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11/12/2003 Archived Entry: "Die, Jerk"
Posted by CKL @ 02:01 AM PST

Last night's episode of Gilmore Girls touched me even more than usual.

I didn't write for my college newspaper, but I did apply to be a columnist and a cartoonist. They rejected me for both. It wasn't until the end of my senior year, when I wrote a scathing letter to the editor, vilifying the practice of telemarketing, that they published my work.

And then the death threats came.

"But wait," you say. "Who in their right mind would defend telemarketers?" Ah, but it's not as simple as that...

Let's start at the end. On August 21, 1996, the Palo Alto Daily News published this obituary:

Evan Chen, 20, a student at Stanford University, died at his home in Walnut Creek July 28 from complications related to a bone marrow transplant to combat leukemia. After complaining of fatigue last spring, he had blood tests taken, which indicated the rare biphenotypic leukemia. Blood typing drives were organized by his best friend Yul Kwon and a number of Asian organizations, and he received a bone marrow transplant this summer. He had been recuperating at home, but his condition deteriorated rapidly in July. A native of Evanston, Ill., he was a varsity fencer at Stanford who planned to major in biological sciences and pursue a medical degree. He is survived by his mother, Jiasie Chen of Walnut Creek; his father, Wayne Chen of Walnut Creek; his sister, Emily Chen of Walnut Creek; one grandmother; and one grandfather. The first service was held and a second service will be held at Memorial Church at Stanford the last week of September. Contributions may be made to the Evan Chen Memorial Fund at Stanford University's Office of Development, Gift Processing, 301 Encina Hall, Stanford, CA 94305-6076. Checks should be made payable to Stanford.
A year earlier, I had participated in that selfsame blood typing drive. As the Lambda Phi Epsilon Fraternity web site tells it:
In 1995, our brother Evan Chen was diagnosed with leukemia. The fraternity along with Evan’s friends organized a joint effort to find a bone marrow match for Evan. What resulted was the largest bone marrow typing drive in the history of the National Marrow Donor Program and AADP (Asian American Donor Program). In a matter of days, over 2000 people were typed. A match was eventually found for Evan, unfortunately by that time the disease had taken its toll on him and he passed away in 1996. Evan’s struggles taught us much about the true meaning of brotherhood and sacrifice, and his memories live on with us today. In his memory, every October, we host our annual AADP Bone Marrow Typing Drive. This year, we typed roughly 300 new people in what has also become the national philanthropy of Lambda Phi Epsilon.
Now we come to the beginning of the story. Evan Chen had been a holy cause on the Stanford campus, and especially in the Asian-American activist community, for those few weeks in the spring of 1995. There were flyers. There were notices in the newspaper. There were people making the rounds at house meetings to encourage everyone to participate in the blood drive. There were mass e-mails.

And then there was the telemarketing.

I had been plagued by telemarketers for several months, and I had decided I wasn't going to put up with it anymore. What really irked me was that such a charitable cause as this had sunk so low. I told the woman on the phone that I didn't want to talk to her, and why, but she wouldn't give up. I'm not afraid to say it: she harassed me. And I have no patience for people who disrespect me.

There is a separation between the issue itself and the manner of your prosecution.

This is the letter I wrote in response to that phone call, and which was published on June 1, 1995:

I could handle the flyers. Flyers are a staple of the Stanford campus. Flyers everywhere. No problem.

I could handle the e-mail chain letters. People shouldn't do it, but the cause was just, so I let it go. No problem.

When somebody telephoned me in my room, I stopped handling it. I stopped wanting to handle it. This was no longer a plea for charity; this had become extortion, pure and simple. These people were trying to guilt me into giving up my bone marrow.

Make no mistake -- I have nothing but sympathy for Evan Chen. Anyone who shares my last name and looks good in a tux deserves the best in life, and his leukemia is a tragedy. His open letter to Stanford touched me, and I had been seriously considering taking the time to register myself. Unfortunately, somebody went too far.

This is not about charity or compassion. This is about my privacy and my desire not to be harassed by anyone, whether they're selling encyclopedias or collecting for the Jehovah's Witnesses. I'm sure the people acting on Evan's behalf have only the best intentions at heart, but perhaps in the future they should think before emoting. Desperation does not justify rudeness or condescension.

I am a responsible adult. I don't need to be told where to go, what to do or how to think. And I don't like it when people try to tell me any of those things. Mutual respect, that's what I want. I want respect for my ability to make rational decisions without being poked or prodded by anybody. I want respect for my rights and privileges as a human being and a citizen of the United States of America.

Life's tough already. We don't need to make it any more unpleasant.

So you tell me: did I go too far? Was I too insensitive? Should I have let the transgression slide because it was, after all, for a good cause?

(An aside: the editorial staff, without my knowledge or permission, slapped the heading "Soliciting bone marrow donations by telephone should not be tolerated" on my letter. While accurate, it doesn't really reflect the spirit of my letter, which is: "Soliciting anything by telephone should not be tolerated.")

I did give blood, as I already mentioned. I wasn't a match, but I was one of those more than two thousand people who offered to help. Because it was the right thing to do. And writing that letter was also the right thing to do.

"Now hold on," you say, "how can these seeming opposites both be right?" No, you don't understand. These causes were not in opposition. They were merely intersecting, colliding. You might call them compassion and misanthropy, but that's an oversimplification.

There is a separation between the issue itself and the manner of your prosecution.

On June 2, 1995, Yul Kwon, Evan Chen's best friend, wrote an equally impassioned letter in response to mine. I won't include it here because it's very long, and most of it is, frankly, irrelevant. Here's an excerpt:

...[A]s Curtis concluded, life's tough already, and we don't need to make it any more unpleasant. Well, there aren't many things more unpleasant than witnessing the death of another human being. It's easier to put it out of sight and out of mind.

The great majority of people, however, will care once they have really thought about the issue. Seeing a poster with a lot of exclamation marks isn't going to register much time in the old noggin. I wish it were that simple. On the other hand, talking to someone who's out there because his friend is dying, will. And honestly, I truly am sorry for having made anyone uncomfortable or inconveniencing them during this whole effort. Believe me, I don't want to be doing this either. But it seemed to me that it was a greater crime not even to try than to ask someone for a moment of their time...

Is it just me, or does this attitude scare you, too? At the time, I was too shaken by the ad hominem attack to see it, but now, with more age, experience, and September 11th behind me, I'm appalled at the irrational tone of this rebuttal.

You assume that you're right. You assume that I'm doing what I do because I'm wrong, I'm ignorant, I'm stupid, I'm mean. You assume that you just have to pound your views into my head long enough and hard enough, and I'll come around. And if that doesn't work, you'll attack me. Where will you stop?

There is a separation between the issue itself and the manner of your prosecution.

(Aside: the editorial staff titled Yul's letter "Evan Chen's life depends on the kindness of strangers." I maintain that this is less accurate than the title I got, even if it does carry more emotional resonance.)

That letter wasn't the worst of it. People e-mailed me. People called me. Ugly, hateful people, who apparently thought it was okay to be vicious and cruel because they were doing it for a good cause-- even though they weren't, really. They weren't doing it to help Evan or anybody else. They were doing it to satisfy their own perverse desire for revenge.

One man said that I'd probably also enjoy setting homeless people on fire. (For the record: never tried it. Don't think I would like it.) Then he yelled something unintelligible and hung up. A woman told me she hoped I'd get struck by lightning. (Well, I'm feeling lucky, but not that lucky.) Then she called me a few names and hung up. Profanity was not uncommon in these correspondences, by the way. I stopped answering the phone for a while. Fortunately, graduation came quickly, and the craziness ended.

I made one mistake in my letter. I implied that I wasn't going to participate in the blood typing drive because of the intrusive phone call, when I still had every intention of doing so. I was angry, and for that, I apologize. Maybe if I'd been clear about my position, none of the subsequent shenanigans would have occurred.

Maybe it wouldn't have mattered.

I'm no Rory Gilmore, but I am a damn good writer, and I can think for myself, thank you very much. I don't regret the letter I wrote on June 1, 1995. I still hate telemarketers, and I think the FTC made a grave error when exempting charities from the National Do Not Call Registry. But-- all together, now--

There is a separation between the issue itself and the manner of your prosecution.

Here endeth the lesson.

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