The Moment of Truth — January 31, 2010

Why Americans Will Never Elect a Corporation for President

Welcome to the Moment of Truth, the cream in your stroganoff.

The Supreme Court’s decision upholding a definition of a corporation as a person has already come around to bite us in the ass. Howard Zinn died. How did a Supreme Court decision kill Howard Zinn? His corporate charter expired. Thanks a lot, Supreme Court!

We are a nation whose policy decisions all revolve around the rights of for-profit corporations. It’s immoral for children to go without adequate food, housing or education, but if we try to fix it, what will the corporations say? They might get mad and make numbers go down. Can’t let the numbers go down, gotta be careful what you say around the numbers, they might go down, shhh. I love humanity but don’t tell the numbers.

We know there’s something wrong with this situation but we just can’t put our finger on what it is. After all, why should corporations have to like public spending, let alone contribute to it? You can’t mandate human feeling. Anyway, their profits belong to them. They have every right to guard it jealously from an ailing society, albeit one that has facilitated their growth by providing labor, infrastructure and police.

We really have trouble thinking about private ownership as anything but freedom. But it’s also an inhibition on the freedom of everyone who isn’t the owner.

I am in favor of severely limiting the way for-profit corporations can spend their money. I think they should be barred from hiring lobbyists or spending money on advertising that is geared toward anything other than selling their products. I don’t even think they should be allowed to invest in anything but their own recapitalization, but that’s a slightly different argument.

According to the overreaching Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v FEC, I am advocating an abridgment of free speech. Because the ruling considers money to be speech and corporations to be persons. To restrict the flow of for-profit corporate money toward influencing politics is to violate the First Amendment.

If we allowed Congress to restrict such spending, and defined money, not as speech but as, say, property, we might wind up with laws like these:

“It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money to criticize laws enacted by the Congress; all citizens shall still be free to express their views on such laws, provided no money is spent;” or

“It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money advocating Constitutional rights for accused terrorists; all citizens shall still be free to express their views on such matters, provided no money is spent”; or

“It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money promoting a candidate not registered with either the Democratic or Republican Party; all citizens shall still be free to advocate for such candidates, provided no money is spent.”

You know, one might ask, does the retardedness of these hypothetical laws come from the money-isn’t-speech part, or the corporation-is-a-citizen part?

This reminds me of another argument: the one against same-sex marriage. Supposedly, if we allow two men or two women to marry, we’d also have to allow polygamous and bestial marriages. It’s a slippery slope. A slippery slope down to a wacky pit of perverts.

The above slippery slope examples about money and speech were posited by a progressive pundit of some kind named Glenn Greenwald. He continues:

Anyone who actually believes that “money is not speech” would have to believe that such [crazy] laws are necessarily permitted by the First Amendment (since they merely restrict the expenditure of money, which is not speech).

Not true. Not any more true than that someone who “actually” believes the government should recognize a marriage between two men “would have to believe” it should also recognize the marriage between a man and a parakeet.

I’ve never read Greenwald before. No one has ever said to me, “You got to read Greenwald on torture! He’s brilliant!” I only did so this time because a friend directed me to the fracas in the comments section to Greenwald’s article in Slate. My friend thought the progressives were having aneurisms. I found Greenwald to be much more extreme in his lashing out than his readers were. I had no expectations of Greenwald. I now consider him to be somewhat ridiculous in a highly unself-aware way.

“Anyone who ‘actually’ believes money is not speech?” The fact that Greenwald can barely contain his disbelief is evidence to me not of rightwing sympathy on his part, but rather Stockholm Syndrome. We’ve been breathing the toxin of profit fetishism for so long that some of us, even some of us who are otherwise critical thinkers, can no longer detect the smell anymore. It’s just part of the air to us now. Greenwald continues:

Do you actually believe that? I don’t even find that argument sufficiently coherent to warrant much discussion.

It would be like saying: “No person shall be permitted to use a megaphone or television outlet to advocate liberal views—there’s no First Amendment problem: megaphones and television outlets are just ‘property, not speech’.”

Actually, Glenn is the one being incoherent. If you run up to someone and shout “America is wonderful!” as loud as you can into his or her ear, you could be arrested for assault. Not for what you say, but how you say it. The First Amendment protects the content of your speech, not the volume. It’s true!

Does Glenn “actually” believe the First Amendment protects me against laws regulating my use of an amplifier? There are such laws. They are public nuisance laws. They do not abridge the content of speech, merely an injurious way of delivering that content. They are not unconstitutional.

Nor are laws against incitement to riot unconstitutional. The people can legally be protected from injuries caused by loudly amplified speech. This recognition has not led to a cascade of laws against liberal speech on TV.

Amazingly enough, despite a situation Glenn can’t fathom, the law makes distinctions between money and speech all the time. It’s not some crazy out-of-this-world notion. I’ll tell you what, we are never going to have a law that says anyone can broadcast their opinions in a residential neighborhood at any hour of the day or night at any volume whatsoever. I don’t know what planet I’m on, but at least we’ll get some sleep over here. “I can’t tell the difference between a public nuisance and an opinion. It’s too hard.”

We can tell. It is the responsibility of the courts to clarify difficult distinctions, not to throw up their hands and say, “It’s too complicated. Let’s just say money is speech and corporations are people.” That’s the jurisprudential version of Creation Science. And that is what’s wrong with Citizens United v FEC. I don’t even think the outcome is bad. That movie, “Hillary Clinton Eats Tokyo” is protected speech. But not because money is speech and corporations are people.

But if corporations aren’t people, what’s to stop us from making laws to prevent GE from putting anti-government speech on its subsidiaries’ news or entertainment shows? Well, there’s freedom of the press. It’s mentioned in the First Amendment. The press is considered different from the people. It doesn’t get its rights under the First Amendment from the fact that it’s a person. Its rights are mentioned in the First Amendment in addition to the people’s rights. There are ways to understand and articulate the difference between a product of a chocolate company, which makes chocolate, and a movie company, which makes speech, just as there are ways to distinguish for-profit corporations from other corporations, and speech from money. I just did it! It’s easy! You can, too! There are ways to figure these things out without resorting to Creation Jurisprudence.

But the fact is, money isn’t property. It isn’t speech, either. But it’s not property. Money is money. It lends itself to metaphors because it is only useful as a symbol of something else, but money is also its own thing. We forget this because we’re acclimated to living in an atmosphere of metaphors.

To pretend that money is just like speech is in fact to pretend. Money occupies a unique place in global society, which is why there are laws and contracts governing its movements, laws that are not applied to speech. And most of the world doesn’t have a First Amendment. They have to rely on their innate ability to distinguish between money and speech. Even countries that severely limit freedom of speech don’t apply identical limits to money. Nor do we in the USA.

A corporation wishing to make a profit in any nation state must enter into a contract with the state in a way an individual doesn’t have to. Why? Because corporations are non-human creations with a special relationship with money which appropriate portions of the public wealth for private use, and they need the public’s permission to do so. This if fair. And constitutional. Business, because of its special relationship with money, is a different activity from art, speech, exercise, or dying. It is in some ways privileged. In other ways it rightly expects to be restricted, regardless of its desire not to be.

Let me ask you this: should corporations be allowed to vote? Or to run for office? Why not? Is it because they’re not old enough? No. Is it because they’re mentally incompetent? No. Is it because they’re black? Gay? Foreign? No. Is it because they don’t have a head or a brain or a heart or a liver? Or courage? No.

It is because they aren’t people. You and I and no doubt Glenn Greenwald have no problem stigmatizing them suddenly. How did this happen? They’re so like us!

If a corporation were a person, and given that a person can vote, then a person who incorporated could be two persons. He or she could have two votes. The point is, EVEN WHEN THE CORPORATION IS PHYSICALLY IDENTICAL TO A HUMAN BEING, we can tell the difference. It’s quite amazing. All at once the veil of equality dissolves and we see things as they really are. Actually. Actually, Glenn Greenwald.

But when the conversation turns to speech, suddenly it’s katie-bar-the-door, we’re all entities here. Chocolate? What’s the difference between chocolate and a newspaper? They both have words on them.

Oh, and incidentally, I would be in favor of candy corporations putting political advertising on their candy wrappers, as long as it came from their candy wrapper budget. That’s speech. Let them speak all they want.

But chocolate is made to make money. Speech is, too. But speech is made to communicate ideas, and ideas have a different relationship with money than that of chocolate.

This idea of money as money, and relationships with money affecting different things differently, has implications for the value of labor as well, but that is another story. And meanwhile, if you’re afraid corporations would be unfairly inhibited from advocating their positions on the issues of the day, well, the CEOs or any other employees of any corporation would still be able to contribute individually. Or give to the Heritage Foundation, that idea brewery or “think tank,” help them advocate for capitalism. Being part of a corporation does not disqualify an individual from full constitutional rights and advocating for anything under the sun. But the corporation itself is not a person.

Maybe the Citizens United ruling will change things and allow corporations to vote. It would be nice to set up a test case. I could become two or three corporations and try to register them to vote. Then take it to the highest court in the land when my people are denied the vote. I’m sure the ACLU will back me up, since it’s supposedly their rights as corporate persons on the line, too.

But that’s ridiculous. We know it’s ridiculous but we don’t know why, because we have Stockholm Syndrome and false consciousness and alienation. Sorry, Marx didn’t get everything wrong. It’s unfortunate that the voting issue will never come before the court. It is so asinine on its face that it would instantly unmask the corporation-as-person equation as incompatible with democracy. But its very facial asininity will keep it out of the courts forever.

There is absolutely nothing incoherent about recognizing the unique status of a for-profit corporation, anymore than there is about recognizing an army as something unique, or a law firm, or a bank, or an insurance company. It may be convenient to consider corporations persons, and then discover the ways they differ from us and chip away at the analogy as circumstances demand. It’s certainly more convenient for the corporations, who take full advantage of their superhuman powers while wrapping themselves in the flag of personhood. Why is that convenience more compelling than considering them not persons and deciding their rights as the types of created entities they actually are? Why is it better to make a flimsy equation one will have to amend constantly with ers and ums and but-but-buts and I-guess-nots, than to just admit the difference from the start and then differentiate protected speech from corporate activities of other types? And mold them, through laws, into the kinds of institutions we want?

Now, it’s a totally different question whether we want to let three lesbians marry a jack-o-lantern, a Ferris wheel, two tea importers and an armadillo. Is that what we want? Is it? Is that the kind of society we want?

Well, it’s the kind I want.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!