Wednesday, December 4, 2013

We The People (and Corporations)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Corporations are “legal people.” I explained yesterday why this made no sense. But it's our current jurisprudence, which is to say it's how we do things ’round here, and that sad fact dates back to the 19th century to some very old US Supreme Court cases, particularly the 1819 case Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward and the 1886 case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. So, unfortunately, there's been a lot of time in the interim for this badly conceived legal philosophy to work its ugly tendrils into the fabric of our society.

Before Copernicus figured out that the planets revolve around the Sun instead of the Earth, the orbits of the planets were thought to twist and turn in baroque ways. It wasn't true, but it seemed that way to astronomers of the day because they were building on an inappropriate foundation. The change in law from a “person” being just a person, to a “person” being either a person or something that is really very clearly not a person, is like going back in time to those days when we thought planets didn't revolve around the sun.

Words are the foundation upon which we build our civilization. The specific words we use are arbitrary in origin, but once chosen and used, our brains become wired to have certain memories, associations, and intuitions about them. Although corporate personhood has existed for ages, the practice of asserting it in order to gain far-reaching political power seems more recent. It started out as a way of asserting the legitimacy or manner in which corporations sign contracts or pay taxes, issues one might reasonably want to clarify for corporations, whether they are people or not. But more recently it has been used to imply that we should give rights or make accommodations to corporations simply because “they are people.” After all, people have rights and corporations are people, so—voilà!—corporations have rights, right?

Well, no. Not right. We are wired to react in certain reflexive ways to primitive concepts. We learn and remember a great many lessons and promises in life using words. So if we can change the meaning of word, do all the sentences we've ever spoken using that word still apply?

We know things about “people,” for example. As speakers of English, we come to associate those things we know with the words “person” or “people.” We are taught that “killing” is wrong, but especially the killing of “people” matters. We have laws against killing “people.” We feel uneasy around someone who even might do that. But if learn that a corporation is a person, must we suddenly feel the same kind of revulsion about someone killing a corporation that we have been raised to feel about them killing a person? Should we feel personally at risk sitting at dinner next to someone has killed a corporation? Could we be next?

Words are all we have to describe the rules we've agreed to live by in our society. We guard the text of those agreements carefully, so someone doesn't just edit the words in the night and expect us to comply with a new set of rules. But if the meaning of the words in those agreements can change out from underneath us, we can end up with different rules even without the text of the rules changing. That must not happen.

We must know when shifts of meaning are happening. We must have the right to review and approve the consequences of changes in meaning. It's not sufficient for someone to tell us that such review has already happened under a different understanding of those words. When such tricks are played with words, our gut feelings are easily manipulated.

It occurs to me that I don't know why I'm even bothering to be upset. There's an easy way out of this, much easier than all this fussing. I should just talk to the writers of a few dictionaries and get the definition of “absurdity” changed to mean “brilliant idea” and then the absurdities that characterize the linguistic landscape of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, giving freedom of speech to corporations, and Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, giving freedom of religion to corporations, would magically become brilliant ideas. And then, perhaps, I'll no longer care.

But can embracing and exploiting such drifts in meaning for tactical advantage really be the answer? Is the Dictionary to be our new battleground? It's too hard to control the Supreme Court, so why not just buy a few publishing houses and change the Dictionary? Is this how wars are now to be fought? If so, we need to call a halt to it before we hurt ourselves irreparably. Santa Clara County notwithstanding, this is no way to run a railroad.

And where are the peddlers of original intent when we need them? No doubt they're busy changing the definition of “original” to more flexibly suit some Machiavellian end, and haven't time or interest to help us. Because as it looks now, it's likely to be Scalias of the court, the self-professed keepers of original intent, who seem to me most likely to afford freedom of religion to corporations. What irony, or perhaps just good old-fashioned hypocrisy, in that.

We need to do something. We The People, I mean.

People People. Not corporate people.

If you catch my drift.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

This second part of a 3-part series was originally published December 4, 2013 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman. The first part was Corporations Are Not People. The series concludes with Employers of Religion.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, political, political battleground, santa clara county vs southern pacific railroad, trustees of dartmouth college vs woodward, corporation, incorporate, incorporated, corporate person, corporate personhood, legal person, legal people, copernicus, copernican, pre-copernican, killing a corporation, gut feeling, language, dictionary, original intent, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, corporate speech, corporate religion

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