Friday, January 22, 2010

We made it. Can we unmake it?

We have created something that, if allowed to live, will likely kill our country. A feat of engineering born in the nineteenth century, our creation had been strapped to the table for over a hundred years. Until now. The switch has been pulled and a monster has been set loose.

Literary types might read what happened yesterday through the lens of Frankenstein's creature, a seemingly sensitive and tragic figure (in Mary Shelley's novel) that nonetheless reveals the folly of human efforts to dabble with godhood - and then tries to kill its creator.

What have we done?

To answer that question, we should first consider a sad irony, that we've been watching the birth and death of another creature whose suffering seems to have been contrived to draw our attention away from the real story.

For the past year, many of us - myself, included - have followed the plot twists of the so-called health care debate, marveling at the machinations of a legislative monster run amok. We surveyed its hulking movements and traced its inevitable fall into the abyss of lobbyists and demagogues; we knew this monster was too shabbily patched together with stitched compromise and slapdash design to do more than stumble about. We knew it was too big to die, too horrible to live.

A handsome and heroic Massachusetts senator was elected to put a bullet in the head of the beast, and those of us guarding hope for affordable health care in America bowed our heads a little. We performed the narrative to its necessary end. The story was over, the pundits announced, and we turned the page - except that we'd been following the wrong plot all along. The real story had just begun, lurching from the depths of the Supreme Court.

Yesterday, five conservative jurists revealed their masterpiece, surging an electrical burst of law and hubris into a thing nearly as nameless as Frankenstein's creature, an entity given the innocuous title, "corporation." It had waited long on the slab and is now unchained. And now the American voter faces its own transformation into a golem to be marched and maneuvered by creatures of our own making.

I refer, of course, to yesterday's Supreme Court ruling (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission: [link]) that dismantled the already teetering divide between corporate wealth and political power.

Yesterday's decision, that corporations have practically the same rights to contribute to political campaigns as people because (a) they are people and (b) money is speech, means that America's political class can finally abandon its fiction of accountability to the electorate. We might as well change our nation's name to The United States of Walmart.

Oh sure, big moneyed interests have always held sway over political hacks who view their positions as a job rather than a service. But a century of case law and legislation that generally banned corporations from contributing directly to the coffers of candidates is now gone. Until yesterday, corporations could string together glittery networks of fake storefronts and empty office "citizens groups," but they couldn't intervene directly in elections, if only because Americans on the Left and Right shared a tacit agreement that the creature created in 1886, the corporation-as-person, overly threatened the pretense of the level playing field or marketplace of ideas.

Thanks to yesterday's ruling, corporate "persons," entities not subject to normal restrictions of time or space - or age or conscience - "persons" capable of marshaling nearly unfathomable degrees of wealth, can now do just about anything that a flesh-and-blood person can do within the political arena, except vote. But these artificial persons need not vote when they can simply purchase the votes of lawmakers, which makes political power cheaper than electricity. Writing for the Huffington Post, Miles Mogulescu cites New York Times analysis of the profits reported by Fortune 100 companies during the 2008 election cycle. The total: $605 billion. Then Mogulescu does the math. Just what can you buy with that kind of money?
"A third of the Senate is up for reelection every two years. Let's say the largest corporations give an average of $10 million to each Senatorial Candidate [on average, adjusting expenditures up or down depending on the race]. That would be $3.3-$3.4 billion every two years. Let's say they spent another $4 billion on the Presidential election every 4 years or an average of another $1 billion a year... For less than 1% of their profits, the 100 largest corporations would likely be able to control the Senate and the Presidency, and through that, the Supreme Court" (emphasis added).
Mogulescu notes that he's not even accounting for the rest of the Fortune 500, just the top 100 firms. I should add that those profits reflect reported figures. We have no idea how much money these "people" are actually making. We have no idea just what we've unleashed. What we do know is that the American voter has been displaced from the political arena, where advertising dollars command more attention than good ideas.

Certainly we awaken today to the same country. New movies begin their runs this afternoon, the malls will swarm with shoppers this weekend, and a new season of Olympic games will commence in three weeks, setting televisions aglow with packaged heroes and high definition feats of human skill. And editorialists will continue to shake with impotent rage against the machine. Yesterday's New York Times called the court ruling a "radical decision, which strikes at the heart of democracy." Mogulescu calls it a "bloodless judicial coup." Still, we can hardly be surprised.

After all, we built this thing with our votes. And when our votes were ignored or twisted, or simply manufactured, we made this thing stronger with our silence. Centuries ago, Thomas Hobbes imagined a Leviathan composed of our strengths that would ultimately stand on the foundation of our fears. Yet I don't think even Hobbes could imagine what our collective fear of action, of getting involved, of taking responsibility hath wrought. Yesterday's court ruling transcends mere political theory; it compels us into the realm of science fiction.

That's why readers can so easily recognize the parallel. It's a classic trope: human beings create sentient lifeforms to serve them before becoming their tools - or their prey. Fredric Brown foretold the end of the narrative with his brief yet terrifying story, "Answer." In his story, all the computers in existence are integrated into a supercomputer. Mortal minds build it, but mortal powers can hardly match the collective power of this thing. Still, there is hope that the device will gather all the knowledge available to our puny minds and answer the questions that exceed our intellect. Thus the moment arrives and the switch is thrown. The supercomputer is online. An operator addresses the machine with the most obvious question: "Is there a God?"

A flash of lightning strikes the device, destroying the off-switch, and the answer marks the new day: There is now.

Read More

Editorial Board, New York Times: The Court’s Blow to Democracy

Keith Olbermann, MSNBC: Special Comment (clearly an essay that inspired my own)

Miles Mogulescu, Huffington Post: The Supreme Court's Non-Violent Corporate Coup

Note: I'm not the only one using Frankenstein imagery to make sense of this mess. As I was revising my own post, I came across Jason Linkins's piece, The Supreme Court's Citizen United Decision is Terrifying and found his own brief reference to Mary Shelley's story. Surely there are others who agree: The news today is nothing less than gothic.

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