Transcript

531:

Got Your Back
Transcript

Originally aired 07.25.2014

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/531

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Hey there, podcast listeners, Ira here. So there's some cursing in this week's show, and we're not going to beep it here on the podcast and internet version of the show. If you prefer a beeped version of our program, like we do on the radio, that's great. Go to our website, thisamericanlife.org, and you can download it from there.

This thing about not beeping the words is something we've tried a few times here on the internet. And we're not sure how often we should do it, or if we should keep doing it. We would love to hear what you think. If you have an opinion about this, email us at web@thislife.org, and it would help us a lot to sort these emails out if you put in the subject header, Beep Yes, or Beep No, in the subject line. OK, Beep Yes or Beep No. I think that's pretty simple. I think you understand which one goes with which one you feel. I'm not going to say anything more about that. OK. Here is today's show.

For years, David liked playing this not so well-known board game called Diplomacy, where he would get to do things and act in ways that he would never do in his regular life. He describes the game as a cross between Risk, poker, and the television show Survivor. Basically, there's a map of Europe, you're assigned a country, and you're trying to take over the world.

David Hill

There's no dice. There's no element of chance.

Ira Glass

And so, is it about like, bluffing, and alliances, and stuff?

David Hill

Yeah. Alliances are key to the game, because you play with seven players. The only way for anybody to overtake anyone else is for two people to team up against one.

Ira Glass

Team up and attack, that is. Before each turn, there's 15 minutes where everybody negotiates with everybody else about who's going to work with whom. And then, everybody goes off and writes down on pieces of paper who it is that they're going to attack, and then all the papers are read out loud, and everybody finds out who is aligned with who, and who double crossed who.

People stab each other in the back so much in this game, they don't even take the time to say the full phrase, stabbed in the back. Everybody just calls it stabbing. David played with a group of guys, his buddies, always by email. Once a week, they would email each other their next moves, which meant that the game would take months. David thought he knew what he was doing, but his friends wondered about him sometimes.

David Hill

You know, there was a time when I made like, a pornographic Photoshop of this one player with like, his phone number and his Social Security number on it. And I told him that I was going to post it on the internet if he didn't cooperate with me. And I think that some of the people in the game felt like that had crossed the line. Like, that was out of bounds.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. You took Photoshop, and you basically took his head or face, and put it into a porno image with his Social Security number and--

David Hill

His phone number. And I think I put where he worked.

Ira Glass

And you threatened to put that online?

David Hill

Mm-hm.

Ira Glass

And you were serious?

David Hill

I don't know. I figured it would work, so I didn't know if I was bluffing or not.

Ira Glass

Wait, and so the people who you were playing with thought like, that crossed the line. Why doesn't cross the line?

David Hill

Yeah, it's definitely crossing the line. But the thing about Diplomacy I think is kind of sick is that people will tell you nothing is out of bounds.

Ira Glass

Well, maybe not nothing. But it's a game with a certain amount of yelling, and bullying, and psychological manipulation. And the boundary line is not always so clear on what you should be doing. Another time that it seemed like David might not be perceiving where that line is the same way that his opponents did came at the very first game that he played with other people in person, like not on email.

He'd wanted to play in person for years, but his buddies weren't into that. And so finally, he got his chance when a friend invited him to an informal tournament in Connecticut.

David Hill

And I was sure that I would love it. And I rode out there with him.

Ira Glass

And so, where was it? How many people?

David Hill

It was in like, this weird mansion on the coast of Connecticut. And I don't know, there might have been like--

Ira Glass

Of course it was.

David Hill

There might have been like, 50 people there. And the people were camped out in the yard.

Ira Glass

Was it at midnight, and the wind howling, and lightning was striking?

David Hill

Yeah. It was like, on a cliff, overlooking--

Ira Glass

Is this true?

David Hill

This is true. It was just some sort of rich family that loved Diplomacy, and so they would host people at their home. It was definitely a weird scene. It was like, this really fancy house, and there were boards all over the house. And out in the yard, people were all sort of playing Diplomacy.

And the first game that I played, I was really digging it. I thought, this feels good, and I feel like I can hang with these guys. And I was playing well. And I totally didn't feel out of my element.

Ira Glass

Did you win?

David Hill

I did not win. In fact, I stabbed a guy.

Ira Glass

Stabbed a guy? You double-crossed him?

They were allies, but then David saw a way to take some of his territories, and he teamed up with a different guy against him.

David Hill

And after the move was over, the guy that I stabbed wanted to talk to me. And he pulled me aside, and he says, why'd you do that? And I was like, I'm sorry, man. I didn't really think that I could work with you. I wanted to work with this other guy. And he goes, you can go fuck yourself. And he puts his finger in my face.

And I said, what? And he storms over to the board, and like, knocks his stuff over, and says, I quit. I'm done with this asshole. Fuck this guy. And he like, is storming around the house, making this big scene. Everybody in the tournament is like, watching us.

And I'm freaking out. I'm like, is this serious? Is he serious about this? And he's like, this fucking guy. And he's like, pointing at me and yelling. And then, I watched him like, go around the house to every board, and like tell the story of what just happened to his friends. And like, I can see him pointing at me.

I ask the people on my board, I said, I don't understand what's going on. Like, this is-- why is he doing this? I don't get what this is about. Like, all I did was stab him. And they're like, aw, you know, you were a little bit out of line. You were a little bit rude.

Ira Glass

Or maybe he had not been rude. Maybe he did nothing wrong. Maybe this guy was just pretending to be mad to mess with David's head. Pretending to be a hothead, because that image could be useful with all the other opponents coming around to the tournament. David had no idea.

David Hill

So, I'm like looking around the room, and I'm realizing, I don't know anybody here. Like, I really felt at that point like, I couldn't trust anybody. Then, the people in my game who were throwing their arm around me and being like, he's just messing with your head. Don't worry. Come over here and talk to me. I was like, I don't know how to process this.

And I also felt like, this is too intense. I can't handle this. And I feel so uncomfortable, so I just got up and left, and left the tournament.

Ira Glass

You left?

David Hill

Yeah. And I never played Diplomacy again after that.

Ira Glass

Years passed. And then he saw that the World Diplomacy Championship was going to be in the United States this year. And he thought maybe he would try to play it one more time and record it for our program. David's a reporter. His full name is David Hill. He usually writes about sports for the website "Grantland."

And he vowed that this time, playing Diplomacy was going to be different. He knew that he needed a new approach to the game, because he couldn't even figure out why other players were reacting to his moves the way that they were. Like, this is a game where you're supposed to stab people in the back. But the way that he was doing it, people were just freaking out. He lacked diplomacy.

David Hill

Well, this time, I figured what I really needed was somebody who could teach me tactics, like diplomatic tactics. The tactics of diplomacy, so that I could go into the game confident that I was playing correctly. That I wasn't making any real mistakes. So I found somebody who could be my coach.

Ira Glass

And that person was not a gamer. That person was a diplomat. An actual, real life, diplomat. In fact, one that you may have heard of, Dennis Ross. Probably best known as President Clinton's Middle East envoy. Dennis Ross brokered the Oslo II Accord. He also helped the George H.W. Bush Administration on German reunification, back when the wall came down. He's been an adviser to President Obama.

And in case you're wondering how this man, who's not just brokered international deals, but done it in some of the most contentious conflicts in the world, responded when he was asked to use his expertise and give advice to somebody at the world championship for the board game Diplomacy, well, once it was explained to him what the board game is, his answer was, sure, sounds like fun.

Dennis Ross

Hi.

David Hill

Hey. Nice to meet you. My name's David Hill.

Dennis Ross

Hey, David. Dennis Ross. Nice to see you.

Ira Glass

So did that feel amazing, to have him with you?

David Hill

Yeah. It definitely felt amazing. I felt like, I'm back, and this time I'm going to win. Because this time, I got the big guns.

Ira Glass

Ambassador Ross apparently took to the game immediately. And we have the story of what happened when David brought his ringer to the fight, when he brought a professional to an amateur match up.

Today on our program, stories of trying to figure out who has your back, and who's looking to stab you in the back, and trying to sort out one from the other. Also, you know there are all the people who want to have your back, who try to have your back, but you are probably making a mistake to depend on them. We talk about that too. WBEZ Chicago, It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Absolutely Stabulous.

Ira Glass

Act One, Absolutely Stabulous. All right. So you have the set-up, right? David Hill takes Ambassador Dennis Ross to help him win at a board game tournament. Here is David.

David Hill

The World Championship of Diplomacy brought together almost 90 top Diplomacy players from eight different countries. Most of them were middle-aged men. All of them were nerds. And not the Chris Hardwick, Olivia Munn kind of nerd. Homespun nerds. The real deal. Nerds from all over the world, in a prototypical nerd setting, a basement. In this case, the dim basement of a dorm at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

I strutted into that dorm with Diplomat Dennis Ross by my side, and was worried about intimidating the other players. I didn't need to worry. Nobody was scared. Amused, maybe. Only one person in this room had counseled four presidents. And everyone's reaction was, meh. In fact, the tournament director felt he had to rig the game in our favor by assigning me Russia, the strongest of the seven countries on the board. When they announced the assignments, people actually laughed.

Woman

David Hill.

Man

Russia. So what I want you to do--

David Hill

I quickly lost my confidence. Who was I kidding? I was up against the best in the world. And I'd only have an ambassador in my corner for the first game on the first day of a three-day tournament. So I decided, all I wanted to do was to survive to the end of this game. To know that I could do this. I was freaked out. But Dennis Ross was unfazed.

Dennis Ross

If you play with such anxiety, everybody's going to know it. They're going to read it. When I was negotiating, I could read the body language. I could tell if someone was really nervous. I once had one negotiation, I explained to somebody what it is we needed, and it was clearly way beyond what they thought we were going to go for.

And my first impulse is looking at this person, this guy should never play poker. I mean, he literally blushed. So the other thing is, you gotta to be cool. Right?

David Hill

Got to have a poker face. Convey confidence, even if I don't feel it?

Seven of us gathered around the board. We nodded brief hello's, put 15 minutes on the clock, and bam. Time to negotiate. Since I was big bad Russia, I was instantly the most popular person in the room. All the other players started, well, flirting with me.

Woman

So, hi, Russia. How you doing?

David Hill

Hi. I'm good. I'm good. How are you?

Woman

You figuring out the swing [INAUDIBLE]?

David Hill

Yeah, yeah. A little bit. A little bit.

That was Austria. Next was Germany.

Germany

So if you wanted to work with me against England next year, I'll be very happy to help you by cutting the North Sea from Denmark, or whatever else it is that you need.

David Hill

Italy.

Italy

What I want to do is get into a three on one fight. All right? I want it to be you and me, and either Turkey or Austria.

David Hill

OK.

And Turkey. Russia and Turkey often ally with each other in this game. The shorthand for their alliance is RT. Here's Turkey.

Turkey

RT is probably my favorite alliance on the board. I mean, I mean, no matter what happens.

David Hill

Great. Great.

Turkey

No matter what happens, when I start with a two-way, I'm sticking with you.

David Hill

Right. But then, I am vulnerable if you cooperate with Austria then, right? Then you could push out of Rome. That's the thing--

Turkey

No, that is not going to happen.

David Hill

Ah, sure. I understand.

Turkey

No, no. I mean, that is not going to happen. I am sticking with you.

David Hill

OK, cool.

Everyone was pretty convincing, I have to say. I didn't know who to believe or who to trust. But Dennis didn't hesitate. For him, it was just another day at the office. He took me into the hallway to confer.

Dennis Ross

I think Germany is playing a long game. And he's doing it in a very clever way. Same with Italy.

David Hill

Right.

Dennis Ross

He's doing it in a way where it doesn't look like he's trying to ask you do things, when he actually is asking you to do something. And the Turkish player, I think, is the one guy who is communicating in a way that I think is most convincing.

David Host

Dennis said that Turkey reminded him of someone. Someone named Sergey Tarasenko. Tarasenko was the Soviet foreign minister's chief assistant. When Dennis first met Tarasenko, he knew he was going to have to work with him on the issue of German reunification. But he wasn't sure if he could trust him.

Dennis Ross

Early on, he said to me at a certain point, he said, look, the future of my country depends upon a different kind of relationship with the United States. And the way he said it to me made me feel like it wasn't a manipulation. The way he said it was almost exactly the way the person who's playing Turkey conveyed, I'm going to be there.

I mean, even the inflection was the same. I mean, for me, I had this memory flash before me as I listened to him say it, and the way he said it.

David Hill

Sold. I allied with Turkey. This turned out to be smart. Later in the game, there were plenty of moments where I simply had no idea what the hell was going on. But Turkey knew what he was doing. And he had an interest in keeping me alive.

Turkey

Since you're my number one ally, I'll just tell you.

David Hill

Uh-huh?

Turkey

If you go down, I go down. I mean, you are critical to me. I mean, you have to be able to defend yourself.

David Hill

Can you give me the supply center so that I can get a build? In the fall? Not now, but in the fall?

Turkey

I'm not ruling it out, actually. Because I need for you not to collapse on me.

David Hill

As the game unfolded, everyone was going after Italy. Everyone but me. So Italy came over for a chat.

Italy

What do you want to have happen over the course of the next two years? My long-term plan would be for you, and I, and Turkey to kill Austria, and then you and I to kill Turkey.

David Hill

It was a tempting offer, and I was flattered. Italy was one of the best players on the board, a former world champion named Chris Martin. But saying yes to Italy meant turning against Turkey, and Turkey had been a loyal ally. So Dennis said no. It's like they say, you got to dance with the one what brung ya.

Dennis Ross

I still think that even though Italy is clearly the stronger player, Turkey is the more reliable player.

David Hill

I was still so nervous, I kept out of the fighting for as long as I could. I watched Germany and England turn on France and eliminate him from the game. I couldn't stall forever. I knew that eventually, I'd have to go to war. I just didn't know who I should fight. But Dennis watched me talking to Germany, who bears a more than passing resemblance to Jason Statham. I was so anxious, you can hear me tapping my lapel mike with a pen.

Germany

I promise you, I won't move to any of those four regions.

David Hill

This turn?

Germany

Absolutely. I can't promise what's going to happen in two or three turn's time.

David Hill

I understand that.

Germany

But it's at least a promising commitment that I can make this time. I can't say fairer than that.

David Hill

OK. OK.

Dennis' evaluation?

Dennis Ross

What he told you is that he's not doing anything this time. But what he also told you, basically--

David Hill

Is he didn't know what he could do later.

Dennis Ross

Well, what he's telling you is he is going to do it later. That's what that meant.

David Hill

Yeah.

So I declared war on Germany, and advanced on Munich.

David Hill

Munich.

Germany

He went to Munich. He's attacking me.

Man

Cheeky.

David Hill

Later, Germany told me this was a great move. Maybe that explains why he was so ticked off about it when I did it.

Germany

I've never liked you. From now on, you can't rely on that. What you're doing is you're encouraging me to attack you.

David Hill

I understand that, but I would like to say that I haven't lied to you either.

Germany

OK. Fair enough.

David Hill

Lying is something Dennis had very strong feelings about. And his feeling was, never do it. Ever.

Dennis Ross

You don't lie in real diplomacy. Because it always comes back to haunt you. Anyone that you're dealing with now, they're not going to go away. And so once you lie, that's always there. You don't lie.

David Hill

He also told me that overall, I should keep my attitude in check. No bullying, no badgering. This is just what I wanted to hear. My experience with playing cutthroat, like when I blackmailed my friend, or got cussed out in that creepy mention, always ended badly. I was relieved to hear there was a way to be good at Diplomacy without making everyone hate me in the process.

David Hill

[INAUDIBLE] holds. [INAUDIBLE] supports Munich. Vienna supports Bohemia. Budapest to Romania.

After five or six hours, it got to the point where there were two major alliances, each one taking up about half the board. What that meant was a stalemate. A six-way draw. And we'd all have to split the points for the game. I was fine with that. So were the other people in my alliance.

But the other side wanted more points. More points would give them a better shot at winning the world championship. So they pulled each person from my side into the hall, one by one, and they offered each of us a deal to stab our friends.

When Italy returned from his meeting in the hallway, they followed him back in the room, still hassling him. They went up one side of him and down the other, until he snapped.

Italy

You're going to hold us hostage to a possible point, where you knock us down to here--

Man

[INAUDIBLE].

Italy

No, no, look. They cut me out. I don't care. No, shut up. I'm going to talk. OK? You're going to hold us hostage for five hours, while you grind down, and you still can't cut us out? Right? Because there's a 13th century stalemate line that all of us can get behind.

David Hill

Everyone in the room took a step back. This was the first time tonight any of us had seen Italy show any kind of anger, and it occurred to me, is he faking this as a tactic? Dennis had said anger was a good tool, but only if you use it sparingly.

Dennis Ross

If you use it all the time, it has no effect. And if you want it to have an effect, it has to, in a sense, have drama to it. Italy was down to a single army. He was a dead man walking if the game didn't end soon. This was a smart time to get mad, and it was working.

Man

Can I finish my fucking sentence?

Italy

I have now finished my sentence, so of course you may.

Man

OK. It's one turn. I want to see the fall played out.

David Hill

Our opponents agreed to only go one more turn before conceding to a draw. Nobody broke. Just like Dennis advised, Turkey and I stuck together to the very end, with our new allies, Italy and Austria, and the game was over.

Man

Yay. It's over.

David Hill

It's over? Good game.

It was just like I'd hoped. I survived. I got through the first game. A draw with the best players in the world. Before he left, Dennis Ross said farewell to our opponents.

Dennis Ross

I want to tell you how much I was impressed by this. It's not every day that a diplomat sees people who have a kind of instinct for what real diplomacy is. You guys do it as if you've breathing. It's like breathing oxygen for you. And not withstanding some obvious differences between the real world and this, I think that all of you would be good in the reality of diplomacy, not just in the game of it.

David Hill

Austria pipes up, so are you hiring?

Austria

So are you hiring? [LAUGHING] I have a card.

Germany

Thank you so much for your comments.

David Hill

The good vibes died there. Day two. Dennis was gone. And without him, everything went to hell. My opponents weren't polite or patient anymore. People admitted they'd been nicer when Dennis was around. I think they might have wanted to show the diplomat just how diplomatic they could be. There were fewer attacks and stabs than usually happen. But that was yesterday.

Man

You fucked it up. Right? I mean, Austria really boned the game of Russia. He boned my game.

David Hill

Day two was Lord of the Flies. I stuck with the principles Dennis gave me. Pick an ally and stick with him. Don't lie. But it was just like in that weird mansion. I felt like everyone was mad at me. And this time, they all told me I wasn't vicious enough. This time, they all wanted me to stab my ally. They laughed in my face, and told me I was a fool. Everybody stabs, they said. That's part of the game.

I refused. And the gloves came off. Are you going to be paid for writing this story, a burly Scottish player asked me. Because I'm losing three day's wages to be here, so that I can get screwed by you. He told me I wasn't just playing badly, I was ruining the game for everyone. I got mad, and not in the smart, strategic kind of way.

David Hill

Let me submit this to you. Perhaps maybe your failure in this game was that you didn't do very good diplomacy with me, or with Germany. That's your failure, not mine. So maybe that's why I'm tired of people telling me that like, I fucked the game up, or that I should play differently, when maybe you should play differently, and you should diplome better.

Eventually my ally, a high school math teacher named Brian, ended up stabbing me. He watched me go to the mat with the other players to defend him, then he chopped me out of the game for a few extra points. I was incredulous. I pulled him aside and asked him why he sold me out. He said, I guess I'm just a hard motherfucker like that, and turned and walked away.

I am not a hard motherfucker. Not even in a game. I really wanted to play the game of Diplomacy using actual diplomacy, being respectful and truthful, and it didn't work. I felt frustrated and angry, and my only consolation was, at least Dennis Ross thought I'd make a good diplomat. I mean, that's what he told me. So who cares what these nerds think?

Dennis Ross

Hi.

David Hill

I didn't win the tournament, Ambassador Ross.

Dennis Ross

You know, I didn't bet the house on you doing that.

David Hill

After I got back home, I called Dennis Ross. I told him what I'd been thinking since the tournament. That the game seemed to require players to be cutthroat, and it wasn't for me.

David Hill

I do think that you were probably wrong about me at the end of the day. I think that I'm probably not cut out for the US Foreign Service.

Dennis Ross

Well, I didn't say you were cut out for the US Foreign Service.

David Hill

Well, that's what I took away. That was my takeaway.

That's how good he is. He never lied to me. He never told me I was cut out to be a diplomat. And somehow, I came away from our conversation believing exactly what I wanted to believe.

Ira Glass

David Hill. He wrote more about the World Diplomacy Championships for Grantland. You can find that at grantland.com, or there's also a link to that article at our website, thisamericanlife.org. Coming up, a do-gooder who does not have the back of most of the people who want his help. That's in a minute. Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two. By the Waters of Haggle-On.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "Got Your Back," stories of trusting people to protect and guide you, even in situations where it is not so certain that that is a good idea. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, By the Waters of Haggle-On.

You may have heard this audio on the internet. A guy named Ryan Block called Comcast to cancel his internet service. He wanted to change to a different provider, and 10 minutes into the call, he started recording.

Ryan Block

OK. We'd like to disconnect. We'd like to disconnect please.

Comcast

OK. So why is it that you don't want the faster speed? Help me understand why you don't want faster internet?

Ryan Block

Help me understand why you can't just disconnect us?

Comcast

Because my job is to have a conversation with you about keeping your service. About finding out why it is that you're looking to cancel the service.

Ryan Block

Can you disconnect us by phone? Can you disconnect our service? Yes or no.

Comcast

What I'm trying to find out is, why don't you want the same offer a brand new customer's going to get?

Ryan Block

Yes or no, can you disconnect our service?

Comcast

Faster internet than anyone can provide you. Why don't you want those services?

Ryan Block

Because I'm not interested in your services any longer.

Comcast

OK. So you're not interested in the fastest internet in the country?

Ryan Block

Nope. Not interested.

Comcast

OK. Why is that?

Ryan Block

Can you disconnect us by phone? Are you capable in your system of disconnecting our service? Yes or no?

Ira Glass

This recording goes on and on for eight minutes.

Ryan Block

--disconnecting our service?

Comcast

OK, so you don't want to get service? You don't want something that works?

Ryan Block

No, I guess I don't want something that works.

Comcast

OK. So why don't you want something that's good service, and something that works?

Ryan Block

I mean, is this like, a joke? Did we like call-- is this like, are you punking us right now?

Ira Glass

After this call went viral, someone from Comcast called Ryan Block to apologize. At this point, 5 million people have listened to this online. And I think that it is so popular because so many of us have been in some situation like this, where we're against some company. We totally powerless.

Well, every other week in "The Haggler" column in the New York Times, people write in with their unsolvable consumer problems, and then reporter David Segal steps in. He takes their side. He has their back He publicly approaches the company, and tries to get them to do the right thing.

David Segal

I work on behalf of people who have been driven insane by indifference. Insane by the experience of knocking on a door, knowing that someone's on the other side of that door, and they will not respond. If you can get those people behind the door to respond, it's like a magic trick. It feels like a magic trick to the reader.

Ira Glass

A while back, David Segal stepped in for a guy. He said that he had signed up for a free trial eGreeting cards from a company called Blue Mountain Greeting Cards. The company required his credit card info to give him the free trial. And so he did that, and then clicked some buttons. And then the next thing you knew, they told him that he was a monthly subscriber. So he tried to cancel. Right? This is from his email to David Segal.

David Segal

I went back to the Cancel page, but it just said, "We are sorry, but we are unable to process your cancellation request right now." End quote. Funny, isn't it? That once you've paid, you can't cancel. I'm out $19.99. Can you get it back? William Potash, Brookline, Mass.

So I got in touch with Blue Mountain, and they fixed his problem really quickly.

Ira Glass

So, good news, right? David tried to reach the consumer, which he always does for the column. And suddenly, this guy who had been emailing him back and forth for days stopped returning his emails. His column deadline approached. David got a little more frantic.

David Segal

And so, I just went all out. I got research to find his mother in New Jersey. I tried to find out where he worked, just to like, get this information. I need to speak to you. Finally, like late on Thursday night, I get a call from a guy named Phil Potash. And he was like, hey, I understand you're trying to get in touch with me.

And I said, yeah, you wrote to me. William Potash? He says, oh no, I'm not William Potash. I'm Phil Potash. I'm like, who's William Potash? He said, that's my 10-year-old son.

Ira Glass

Oh.

David Segal

It was a boy who had written me, completely convincingly as an adult. it was completely-- credit card. It was written just deadpan, as an adult. And I think the kid decided, I don't want to get on the phone with this guy, because he's going to hear that I'm a 10-year-old boy. I remember sitting with friends saying like, what could explain why William Potash won't call me back? Like, let's wrack our brains. Like, what could explain this? Please?

Ira Glass

And what was your theory?

David Segal

I had no idea. I remember being completely stunned. And it turned out he's 10 years old, and he doesn't want to talk to me because he hasn't hit puberty.

Ira Glass

When you write a column like this, of course, tons of people get in touch wanting you to take their side and get their backs. And the overwhelming majority, David Segal says, he simply cannot help. Like 95 out of 100, he cannot help. Because, he says, these customers, they're not in the right. They are--

David Segal

People who don't have a legitimate beef. And this is most common with warranties. So they bought something five years ago. It had a three-year warranty. "The Haggler" should step in and get a refund.

Ira Glass

Wait, and they understand that? They understand the warranty ran out two years ago?

David Segal

Yeah, yeah. There's a fair amount of that. Here's someone who wanted something from a camera store, and they said, we don't have it. We don't have it in stock anymore. So let's refund your money. And he's like, I don't want a refund. I want the thing that I ordered. And they're like, well, we don't have the thing that you ordered, so let us sent you your money back.

And he writes to me, and he's like, can you make them send me the thing that I want? And I'm like, no. They don't-- I mean, what am I supposed to do? [LAUGHING] I don't really understand where I can help at all.

I mean, I think that this is like a big part of my life was, just like sorting through complaints that aren't really good complaints. Here's one. In January 2013, you travelled to Myanmar and purchased two wooden statues in a shop in Yangon. That's the least promising start to any letter I've ever read. Because the idea that "The Haggler" has any juice in Myanmar is ludicrous. It's also like--

Ira Glass

Like some guy in Myanmar is going to be, woo, the New York Times.

David Segal

Yeah. I'm going to call them up, and they're just going to start quaking immediately. Oh, did you say the New York Times? Yeah, we have a refund going right now for this person.

Ira Glass

Do you think that writing the column for five years has made you more sympathetic to companies than you were at the beginning?

David Segal

Yes.

Ira Glass

Not to the customers?

David Segal

I'm sympathetic to both. I mean, when companies misbehave, and I see a lot of companies misbehave, I'm absolutely sympathetic to the customers. But I hear from enough entitled customers to feel sympathy for companies. What you see is the worst of customers and the worst of companies.

Ira Glass

David Segal of "The Haggler" column of the New York Times.

Act Three. One Woman Show.

Ira Glass

Act Three. One woman show. There's this woman named Hamida Gulistani. She advocates for women's rights in Afghanistan, helping women who are being beaten by their husbands, or forced into terrible arranged marriages. And doing this work in Afghanistan is just as hard a job as whatever it is that you're imagining when I say those words.

And for a few years, when the US presence in the country was at its greatest, she did feel like somebody had her back. She felt safer. She saw some progress. But now with the US pulling out, her situation is changing. It's gotten way more dangerous already. We do not have her back in the same way at all.

For two and a half years, Kevin Sieff has been the Bureau chief for the Washington Post in Afghanistan. And he has this story about the change that she is facing. A quick trigger warning, for anybody who needs a trigger warning, that this story does include descriptions of incidents of violence against women. Here's Kevin Sieff.

Kevin Sieff

Before the US was there as her ally, Hamida was pretty much on her own, doing a job she invented for herself, out of nothing. She had no role models. She completely made the whole thing up.

She started doing this in 2005. At the time, she'd just gotten a nursing job at a clinic in a place called Ghazni City. It's a sprawl of mostly mud-baked buildings in Eastern Afghanistan. At the clinic, Hamida basically had a front row seat how brutally women were still being treated four years after the American invasion. Patients arrived all the time, in burkas, with bruises and broken bones. One day a pregnant woman showed up at the examination room.

Woman

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Intrepreter

As she lay down, I noticed that she had these brown dark spots around her eyes. And then also, as she lifted up her arm, I could see she had all these scars. And I asked her what happened. She wouldn't tell me at the beginning. She said, oh, I fell.

Well, I just joke with her. I said, oh, I fell once too, and I was also hurt. And then she all of a sudden starts crying. She had guests over, and somehow she had messed up the food. And the husband had beaten her up. And she lost her baby when she was two months pregnant because of the beating.

Hamida convinced her to go to the press. Afghan media outlets have popped up in Ghazni because of funding from the US. And Hamida thought, a woman speaking out against her husband would be news. Maybe they could use the local media to shame the woman's husband. Maybe they could even get the local prosecutor's attention.

Intrepreter

We had like, this little mini press conference in this private clinic, basically. It forced the husband to come out and apologize to his wife. And he said, he's very sorry. And also, he spent six months in jail. To be honest, after that, the examination room in the little clinic turned into the office of women's rights.

Kevin Sieff

How many calls were you getting? After this first incident, was your phone just ringing all time?

Hamida Gulistani

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Intrepreter

Basically, we got very busy, to the point like, OK, I'm here, trying to help a patient. All of a sudden, I get a call. So and so incident happened in this village. And then I would just take off my uniform, and rush to that village. And that's why I was pretty much fired from the hospital. Because it got to a point that I couldn't work even for one hour.

Kevin Sieff

Hamida basically became a one woman emergency response team. A de facto point of contact for women who were abused, forced into marriages, or refused divorces. Her phone number got passed all over Ghazni. She realized, she didn't have the legal system on her side. She didn't have local officials on her side.

But the Americans were encouraging Afghans to recognize women's rights. And the one tool Hamida had was the media, which she used. This was something new in Afghanistan. She'd drag along the press when she'd should go to see a local imam in a remote village. The best way to help a woman facing domestic violence was to get the local religious leader involved. So she had a strategy. She'd call the imam.

Hamida Gulistani

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Intrepreter

I would tell them like, I've heard of this incident happening in your village. I was wondering if I could come there and talk to you and get your opinion on this matter. And basically, not leave room for them to say yes or no. And then I would just go there. Imams would tell me, yes, this woman, she's bad herself.

It's all her problems. And I would say, yes, of course. And then, what I'll do is then I'll take the imam with me, and we would go together to the house where the domestic violence was taking place. And what I would often also do is to make sure we have someone from the media with us. Because once the media is there, the imams would, of course, not say anything bad about women's rights.

Kevin Sieff

With the reporter there, the imams usually would be helpful.

Intrepreter

And then as we were walking out, I would tell the imam, you have been very helpful. You're a very respectful member of the community. And in front of the media, that just really helps boost their self esteem. Then the imam would be very happy. And they would be like, yes, we will help you. Anything you want.

Kevin Sieff

For cases where women didn't want any media attention, Hamida would just show up at the family's house and ad hoc her way to an intervention. A lot of times, there was a conflict between the woman and her own family, mostly involving arranged marriages. A woman once came to Hamida. She said her father was about to marry her off to a drug addict.

Intrepreter

I took her, and I went to the family. And I just told them, you guys can't do that. You can't marry this beautiful lady to a person who is a drug addict. I said, before anything happens, we need to go to the local attorney general's office.

So we all went to the attorney general's office. And there, there was a really nice prosecutor, and he looked into the case. And they decided according to Islam, a woman has every right to refuse marriage to someone who's a drug addict. And we basically won the case.

Kevin Sieff

What happened to the girl after this case was settled by the attorney general?

Hamida Gulistani

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Intrepreter

She's happily married.

Kevin Sieff

To a man that she chose to marry?

Intrepreter

I'm not quite sure, but I was invited to her wedding party. I went there, and she seemed quite happy.

Kevin Sieff

Nine years after she first started, Hamida still operates pretty much the same way. She keeps track of all of her cases in a gruesome notebook. It's full of pictures she's taken of victims with her digital camera, handcuffed girls standing in in prison, women who have almost been beaten to death.

Hamida carries an old black cellphone with her all the time, and it's constantly ringing with calls from women who want her help.

Hamida Gulistani

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Intrepreter

Sometimes, my husband gets tired of me. So when we're sitting around dinner table, and I get a call, he just looks at me and says, please leave. And a lot of times, literally what happens, I miss my food. It gets cold, because I spend all the time on the phone.

Kevin Sieff

It didn't take long for the Americans to notice Hamida. They'd hoped to find Afghan women who would take up the cause of women's rights. And here she was, exactly what they were looking for. Someone outspoken, aggressive, and willing to risk her life. So they met Hamida, and involved her in meetings with top Afghan leaders. She even came to Washington, DC as part of a State Department program.

Now Hamida is a big deal. Lots of Afghans know who she is. She's on the provincial counseling in Ghazni. It's their version of the state senate. She's also popular national TV shows all the time, like this one, called The People's Voice.

Tv Host

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Kevin Sieff

In one segment, she's wearing eyeshadow, lipstick, and high heels. She's in her 40's, the only woman on a big panel of men. She fields questions from young women in the audience.

Woman

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Kevin Sieff

This woman asks why the Afghan government talks so much about women's rights, but doesn't actually do anything. Why are women still having trouble going to school, and being out in public? I asked my translator to tell me Hamida's response.

Intrepreter

I have been the one who is taking your grieving voices from those women who've endured violence from those who were kidnapped, from those who have been murdered, to the presidential palace and to the human rights officials. Let me make it clear that I haven't received a satisfactory answer, and that your rights, they will not give it to you as a gift. Your rights is something that you have to defend.

Kevin Sieff

She's one of the few women in Afghanistan willing to criticize the government so publicly on national television. In Hamida's view, what she's doing only seems radical, because Afghanistan has changed so much since she was a girl. In the 1970s and '80s, it was a far more liberal place. It was a society dominated by men, but her father would never insult his daughters, or humiliate them, or beat them. She knew women who wore skirts and sleeveless shirts.

But Hamida remembers when all of that changed, when the Mujahideen took over the country. A rock had hit their house. Her cousin was injured. Everyone was going to the hospital, and her brother stopped her. And I said, no, I want to go. He said, no, you cannot come. Just stay at home.

Interpreter

The harsh thing about this moment was the fact that my brother was younger than me. And I realized that even though he was younger, because I'm a girl, now he has more power than I do. It felt as if almost overnight, a new culture fell from the skies on us, and we had to abide by it.

Kevin Sieff

Hamida had been helping women in Ghazni for four years, when President Obama announced the troop surge in 2009. And many of those soldiers and Marines were dispatched to Ghazni. It's part of the Taliban's heartland. At one point, the province had about 20 American bases, and several thousand American troops.

For the first time, Hamida had real physical protection, international attention, and legitimacy in the eyes of her own skeptical government. The world's superpower had her back, and it gave her a sense of invincibility. She threw a big celebration in 2010 for Women's Day, and the US ambassador's wife showed up.

US troops came to help with security, and there was a huge turnout. Something that would have been hard to imagine before. Women in Ghazni were often confined to their homes. Things weren't perfect, but they seemed to be moving in the right direction.

Hamida Gulistani

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Intrepreter

You have to understand, there were like, American women in uniform coming to the villages, and sitting on the ground. On dusty ground, and talking to women. And Afghan women looking at the American women with uniforms, it just gave them a huge morale boost, that they could see themselves differently.

Kevin Sieff

But after just a few years in 2013, Americans were withdrawn from Ghazni as a part of the larger plan to end the war. For months now, they've been tearing down bases all over Afghanistan. And when you drive around the country, they already look like ancient artifacts. Sort of like Pompeii with rusty razor wire.

Hamida's American contacts in the province were now suddenly gone. She felt things slipping backwards. And then last August--

Hamida Gulistani

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Intrepreter

It was about 7:15 AM in the morning, and our driver came to pick me and my husband and take us to work. As this was happening, all of a sudden, I heard one single gunshot. I opened the door, and the first thing I saw was our driver laying down on the ground, and he was clearly wounded. There was blood all over his arm, and it was all over his clothes as well.

But he just sort of waved toward me to go and get back inside the house. I called the head of the police. Nobody showed up.

Kevin Sieff

The police didn't come until after the attack completely ended. By that time, Hamida's bodyguard and driver were dead. She got lucky. The Taliban wanted to kill her.

Hamida Gulistani

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Intrepreter

In the past, when the Americans had a base in Ghazni, if an incident happened, if something happened to me, or if I was having some problem, I would call my female counterparts in the US military. They would ask me, oh, Hamida, how are you, my dear? Are you OK? Is everything OK? Do you need something? Now, that's not the case.

Some of our friends tell us, maybe perhaps some of the American friends, that we will never abandon Afghan women. But there's also this other thing that their physical presence Afghanistan that is, the American troops, it was a huge support for us. For Afghan women.

Kevin Sieff

The Taliban are now gaining more control of Ghazni. At this point in the withdrawal, the US is mostly focused on training Afghan police and other security forces on how to defeat them. Women's rights have dropped into the background. And more and more Afghan officials don't even give lip service to women's rights. Last year, they tried to pass a law that would have made it legal to stone a woman accused of adultery. A few months later, parliament tried to make it tougher to prosecute rape cases.

Hamida Gulistani

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Intrepreter

The Afghan government had this deal that they were going to be nice to women, just to protect its own reputation. But now that the troops are leaving, perhaps that business deal doesn't hold anymore.

Kevin Sieff

Hamida has a folder full of death threats from the Taliban. She's been shot at in a shopping mall, her daughter was in a car chase in the highway. Hamida's always on edge, and changes her house every six months.

Hamida Gulistani

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Intrepreter

Actually, the last threat that I received was just four or five days ago. And someone approached my driver and told him to tell me, now the Americans are leaving. What are you going to do?

Kevin Sieff

Just to give you a sense of what Hamida's up against, the main people left in Ghazni to protect her, the police, are often the same people she's trying to prosecute. A United Nations report shows that 70% of Afghan female police officers have been sexually abused or harassed by male officers.

One of her most disturbing cases recently involved a police officer kidnapping a 13-year-old girl named Nuria. Then he gang raped her with some of his colleagues. Hamida said the girl's whole body was shaking uncontrollably when they met. Nuria decided to talk to the local media. She wanted these guys arrested. So Hamida organized a press conference. She sat next to Nuria at a table, set up with microphones and recorders.

Girl

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Kevin Sieff

Nuria tells them, I regained my consciousness around midnight. I saw three men, and I was completely naked. I tried to grab my clothes, but I fainted. These men violated me, and kidnapped me, and I want the government to provide justice for me.

Kevin Sieff

How is she doing now?

Hamdia Gulistani

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Intrepreter

She's missing.

Kevin Sieff

She's missing?

Intrepreter

Nobody knows what happened to her. She literally disappeared.

Kevin Sieff

You know who the police officers were, and nothing happened to them?

Intrepreter

Yes. They're still police.

Kevin Sieff

Over the last year or so, the Taliban has ramped up its own campaign against women. They've killed at least six female police officers, and other women as well. Sometimes, they videotape their murders. In one video, a woman named Najiba, who was accused of adultery, was shot 13 times while men cheered in the background.

At the same time, Hamida says, she sees signs of progress in surprising places. Like, she's getting a lot of phone calls these days from girls who've run away from home who need shelter. What's hopeful about this, she says, is that these girls have gotten the message. That they have a choice. They don't have to put up with violence.

American officials are hoping Hamida can continue the mission she started, even after their departure. One diplomat who's worked with Hamida is Karen Decker. She was the State Department's top official in Eastern Afghanistan, and used to fly over to to Ghazni in a helicopter whenever she wants to see Hamida.

Karen Decker

I will worry about Afghan women. I worry about the fact that they still have a big fight ahead of them. And the bad times may last a long time. They've got to keep fighting. But it's going to be a hard fight.

Kevin Sieff

Karen left her post in Afghanistan shortly after this interview. She'd been there for two years, going to some of the country's most dangerous districts, where some of her first questions were almost always about women. Could they vote? Could they work? Could they attend school? Regardless of the answers, she knew the US withdrawal had to continue.

Karen Decker

At a certain point, we had to step back, even from women that we knew were out there on the razor edge, trying to do good for Afghan women writ large. We still knew that for sustainable development, we could not continue to sit right next to them and enable their every movement, recognizing that it hurts. It hurts to see that. I think anyone would say the same thing.

But we sort of steeled our resolve, and said, we've got to stop. Because otherwise, we're going to have to be here forever. They will never stand on their own two feet.

Kevin Sieff

When the US does leave as the withdrawal continues, what's the plan to continue supporting women like Hamida?

Karen Decker

Well, a year ago, I banned the word "leaving" from the vocabulary of every American who worked for me. Because we're not leaving. Our embassy is enduring. Our embassy is enormous. It has one of the largest development budgets in the world. I know what you mean when you ask the question. And yes, everybody talks about us leaving

But we're not leaving. We are just not going to be physically present in villages and provincial capitals, which is exactly the way we do business in most of the world. Here's the thing, though. Every Afghan, including Hamida, has a cellphone. Access to the internet is growing. And we will communicate with people via all kinds of computer-based technologies. Skype. We do a lot of Skype. And Hamida is very well-connected to us through those mechanisms.

Intrepreter

I can't speak English.

Kevin Sieff

Hamida's internet connection isn't fast enough in Ghazni for Skype, She only speaks Dari. She says, sure, since the bases have closed in her area, American officials and soldiers still try to keep in touch. They send her email. She does understand a little bit of English, but it's not good enough to read those emails.

Hamida Gulistani

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Intrepreter

Sometimes I go, and I open my email, and I see there are like, hundreds of messages from them. I can't read them, so I just delete them.

Kevin Sieff

For safety reasons, Hamida moved her kids out of Ghazni. She sent one to live in Pakistan, and three to Kabul. Now, they act like they're the parents. They check in with Hamida frequently, ask how her day went, and you just make sure she's OK. Sometimes, her son, Solar, tries to stop her from going out on cases, especially at night. He's 13 and her youngest. I used the same interpreter for our interview.

Solar

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Intrepreter

At times, it hurts me so much, that I want to scream about it. Especially at the times when she's made me mad, my mom, I fought with her. I have told her, please, leave this thing. Please, be with us. This whole thing is not worth it.

Kevin Sieff

It's not as clear for Hamida's daughter, Frohal. She admires her mom. She wants to be just like her. And she's as progressive as any woman I've met in Afghanistan. When I met her at her house, Frohal wasn't wearing a head scarf. She's a senior in college, studying art. She likes sculpting nudes. In a few months, she'll graduate and move back to Ghazni to work with her mom. Forhal told me she recently asked her mom, what happens to their family when the Americans are completely gone? Again, I used the same translator.

Frohal

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Intrepreter

My mom will try to sort of tell me, look, perhaps we may have to leave at some point, but you know what? Things are going to do that. But you've probably seen the pictures that my mom has of women being beheaded, and women's dead bodies. I've seen them too. And so, for me, no matter how hard my mom tries sometimes to reassure us that everything's going to be all right, sometimes I don't know. I don't think so. I think sometimes perhaps after the Americans leave, we will be the first victims for what our family has done.

Kevin Sieff

Right now, what Hamida thinks about the future, she vacillates between two extremes. She could double down and run for parliament next year. If she won a spot, she'd finally have some real power over Afghanistan's laws. But it would also make her an even bigger target for the Taliban. Or she could openly admit to her American contacts that she needs help getting out of the country. Hamida keeps their business cards in a special drawer in her desk. She's already thinking about asking them for visas for her kids. We talked for hours before she told me this. She was embarrassed.

Hamida Gulistani

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Intrepreter

I've always told the media that I'm proud to be a woman. But I tell you this from the bottom of my heart. That I don't know. I just think sometimes I wish I was a man. In the end, we're viewed as troublemakers. In the end, the way they see us is that we're just creating problems.

Kevin Sieff

Does that ever make you want to quit?

Intrepreter

Perhaps 1,000 times, I think about it. To be honest, I'm very scared.

Kevin Sieff

For now, though, in public, Hamida still plays the part of a confident Afghan woman. She wants women to feel like they still have an advocate. And so every time her cellphone rings, she takes the call, and when needed, heads out the door.

Ira Glass

Kevin Sieff is a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post. Thanks to his interpreter, Shafi Sharifi.

[MUSIC - "GOT YOUR BACK" BY MATT THE ELECTRICIAN] It's a little step in the right direction. Couldn't see it from space. I'm right next to you. Whatever you decide to do. I've got your back. We're on the same track. In the universe, you're a molecule. In my eyes, you're a great big deal. Bigger than the moon. You're the only tune I hear. I got your back. We're on the track.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Chana Joffe-Walt, myself, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alyssa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. production help from JP Dukes. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our office manager. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Research help from Michelle Harris and Julie Beer. Music help Rob Geddis.

Thanks today to Mohammad Sharif, Arash Afghahi, Sonya Ryda, Barya Schechter, David Hood, Chris Martin, Steve Cooley, Toby Harris, Andy Bartoloni, Siobhan Nolan, Mark Stegman, Aaron Duncan, Eric Monte, Greg Legorreta, and Emanuel Ruffler of Mac Tech.

A water pipe burst last night in our computer room here at the radio show. The only reason that we actually have a new program today is Emanuel swooping in after midnight to pull the audio off of water soaked computers. He had our back. He saved the day. Our website, thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as to our program's co-founer, Mr. Torey Malatia, who describes his efforts rallying everybody who pitches on air during the pledge drive this way.

Torey Malatia

I work on behalf of people who have been driven insane by indifference. Insane by the experience of knocking on a door, knowing that someone's on the other side of that door, and they will not respond.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "GOT YOUR BACK" BY MATT THE ELECTRICIAN]