ran me off!”

A teenage girl rang our doorbell one night right after we cleared the dinner table.  She belonged to an organization that helped disadvantaged youths better themselves.  She tried to sell us magazines and told us that the kid with the best sales record won a prize (cash, a scholarship?). When she saw that we had lost interest and sympathy she threw back her shoulders and declared, “Someday I’m going to be somebody.  I’m going to succeed!”  She studied us as she waited for a reaction.  She hoped, apparently, that we would feel pressured into helping her achieve her ambitions.  We didn’t.  I walked outside a few minutes after she left and saw teenage boys and girls canvassing homes along the street.  A school bus parked down the road had a sign on it that read, “American Dreamers”.  A man with a money bag and clip board stood by the front bumper.  He collected checks and cash from his crew, clipped order forms to the board, and directed out going kids to new targets.

I got a call several months after we moved into our home from a woman offering a free water quality test.  A middle aged salesman with a frizzy brown mustache came the next evening.  He set up a display case of powdered chemicals, beakers and test tubes in our living room.  He poured tap water and orange crystals into a test tube, and the mixture turned yellow.  A white precipitate fell to the bottom.  He held up the “test results” and said, “See?”  We didn’t.  My wife Judy and I had taken chemistry in college and could recognize a Mr. Wizard flim-flam routine.  The salesman saw that he hadn’t impressed us and said, “You know that there’s an EPA Superfund site just up the road on Forsyth.”  I knew that our water company pumped out of the Florida Aquifer, not out of a shallow well nearby.  The salesman shifted gears and told us that the expensive water filtration system his company sold would save us money because…BECAUSE his company threw in jugs of super efficient laundry detergent as a bonus.  We didn’t bite.  Then he held up the test tube with the white precipitate again and glared at my wife as she held our son in her lap.  “What about the kids?” he seethed.  “Don’t you care about your kids?”  Judy started to cry.  I squared up to him and told him to leave.  He packed his case in a hurry.  But before he left he said, “You’ve got a gift coming for letting me test your water.”  I said, “We don’t want anything from you, ” and shut the door behind him.  The next day we got a call from his company.  A manager asked, “Why didn’t you accept your gift?  Was there a problem with the salesman?”

Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and assorted evangelicals frequently make the rounds in our neighborhood.  They want to know if I am saved, believe in the Bible, know what will happen to me after I die, and whether I’d like to join their happy fellowship.  The brightly colored illustrations in their pamphlets show Jesus curing the sick, happy clusters of believers breaking into song, and throngs of ecstatic souls gathered on flowered meadows in heaven.  I sometimes tell missionaries that I have a faith of my own and am satisfied with it.  If they follow up and ask, “What faith is that?” I say, “Religion is a private matter.”

But sometimes I don’t answer the door and let them mill around on my front porch.  They peer into my picture window and spot me going about my business.  They knock again determined to save me regardless of my indifference.  (How far would they go if I did open the door?)  They eventually leave with defeated looks on their faces, but their visit has not been fruitless.  They’ve inspired me to reach out and communicate with the Beyond:  as I watch them retreat I offer a prayer of thanksgiving.  I pray, “Thank you Jesus for the steel bars on my front door.”


Trump and Tribalism

The roots of Donald Trump’s recent success grow wild in the muck of tribalism.  Tribalism is the belief that my group is better than yours.  This article of faith, in its current form, proposes that a certain group of pale Americans are the true inheritors of the American Dream.  It also suggests that members of this tribe have been finding it more difficult to realize their aspirations in recent years because of the growing power and influence of people in opposing tribes (the less pale and the traitorous pale who supported President Obama).

The us vs. them stance can be  attractive to those who have been marginalized socially and economically.  A man, a woman can join a team, feel part of a bigger movement and experience the surge of power that comes by working to right injustices (real or imaginary).  The difficult work of looking for personal reasons for personal failure can be put aside.  The familiar carrot and stick promise of the American Dream–if you work hard enough you too can become rich and powerful–if you’re lazy you too will end up in the gutter–can be resuscitated once the so called agents of destruction are removed.

Tribalism is entrenched deep within our psyches.  It’s a mechanism that allows us to identify with a group for the shared purpose of survival.  Prehistoric encounters between  wandering bands competing for the same resources were fraught with danger.  Ancient peoples traded goods and information when it suited them, but also fought each other for land, water, genetic variety and hunting territory.  The term that tribes used to describe their group, to name themselves, was “The People”.  Members of other factions, even if they shared a similar heritage and language, were not considered fully human and were treated accordingly.

The history of the 20th century is a tale of racial and national tribalism. Hitler, of course, made use of this hardwired instinct to manipulate Germans and to persecute anyone he deemed an outsider.  Gypsies, Jews, Slavs, the mentally handicapped, and homosexuals were carted away and systematically killed as the Nazis considered them non German (nonhuman).  The Japanese promoted their supremacy and justified mass killings in China using a similar set of psychological maneuvers.  And Allied propaganda referred to both Germans and Japanese by derogatory names to give the impression that they were less than human. It was easier to kill a “kraut” than it was to kill someone from a culture that produced Beethoven, Goethe, Liebniz and Einstein.

Donald, with all the grace and subtlety of a tank crushing a bed of flowers, has reinvigorated the tribal strain in American politics. Trump promises that he will “make America great again” if chosen to become the leader of his tribe.  He will use his manifest power, charisma and can do attitude to reestablish the dominance of his people in America.  The details are sketchy, but he has big plans.  Big, big plans.  His pale people will become great again if only they believe in him enough to join his campaign to persecute Muslims and force Mexico to build a giant wall to imprison themselves within their borders.

He treats his opponents with scorn and derides their achievements.  They’re not as wonderful as he is.  He rewrites history to suit his narrative.  His story is better.  And he just won’t stop talking.  Why should he when he thinks that he’s already running the show?  But what he isn’t saying is that his real tribe consists of himself and a few insiders.  He’s a ruthless power player who has used liberal and conservative, private and governmental connections to expand the wealth he inherited from his father.  His true associates are a select few.  Membership in their tiny tribe is limited to the absurdly wealthy.

The rest of his “millions and millions of people” will eventually find out just how much Mr. Trump cares about them if they are foolish enough to elect him.