Many of you have heard of Stella, the elderly woman who sued McDonald’s because she burned herself with their coffee. If you haven’t heard the story, let me give you a brief recap.
Here’s how the usual narrative goes. In 1992, 79 year old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of takeout coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque and spilled it on her lap. She sued McDonald’s and a jury awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages for the minor burns she suffered. Ever since then people have held her case up as an exemplar of how rotten the court system is, how dishonest people who sue people are and how deceptive and greedy lawyers can be. Right?
Now let me tell you what actually happened. Mrs. Liebeck’s coffee wasn’t just hot it was dangerously hot. McDonald’s corporate policy was to serve it at a temperature that could cause serious burns quickly. Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from frivolous. She suffered third-degree burns and needed skin grafts on her thighs and elsewhere.
Liebeck’s case was far from an isolated event. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injuries from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns. McDonald’s even paid settlements in some cases.
Mrs. Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income. But McDonald’s never offered more than $800, so the case went to trial. The jury found Mrs. Liebeck to be partially at fault for her injuries, reducing the compensation for her injuries accordingly. But the jury’s punitive damages award made headlines — upset by McDonald’s unwillingness to correct a policy despite hundreds of people suffering injuries, they awarded Liebeck a much higher amount — that was later reduced by more than 80 percent by the judge. The final award that Mrs. Liebeck received came in the form of an undisclosed settlement. We don’t know what it was but it was a tiny fraction of the fabled three million.
Yet a whole culture has grown up around this case and it’s used to this day as an exemplar of how exceedingly litigious the United States supposedly is. The lore to “prove” how out-of-control litigious America supposedly has gotten has been surrounded by a host of fake cases that never even happened. Included among them is a mother suing a department store for injuries she received from her toddler son. That “case” and others were manufactured from whole cloth to prove a nonexistent point.
Now that you understand what actually happened with Mrs. Liebeck, perhaps you have a better understanding of the forces at work here. Imagine it yourself, the entire country was trembling with rage that an evil, malignant, corrupt little old grandmother would dare to inconvenience the poor little innocent, multinational, billion dollar corporation called McDonalds. You see what I mean. It was a coup for corporate America, a bold excoriation of a little old lady in the defense of the one percent. And we fell for it, hook line and sinker.
And it’s such an old story and so thoroughly ingrained in our zeitgeist that I would bet dollars to donuts that many reading these words even now feel a tug of resistance because they don’t want to believe me. People want to hate Stella because they’ve been taught to hate her much of their lives. Giving up the prejudices of hatred is tough to do and many people will look for ways to avoid it, even at the expense of logic and common sense.
Whether or not this story was deliberately exploited by American conservative forces, it is typical of how we Americans are routinely manipulated into siding with the bad guys. The alt-right practice this manipulation as an art form, and they are constantly exploiting our willingness to vilify the wrong people.
The excoriation of the so-called “cancel culture” is a case in point, where celebrities or companies are boycotted because of their bigoted or intolerant statements or political positions. The ability of large groups to form boycotts is nothing new and has been going on since the time of the Romans. The boycott is a way of giving power to the little guys, and the one percent, the big guys, who are greedy to keep all the power to themselves, don’t like it and want to stop it. So they give it a pejorative that they call “cancel culture.”
These pejoratives are hurled at our feet every day in the form of slogans. We want to “defund the police.” We focus on Black Lives Matter to the exclusion of the damage some of the demonstrators cause, meaning we want to “destroy the cities.” When we want to remove statues and military base names, statues and bases that were created during Jim Crow in order to combat the spirit of segregation and give unmerited honour to men who fought for cessation and the promotion of slavery, we’re accused of “destroying our culture and our history.” And so on.
These decoy causes are exploited and emphasised in order to distract from the underlying injustices they hide. Conservatives in power will deal with those injustices, they say, when the looting stops, or whatever the latest excuse may be. Now is not the time, they tell us. Now is never the time.
The evil that persists beneath it all is the tacit approval of racist acts through non-condemnation of those acts, or tacit approval of runaway gun culture through non-condemnation of the hundreds of thousands of American deaths caused by guns, or the non-condemnation of the poverty and oppression created by the so-called “pro-life movement” that cannot tolerate abortion. There’s always some shiny object to distract us and keep the power in the hands of the one percent. That is why so many Trump supporters are frankly stupid. They are the trees that keep voting for the axe because he is just like them in that his handle is made of wood.
The evil we are fighting is vast and clever, composed of men and women full of counterfeit outrage intended to inspire anger and fear. It is no accident that fear is at the root of most of the evil they do. It is in the etymological root of the words they use to self-identify: homophobic, islamophobic, xenophobic, and so on.
Donald Trump is the final expression of just how far this evil can go, and just how far they are willing to go. We must come together and defeat both Trump and the evil forces that created him this November. This is a struggle for the soul of the Republic, and it’s one we absolutely must win. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.