Our Pointless, Vicious, Very American Culture of Shame

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Puritanism’s obsession with guilt and shame, Nathaniel Hawthorne believed, was America’s original sin. We haven’t made much progress since “The Scarlet Letter.”

Do the crime do the time, goes the cliché. In the United States, when the time ends the shaming begins.

It starts when you look for a job. At least 65% of Americans have a felony or misdemeanor criminal record that makes them ineligible to work for the more than 90% of companies who run background checks to weed out applicants with a record. As for the few ex-cons who slip through this electronic dragnet, they are required by shaming laws to tell prospective employers about their checkered past. (Some states have slightly liberalized the requirement with laws like New York’s “Ban the Box” law, which requires disclosure only at the job offer stage.)

The only social benefit to convict-shaming is the shaming itself. “The irony is that employers’ attempts to safeguard the workplace are not only barring many people who pose little to no risk, but they also are compromising public safety. As studies have shown, providing individuals the opportunity for stable employment actually lowers crime recidivism rates and thus increases public safety,” notes a 2011 report by the National Employment Law Project. But capitalism is dog-eat-dog. Each company looks out for itself, society be damned.

I dug into the issue of convict-shaming after an op-ed I wrote for the Wall Street Journal calling for automatic expungement of records of people previously convicted of buying recreational marijuana in amounts that would now be legal prompted a discussion online. Some readers agreed with me that it’s absurd to keep punishing people for acts that are now legal. Others felt that if it was a crime at the time a criminal is still a criminal.

In most countries most employers do not conduct criminal background checks and there is no legal or ethical expectation that ex-cons reveal that they have committed a crime.

A person is convicted, sentenced to prison time and/or to pay a fine, serves the term and coughs up the money. Isn’t there a logical contradiction between release—which assumes an inmate no longer presents a danger to society—and public shaming? I am thinking of one of the most extreme examples of convict-shaming, Megan’s Law. Based on the false assumption that sex offenders have a high rate of recidivism, these statutes require that released inmates register in a database and notify local police and their neighbors of their address.

“What we’ve done,” Radley Balko wrote in The Washington Post in 2017, “is allowed sex offenders to be ‘released’ from prison, but then made it impossible for them to live anything resembling normal lives.” Websites linked to Google Maps allow anyone to check if their neighbor is a convicted sex offender. In some jurisdictions sex offenders are not allowed to reside within a set distance of a school or public park. In 2017 President Obama signed an “international Megan’s Law” that requires sex offenders against children to have the sentence “The bearer was convicted of a sex offense against a minor” stamped into their U.S. passports. So much for business travel.

Why such laws are popular is obvious. If a child molester lives down the block, parents want to know.

But vigilantes have used public Megan’s Law registries to locate and murder released sex offenders. In some communities the school and park restrictions are so draconian that there are so few legal places for released sex offenders to live that they’re forced to become homeless in order to comply with the law. All that harassment serves no real purpose except—you guessed it—serving the desire for cheap vengeance. “The [Megan’s Law] registry really didn’t protect kids at all” because “most child sexual abuse takes place in the home” and most of the victims of sex offenders listed in Megan’s Law databases are adults, says criminologist Emily Horowitz, author of Protecting Our Kids?: How Sex Offender Laws Are Failing Us.

To look at it another way: if sex offenders are dangerous, shouldn’t we keep them locked up rather than rely on mere shaming? Megan’s Law can’t stop a child molester from raping a child.

David Brooks of The New York Times has the latest MSM take on what he calls the “Call-Out Culture,” in which self-appointed guardians of identity politics (critics call them “social justice warriors”) swarm those accused of political incorrectness on social media feeds in order to shame, ostracize and demoralize them. “I don’t care if she’s dead, alive, whatever,” a man who went after a young women (ironically in retaliation for cyberbullying) told NPR.

Chinese Internet users have elevated doxxing and social media shaming to a high art called the “human flesh search engine” that costs victims their friends, family associations, jobs and sometimes their lives. But China is an outlier. While the phenomenon exists everywhere anecdotal evidence suggests that online “call-out culture” is neither as sophisticated or widespread in most nations as it is here in the United States.

It’s impossible to discuss shame culture without talking about the #MeToo movement. Criminal prosecution of accused sexual predators like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey are exceptions. For the most part #MeToo is a shame-based movement. Sometimes, as in the case of comedian Aziz Ansari’s bad date, shame seems excessive and misplaced. In many cases, the targets seem to have had something coming—since it’s not jail we settle for job loss—and it’s unlikely they would have faced consequences otherwise. Then there are those who-the-hell-knows cases like Louis C.K. where the behavior was weird and pervy and consent is a nebulous issue (he asked, the women involved “laughed it off”).

#MeToo has a mixed record. I can’t help wonder if, for all the shattered careers and former celebrities who now take their meals at home rather than eating out at a fancy restaurant, the victims feel cheated. On the one hand, something finally happened to their tormentors. On the other, shame fades. Trauma is often forever.

Evildoers deserve real punishment. After punishment has been doled out shame is both a poor substitute and counterproductive overkill. But it’s what we’ve got.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

Here is the Progressive Agenda

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Clintonite corporatists still control the Democratic National Committee despite their long string of failure at the polls. But the overwhelming majority of Democratic Party voters—72%—are self-identified progressives.

44% of House primary candidates in 2018 self-IDed as progressive. If you’re after the Democratic nomination for president you have to be—or pretend to be—progressive. Even Hillary Clinton claimed to be “a progressive who gets things done.”

All the top likely contenders for 2020 claim to be progressive—but they would prefer that voters ignore their voting records and unsavory donors. “Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris have spent the past two years racing to the leftmost edge of respectable opinion,” reports New York magazine. “In recent weeks, they have also all reached out to Wall Street executives, in hopes of securing some funding for their prospective presidential campaign.” It does no good for your heart to be in the right place if your ass is owned by bankers.

“You don’t just get to say that you’re progressive,” Representative Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told progressive donors recently.

Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, called the 2020 election a chance to “leverage our power.” She says it’s critical “that we have some very clear guidelines about what it means to be progressive.”

Here are those guidelines.

You can’t be a progressive unless you favor a big hike in the minimum wage. Elizabeth Warren, the first pretty-much-declared candidate for 2020, wants $15 an hour. But she told a 2013 Senate hearing that it would be $22 if it had kept up with increases in worker productivity. The official inflation rate makes that $24 today. And according to the real inflation rate (the official number as it was calculated before the Labor Department downgraded the calculation in 1980 and 1990) at ShadowStats.com, $22 in 2013 comes to at least $35 today.

If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation since 1968 using the same methodology used to track inflation at the time, it would be closer to $80 per hour.

What should be the progressive demand for the minimum wage? Nothing less than $25 per hour.

(For the record, I see no reason why the minimum wage should be lower than the maximum wage. But we’re talking about progressivism here, not socialism or communism.)

Thanks to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign “free college became a litmus test for liberals,” notes The Atlantic. But a 2017 bill cosponsored by Sanders and Warren defines “college for all” rather narrowly. It only addresses public colleges and universities. It would “make college tuition free for families earning $125,000 a year or less and allow current student loan borrowers to refinance their debt at lower interest rates.”

A quarter of American college students attend private schools. Considering that the average cost is $35,000 a year and some run as high as $60,000, even families earning more than $125,000 need help too.

The progressive stance on college should be three-pronged. First, the obscene $1.5 trillion student loan business should be abolished. Student loans should be replaced by grants but if loans exist at all they should be a zero-profit government program. Second, all outstanding loans should be forgiven or have their interest rates dropped to a zero-profit basis. Third, the government should rein in out-of-control public and private college tuition and fees—which have gone up eight times faster than wages—by tying them to the official federal cost of living index.

Progressives agree that Obamacare didn’t go far enough. With 70% of voters in favor, even centrist Democrats like Kamala Harris have climbed aboard Bernie Sanders’ call for “Medicare for all” bandwagon. Warren, Gillibrand and Booker now say they want single-payer public healthcare. Being progressive, however, means demanding more than what mainstream politicians deem practical—it’s about pushing hard for more ways to improve people’s lives.

In 2020 progressives should be calling for nothing less than universal healthcare. If it’s good enough for the rest of the developed world and many developing countries like Botswana and Bhutan, why not us?

I cosigned a letter to Sanders calling on the Vermont senator to use his platform as the country’s most prominent and popular progressive to talk more about foreign policy and to openly oppose militarism. Now it’s time to get specific.

Progressives should demand that U.S. troops come home from any country that did not attack the United States—i.e., all of them. They should put an end to the disgusting drone wars. The bloated nearly-$1 trillion Pentagon budget should be shredded; let’s see what they can do with $100 billion (which would still be far more than Russia’s defense spending).

From banks that charge usurious credit card interest rates to employers who fire full-time employees and hire them back as “independent contractors,” there are plenty of other targets for progressives to go after.

Progressives: you are no longer the ugly stepdaughter of the Democratic Party. You own the joint.
Now’s the time to demand what’s yours, what you want and what’s right.

(Ted Rall, the cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

Here’s the Audio of the recent Oral Arguments in Ted Rall v. Los Angeles Times

Listen for yourself to the oral arguments in the most recent Ted Rall v. Los Angeles Times anti-SLAPP hearing. I’m defending myself against Dr. Pat Soon-Shiong and the LA Times’ defamation as a favor to the LAPD.

Death to the D.I.Y. Society

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I admit it: my bias derived from self-interest. I was a bag boy. But that didn’t make me wrong when I reacted to the news that supermarkets would make customers bag their own groceries. This, I told my friends at the time, is the first brick in a road to perdition.

Since the 1970s corporate efficiency experts have burdened American consumers with a constantly expanding galaxy of tasks that businesses used to perform for them. Craig Lambert calls it “shadow work”—labor imposed on you that you’re not conscious of.

The Do It Yourself (because companies won’t hire workers to do it anymore) movement faced little resistance in a culture that elevates personal responsibility and rugged individualism. Which is how, in less than half a century, we have become accustomed to pumping our own gas and planning our own vacations and scanning our own groceries and running our own cable TV diagnostic tests, forgetting how much easier life was with service station attendants and travel agents and cashiers and technicians who came to your actual house. Not only do we work harder, we earn less due to the disappearance of service personnel jobs from the    labor market.

Corporate profits uber alles.

I recently visited a Burger King with touchscreen kiosks where you’re supposed to order your food because God forbid BK should fork out $10 an hour to a human being so you can simply tell him you’d like a #2 combo, size medium, drink is a Coke please. Come the Revolution may the scoundrel who thought of this be deported to an exceptionally unpleasant re-education camp.

Now that they have us doing everything ourselves, companies are making us provide our equipment as well.

On United Airlines from Los Angeles to New York recently, the plane was new—and the infrastructure was retro. In place of the seatback TVs that have long been standard on long-haul flights were plastic clips where you’re supposed to place your tablet or smartphone. You can imagine the discussion at United corporate:

“We’ve already conned the idiots into checking themselves in on their phones. Seat-back televisions cost as much as $10,000 per seat to install and maintain. Passengers have their own devices. Let them watch movies on their own tech!”

Liberal soon-to-be-fired executive: “What about old people who aren’t tech-savvy? Poor people without devices?”

“Screw ‘em. Plus they have to download our app and register to watch movies, so we collect more data!”

Liberal: “Some people might say we’re being mighty cheap for a company that makes $3.2 billion in profits a year.”

“And now it’ll be more billions!”

I have a smartphone. And a tablet. And a laptop. But as long as aviation remains a for-profit business sector (one with atrocious customer service), I don’t see why I should subsidize a CEO’s outrageous paycheck with wear and tear on my personal hardware.           It’s only a matter of time before we’ll have to fly the planes ourselves too.

Feeling stressed out? Overworked with a million little annoying things to do? It’s not your imagination. The D.I.Y. society has you performing jobs that older generations had done for them by someone paid to do it—and was better at it, too. Every upward tick of the Dow Jones Industrial Average is fed by the rising stress and anxiety caused by corporations schluffing their work onto us.

I would like to think that the market will self-correct by inspiring a new generation of entrepreneurs to build businesses predicated on old-fashioned standards of service. But there’s no sign of that—not for ordinary people. Only the wealthy command bespoke attention, and only from luxury brands.

It is hard for most Americans to grasp how unpleasant the DIY society has made our lives because few of them travel overseas. If they did, especially to the developing world, they would find overstaffed restaurants and stores. Because labor is cheap in those countries, there is always someone available to wait on you. They can’t afford automation so the human touch dominates. Travel agents, for example—if you’re too young to remember the pleasures of having a professional work out a complicated multi-city itinerary and score you a great hotel deal via a personal relationship, you should try it when you go to the developing world. It’s a wonderful vibe and I miss it terribly stateside.

Our only hope is individual resistance.

It’s already begun. Many shoppers refuse to bag their groceries. Others are boycotting self-scanning checkout lines to save the jobs of flesh-and-blood cashiers. “They’re trying to basically herd everyone in, get everyone used to the self-checkouts to continuously cut down on staff,” a Canadian named Dan Morris explained to the CBC. “Machines don’t pay taxes, they don’t pay into the pension plan.” Only 11% of Canadians use self-checkouts.

On that United flight fewer than a third of passengers watched a movie. Who wants to clutter their device with an app for every airline they fly? I will avoid carriers like United and American that eliminate seatback TVs, favor those like Delta that are not, and so should you.

Any time a company gives you a choice between human and machine, like at BK, choose the person. Pick full-serve over self-serve. Patronize businesses that keep people on the payroll and avoid automated BS.

The DIY society will probably win. But we shouldn’t go out without a fight.

(Ted Rall, the cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

This Is What Happens When a Court Decides Whether You Get Justice or Get Destroyed

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More care goes into the making of a sandwich.

That’s what I was thinking last Thursday as I watched oral arguments in the California Court of Appeals in Los Angeles.

Case after case came before a three-judge panel. They concerned a variety of matters. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps millions, were at stake. More importantly, so were hard-built professional careers and reputations. With so much that mattered hanging in the balance, you’d hope to see these cases handled with sensitivity, decorum and thoughtfulness—and you’d be sorely disappointed.

There was a real estate deal gone wrong that I would have needed to read up on in order to understand. A physician was resisting a subpoena for his patients’ records filed by the state medical board, which suspected him of overprescribing opioids. And there was me, former editorial cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, defending myself from an “anti-SLAPP” motion that, if successful, would end my lawsuit before it began and bankrupt me with a court order for me—the victim—to pay the Times hundreds of thousands of dollars for their legal fees.

It ought to be illegal for a police department to own a newspaper. But it’s not. In 2015 the LAPD pension fund was a major shareholder of Tribune Publishing, owner of the Times. Annoyed at my cartoons about him, then-LAPD Chief Charlie Beck asked the Times then-publisher Austin Beutner, now LA schools superintendent, to fire me as a political favor. He did. Beck also wanted my reputation destroyed so I could never work again, in order to send a message to journalists: don’t mess with the LAPD. Beutner, Beck’s political ally and a man with ambitions to become mayor or governor, complied by ordering that the paper publish two libelous articles about me portraying me as a liar.

The second one was published after I proved I had told the truth.

I sued for defamation and wrongful termination in 2016.

Since then Times attorney Kelli Sager, who also represents the National Enquirer in its smear of gay icon Richard Simmons, has waged a scorched-earth litigation campaign designed to intimidate, harass and delay my quest to clear my name. Sager filed the anti-SLAPP, a law designed to be used by individuals to defend themselves against powerful corporate entities, against me. She convinced the court to force me to pay $75,000 just to be able to continue my case for something called a “Section 1030”—a law whose intent is to discriminate against out-of-state plaintiffs (I live in New York.) Last week, during oral arguments in open court, she compared me to a “pedophile.”

Last summer the lower court in L.A. ruled against me on the anti-SLAPP, saying that even though I showed that I was truthful and the Times was not, I must pay $330,000 (as of then) in legal fees to the Times. I appealed, which is why I was in court last Thursday.

We knew it was going to be tough. Shortly beforehand the court issued a “tentative opinion” that indicated the Court of Appeals planned to buy Sager’s arguments lock, stock and barrel. Those arguments were lengthy and complicated but they could be summarized as: the First Amendment allows newspapers to publish anything they want, the truth doesn’t much matter and if you slap a veneer of officialdom on libel—in this case, the Times claimed, it was merely reporting on what the LAPD said about me—it becomes “privileged,” i.e. inactionable.

My attorney Jeff Lewis emphasized several points.

First, he pointed out, the tentative opinion disregarded California anti-SLAPP case law that requires that I be given the benefit of the doubt, not the Times, when considering their anti-SLAPP motion. In Overstock.com, Inc. v. Gradient Analytics, Inc. (2007), for example, the court ruled that “the plaintiff’s burden of establishing a probability of prevailing is not high: We do not weigh credibility, nor do we evaluate the weight of the evidence. Instead, we accept as true all evidence favorable to the plaintiff and assess the defendant’s evidence only to determine if it defeats the plaintiff’s submission as a matter of law.” The tentative opinion was rife with references to my supposed (in)credibility and purported to evaluate the evidence presented.

The justices seemed surprised by Jeff’s argument. They asked him to cite case law examples. He did. They wrote them down.

I hope they take notice and change tack, still, anti-SLAPP motions are commonplace in California courts. How could any judge be unaware of important cases like Overstock or the standard that plaintiffs get the benefit of the doubt in anti-SLAPP?

Jeff countered the Times’ argument that they were merely passing on what the LAPD records given to them said. It matters because “fair and true” journalistic reports about government records are “privileged.” Much of the Times’ hit pieces against me concerned the Times’ own cursory sham investigation of me. One judge asked Sager whether the Times was arguing that both the LAPD and the Times’ references were privileged. Sager repeated that the LAPD ones were, repeatedly ignoring the Times question until, after being pressed, she played dumb, insulting the court’s intelligence by pretending not to understand the issue.

No one pressed her on that or on her “pedophile” remark. Whereas the judges expressed great concern for the reputation of the doctor in the previous case about overprescribing, none spoke against comparing a cartoonist to a pedophile, further slandering me.

Jeff asked why the court’s tentative ruling ignored our most important anti-SLAPP case law precedent, Wilson v. CNN. There was no clear answer. Whether it was intentional or they forgot, people have been fired from far less prestigious jobs for considerably less shoddy work.

Lewis asked the court to consider the chilling message they would send to journalists at news outlets like the Times if they ruled for the Times against me: if you criticize the LAPD, you can be destroyed even though you did nothing wrong. And you can’t sue. There is no redress. There is no justice.

We await the court’s ruling.

UPDATE: Listen to the oral arguments here:

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

Liberals Used to Feel Your Pain. Now They Inflict It.

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Liberals are supposed to feel other people’s pain. Now they seem more intent on inflicting it.

I noticed the de-empathification of the Democratic Party during the implementation of Obamacare. I lived in one of many counties with zero or one plan on offer. Low supply and high demand—hell, the ACA required you to buy one or get fined—allowed insurers to gouge patients with sky-high rates. The one plan in my county’s ACA sucked. It charged a $1400-per-month premium with a $10,000-a-year deductible—and featured no doctors within network within a 90-minute drive.

On Facebook I complained about the paucity of affordable plans in my online health insurance marketplace. “I don’t know what you’re going on about,” one of my friends snarked. “I found an excellent, affordable plan.”

My friend lives in Manhattan.

When I pointed out that residents of big cities like New York had far more competition than residents of more sparsely populated areas, he acted as if I hadn’t said anything, continuing to sing the praises of the ACA. “Obamacare is a Godsend for me,” he continued. “So many great options!”

This conversation-without-communication went on and on like that. It was like a variation of the old book “I’m OK, You’re OK.” Now it’s “I’m OK, You’re—Who Cares About You?”

People often ask me for political predictions. Many people I know are Democrats of the Third Way/DLC/Clinton variety and so were understandably upset when I told them I was sure Donald Trump would win. “I grew up in Dayton, Ohio,” I explained. “The major swing states in this election are full of hollowed-out depopulated deindustrialized Rust Belt cities like Dayton. Free trade agreements like NAFTA killed those cities and destroyed their residents’ quality of life and crushed their American Dream. Hillary and the Democrats supported that globalization garbage. Trump will win because he’s the only one who talks about their problems, the only one who acknowledges they exist, and Democrats are too obsessed with identitarian symbolism.”

“But Trump is an idiot,” they said.

“Not so much of an idiot that he said nice things about free trade,” I said, referring to Hillary Clinton.

“But he’s a bigot,” they continued.

“True,” I agreed. But these people desperate and angry and he’s the first presidential candidate to admit that free trade isn’t awesome. It’s a chance to send a message, a cri de coeur.”

The vacant disconnected look in my liberal friends’ eyes was every bit as dumbstruck as that of a MAGA supporter who realizing that big tax cut wasn’t for him. They weren’t from the Midwest, had never been to the Midwest, didn’t know anyone from the Midwest. The devastation and dysfunction I described—substance addiction, generation after generation on disability, systemic un- and underemployment, plunging housing prices, cash-starved local governments so unable to keep up with the mayhem that ODed corpses piled up at the morgue—was as foreign to them as a drone strike in Afghanistan.

Globalization was inevitable. Why didn’t those stupid Ohioans accept it?

Democrats like FDR used to look at dispossessed voters and see electoral opportunity, a chance to grow the party. Today’s liberals are poorer than Roosevelt yet more elitist; they see a bunch of irrelevant old white guys who ought to hurry up and die.

The latest case study is France’s “Yellow Vest” movement. For over a month angry motorists, many middle-aged men from rural and suburban areas of the country, have converged on cities like Paris to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s hike of the gas tax. As in Britain less populous areas have been left behind economically and neglected by the central government. People say they’re barely making it to the end of each month after paying rising bills on fixed incomes, and they’re pissed.

No doubt echoing their well-heeled counterparts in the 4ème arrondissement, my liberal Democratic friends were gobsmacked by France’s most violent Days of Rage since May 1968. “It’s a carbon tax,” one explained helpfully. “We have to reduce consumption of greenhouse gases.” Her attitude is typical: don’t those conservative hicks understand that the planet is dying?

True, we should reduce air pollution. (Though it’s probably too late to slow down climate change.) But a tax designed to reduce consumption only serves one purpose if consumers have no choice but to consume: to increase government revenue while making citizens miserable. Yellow Vesters who live in the sticks don’t have a mass transit alternative. They can’t carpool. They’ve got to drive and, with a carbon tax, they have to pay. No wonder they’re angry. Wouldn’t it make more sense to tax shareholders whose portfolios include stocks with big carbon footprints?

In the 1970s right-wing Republicans like Richard Nixon promoted the cliché of the “limousine liberal”: self-righteous, hypocritical, privileged and disconnected from Joe and Jane Sixpack. I don’t know if it was true then. It certainly is now.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

 

What Do the NY Times and LA Times Have in Common with the National Enquirer? They All Love anti-SLAPP Laws

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The National Enquirer is in the news rather than reporting it—not for printing that Elvis is alive and well, but for its alleged role as “a dirty-tricks shop for Donald J. Trump in 2016,” as The New York Times put it in an article that described the supermarket tabloid as “the most powerful print publication in America.” The Enquirer served as a propaganda rag for The Donald, first targeting Ted Cruz during the primaries and then amplifying anti-Hillary conspiracy theories like “PizzaGate,” the ridiculous stories that candidate Clinton was sleeping with Huma Abedin and that she had hired a “hitman” to murder people who annoyed her.

It paid $150,000 for the story of a former Playboy model who said she had an affair with our current president—so they could bury it. (They call this a “catch-and-kill” deal.)

Even for the pond-scum standards of the National Enquirer, this is super sleazy. Mainstream media outlets like the Times are pointing out how gross and yucky the Enquirer is and they’re right to do so.

What these august guardians of the Fourth Estate are not as eager to talk about is how, when it comes to a little-known law with a massive effect on libel and defamation law, respectable print institutions like the New York Times are on the same side as such exemplars of yellow journalism as the National Enquirer.

Twenty-eight states—including many of the most populous—have “anti-SLAPP” laws ostensibly designed to protect newspapers, radio and television outlets from being sued for libel or defamation.

Their real purpose is to allow the media to get away with murder.

Let’s say a newspaper prints an article that destroys your reputation: for example, you’re a teacher and the piece says you sexually assaulted students. Now let’s say that you’re innocent. Not only that, you can prove you’re innocent. So you sue the paper for defamation or libel.

In the old days, your lawsuit would head to discovery and then to trial where a jury of your peers would weigh the evidence. If 12 men and women good and true agreed that the paper had lied about you and hurt your reputation, they might award you damages to make up for lost wages and other financial harm. After all, even a verdict in your favor probably wouldn’t cause a school district to be willing to hire you.

Now we have anti-SLAPP. If you live in a state with one of these pretzel-logic statutes, the odds of getting justice are very low. It doesn’t matter how brazen the lie about you was or how much it hurt you or your livelihood. Even if you can prove the paper knew what they said about you wasn’t true when they decided to print it, an anti-SLAPP motion will probably stop you dead in your tracks—assuming you can find a lawyer willing to represent you in a state with an anti-SLAPP law in the first place. As a defamation law expert in California told me, “Defamation law is effectively dead. There is no redress.”

Here’s how it works. First you sue. Then the paper that slimed you files an anti-SLAPP motion. Discovery—subpoenaing each other’s documents, deposing witnesses on both sides—halts before it begins. So you can’t collect evidence. Years pass. Legal bills mount. Without access to documents and witnesses you have to convince a judge—not a jury—that your case doesn’t involve “privileged communications”—whatever that is—and that you’ll probably prevail before a jury. Of course, the judge doesn’t know that. Odds are you’ll never see that jury. Here’s the best part: after the judge tosses your case, you—the victim!—have to pay the legal fees of the publication that tried to ruin you.

Because they violate the centuries-old right to trial by jury, two state Supreme Courts—in Washington and Minnesota—have gotten rid of their anti-SLAPP statutes, ruling them unconstitutional. But there’s still a long way to go before sanity prevails; if anything, the momentum is for more states to legalize defamation with anti-SLAPP laws.

Because anti-SLAPP motions are themselves the subject of years-long litigation and appeals, trial lawyers rake in hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the anti-SLAPP racket. The only victims are plaintiffs forced into bankruptcy.

Run a Google search for “criticism of anti-SLAPP laws” and you’ll likely come up empty. News articles about anti-SLAPP contain countless quotes in favor, none against.

Media companies love anti-SLAPP laws because they allow them to run “fake news” day after day without the slightest worry of being held accountable for their perfidy. Even liberal former labor secretary Robert Reich has fallen for anti-SLAPP propaganda, which holds that such laws help poor individuals defend themselves against frivolous lawsuits filed by deep-pocketed corporations when, in fact, the opposite is more often true.

A California court recently ruled in favor of an anti-SLAPP motion filed against fitness icon Richard Simmons by the National Enquirer. Simmons had sued the tabloid after it falsely published a BS cover story (which it described as “shocking!”) claiming Simmons had undergone a sex change to become a woman. He had not. Simmons said he “has a legal right to insist that he not be portrayed as someone he is not” and “to be portrayed in a manner that is truthful.” Few reasonable people would disagree.

Simmons got screwed.

Check out the Orwellian Enquirer argument the judge bought hook, line and sinker: “Plaintiff has no right to suppress speech about him, even false speech, if it is not harmful to his reputation.” The judge ordered Simmons—the victim—to pay $130,000 to the Enquirer, which admits it lied about him. “Falsity is not enough” to prove defamation, said Enquirer attorney Kelli Sager.

The anti-SLAPP business has become shameless. Sager even defended the Daily Mail after it ran a fake-news story connecting First Lady Melania Trump to an escort agency.

The Los Angeles Times recently made a similar anything-goes argument in favor of its anti-SLAPP motion against me. In 2015, when the #1 shareholder of the Times’ parent company was the LAPD pension fund, the then-LAPD chief ordered the then-publisher, his political ally, to fire me and run a fake-news story describing me me as a liar and fabulist. After I proved it was the Times and not me who lied, Kelli Sager—the National Enquirer lawyer who also represents the upscale Los Angeles Times—told the court: “This is not a case about the quote-unquote truth.”

After I sued for defamation, the trial judge—in the same courthouse as the Simmons case—ruled that I—the victim—must pay the Times $330,000 in their legal fees even though I had shown they were liars and that they knew what they printed about me was untrue at the time. Like Simmons, we are appealing.

The Enquirer recently hit the Playboy model in the Trump case, Karen McDougal, with an anti-SLAPP motion that would force her to pay its legal fees.

For my money the most outrageous California example of abuse I’ve read recently is former Trump attorney and fixer Michael Cohen’s anti-SLAPP motion against Stormy Daniels. Cohen said Daniels lied about having an affair with Trump—which is plainly false.

Cohen has been sentenced to three years in prison for arranging hush-money payoffs to Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels. Too bad he won’t be bunking with the publishers of the National Enquirer and The Los Angeles Times.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

 

SYNDICATED COLUMN: George H.W. Bush Hagiography is the Elites’ Finest Accomplishment

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Even by the recent can’t-believe-your-eyes-and-ears standards of American elitist hagiography this week’s over-the-top-of-the-top praise of George H.W. Bush was astonishing.

What separated Bush41apalooza from such previous pseudo-griefathons as those for Ronald Reagan and John McCain was that there was so little to work with. Not that it stopped the media.

I knew this was an insane historical benchmark when a major network interrupted its coverage of the G-20 summit with the BREAKING NEWS that George W. Bush had issued a statement about his dead dad: “George H.W. Bush was a man of the highest character and the best dad a son or daughter could ask for.” Stop the presses!

When a right-wing Republican like Bush dies you can count on a Democrat to deliver his most fulsome praise. “America has lost a patriot and humble servant,” said Barack and Michelle Obama. “While our hearts are heavy today, they are also filled with gratitude…George H.W. Bush’s life is a testament to the notion that public service is a noble, joyous calling. And he did tremendous good along the journey.”

Trump lies constantly but it took the death of Bush 41 for American “leaders” and their media mouthpieces to fully commit to speaking an English language whose words have no meaning whatsoever. In this dystopia I’d call Orwellian save for the fact that old George’s prophecy didn’t anticipate its hilarious absurdity, a man who ran for president three times qualifies as “humble.” A commander-in-chief who ordered the massacre of tens of thousands of innocent people in one of the most gruesome war crimes ever recorded—the “Highway of Death” following the ceasefire that ended the Gulf War—is described as having great character—yet no one upchucks all over the camera lens as if it were a Japanese prime minister.

A steward of the economy who refused to stimulate a tide or raise any boats in the middle of a brutal six-year-long recession can be called many things but not—before the Obamas—“joyous.” Preppy, I’ll give you. Joyous, no.

John Sununu, Bush’s chief of staff, explained in 1991, that doing “tremendous good” was actually contrary to Bush’s governing philosophy: “The President feels very strongly that the free-market system operates best when it does not have its hands tied by government, is not shackled by a system that erroneously thinks it can improve it by command and control.” Bush chimed in: “I do not want to see the government pick winners and losers.” Except his government did create losers: his refusal to fund AIDS research killed tens of thousands of gay men.

I’m in favor of behavioral change,” Bush said to justify his policy, a brazen sop to the Christian Right. “Here’s a disease where you can control its spread by your own personal behavior.” Memo to gays: don’t have sex. So “joyous.” So much “tremendous good.” Guess we’ll never get that apology now.

Fawning over dead presidents and the occasional dead presidential candidate is always repugnant considering they’re such a callous and bloodthirsty lot of greed-dogs. But Bush 41—his death dance is different.

Like him or not, Reagan was a consequential person with undeniable political acumen. Even under Democrats Clinton and Obama we have continued to accept the Gipper’s redefinition of the social contract from a culture of looking out for one another to every man for himself. His easy aw-shucks vocal delivery made the most liberal voters sleep through eight years of budgetary, tax and military mayhem—no easy feat.

Likewise John McCain was a deeply—mostly—flawed man who nonetheless had enough of an engaging story, his experience as a POW in Vietnam, for the hagiographers to blow up into a fairly credible heroism narrative, overcoming the uncomfortable fact that the war he volunteered to kill in is understood to have been immoral and illegal.

Bush, on the other hand, has always been a former president universally understood to be a do-nothing failure. Screwed up the economy, set the stage for his son’s Iraq War, refused to turn post-Cold War Russia into a friend and ally, preferring to watch the former USSR plunge into chaos and mass starvation so his big banker backers could swarm in and loot state-owned enterprises. You could call him the Republican Jimmy Carter but Bush—unlike Carter—was never rehabilitated by history or the electorate. Whereas Carter (actually humbly) dedicated himself to Habitat for Humanity during his long post-presidency and so earned respect, Bush 41 just—what? Showed up for presidential reunion photo-ops? He just nothinged. Even Republicans didn’t much care for him.

Were you surprised that Bush died because you didn’t know he was still alive?

There was once a time when, when presidents died, you imagined that at least some of the network news talking heads believed some of what they read to you, that some of the mawkish tributes were heartfelt. No more.

The fakery is so phony they don’t even bother to hide it anymore.

Like Winston Smith at the conclusion of “1984,” the bullet in the back of the rotting head of BS American democracy comes almost as a release.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

 

 

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Trump is Crazy. Invoke the 25th.

Image result for crazy trump           Never mind the policies. For the purpose of this discussion—a discussion our country desperately needs to have—politics are an annoying, distracting rabbit hole.

Donald Trump should be removed from office under the 25th Amendment.

The reason Trump should be de-presidented has nothing to do with his legislative actions or foreign policy initiatives. Unlike George W. Bush in 2000 (and arguably in 2004), Trump won fairly. Unlike Barack Obama, he has kept his promises. His presidency is legitimate.

It has nothing to with his alleged ethical and legal breaches. Impeachment is the proper instrument for charging and possibly removing a sitting president.

The 25th Amendment was ratified in 1965 following the Kennedy assassination. It provides a mechanism for replacing a president who has become incapacitated physically—or, as seems to be the case for Trump, mentally.

“Section 4 stipulates that when the vice president and a majority of a body of Congress declare in writing to the president pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House that the president is unable to perform the duties of the office, the vice president immediately becomes acting president,” according to the History channel. Currently then, Mike Pence and a majority (currently Republican) either of the House or the Senate would write to Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Nancy Pelosi of California will probably replace Ryan after the new Congress is sworn in January.

The VP and a majority of Trump’s 24 cabinet members could begin the process instead of Congress. “It would only take 14 people to depose the president” in that scenario, according to Business Insider.

Trump could appeal. “The president can then submit a written declaration to the contrary and resume presidential powers and duties—unless the vice president and a majority body of Congress [i.e. both houses] declare in writing within four days that the president cannot perform his duties, in which case Congress will vote on the issue.”

High-ranking officials inside the Trump Administration have been so concerned about the president’s fitness to serve that they thought about invoking the 25th Amendment just two weeks after Trump’s inauguration. After the president fired FBI director James Comey, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein went to Comey’s then-acting replacement Andy McCabe, whom he told he thought “that he might be able to persuade Attorney General Jeff Sessions and John F. Kelly, then the secretary of homeland security and now the White House chief of staff, to mount an effort to invoke the 25th Amendment,” according to The New York Times.” Rosenstein floated the idea of wearing a wire to catch audio of Trump talking crazy.

An anonymous Times op-ed by a Trump official claimed that several cabinet members had considered invoking the 25th Amendment.

Trump has called himself “a very stable genius.” Genius? This is a native-born American who attended college, who said his mom “gestated” her Thanksgiving turkey. But stable?

Trump’s manic blizzard of strangeness on Thanksgiving 2018 made the case for the 25th Amendment better than anything I’ve read in an inside-Trump tell-all book.

Asked what he was most thankful for, he said himself: “I made a tremendous difference in our country.”

Trump’s CIA had just issued a report concluding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. “I hate the crime, I hate the coverup,” Trump told reporters. “I will tell you this: The crown prince hates it more than I do, and they have vehemently denied it.” Why would the prince hate his own crime?

Bizarrely, Trump blamed “the world” for the killing. “Maybe the world should be held accountable because the world is a very, very vicious place,” Trump said insanely. For the record, “the world” did not kill Khashoggi. Bin Salman did.

Later he discussed one of his favorite topics, The Wall with Mexico.

“We took an old, broken wall and we wrapped it with barb wire plus,” Trump said. “I guess you could really call it barb wire plus. This is the ultimate. And nobody’s getting through these walls. And we’re going to make sure they’re the right people because that’s what you and your family want and all of your families. That’s what they want. And that’s why we’re all fighting. You know, we’re fighting for borders. We’re fighting for our country. If we don’t have borders, we don’t have a country. So we’re doing very well on the southern border. We’re very tough. We get a lot of bad court decisions from the Ninth Circuit, which has become a big thorn in our side. We always lose, and then you lose again and again, and then you hopefully win at the Supreme Court, which we’ve done. But it’s a terrible thing when judges take over your protective services, when they tell you how to protect your border. It’s a disgrace. So we’re winning. And you’re winning. And I appreciate very much.”

Oh. My.

God.

Psychiatrists have openly speculated that Trump is mentally ill or suffers from at least one serious personality disorder, typically severe narcissism. One even calls him a sadist, “the essence of evil.”

I am a cartoonist and columnist, not a psychologist. I don’t know what exactly is wrong with Trump. Former presidential aide Omarosa Manigault Newman thinks he is succumbing to dementia; it’s certainly possible. Trump is 72. His father developed Alzheimer’s, which points to an increased chance for the president.

It’s probably several things.

What I know is that Trump is not mentally fit enough to serve as president. I think those closest to him know it too. The vice president, his aides and advisors, his cabinet members, members of Congress—they all know that this behavior does not fall within the normal range for a 72-year-old man and that it puts the nation and the world at risk.

It is grossly irresponsible to allow a crazy person to sit in the Oval Office.

“In a time like this of unusual crisis, one has to count on leaders in the executive branch and Congress to really be patriots, not partisans,” Joel Goldstein, a constitutional expert at St. Louis University, told a symposium where the 25th Amendment was discussed.

Republican leaders should act soon. Trump’s mental deterioration, so evident now, will only become worse by the height of the 2020 reelection campaign. If Trump is removed now, Pence will have more than a year to earn the voters’ trust and make his case for four more years.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

Whatever Happened to Resigning on Principle?

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This past spring the president met with his White House counsel to discuss an idea. Donald Trump wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and James Comey, the FBI director he fired. “It is not clear which accusations Mr. Trump wanted prosecutors to pursue,” reported The New York Times.

The counsel, Don McGahn, argued against it. He won the day. Trump shelved his boneheaded plan to Lock Them Up. Hillary remains free to collect six-figure speaking fees from ethically-challenged organizations and threaten to run for president again.

That worked out OK. After all, it would be hard to overstate the political crisis that would result if a precedent were established in which the perils of running for political office were to include getting thrown into prison should you lose.

But what about what was supposed to come next: the principled resignation?

Don McGahn stared into the face of the Leader of the Free World and Keeper of the Launchcodes and saw—there’s really no more precise way to put it—a lunatic.

“Mr. McGahn apparently was able to dissuade Mr. Trump from issuing the order to prosecute political enemies by telling him that the plan was so antithetical to American political values that it could trigger impeachment proceedings,” former U.S. attorney Harry Litman wrote in the Times.

No one, not even Trump, needs anyone to tell them that the winner of a presidential election doesn’t prosecute the loser. Bush didn’t file charges against Gore, Reagan didn’t charge Mondale, and FDR didn’t go after Hoover. They do that kind of thing in Pakistan, not the U.S. If Trump didn’t know that already, he’s too stupid to serve and should be removed under the 25th Amendment. If he did know, he’s a tyrant in the making and should be impeached at once. Floating such a crazy idea is automatically, irrevocably, determinately disqualifying.

No one should work for a nutty president (presidential nut?). Remaining associated with such a loon cannot make anything better. It cannot mitigate. It cannot save the republic. It can only lead to guilt by association. When you learn that the President of the United States is insane there is only one moral thing to do: call a press conference, resign and tell the world everything you know.

Yet McGahn remains.

Why? Does he need the money? Does he like the job? Does he believe he can successfully argue against Trump the next time he floats an un-American plan? Maybe he’ll soften some of the terms of martial law. I don’t know why he’s staying on. I do know there’s no good reason and no reasonable excuse. He should have quit last spring.

Now that the news is public, so should everyone who works for Trump.

There have been a lot of McGahns in recent years. No member of the Obama Administration resigned when he greenlit the illegal political assassination of Osama bin Laden, expanded Bush’s drone wars or bailed out Wall Street banks at the expense of Main Street businesses and homeowners. No one left the Bush White House when he ginned up a BS war against Iraq or authorized systemic torture in a new series of “dark site” concentration camps and covert dungeons.

The last major resignation based on political principle seems quaint now. It occurred in 1980 when Cyrus Vance resigned as secretary of state because Jimmy Carter authorized a military operation, the failed helicopter rescue mission to Iran, rather than give diplomacy a chance to resolve the embassy hostage crisis.

Alas poor Cyrus, we hardly knew ye! There never seems to be sufficient outrage (or accountability) to prompt someone to say no to a president or an opportunity.

It’s not on par yet nevertheless worth noting: this week the White House Correspondents Association invited historian Ron Chernow to host its annual D.C. journalist-politico dinner. It’s the first time the soiree has been MCed by a non-comedian or humorist. The reason is obvious: the WHCA caved into Trump’s reaction to stand-up comic Michelle Wolf’s incendiary performance last year.

Of course the president was angry. She was funny! Good humor is dangerous. Good political humor makes big political enemies and Wolf did. After the announcement that the WHCA had ditched satire in favor of historical reflection (why can’t we have both?), Trump tweeted that he might attend this year.

Chernow ought to be ashamed of himself. He’s allowing himself to be used. He’ll be remembered as yet another tombstone on the mass grave of American political satire and as the lickspittle of our rancid little president. But even the author of the “Hamilton” book used as the basis of the hit musical couldn’t resist the siren call of nationally televised attention. He should have said no. Given what went down last year between Trump and Wolf last year, any non-comedian ought to have said no.

In 1969 Jean-Paul Sartre—Professor Chernow, I own your books and his and you are no Sartre—refused the Nobel Prize in Literature. “A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable,” explained the father of existentialist philosophy.

Sartre is better and more fondly remembered for his rejection than many of those who accepted it.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)