I think there’s an underlying ethos to this phenomenon, and it’s rooted in two strands of our national identity. First, there’s the myth of self-reliance: we don’t need handouts, and we all work hard for our own individual well-being. In this respect the case was a gold mine for the corporate image-makers; they were able to paint Stella Liebeck as someone out to scam her way onto easy street, and that played right into the general public’s embrace of the self-reliance myth. Extrapolate this, and the case is sold as a reason why we don’t need so many lawyers and lawsuits, because they are the means by which our legal system is abused by greedy and lazy citizens trying to get a free ride at the expense of John Galt and Horatio Alger.
The second strand is closely related, and I believe it is less directly applied here but just as effective for the energy it lends to the effort. It is best embodied by the words of Lee Atwater, whose explanation of how the Southern Strategy evolved into the Reagan Revolution provides a reliable and versatile template for understanding political phenomena such as the McDonald’s Coffee Case.   Specifically, the underlying idea, vicious as it may sound, is that if the wrong people (e.g. women, blacks, non-Christians, gays) deserve to have rights, then rights must not be worth keeping.  Or at least those rights should be proscribed for the larger society with the understanding that worthy individuals (e.g. wealthy white Christian males) would retain the means to grant each other these rights.

Put broadly, the ability of the average citizen to defend and represent her own interests in a court of law is at the foundation of our system of self-government. It is an active manifestation of our “inalienable rights.” Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants has been warped into a rallying cry for curtailing those rights and compromising the foundation.  It’s not an original battle, nor is it one that we can afford to stop fighting.  First, though, working and middle-class people need to understand which side they’re on.

HOT COFFEE    a documentary feature film by Susan Saladoff

The Actual Facts About the McDonald’s Coffee Case

The Truth About Tort Reform

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