Monday, 22 December 2003

In Defence of Polly Toynbee

OK, for those who haven´t caught up with the Blogosphere, Polly Toynbee is the Guardianista who publically confessed to having fallen for a Nigerian Scam.
With embarrassment, feeling a fool, I admit I was a victim of a Nigerian fraud. Looking back now, I can't think why I was so easily taken in but I did make a reasonable check.
Ms Toynbee has been the butt of many jokes for this. The general concensus amongst right-wing blogs is "Typical Leftie, Dumb as a Post, you have to be not just Thick but extraordinarily Thick to fall for a Nigerian Scam."
But having read the article, I must disagree. The Scam was not the ordinary "Greetings, I´ve just stolen $25 million and I need someone to get it out of the country..." type, but a relatively sophisticated Spanish Prisoner variety, complete with plausible documentary evidence, designed to pray on people who wear their hearts on their sleeve. To Altruism, not Greed.
A hand-written letter arrived from a Nigerian 14-year-old called Sandra. It was nicely written on a religious school's headed paper, though not too perfect, telling me her sad story. Both her parents had died and she had to complete her last two years of school. Her results were good, and it would only cost £100 a year for the last two years to cover the cost. I wrote back and I also wrote to her headmaster, whose name appeared on the school letterhead, at a PO box. He wrote back in more adult handwriting to say Sandra was indeed a needy and promising student, and he enclosed her last term's report. It was an impressive document, each subject carefully filled in by a teacher with different writing, giving an excellent but not over-the-top report, with some subjects subtly lagging a bit behind. So I sent a cheque for £200 and received another of Sandra's letters, a bit too full of God's mercy and Jesus's blessings for my taste. I had an idea I might keep in touch with her to see what became of her. If I had any doubts, £200 was a modest sum for all the effort a fraudster took to create these letters.
Ms Toynbee made a reasonable, rational decision : the amount involved was "modest" and the evidence was plausible enough to believe. If true, the payoff was huge, if false, the penalty minor. And examine the evidence, the detail, she looked for. Plausible Notepaper. Different hands for the teacher. It took a fair degree of sophistication to fool her. She continues:
But it wasn't about the £200. Not long afterwards my bank received a letter with a perfect copy of my signature, giving my bank account numbers, asking for £1,000 to be transferred at once to a bank in Osaka, Japan.
Which indicates a somewhat sophisticated gang of international professional con-artists, not the "e;e-mail em all, and one in a million´s bound to be a moron" type. Given her high-profile as a compassionate, caring, left-leaning liberal (who presumably is thus both gullible and well-off), I have no doubt she was quite carefully targetted.

I´d like to think I wouldn´t have fallen for the same thing - I certainly would have performed some additional checks - but it would not have taken much more in the way of evidence to convince me that the original letter was possibly genuine. I cannot call her an Idiot for falling for this one.

And I must give her full marks for Courage. Her article is a warning, along the lines of "Here´s the mistake I made, so you won´t have to.". And she deliberately and knowingly holds herself up to public ridicule in order to do so.

So, in short, she not only admits her mistakes, but has the guts to say so in public, that others may learn. Two qualities in remarkably short supply amongst the Left in general, and not as common as I´d like amongst the Right either. She was also not afraid to put her money where her principles were, to do just a little bit of good in this sad old world. Another quality sadly lacking in both the Left and the Right.


Later on she shows the almost universal unconscious racism of the Chattering classes, and the undercurrent of Anti-Americanism, blaming everything on the US, Bush, and Big Oil :
The image of capitalism now being spread about the world is cowboy stuff: little gleaned from America extols the virtue of regulation, restraint and control. We reap from the third world what we sow: if some Nigerians learned lessons in capitalism from global oil companies that helped corrupt and despoil that land, it is hardly surpising they absorbed some of the Texan oil values that now rule the White House.
Cartoon History 3To the extent that her comments hold substance, as has been mentioned by other commentators, it´s not that them Playful Innocent Darkies have been corrupted by the White Man´s Evil Cunning, it´s more of a case of some Western Organisations following the same business-model as Medieval Robber Barons, who in turn were but naive tyros compared to the sophisticated West-African Empires of the Middle Ages. I suggest she go read Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe Vol III, which has a shallow but entertaining treatment of the subject - along with a bibliography of primary sources for deeper study. (No, I don´t get paid for the link to And the implication that Nigerian Scamming is "All Bush´s Fault" is ...umm... less than intellectually rigorous. It´s embaressingly Daft.

But ignore the mild Ignorance and unconscious Racism that underlies and passes for much of today´s Leftist doctrine, and there´s much to admire. To all my comrades-in-arms who are Fighting the Good Fight against Saddamists and Idiotarians, if you haven´t given Toys to Iraq, or contributed in some other small way to alleviating the world´s misery, (Carmel and I sponsor a kid in East Timor via the CCF) then may I humbly suggest that the criticism of Polly Toynbee be accompanied by some action. She gave $500 (Aus) to some thieves, thereby increasing in some small way the world´s woes. How about we raise the same amount for victims of Islamofascists and Saddamites who genuinely need it? Otherwise we´ll be like the Idiotarians : all incompletely-thought-out good intentions and words, without the guts or rationality to back them up. If your Randite principles stand in the way of giving anything to anyone, maybe they need re-examination. Circumstances alter Cases, and you should never let your philosophy prevent you from doing the right thing. If (like me) you´re distrustful of Foreign Aid and Charities generally, there are links above to two which are bona fide. Or there´'s always the Magen David Adom, the child that the Christian- and Muslim- dominated ICRC (International Commitee of the Red Cross/Crescent) doesn´t want to acknowledge. Over to you.

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