Thursday, January 19, 2012

Democracy, Inc.

Last night the Portland City Council voted to abolish the concept of “corporate personhood” and called on Maine’s Congressional representatives to take similar steps at the federal level.

The resolution, proposed by Councilor David Marshall, passed in a 6-2 decision with the support of Mayor Michael Brennan, and Councilors John Anton, Kevin Donoghue, Jill Duson and Nick Mavodones.

The resolution specifically clarifies that corporations are not flesh-and-blood people, and, therefore should not be granted the same constitutional rights as citizens. The resolution also calls for maintaining and strengthening Maine’s Clean Elections program, which offers matching campaign funds for third-party, or less established candidates for state offices, in an effort to keep a level playing-field.

Though the nonbinding resolution is largely symbolic, it allows the city of Portland to follow in the footsteps of Los Angeles and Boulder, Colorado, both of which recently passed similar resolutions denouncing corporate personhood.

Symbolic or otherwise, Marshall’s resolution (which was crafted by members of the Portland Green-Independent Party, Occupy Maine, and the League of Young Voters) could not come at a more pressing time in history.

Multi-million dollar corporations have infiltrated nearly every aspect of our daily lives. Corporations produce the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the news we consume, and, to an ever increasing extent, the politicians we elect.

As Ralph Nader has astutely observed, “We are supposed to have a country of, by and for the people. Instead we have a country of the DuPonts, for the Exxons and by the General Motors.” Indeed, the corporate takeover of our democracy has become so pervasive some political theorists have labeled it a “coup d’├ętat in slow-motion.”

The 2003 documentary film, The Corporation (directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott) remains one of the definitive accounts of the history of corporate businesses and the notion of corporate personhood.

The film uses as its guiding thesis the following question: “What kind of a ‘person’ is the corporation?” The answer: A psychopath. No joke--using the psychologist’s “Personality Diagnostic Checklist,” the filmmakers conclude a corporation exhibits all the traditional characteristics (callous unconcern for the feelings of others; incapacity to maintain enduring relationships; reckless disregard for the safety of others; failure to conform with social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, etc.) of a psychopath.

 A segment of the film documenting the adverse health effects of Monsanto-produced chemical compounds such as DDT, Agent Orange, or the bovine growth hormone, rBGH, features University of Illinois Professor Emeritus of Environmental Medicine, Samuel Epstein. In laying out the toxic and often lethal health impacts of these petro-chemicals, Dr. Epstein notes most companies are well aware of these side effects and have been for decades, yet they continue to sell consumers these dangerous products anyway.

“If I take a gun and shoot you, that’s criminal,” Epstein says. “If I expose you to some chemicals which knowingly are going to kill you…what difference is there? The difference is it takes longer to kill you.”

The film examines a number of “Case Histories” of corporations’ malicious impact on workers’ rights, factory-farming, exploitation of child-labor in third-world countries, assaults on the environment and deliberate distortion (if not outright censorship) of mainstream news reports.

Perhaps the most poignant of the film’s “talking-heads” is Ray Anderson, CEO of the Interface carpet-manufacturing company. Anderson, a traditional businessman-cum-environmental-crusader, admits he worked for years in his business without “giving a thought” to what the company was “taking from the earth.” His environmental epiphany came in the form of Paul Hawken’s classic book, The Ecology of Commerce, which Anderson was compelled to read under pressure from critical environmental groups, as well as many of his own employees. Anderson describes the book as “a spear…A total change in mindset for myself and a change of paradigm.”

He goes on:

One day early in this journey it dawned on me that they way I’ve been running Interface is the way of the plunderer—plundering something that’s not mine. Something that belongs to every creature on earth. And I said to myself, “My goodness, the day must come when this is illegal. When plundering is not allowed… Someday people like me will end up in jail.”

We can only hope. While Anderson’s progressive change is indeed welcome, let us hope Portland can serve as an example to the rest of the state—and to other cities throughout the country—to put the power back in the hands of “We the People,” and abolish this absurd concept of corporate personhood for good.

Click here to watch scenes from The Corporation.  

Monday, January 9, 2012

Obama's Unofficial Progressive Challenger?

Could Ron Paul be Barack Obama’s unofficial progressive challenger?

Putting aside the Texas Congressman and presidential candidate’s troubling past, and his more unsavory stands on domestic issues for just a moment, let us consider how Paul is more progressive than President Obama when it comes to the defining issues of our time: war and peace and civil liberties.

As I wrote in the University of Maine’s Maine Campus, three years ago Obama’s propensity for war and military aggression has, in many respects, proved even greater than that of his predecessor. Between Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan and Syria (and Iraq which, contrary to numerous news reports, still contains some 30,000 “non-combat” troops and private contractors), Obama has expanded our military involvement abroad.

Additionally, the president recently signed a $662 billion defense authorization bill, despite similar media reports he is attempting to cut-down military spending. That particular spending-bill--the National Defense Authorization Act--also grants the U.S. President (not merely Obama, but all succeeding presidents) chilling new executive authority to indefinitely detain anyone deemed a “terrorist” anywhere in the world, without trial or due process. (You can read my entry on the NDAA here.)

Indeed, the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama brings to mind the classic lyrics to the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”

Ron Paul, meanwhile, is running on a strictly antiwar platform. He would end our military involvements in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere. He is the only Republican candidate who opposes war with Iran. And Rep. Paul was part of a minority of House Republicans to vote against the horrendous NDAA. (Maine’s two “moderate” Republican Senators both voted in favor of the bill. Paul’s opposition to indefinite detention and torture, however, makes him a “fringe radical,” a curious distinction.)

When Paul mentioned the NDAA bill at a campaign stop in Manchester, New Hampshire yesterday the audience immediately erupted into boos. “This is military law,” Paul said of the bill. “The military can come in and arrest an American citizen, and put [that person] in prison indefinitely and denied a lawyer. That has to be reversed or we cannot have a republic anymore.”

Having highlighted Paul’s admirable qualities, it would constitute a glaring omission to overlook his domestic views, which hew closer to the traditional right-wing ideology.

The Texas Congressman has repeatedly called for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education, and the IRS among other government institutions.  Despite his years as a physician, Dr. Paul would repeal “Obamacare” and, while he claims he would make no attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade, he has made his personal opposition to abortion quite clear. And Paul’s libertarian views of personal liberty also make him a staunch defender of the Second Amendment.

Perhaps most disconcertingly, Ron Paul seems to subscribe to the conservative “I’ve got mine, screw everyone else,” philosophy, which he likely learned from his literary hero, Ayn Rand.

(I have nothing new or insightful to add to the newsletter controversy, other than I recall the issue being raised during Paul’s 2008 presidential run as well. Not to minimize the significance of the matter, but the press’ exclusive focus on Paul’s racial views is quite hypocritical given Newt Gingrinch’s recent scolding of African-Americans to “get off food stamps,” and Rick Santorum’s comparison of homosexuality with bestiality. The fact is, the GOP has never opened its tent to minorities, and this current batch of presidential contenders does not seem in a rush to change that.)

Indeed, The Nation’s Katha Pollitt finds many progressives’ embrace of Ron Paul’s candidacy rather troubling (“Ron Paul’s Strange Bedfellows,” 1/23/2012).

“It’s a little strange to see people who inveigh against Obama’s healthcare compromises wave away, as a detail, Paul’s opposition to any government involvement in healthcare,” Pollitt writes. “In Ron Paul’s America if you were not prudent enough or wealthy enough to buy private health insurance…you find a charity or die.”

Yet, if we focus merely on Ron Paul’s antiwar, pro-civil liberties views, he looks very attractive to a progressive voter. As blogger, Glenn Greenwald notes, it speaks volumes about the current sad state of liberal politics when it takes a Republican presidential candidate to draw attention to America’s entrenched military-industrial complex. Greenwald writes:

Whatever else one wants to say, it is indisputably true that Ron Paul is the only political figure with any sort of a national platform… who advocates policy views on issues that liberals and progressives have long flamboyantly claimed are both compelling and crucial. The converse is equally true: the candidate supported by liberals and progressives and for whom most will vote — Barack Obama — advocates views on these issues (indeed, has taken action on these issues) that liberals and progressives have long claimed to find repellent, even evil.

In other words, support for Ron Paul need not be the all-or-nothing scenario progressives often make it out to be. It is possible and admissible, as Greenwald points out, to approve and even applaud Paul’s foreign policy positions, while still remaining critical of his others. Regardless of what one may think of him, Ron Paul has emerged in the presidential race as the only voice of peace. The Democratic Party—and, in particular, President Obama—would do well to listen to his message and take a few notes.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Spreading the Flames of Social Discontent

Two thousand eleven was a year of worldwide social unrest and, perhaps also, a signal of hope for democracy and freedom. From Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, to Wisconsin, Zuccotti Park, and Oakland, California, to Libya and Moscow, the world has been on fire with the yearnings of citizens struggling for freedom. Case in point, Time magazine designated its annual “Person of the Year” distinction to “The Protester.”

While it is perhaps premature to compare the ongoing Occupy Wall Street movement with the anti-war/counterculture demonstrations of the 1960s and ‘70s, there are certainly similarities. Both symbolized the political awakening of a generation of young Americans, who were convinced their elders had mortgaged their futures to imperial war and economic hardship. Though the future of the Occupy movement remains uncertain going into 2012, it does appear protesters have lit a spark that refuses to be blown out. In the words of Bob Dylan, “Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?”

The youth involvement is, in my mind, the greatest aspect of Occupy Wall Street. I cannot convey how discouraged I had become of routinely being the youngest person at anti-war rallies in Monument Square. Let us hope the youth participation was not merely some short-lived trend, but the beginning of a new generational uprising.

And to Occupy’s progressive critics (of which there are, unfortunately, quite a few) let me be clear: I am fully aware the movement is far from perfect. I am hard pressed to identify a progressive movement throughout history—be it the struggle for women’s rights, the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam anti-war efforts --that was ideal upon its initial inception. And I concede the encampment aspect of Occupy has run its course—particularly here in Portland’s Lincoln Park. It is time to move on to the next stage, whatever that may be.

But I, for one, would prefer to embrace and work with an admittedly imperfect movement, rather than stand aside and criticize its shortcomings. Occupy does not benefit from cynical, nitpicky criticism. At the end of the day, I agree with Chris Hedges’ assessment of Occupy Wall Street: “Either you join the revolt taking place on Wall Street and in the financial districts of other cities across the country or you stand on the wrong side of history” (“The Best Among Us,” 9/29/2011). In other words, if you are not going to help, get the hell out of our way.

Hedges goes on, in the same article, to claim nonviolent civil disobedience is the “only form left to us” to halt the ongoing “plundering of the criminal class on Wall Street and the accelerated destruction of the ecosystem that sustains the human species…” He is right. And, in all of human history, the stakes have likely never been higher.

The United States has effectively undergone what some have called a “coup d’├ętat in slow motion.” Global corporations currently wield far more power than they were ever intended to possess and, as a result, have hijacked our democracy. Corporations produce the clothes we wear, the food we purchase, the media (including the news) we consume, and the candidates we elect. (Even Blogger, which hosts this blog, is owned by Internet goliath Google.)

Indeed, Occupy Wall Street and its various local off-shoots may well represent our last, best chance to regain citizen-oriented democracy. For those who have so far been sitting on the sidelines offering “spiritual” support to the movement, it is not too late to become physically (as well as spiritually) involved. But time is of the essence.

Such a mass popular uprising aimed at promoting social  and economic equality—the very kind Occupy Wall Street encourages—will only come about when the so-called “guards of the system” finally and thoroughly awaken to all citizens’ common mutual humanity. As the late historian Howard Zinn writes in his now famous, A People’s History of the United States:

“In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, the teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbagemen and firemen. These people—the employed, the somewhat privileged—are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.”

We saw a little of this phenomenon played out when the police joined protesters in Egypt this spring, or when some of the law enforcement authorities at the Madison Capitol building abandoned their posts and locked arms with the public workers. As Zinn writes:

“…[T]he more of the 99 percent that begin to see themselves as sharing needs, the more the guards and the prisoners see their common interest, the more the Establishment becomes isolated, ineffectual. The elite’s weapons, money, control of information would be useless in the face of a determined population.”

Here’s to a happy and prosperous new year. Let us continue to spread the flames of social discontent throughout 2012.