Deaths from despair — suicide, alcohol and drug abuse — have doubled since the year 2000. Experts argue about why this is the case but there is no doubt that America has a culture completely devoid of empathy for people who are going through hard times.
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.)
Time to Roll Back Excessive Prison Sentences
If you’re looking for sympathy, it helps to be white, male and media-savvy. Throw in charm and brains—especially if your smarts tend toward the tech geek variety—and your online petitions will soon collect more petitions than campaigns against kitten cancer.
These advantages weren’t enough to save Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old “technology wunderkind” who hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment on January 11. But they did elevate his suicide from that of a mere “data crusader,” as The New York Times put it, to “a cause” driven by millennial “information wants to be free” bloggers and sympathetic writers (whose corporate media overlords would go broke if people like Swartz got their way).
Swartz, who helped invent RSS feeds as a teenager and cofounded the link-posting social networking site Reddit, was a militant believer in online libertarianism, the idea that everything—data, cultural products like books and movies, news—ought to be available online for free. Sometimes he hacked into databases of copyrighted material—to make a point, not a profit. Though Swartz reportedly battled depression, the trigger that pushed him to string himself up was apparently his 2011 arrest for breaking into M.I.T.’s computer system.
Swartz set up a laptop in a utility closet and downloaded 4.8 million scholarly papers from a database called JSTOR. He intended to post them online to protest the service’s 10 cent per page fee because he felt knowledge should be available to everyone. For free.
JSTOR declined to prosecute, but M.I.T. was weasely, so a federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz of Boston, filed charges. “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away,” she told the media at the time.
Basically, I agree. As someone who earns a living by selling rights to reprint copyrighted intellectual property, I’ve seen the move from print to digital slash my income while disseminating my work more widely than ever. Info wants to be free is fine in theory, but then who pays writers, cartoonists, authors and musicians?
I also have a problem with the selective sympathy at play here. Where are the outraged blog posts and front-page New York Times pieces personalizing the deaths of Pakistanis murdered by U.S. drone strikes? Where’s the soul-searching and calls for payback against the officials who keep 166 innocent men locked up in Guantánamo? What if Swartz were black and rude and stealing digitized movies?
But what matters is the big picture. There is no doubt that, in the broader sense, Swartz’s suicide was, in his family’s words, “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach”—a system that ought to be changed for everyone, not just loveable Ivy League nerds.
Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines. The charges were wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer.
Thirty-five years! For stealing data!
The average rapist serves between five and six years.
The average first-degree murderer does 16.
And no one seriously thinks Swartz was trying to make money—as in, you know, commit fraud.
No wonder people are comparing DA Ortiz to Javert, the heartless and relentless prosecutor in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.”
As Swartz’s lawyer no doubt told him, larding on charges is standard prosecutorial practice in everything from traffic stops to genocide. The idea is to give the DA some items to give away during plea negotiations. For defendants, however, this practice amounts to legal state terrorism. It can push psychologically delicate souls like Swartz over the edge. It should stop.
It also undermines respect for the law. As a young man I got arrested (and, thanks to a canny street lawyer, off the hook) for, essentially, riding in the same car as a pothead. Among the charges: “Not driving with a valid Massachusetts drivers license.” (Mine was from New York.) “Don’t worry,” the cop helpfully informed me, “they’ll drop that.” So why put it on? Neither the legalistic BS nor the missing cash from my wallet when I got out of jail increased my admiration for this morally bankrupt system.
The really big issue, however, is sentencing. The Times’ Noam Cohen says “perhaps a punishment for trespassing would have been warranted.” Whatever the charge, no one should go to prison for any crime that causes no physical harm to a human being or animal.
Something about computer hackers makes courts go nuts. The U.S. leader of the LulzSec hacking group was threatened with a 124-year sentence. No doubt, “Hollywood Hacker” Christopher Chaney, who hacked into the email accounts of Scarlett Johansson and Christina Aguilera and stole nude photos of the stars so he could post them online, is a creep. Big time. But 10 years in prison, as a federal judge in Los Angeles sentenced him? Insanely excessive. Community service, sure. A fine, no problem. Parole restrictions, on his Internet use for example, make sense.
Sentences issued by American courts are wayyyy too long, which is why the U.S. has more people behind bars in toto and per capita than any other country. Even the toughest tough-on-crime SOB would shake his head at the 45-year sentence handed to a purse snatcher in Texas last year. But even “typical” sentences are excessive.
I won’t deny feeling relieved when the burglar who broke into my Manhattan apartment went away for eight years—it wasn’t his first time at the rodeo—but if you think about it objectively, it’s a ridiculous sentence. A month or two is plenty long. (Ask anyone who has done time.)
You know what would make me feel safe? A rehabilitation program that educated and provided jobs for guys like my burglar. Whether his term was too long or just right, those eight years came to an end—and he wound up back on the street, less employable and more corrupted than before. And don’t get me started about prison conditions.
A serious national discussion about out-of-control prosecutors and crazy long sentences is long overdue. I hope Aaron Swartz’s death marks a turning point.
COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL
As Americans reacted with sympathy to images of homes devastated by Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast of the United States, one wonders why there’s a total lack of interest in the victims of America’s drone strikes against Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia–most of whom have been proven to have been innocent civilians.