Thursday, January 26, 2017

Spitshine Me: On Betsy Devos, Amway and the Utter Creepiness of the Unhinged Right

A Cautionary Tale

As anyone who’s been paying attention to creepy doings for the last 40 years or so knows[i], the subject, “the Utter Creepiness of the Unhinged Right”, is too vast to fit into one post. How creepy that ride has been for how long and how long ago we should have jumped off of that spooky train has been, tragically, right in our face all that time. But we’ve--collectively, at least--turned away from it too often, missed too many opportunities to get away and now, alas. The zombies have eaten the last living human. Welcome to the Twilight Zone.
            For those of you who need a quick counter-narrative to what your television set has been selling you these last 40 years or so, I offer up this folksy tale from my own checkered past. My intent, as far as intent goes, is to illustrate what I know of the utter, dismal, creepy danger of one—and only one--of the dozens of utterly creepy Far-Right ideologues Trump and his fawning Congress are now (as you read this) handing out Oligarchy-Appointment-Candy to this month.
            Betsy DeVos is apparently going to be our next of Secretary of Education. As heiress to the (apparently) depthless Amway fortune she and her family have been funding the worst actors of the Creepy Right for decades, including many far-far (far-fa…r) Right schemes to destroy public education in favor of gifting our (that’s OUR) public-education funds to unaccountable, private corporations running religious-indoctrination camps (and maybe a few charter schools if they tow the approved Fundamentalist-Christian line). She’s never attended a public school, nor has any of her kids, and there’s a question as to whether she’s ever actually set foot in one. But let’s not get high-centered on small-mindedness, eh? Let’s think big, like the fact that she’s worth about five billion bucks.
            Now think bigger. Have you ever wondered…these last 40 years or a person like Betsy DeVos (or a person like her brother, Erik Prince, founder and C.E.O. of Blackwater and now consulting Trump on “security” matters) got to be worth so much money, or how our public discourses have been so in the religio-toilet for so long? Well, wonder no more, and look no further than the likes of Amway.   
            So what is Amway anyways, and why are its royal lords and ladies so rich and powerful and… crazy? Isn’t it just a flaky shoeshine company?!? How is it then, that unbeknownst to almost all of you Amway has become the epitome of success at sending whacky-Right extremists to Congress to carry its water all these years and now, a Secretary of Education who doesn’t believe in public education at all?  Is it some religious cult? A pyramid scheme for crooks? A cancer and a pox upon the Land that has never been properly diagnosed?
            Yes, all of that and a little bit more. So once again, welcome to the Twilight Zone. Sit back, and enjoy my little cautionary tale.

In the Spring of 1971, I joined the Navy and was sent to Boot Camp in San Diego. I was 18 and as far as I knew (which wasn’t very far) I didn’t have to join the Navy at all. My parents sure didn’t think so, and they tried their hardest to talk me out of it. A war was raging in Vietnam, I was enrolled in college and I hadn’t even done them the courtesy of finding out what my draft number was. But like so many innocents raised on patriotism and war movies, I signed up anyway, waved goodbye to my weeping mother from the dirty window of the Greyhound bus we were loaded into, and three hours later we were unceremoniously transferred onto the battleship-grey Navy bus that carted us off to camp, where the process began of teaching clueless kids like me that we were nothing which, clueless as I was, I have to admit I hadn’t considered before.

As anyone who has been through a boot camp knows, this is a formal, abrasive, thoroughly-thought-out and effective educational experience, tried and true, meant to save us from getting shot in a jungle…or something…like that...I think…
And that’s how I remember my Navy Boot Camp: vaguely and disturbingly, which brings me to how I met my first Amway salesman.
I didn’t know he was an Amway salesman at the time, didn’t know anything about Amway for that matter, other than that it was a flaky shoeshine company. I also didn’t know about creepy corporate-religious cults, pyramid schemes or any of that. I had just joined the Navy during wartime, for chrissakes. I obviously didn’t know anything about anything. But that changed quick, thanks, in no small part, to an Amway salesman.

He was the "commanding officer" of one of our sister recruit companies. This really meant that he was a fleet chief petty officer who had pulled shore duty as a boot camp “drill sergeant”: which meant he fit the definition of a Frustrated Man. San Diego was graduating out about 1000 recruits a week into the fleet in those days, with about 100 recruits to a company[ii]. Any given company had about 9 sister companies, then, working their way through the three-month program, all to graduate on the same day and each with a frustrated, usually angry, fleet chief petty officer at its helm bulldogging them through.

One of the most common methods used on naïve kids who could end up being shot at by strangers in mere months was to teach them impossibly obtuse minutia about how to fold their clothing and shine their shoes and then to punish them severely when they screwed up which, happily for the bulldoggers, was inevitable.

We were taught how to properly fold our Navy-issue underwear (“skivvies”), for instance, and where to properly place them in our locker. Then we were inspected on how well we had learned these new life skills. If we missed a fold or creased them crooked, or we placed them on top of the properly-folded dungarees instead of the properly-folded t-shirt we were punished. This meant that punishment was a seamless vapor that enveloped us like a winter fog we forgot how to live without --and since our commanding officer/chief often slept in the same barracks with the recruits own and therefore had to maintain enough good will with us in order to not get murdered him in his sleep, he worked in tandem with this chief from a sister company in the classic “good-cop/bad-cop” scheme.

We saw this bad-cop chief often because, in spite of the “good-cop” persona he tried to project to us, our own chief was really kind of a sadist, too. So this other chief would come over about three or four times a week, whenever us “worms” (the endearing term used in Boot Camp for recruits) needed to be shaken down a notch or two, when a hundred push-ups needed to be meted out for the insubordination of neglecting to dust the top of a World-War-Two era light fixture 15 feet off the barracks floor, when an M-1 rifle needed to be held at arms length for an hour for the outrage of forgetting where the skivvies went and where the socks didn’t, or when a double-time jog around the camp was called for to impress upon us the importance of having immaculately-spitshined shoes which, as you might have guessed by now, was this chief’s particular fetish. In fact, during personal “inspections” he would purposefully step on the toe of a newly-shined boot and grind down into the pavement until the wearer winced, until he knew he was not only ruining the kid’s shoeshine but hurting his toe, and then he’d yell at the top of his lungs to drop down and give him fifty push-ups.
There are a few things about shining your shoes in a Navy boot camp that need to be mentioned here. First, Navy-issue boondockers were made of coarse leather and were not at all shiny when they were issued to us along with our other clothing items shortly after arrival. They were work boots. They weren’t designed to be shiny. That’s important to remember.

Second, at least in Navy Boot Camp, special attention was paid to the toe of the boondocker, which was required to be shiny enough to reflect your commanding officer’s sadistic grin whenever he so chose, which meant always, which meant that young kids who were just beginning to get an inkling that they were expected to think of themselves as nothing developed an entirely-unhealthy fetish for shining their coarse, unshineabe boondocker toes. This is also important to remember.

Third, we were only allowed to use Kiwi bootblack and spit to accomplish this unnatural feat, which led to most of us developing a religious aversion to Kiwi shoeshine tins, which in turn explains a lot about religious indoctrinations in general, but I digress.

Imagine then, a hundred relatively-innocent kids who hadn’t even figured out what they’d gotten themselves into yet let alone what they were going to do about it sitting in the California sun laboring over the shining of the toe of their work boots for hours. And hours. And weeks. And months. That was Boot Camp.

Okay, so along comes Graduation Day, and ten (or so) companies march perfectly about each other out on the parade grounds in machine-like precision, a thousand whitehats get thrown in the air with a whooping cheer (We’re free!...?) we go back to our barracks to pack our duffel bags with our perfectly-folded skivvies and other perfectly-folded clothes for our first leave and our next duty station, and there we find the bad-cop chief. He's all smiles now, shaking hands, patting backs and he’s telling us that, now that we’re “out in the fleet”, we can use anything we want to shine our shoes so long as they’re shiny, and that only a worm would continue to do it by the spitshining method he had been forcing us to unnaturally perfect these last three months, and that he just happened to have a few boxes of this shoeshine spray with him to help us along our way to…Singapore, the Philippines, Spain, Vietnam…The world, he wanted us to now know, was now our oyster, and Amway was going to help us slip that oyster down our gullets. This, then, was the moment he chose to reveal that he was, in reality, nothing but an Amway salesman.

But what an Amway salesman he was! Like I pointed out above, each and every week there were (about) ten companies of 100 recruits each graduating the same day, and the chief drove around and visited them all with (probably) a carload of his Shoeshine Spray. He probably sold hundreds of them a week, making a fortune off of our boon dockers for the heirs of that fortune, Betsy DeVos and her mercenary brother, rich people getting richer off of our boon dockers, ultimately to become the self-proclaimed “deciders” of which rat hole this country should aim itself down. Our boondockers, along with the massive tax-cuts for the rich that have been dished out since Reagan and common-scheme pyramid swindles and cult-like promotion of grade-B products that should never have contributed to the overloading of our landfills not to mention our Congress, with unnecessary crap. Support our troops, indeed. Like I said, this subject is too huge. Look it up.  

In the meantime, let me share a bit more of my personal history. My daughter is deaf, and we have had to fight every step of the way (under Obama!) to get her the services she needs and deserves and is legally entitled to receive from our public schools, and have found the only safety net we have been able to fall back on consistently when it came time to threatening school officials who have found it so hard to find time and money for our child has been the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the bedrock law that mandates that public schools throughout the country provide our children with those services (WHICH WE PAY FOR!!). Betsy DeVos, on the other hand, who may or may not have ever actually set a toe in a public school facility, had to admit during her congressional hearing that she didn’t even know of IDEA’s existence and that at any rate “those kinds of things” should be left to the states. "Nothing", she condescendingly admonished Senator Al Franken on the congressional committee when he questioned her about her astonishing lapse of knowledge, "is really 'free'".

A simple definition for “Creepy” should suffice to describe Betsy DeVos as our next Secretary of Education: “A feeling as if something were crawling over your skin, shivering, chilled with fright, causing an unpleasant feeling of fear and unease.”

Maybe the Amway Chief was selling product with mere “religious fervor”. This would jibe with the long history of the company in building a pyramid scheme of profits on the backs of dupes, half of whom make no money at all.

Another way to describe the Chief’s—and his bosses’—behavior is this: they’re a bunch of crooks, who use moral relativism as a smokescreen for their crusade in the pursuit of wealth, Christians indeed. 

Mabye if Betsy gets in, we’ll be blessed with a nation of cultish salespeople “loyal to their brand”, hawking wares for their rich overlords who promise them a “seat next to Christ” instead of actual wages. After all, targeting naïve people is her family’s forte.


[i] Starting with Ronald Reagan and his alliance with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon during the Nicaraguan “Contra” War.
[ii] This is my best recollection. I’m almost sure the companies were 100 recruits each, but not so sure about the numbers of companies per week. It was a lot.

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