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I'm not a nut.
He sits next to you, showering you in his misery, his words coming so quickly that you can't find a place to wedge an excuse in. You didn't even mean to talk to this guy - he just started talking at you, and you made the critical mistake of nodding and mumbling some sort of agreement.
That's all he needed.
And now you're trapped, suckered into listening to his life story - and his life is terrible, a series of colossal misfortunes. Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong in this man's life - and amazingly, none of it is his fault. He is a saint, enduring the trials and tribulations of Job; his boss is a maniac, his ex-wife is a psychopath, his old friends stabbed him in the back.
You nod and mumble more agreements as he burrows in, recounting his experiences in microscopic detail - every last lie these people told about him will be brought up and shown to be false. He must convince you.
He's not crazy. None of this is his fault.
And maybe he's not. But he is so thoroughly unpleasant, filled with bile and malice, transforming the pettiest of disputes into world-class battles - his ex-wife is Hitler! His boss is Saddam Hussein! - that your skin crawls with the urge to just get away from this man before he decides he likes you.
After forty minutes of enduring the tales of his Sisyphean struggles, you manage to get away and breathe a sigh of relief.
Now imagine that this man just fought, and won, a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against a company that was trying to shut him up. And then he wrote a book.
You get the idea.
Be Careful Who You SLAPP, written by Michelangelo Delfino and Mary E. Day, could have been a fascinating story if the authors had been less spiteful and more concerned with the outside world. Summed up, the story is this: Delfino, a scientist, was fired from the Varian corporation and posted several derogatory, mocking messages on the Yahoo! Varian financial boards. Varian then sued him and attempted to post a restraining order preventing him, essentially, doing anything on the internet. He fought back, exposing several shady Varian practices - including, most notably, Varian videotaping employees and children going to the bathroom as a psychotic "security" practice. He won the right to post.
Now, the concept of SLAPPs - an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation - is something that should be of interest to any person who's interested in freedom of speech. Corporations know that most people aren't willing to fight expensive courtroom battles that they might lose, so they'll cheerfully file suits against anyone who pisses them off, betting that they can intimidate the public into submission. The battle for First Amendment rights still rages across the internet, and raises several questions that really need to be answered correctly: Is the internet protected by free speech? Are anonymous postings legal? What is the nature of slander on the internet?
None of this is answered.
The entire book is a tedious, self-aggrandizing slog through the details of their lawsuit with the Varian corporation, demonizing Varian at every turn (and yes, Varian is compared to Nazi Germany within the first twenty pages), taking great pains to make snide remarks about anyone who pissed them off along the way. Nothing is said about the greater nature of the SLAPP threat; the whole book is about their struggle, their rights... And most importantly, how great they are for fighting the good battle.
Delfino in particular comes across as an oaf, the kind
of person you wince at when you realize that yes, the Constitution covers
him, too. Absolutely, he should have the right to post - but what he
posts! One of the sixty posts that got him in trouble was a parody of a
vacuum pump employee in Italy:
"IMA JUSTA MAKA PUMP FOR THE COMPANY BUT I DONTA UNDERSTAND WHATSA HAPPINEN TO THE COMPANY ANDA THISA POSTING BOARD. ARE WE SUPPOSTA MAKA MONEY OR WHA? THISA BOARD ISA DISGRACIA TO OUR ORGANIZATION AND WE THINKA YOU AMERICANA ISA NUTS... THJE MONEY SHES FOR THE KIDS EH. COME ON LETS A MAKA GOODA PUMP AND MOVE ON. THE STOCKA SHES ATA 38 EH. YOU SONNA MA GUNS."
Delfino breaks the #1 comedian's rule - never laugh at your own jokes - and defends this rather childish portrayal by saying, "(Gino's) critique of Varian always struck me as humorous and would probably have even been laughed at by my Italian-speaking mother and Aunt Jenny, had they been made aware of him."
More crude humor comes when Delfino goes out of his way to continually take cheap jabs at his ex-employers. Susan Felch, a former colleague, comes off as reasonably pathetic thanks to the simple facts in the book, but Delfino has to rub it in, continually calling her a "scary yenta bitch" and insinuating that she had semen stains on her dress. Much fun is made of weight problems - ha ha!
And worst of all, Delfino and Day never did anything wrong. The day after the lawsuit had been served, Day - Delfino's live-in companion - gave the computer that all of the sixty contested postings had been written on to Goodwill. Varian, not surprisingly, jumped on this as evidence that there was something incriminating on that PC, and took great pains to investigate it. But in the book, it was Day's perfect right to do so!
Maybe so. But it was still pretty frickin' stupid.
Varian's actions are reprehensible, and the actions they take are vile. However, Delfino's continual denial of any sort of responsibility and crude, boorish insults don't make him a likable protagonist, either. As it is, you wind up reading this and going, Christ, is everyone in here an utter jerk?
Pretty much, yes.
I kept asking myself the same questions over and over again while enduring this book: Wow. This is pretty terrible. How many people are affected by this? How widespread is this practice - I mean, if they're not allowed to post, I'd never hear about it, right? What sorts of posts are likely to trigger a SLAPP lawsuit and how do you fight against it?
Unfortunately, Delfino and Day are oblivious to this. It's their struggle, how they beat the man, and the entire book is little more than one sustained crowing about how they had the tenacity to stick with it. The book cover says it all: the title is a whoop of joy - Be Careful Who You SLAPP (because you don't wanna mess with us!) - and the back cover is nothing more than pictures of the four main Varian enemies in the book, with the words "Guilty." There's no mention of what happened; to Delfino and Day, what's important is that they won.
A more enlightened pair of writers might have done the research to see who else is affected by corporate SLAPPs, how terrible the problem is, and what can be done to fight them. They might have written a truly wonderful book that exposed corporate abuse of power and shown how honest, well thought out points of view are being squashed by corporate tyranny. Unfortunately, that book is nowhere to be found.
Delfino and Day, as thoroughly detestable as they appear to be, had a great starting point to strike a blow for freedom. Instead, they struck a blow for themselves. Way to go.