Gone a Week and You Trash the Country

By David Swanson

Wow, I was gone less than a week to the Conch Republic, and now return to a nation in which I would heartily recommend to any city, county, or state that it follow the example of the Florida Keys and secede from the so-called union.

We now have an official presidential list of Americans to be assassinated — by America’s government. A pollster says Fox News is the most trusted news source in the United States. The Supreme Court says corporations are people and bribery is speech; and people like Jonathan Turley and Glenn Greenwald, not to mention the AFL-CIO, support this insanity.

A rightwing nut at least came close to winning a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, his opponent broke the land speed record for conceding, and progressive blogs are posting defenses of the filibuster rule. Peace groups, which shall go unnamed purely because they’re so damn unpeaceful when you criticize them, have begun lobbying for a better war spending bill, instead of opposing it, while the president has proposed freezing spending on everything except killing people — sending former advocate for the working class Jared Bernstein out to complete the sale of his soul defending this policy.

Meanwhile our real progressive geniuses now want the same president to fix healthcare with a signing statement, oblivious to Obama’s opposition to decent healthcare, the ease with which a future president could unsigning-statement the bill, and Obama’s evolution to worse legislative abuses than those oh-so-2009 signing statements. And, finally, China is afraid that if its people see “Avatar” they’ll rebel, but America is relaxed and focused on better ways to sell its sedated moviegoers more popcorn.

Of course, there’s lots of good, but smaller, news too, as there always is. Various labor unions broke with the AFL-CIO’s backing of fascism, and even the ACLU is considering dropping its free speech fundamentalism. Oregonians voted for progressive taxation. Congressman Grijalva at least feinted in the direction of taking a stand on healthcare, breaking a 19-year streak of the Congressional Progressive Caucus not even appearing to do anything. Peace protesters in DC and at the School of the Americas went to jail while others stepped up and escalated the protesting. PDA began holding monthly vigils against war funding, and other groups began to support the effort. Millions of people across the full half centimeter of our political spectrum became more energized this week by the Supreme Court’s latest outrage than had been off their asses in the past two years. But I’m not going to point out all the good signs to a bunch of victory-dependent slobs when we have a moral duty to resist injustice regardless, and I’ve spent a five-month book tour evolving from an analyst into a public therapist for discouraged activists who got their wittle feelings hurt when the new emperor acted like an emperor. That’s not my job, and if you really had given up you wouldn’t be making the effort to try to convince me to give up, which only makes you feel worse no matter what I do.

There are some very smart people — I’ve been reading Morris Berman — who claim to have scientific knowledge that we’re all inevitably doomed, and they are exactly as childish as blissful global warming deniers and cheerleaders for empire. What we have to do can very easily be done, if we choose to do it, which is entirely up to us. But we’ve got to be thinking straight. So let’s try. And let’s start with corporate personhood and the First Amendment rights to bribery and plutocracy.

My first step dipping my toes into our national swamp north of the Conch Republic came when I spoke to the Palm Beach Democratic Club on Monday Night in West Palm Beach. Great bunch of people in a great organization, and John Heuer, leading advocate in North Carolina for accountability of high federal officials, was there. Eric Johnson and Brian Franklin, who did great work for Congressman Robert Wexler and helped try to impeach Dick Cheney, were there. Nobody asked any “Why don’t we all kill ourselves?” questions. People who gave speeches instead of asking questions, actually explained things that not necessarily everybody knew, and concluded by advocating their favorite solutions. And yet the whole thing was still drenched in infantile partisan discouragement over the “betrayals” of a political party, not to mention the Supreme Court.

I talked about some of the possible responses we should be working on. I’ve heard proposals ranging from the useless to the certifiable. One idea is for Congress to sit up on its hind legs and declare people to be creations of god, and corporations to be creations of people. Time to destroy the first amendment to save it!

Other ideas involve focusing on the foreign influences on corporations, playing into good ol’ xenophobia. Of course it’s unconstitutional and possibly treasonous to allow foreigners to influence our elections, but so is the whole enterprise, and U.S.-based corporations and corporate friends like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are going to do far and away the worst damage to our country, just as they do to other people’s countries. I’d take the focus on foreign companies seriously if we were going to expel Delaware Inc. from the United States at the same time.

Others have urged lobbying media outlets, or organizing shareholders or consumers. I favor all such activities, but they’re harder than forcing action out of our elected officials, and pointless unless we can control our elected officials (or the corporations’ elected officials as the case may be). We need more local and state clean election laws, plus free media for campaigns laws. We need reforms like those Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin is introducing (two-thirds of shareholders must pre-approve corporate election spending, dissenting shareholders get rebates, state contractors cannot spend on elections, and [euphemism for bribery here] cannot be deducted as a reasonable business expense).

We need similar reforms from Congress, and two other Congressional approaches as well. Congressman Alan Grayson has introduced bills to bar government contractors from spending on elections, to tax such spending at 500%, to banish election-spending companies from stock exchanges, to apply anti-trust laws to PACs, and to require majority shareholder pre-approval of election spending. All of this can be done without undoing the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, but all of it is quite limited. Ultimately we’ll have to amend the Constitution, and Congresswoman Donna Edwards has already introduced a good amendment. Other campaigns are pushing for similar amendments or for a Constitutional Convention. And others are pursuing the equally necessary strategy of impeaching Justices Roberts, or Alito, or in fact five members of the Supreme Court.

And yet there are those voices of appeasement. Jonathan Turley thinks the Supreme Court’s ruling will be very bad for the country, and he supports it. He also opposes amending the Constitution to directly fix it. Glenn Greenwald takes a similar approach:

“Critics emphasize that the Court’s ruling will produce very bad outcomes: primarily that it will severely exacerbate the problem of corporate influence in our democracy. Even if this is true, it’s not really relevant.”

Greenwald undoes much of his wonderful past work to back this up:

“One of the central lessons of the Bush era should have been that illegal or unconstitutional actions — warrantless eavesdropping, torture, unilateral Presidential programs — can’t be justified because of the allegedly good results they produce (Protecting us from the Terrorists).”

Who has posted more evidence that these policies have had disastrous results than Greenwald? Even setting that aside to climb our ivory tower, how could the above “lesson” have been learned from the Bush era? Either we recognize the value of the rule of law, and the disastrous consequences of diminishing it, or we do not. There could be positive consequences to violating a law and negative consequences involving the damage thereby done to the rule of law. But that is not a description of anything that happened during the Bush era. And a Supreme Court decision radically reversing long-standing and widespread precedent, overturning past Supreme Court decisions and threatening dozens of state laws can — at best — appeal to a new conception of what five people want the First Amendment to mean. They cannot appeal to secret holy revelations of what the First Amendment REALLY meant all along. And to my notion of what that amendment should mean, the outcomes of that meaning are perfectly relevant. In fact nothing else is relevant at all.

Two paragraphs later, Greenwald turns to the question of outcomes, which he had previously dismissed, and writes:

“I’m also quite skeptical of the apocalyptic claims about how this decision will radically transform and subvert our democracy by empowering corporate control over the political process. My skepticism is due to one principal fact: I really don’t see how things can get much worse in that regard.”

Can’t get worse? There’s a key lesson from the Bush era: It can always get even worse! Corporations want Social Security gone. If they get a bit more influence it will be gone. They just got a boatload of more influence. This shouldn’t be hard to see. Why the sudden lack of any imagination whatsoever? Why the it-can’t-happen-hear tranquility? It will happen here if we fail to imagine each additional step until it’s happened and we’ve accepted it. Greenwald supports public financing as an alternative solution (as do we all), but corporations will always render optional public financing impotent unless we limit private financing. And Greenwald concludes his first blog on this topic with this absurdity:

“There are few features that are still extremely healthy and vibrant in the American political system; the First Amendment is one of them.”

Ignoring the theocratic trends in our government (remind me to post an unintroduced article of impeachment on that one) and the deficiency of press freedom in our country, are free speech zones and the privatization and militarization of public space now healthy signs for freedom of speech? We need to strengthen the First Amendment in many ways, just as we need to weaken it, if that’s what restricting it to human beings amounts to. The people who wrote the thing would be shocked at the silly reverence with which we treat our momentary notions of what the First Amendment is or is not, even though their intention was to provide rights for real people.

Greenwald and other defenders of corporate spending as speech argue in terms of the rights of good non-profit groups and labor unions, but such groups are and will be monstrously outspent by corporations. So they are not gaining effective rights in this bargain.

If these entities are really “collections of people” and that’s what gives them personal rights, then why wasn’t it good enough to have ways of funding election spending (through PACs) that involved the people? Why the need to allow corporations or unions to ignore their members?

Greenwald also defends allowing Lockheed Martin to buy elections on the grounds that we allow GE to do so as a media outlet. But NBC gets its funding from the ad buys made by the other corporations, and — to a lesser extent — from the ad buys made by good progressive groups and the candidates they fund. I’d love to see that money channeled into creating other media outlets. I’d also love to see serious investment in independent public media and community media, and free air time for candidates. Lots of reforms are needed, but our media being dominated by international mega-corporations ought not to serve as an excuse for our elections to be put up for sale in toto. I can’t imagine why the one thing must follow from the other.

Greenwald argues elsewhere that anyone who believes money is not speech,

“would have to say that there’s no First Amendment problem with any law that restricts the spending of money for political purposes, such as: ‘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.’ Anyone who actually believes that “money is not speech” would have to believe that such laws are necessarily permitted by the First Amendment (since they merely restrict the expenditure of money, which is not speech).”

But no one argues that money and speech don’t overlap and interact. The problem is that they are not identical, and are in fact different in a very fundamental way. Everybody has roughly the same power to speak, until barriers are erected and advantages claimed (and work is needed there). But a very small group of people has most of the money. We pass laws, other than the Constitution, for a reason. They serve useful purposes. And laws can quite coherently, constitutionally, and beneficially bar corporations from eliminating all impact of real persons in elections without banning new political parties or forbidding certain political views. The point of arguing that money is not speech is that not all spending of money must be free of restriction. (Indeed, for some of us, the same goes for some other forms of speech as well.) That is different from claiming that all spending of money must be subject to severe restriction. Nobody has argued that, and logic cannot compel them to.

Similarly, Greenwald argues:

“[A]nyone who claims that since corporations are not persons, they have no rights under the Constitution [should answer]: Do you believe the FBI has the right to enter and search the offices of the ACLU without probable cause or warrants, and seize whatever they want? Do they have the right to do that to the offices of labor unions? How about your local business on the corner which is incorporated? The only thing stopping them from doing this is the Fourth Amendment. If you believe that corporations have no constitutional rights because they’re not persons, what possible objections could you voice if Congress empowered the FBI to do these things? Can they seize the property (the buildings and cars and bank accounts) of those entities without due process or just compensation? If you believe that corporations have no Constitutional rights, what possible constitutional objections could you have to such laws and actions? Could Congress pass a law tomorrow providing that any corporation – including non-profit advocacy groups — which criticize American wars shall be fined $100,000 for each criticism? What possible constitutional objection could you have to that?”

But I haven’t seen anyone argue that corporations should have no rights, although many specific corporations should lose their charters, and many should be criminally investigated. The argument is that they should have the rights that states choose to give them when creating them. Those might overlap with our personal rights in the Constitution, but they need not be identical. For example, they need not contain the same right to freedom of speech. And it is that right that this amendment would deny them.

So am I in favor of amending the Constitution or seceding from the union? That depends on whether we can force Congress to behave sufficiently independently of corporate rule, and that begins with defunding the wars in order to fund all the things that wealthy nations have that don’t fund militaries and wars the way we do: healthcare, clean transportation, paid paternal leave, vacations, pensions, free education from preschool through grad school. If we can’t get Congress to make that shift, I’d support any state that chose to try and withdraw its support from the corporate war machine. Infact, like many in the other 49 states, I’d want to move there.