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Other Views: In defense of the presumption of innocence

I want to praise Jeremy Piven. That’s a risky thing to do, I know. Piven is one of Those Men. One of those big entertainment figures who has fingers pointed at him. He has joined Harvey Weinstein, James Toback and many others in facing accusations that he abused his power to sexually abuse women.

Yet Piven has also issued a principled statement that should give pause to all those taking pleasure in the #MeToo movement’s instant destruction of men’s careers.

After describing the accusations against him as “absolutely false,” Piven laments the fact that “allegations are being printed as facts” and “lives are being put in jeopardy without a hearing, due process or evidence.” He wonders what happened to “the benefit of the doubt.” To “tear each other down and destroy careers based on mere allegations is not productive at all,” he says.

He’s right. In defending himself, Piven is also defending one of the core principles of an advanced society: the presumption of innocence.

The great liberal English barrister John Mortimer called this presumption the “golden thread” running through any progressive idea of justice. And it’s a thread that is being weakened in the febrile post-Weinstein climate.

It is now astonishingly easy to ruin a celebrity or near-celebrity. You can do it with a social media post. Spend five minutes writing a Facebook entry about how so-and-so in Hollywood once did something bad to you and—boom—that person is done for. You can dispatch him from polite society with a press of a button on your cellphone.

Some big hitters, including Weinsten, Toback and Kevin Spacey, have been brought low by numerous similar accusations. Few would doubt that these men deserve the “predator” brand, or lament the fact that they likely won’t find work in Hollywood ever again. Spacey is being erased from Ridley Scott’s “All The Money In The World,” replaced with Christopher Plummer like an out-of-favor commissar airbrushed from a group photo with Stalin. But not all accusations are equally well-substantiated.

In a few hours, George Takei went from a hero of the liberal Twittersphere to a “pervert,” from cultural icon to the object of chortling and finger-pointing. His downfall was authored by a single accuser regarding a single incident in 1981. That someone can be so tarnished on the basis of an allegation older than half of the people on Earth is astounding. In the U.K., the situation is darker still.

Online, the going assumption is that British actor Ed Westwick is a rapist. “I hope his career is destroyed,” said one representative woman on Twitter. She might get her wish: The BBC has already pulled an Agatha Christie drama starring Westwick.

On the basis of what? Two accusations posted to Facebook. It’s hard not to feel for Westwick when he says it’s “disheartening” that an individual’s life can be turned upside down by “unverified … social media claims.”

The “Weinstein contagion,” as a Guardian columnist refers to it, has seen members of Parliament branded sexual predators for such small fare as a fleeting hand on a female journalist’s knee or flirtatious letters written 20 years ago. Earlier this month, a Welsh Labor MP, Carl Sargeant, committed suicide. He stood accused of sexual misconduct. His party refused to tell him what the allegations were, and yet he was suspended from his job as a Welsh minister on the basis of them. Sargeant’s lawyers said the mysterious accusations had plunged him into black turmoil. Although people refer to #MeToo as a progressive movement, it is starting to look like an exercise in public shaming, a rash extrajudicial application of stigma to supposedly wicked individuals. We need to recover the benefit of the doubt, just as Piven said.

Some have argued that the presumption of innocence is a legal standard that does not apply in everyday life. The law must not prejudge someone, but we can. In fact, that’s how Mitt Romney framed his condemnation of Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate who stands accused of molesting teenage girls.

“Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections,” Romney wrote on Twitter.

In a narrow sense, that’s perfectly true. But Romney’s line of argument can lead us astray. Legal standards aren’t cold, abstract ideas. They embody what communities over time have agreed is a more civilized way of doing things.

People are brushing aside the presumption of innocence as legalism so they don’t have to feel bad when they tweet: “This man’s disgusting.” They’re saying that while judges should exercise restraint, mere mortals don’t have to. What spectacularly low self-expectations.

Of course we all have our private thoughts on the guilt or otherwise of the accused. But when tens of thousands of these thoughts come together in a mass public verdict, we behave like a mob. And we have a direct effect on the exercise of the presumption of innocence in a legal setting. How is it possible to guarantee a fair trial for any of the accused now that Twitter-echoed whisper campaigns have pronounced their guilt? Good luck finding a cool-headed jury for this stuff.

Maybe every man accused of sexual misconduct is, in fact, guilty. But what if a few did nothing wrong? What if just one man is innocent? If one day you’re accused, my guess is you’d rather like it if I gave you the benefit of the doubt.


Columns
Parker: Big boxes and small towns

WASHINGTON

Even though an estimated 115 million Americans rushed to malls and big box stores for Black Friday sales, others were reporting that the annual spend-a-thon has lost its bang.

Gone is the thrill of the stampede, the fist-fights over a big screen, the trample to grab the last Soggy Doggy.

In a Washington Post story, one Alabama veteran of weeklong parking lot campouts lamented that his Best Buy store had closed owing to Americans’ changing spending habits. But even he admitted to shopping more online these days. Might big stores face the same fate as the small retailers they’ve put out of business in recent years? Are we witnessing the revenge of Mom and Pop?

It would seem so. By 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, online shoppers had spent $1.52 billion via computers, tablets and smartphones, and the number is expected to break records at $100 billion by the end of the holiday shopping season.

Some of us have wondered why anyone would stand in line—or camp out!—just to shop. But low prices apparently justify the inconvenience for many, while others simply enjoy the fun of the crowd, the energy, as well as the $2.50 coffee maker. What’s not to love when the alternative is day-old turkey and all-day football?

Alas, it seems, trends suggest that we’ll soon be shopping while also catching a game until the human anatomy resembles a large cushion with small hands redesigned only to push buttons.

Lest we despair and trudge over to the fridge for some leftover cold comfort, there are hopeful signs that humanity may yet reinvent itself and resist the summons of mass-marketed gluttonous consumption. A few items that caught my eye: Young people are moving back to farming; small towns are being revitalized and attracting young families who once might have elected to live in the ‘burbs; and local governments are finding grant monies to revitalize their downtowns and support small businesses.

For people living in small towns and mid-size cities, “local” is the new orange.

What’s at play, one may infer, is that the “human” in human being is enjoying something of a revival. Too much of everything has spawned a backlash manifested in a preference for simplicity. The impulse to acquire celebrated by an older generation has given way to an appreciation for what one has among younger people. This may be a function of generally having less to spend, but something less prosaic might also be at work.

The frantic immersion in material gratification symbolized by Black Friday is the precise opposite of spiritual connection or interpersonal engagement. The person fighting a neighbor for a laptop or powering past a pregnant woman for first dibs on a stroller probably isn’t bothering to make eye contact, much less consider the other’s well-being. Thus, the lure of the small town or the farm may be seen as an existential rejection of the anonymous life one often experiences in large cities. Just as some find the city essential to a rich and varied life, others seek escape from the grind of the white-collar factory and associated disassociations.

To every upside, alas, is a downside. If the manic pace of the metropolis can be exhausting, small-town life absent a rich cultural dimension and economic prosperity can be soul-crushing. Recognizing this, there has also been an upsurge in downtown revitalization initiatives, from the National Main Street Center Inc. to federal and state grants to help small towns leverage their assets for economic development.

As just one example, the National Main Street Center, which began in 1980 as a non-profit subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has worked with 2,200 communities to rehabilitate close to 246,000 buildings, create more than 500,000 jobs and reinvest $59.5 billion. That’s not quite a Black Friday shopping day, but there’s hope therein for small businesses to rebound and prosper.

Down the road, rural communities are seeing an uptick in smaller-scale, family-owned operations as young, college-educated families trade concrete for soil. Between 2007 and 2012, the USDA reports 2,384 new farmers between ages 25 and 34. During the same time, however, 100,000 farmers aged 45 to 54 abandoned the plow.

Thus, the numbers don’t foretell a renaissance of the small farmer. But a perceptible shift away from quantity toward quality amid an appreciation for authentic human exchanges seems a hopeful sign as we enter the season of giving.

Shopping locally is good for everybody. And, let’s not forget, the best gifts come in small packages.


Columns
Little shelter in the land of the scam, home of the fleeced

A circle in hell has been set aside for financiers who fleece ordinary folks. This hot place has long rung with demands of death to the agency that protects working Americans from their pillage. President Trump is on the case as he tries to kill the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by putting its enemies in charge.

Established in the rubble of the economic meltdown, the bureau’s job is to go after the financial rackets that target the working class—abusive mortgages, student loans created to fail, credit card trickery and payday loans charging 400 percent annual interest. It even gets money back for some people.

But milking the economically vulnerable has become a very big business for the highest names in American finance, as well as the lowest. The less sophisticated the borrowers the easier to trap them in a sea of small-print legalese, the outrageous terms carefully hidden.

The consumer-focused agency’s existence, of course, drives Wall Street nuts. “Wall Street hates it like the devil hates holy water,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said.

For much of the financial industry, the prized “customer” is a working stiff who has a job and a steady trickle of income to siphon off. Credit card companies, for example, love the borrower who racks up big balances and rolls them from month to month at interest rates often exceeding 20 percent. Some of the biggest names in U.S. finance—Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Wells Fargo—are making billions off unpaid credit balances.

Unfortunately, many financially strapped Americans are using plastic to pay for basics. And the numbers keep getting worse. Working-class Americans now spend a bigger chunk of their paychecks on servicing debt than they did three years ago, according to the Federal Reserve. Outstanding credit card debt broke a record this year, passing the $1 trillion mark.

Some are simply sucked in by promises of easy money. Scott Tucker, a payday lender in Kansas City, preyed on over 4.5 million people, charging as much as 700 percent. One of his outfits was named 500FastCash.

A payday loan is an advance of cash to be paid back when the borrower gets the next paycheck. This is a $40 billion-a-year business that makes $7 billion in fees alone, never mind the astronomical interest charges.

The first head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Richard Cordray, recently finalized some rules taming this industry. They included limiting the number of repeat loans and requiring lenders to verify that borrowers have a prayer of paying them back.

So Cordray had to go. Trump announced last week that he would replace him, putting Mick Mulvaney temporarily in charge. The White House budget director, Mulvaney has called the bureau a “sick, sad joke.”

Not so fast. Cordray resigned first, which he and others say automatically makes his deputy the new acting director. The lawyers are battling it out.

Why are we having this fight? Because the bureau was purposely designed to have more independence from politicians than other agencies regulating finance. Truck drivers and floor sweepers generally can’t afford teams of lawyers and lobbyists to change laws in their favor. Wall Street can.

Trump paired his decision to defang the bureau with one of his habitually batty claims, that “financial institutions have been devastated.” In the fact-based world, bank profits and stocks are soaring. (Financial companies are now four of the top 10 stocks held by hedge funds, according to WalletHub.)

You’d think that with the economy transferring hand-over-fist wealth to Wall Street, most politicians would at least tolerate a defender of the little guys. Sadly, the country is being run from hell.