When it comes to writing articles for the Web, I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve been doing this for enough years, and have written enough articles and posts that I am very well aware of one significant occupational hazard: crazy comments.
I’m all for civil debate on the merits of an argument, but something about the anonymity of the Web makes people think that it’s perfectly fine to attack writers and even their fellow readers and commenters personally and wildly when they don’t like something they’ve read.
In my own readership, the lovely, smart, respectful readers outweigh the wack jobs about a million to one, so I really can’t complain. But when things I write get posted to some of the larger websites, I tend to either hold my breath or just not read the comments at all, out of a concern for the random bizarreness that I might find.
Recently, a piece I wrote for a large publication landed on the welcome screen of one of the largest online sites in the world. I had very mixed, gut feelings when I saw it there, knowing that this particular site’s community tends to be borderline rabid in terms of the sentiment contained in their comments. I’m an old pro at this, so negative comments about my articles (or myself for that matter) just don’t bother me much, but I always worry about how a commenter whose peers rip into them will take it. So, I clicked to read the comments. And I was astounded.
There were more than 50,000 (no typo!) comments on the story. And I couldn’t find one negative response to the story or to another comment (I didn’t read all 50,000, to be fair, but I did read a bunch).
No, the comments were essentially unanimous, albeit vehement in their reaction to the piece. A quick glance made it clear what was happening. What emerged in response to this article was a much more United than normal States of America — united, that is, in their antagonism vis-à-vis the banks (and against one bank, in particular, which like the Harry Potter series’ master of the dark arts, must not be named — not in this article, anyway).
Turns out, the article was a piece about how a homeowner who had been subjected to great stress, trauma and expense from a bank’s wrongful attempt at foreclosing their home (these people had never actually had a mortgage) had taken the bank to court, received a judgment making them whole from the attorney’s fees they spent fighting the foreclosure and, when the bank failed to pay, actually foreclosed on the bank. Yes — the homeowners brought the sheriff and a court order to foreclose on a local branch of the bank, though the matter was settled about an hour later when the branch manager cut a check to cover the judgment (finally).
And, so, the responses to that article were a unanimous chorus of "Good for those homeowners!" "That bank bites — let me tell you what they did to me"; "Banks are crooks"; and the like. A chorus tens of thousands of virtual voices strong. The only dissension I saw in those comments were in the opinions of those who thought the homeowners let the bank off too easy, and that they should have hauled the furniture, computers and tellers’ drawers off anyway.
On topics of politics, race, religion and even the virtues of reality TV, Americans are divided. Even when we go to war, large, vocal segments of the country aren’t on board, and there is much dissension on the identity of the enemy. But we seem to have united when it comes to us vs. them, when "them" refers to the large mortgage banks.
I hate that it’s that way. I attended U.C. Berkeley. I overindex on the use of the pronoun "we," preferring it to either "I" or "you." I practice yoga. I eat organic and all of my dogs have been rescues. Point is, at my core, I want us all to get along. And I want people to make the best decisions for their money, their homes and their lives, not based on a sense of fear or sticking it to the man, but based on a fully informed process of careful consideration and evaluation of their priorities. I’ve long believed that fear and anger and hate and panic create wrong thinking, and skew decision-making.
But this one time, I must make an exception. Do I encourage this us vs. them thinking? No. But neither can I continue to foster the "we’re all in this together" hallucination. I have seen so many foreclosures happen after people in good faith tried to work with the bank on a loan mod.
I have seen so many people lose their homes after following the "having a hard time making your payments?" instructions on their banks’ websites.
I have seen too many short sales and loan mods fall apart over documents that were lost at the banks, and so many people who scraped up every cent their whole family could come up with to make on-time payments on a trial loan mod, only to have the bank come back and say they didn’t qualify for a modification in the first place.
I’m not going so far as to say the banks have malicious intentions; there are many others who have and continue to forcefully and (somewhat persuasively, in some cases) make that case. But my ultimate concern is actually for the consumer.
So, rather than fostering a perspective of a "we" that includes consumers and the banks, or an "us vs. them" point of view, I now advocate a you point of view. The decisions you make with respect to your mortgage must be driven entirely by what works for you and your family — and only that.
Do ask the bank for help and jump through all those hoops — some people actually get loan mods and an increasing number of short sales are actually getting done; if you don’t apply, you’ll never know if you could have been in that number. But don’t expect help.
And don’t expect logic or reason or even compassion. I say this to subprime borrowers who were overextended from jump street and to recent widows who’ve had to stop working to get chemotherapy alike. You might find it, but don’t enter it into your calculus of things you can count on or plan on.
Plan on you: your income, your prospects, your savings, your resources. I’ve seen better results from homeowners who went out and got a second job or cut back their own expenses than from those who counted on help from their lender.
You are your own and in many cases only bailout plan.
The people commenting on my article? They are the human players in a global economic crisis that was created when banks made loans to people who could never afford them (guilty: both lender and borrower, though no one can take a loan that is not extended), and in their recent memory are all the jobs and homes lost by themselves and people they know, those stories of epidemic robo-signing and TARP bailouts that seem only to have trickled up. As they see it, the banks have turned the table, sticking them up.
That view might not be nuanced or even 100 percent correct, but it is their reality. Viewed via that lens, the "us vs. them" comments just don’t seem crazy at all.