Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Misguided People’s Rights Amendment

The so-called “People’s Rights Amendment” is an attempt to nullify the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The key provision of the proposed amendment states, “People, person, or persons as used in this Constitution does not include corporations.”

An “op-ed” supporting this proposed amendment, written by U.S. Representative Jim McGovern and author Jeff Clements, appeared in the Boston Globe on January 21st, titled “'We the People' can overturn Citizens United.” In a similar vein, the Huffington Post, on January 9th, published an online article by Marge Baker titled “Overturning Citizens United: A Movement Moment.” (My January 10th comment on that article is similar to my letter below.)

These articles illustrate the need for the public to know more about corporations, for the articles are products of widespread public ignorance of the subject. I will seek to remedy this problem by posting a series on corporations. It’s a big subject that will take several months of postings. The first posting will be soon.

Meanwhile, you should know something about why the People’s Rights Amendment is a bad idea. My letter to the editor, published today, introduces the matter. Here is the letter as it appeared in the Boston Sunday Globe in the Ideas section, page K9, January 29, 2012, and also online for subscribers at

Proposal is misguided attempt to reform election financing

THE PEOPLE’S Rights Amendment, as currently drafted, is a misguided attempt to bring about needed reform of the financing of elections ( “ ‘We the People’ can overturn Citizens United,’’ Op-ed, Jan. 21). Such financing reform is desperately needed, but it cannot be attained merely by attacking the personhood of corporations. Since wealthy individuals can distort the funding of elections just as easily as corporations, the electoral reform that is needed is different from and broader in scope than corporate personhood.

Moreover, the Supreme Court initially declared that corporations were persons, not in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, but in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company in 1886. Even in the colonies prior to the Revolution, corporations (such as they were then) were regarded as artificial persons. Such entities created by law have been instrumental in the development of modern civilization and include not only large business corporations but a multitude of micro and small businesses and charitable nonprofits.

Thus, the People’s Rights Amendment is not only based on a misunderstanding of the history and law of corporations. It also misses the bigger target of wealth’s disproportionate influence over government.

John L. Hodge
Jamaica Plain

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Enduring Emotional Impetus to the U.S. Invasion of Iraq

Now that the Iraq war has officially ended, it would be wise to reflect on why the invasion occurred in the first place. Will the conditions that led to that invasion again be ripe for another invasion of someplace else? A key ingredient of those conditions, one not publicly questioned, is still quite present today. This ingredient provides the emotional impetus for attacking others.

We must not forget that the invasion occurred with the overwhelming support of the public. Former president George W. Bush successfully portrayed the invasion as a strike, not just against “the terrorists,” but against evil itself. Through a thought process that made emotional connections but ignored evidence and was entirely illogical, he linked into one bundle the “axis of evil” (Iraq, Iran and North Korea), those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, terrorists everywhere, and anyone opposed to “freedom.” If these connections made sense to the public then, what is to prevent similar connections from making sense again to support attacking or invading another target?

These illogical and non-factual connections were emotionally unified by an underlying premise: that we must fight against evil. It is this very fight that we must question. While evil by definition is always bad and should be fought, it is not necessarily true that evil can be identified as contained in identifiable evil people who should be killed. Yet, that identification is the unquestioned emotional premise behind the invasion of Iraq, and, perhaps too, behind the currently escalating drone killings and the military threats to Iran.

The problem with the premise, that you fight evil by killing evil people, is that it contradicts the primary principle underlying democracy, the principle of human equality. This principle was, for example, proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, restated by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address, and reaffirmed by President Obama in his inaugural address in 2009. But it was abandoned when Iraq was invaded. We cannot consistently say, “All people are created equal,” and, “But some people are evil and must be killed.” The contradiction was not apparent to the nation when it invaded Iraq. It still isn’t.

It is not a coincidence that former president Bush defined the goal as “freedom,” not as human equality. By giving little or no weight to the idea of equality, it was relatively easy to discuss the invasion with little consideration of its potential cost to the Iraqi people. While the potential for casualties among American soldiers was discussed prior to the invasion, there was little or no public thought given to the potential casualties of the citizens of Iraq. Did we care that tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqi’s would die, either directly, or indirectly from destroyed infrastructure, as a result of this regime change? Is so, did it matter? Even today we usually do not discuss Iraqi deaths in numbers as we do for American troops. In the fight against the rulers who were deemed to be evil, it seemed not to matter how many Iraqis would get killed in the process. They were considered to be just “collateral damage.” As a result of this way of thinking, the Iraqi people themselves were not regarded as equals but as weak, perhaps child-like, people who had to have their government overthrown for them by superior freedom-loving people. This deprived the Iraqi people of the dignity and the pride they would have obtained by overthrowing their own dictator, as is occurring elsewhere in the Middle East.

In Iraq, our nation cannot be proud of what it has accomplished, not only for the hundreds of thousands of lives lost for false reasons, but also by leaving behind a shaky, sectarian quasi-democracy that has only a possibility of maturing into the real thing. Apparently what was left behind does not really matter once the targeted evil has been eliminated. That the government left behind can hardly be called democratic shows that real democracy, one that includes respect for human rights, cannot be imposed by military force.

Thus, the invasion was based on a false idea about the meaning of democracy. The Founders themselves could not see the conflict between the principle of equality and the reality around them, for they made exceptions to human equality: for women, slaves and Native Americans, for example. But the principle of human equality allows for no exceptions. The exceptions are created by an anti-democratic way of thinking that apparently is a persistent carry-over from the pre-democratic past of humankind. Over time, our nation has recognized some of these inconsistent exceptions and addressed many of them. But the inconsistency remains whenever, as a matter of national policy, the nation acts on the anti-democratic premise that it knows who is evil and should be killed. The invasion of Iraq, regardless of the outcome, was a blow not for democracy but against the very principle of equality that underlies democracy. If we do not question the anti-democratic premise of that invasion, it will happen again somewhere else. Who will be the next victims?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why Internet Access is a Human Right

In the January 4, 2012, print and online editions of The New York Times, Vinton G. Cerf published an op-ed titled “Internet Access is Not a Human Right.” He argued that “technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself.” It was a well-meaning argument designed to limit human rights to the most important things. He says, “The best way to characterize human rights is to identify the outcomes that we are trying to ensure. These include critical freedoms like freedom of speech and freedom of access to information—and those are not necessarily bound to any particular technology at any particular time.”

The problem with this argument is that it is like saying, “You may have the water but you may not have any container or pipe to convey it or drink from.” The outcome one is trying to achieve cannot be dissociated from the means of achieving it. Although denying access to any container or pipe would not totally prevent use and consumption of the water, it effectively minimizes its usefulness.

The censors—those who seek to prevent freedom of communication—have two primary means of censorship: stifle the communication source or stifle the communication receivers. Effective censors do both. Denial of access to the Internet would both prevent the sources from posting messages and prevent receivers from receiving them.

When the printing press was invented and put into use, censors sought to shut down the presses and also prevent the publications from being distributed. Not only must the publisher be put out of business, so also must the published product be destroyed. Books were burned. In extreme cases it was a crime to read the censored books if you could get one. Was this censorship not a denial of freedom of speech? All it did was attack the technology used to distribute ideas and information, not the ideas or information itself. You could still whisper to your neighbor.

When radio, and later television, was invented and put into use, the censors sought to shut down the broadcasters and, in extreme cases, make it a crime to listen to or view what was broadcast. That is the case today in North Korea, where it is a crime to modify a government-issued radio so as to receive anything other than government-issued broadcasts. Is this censorship not a denial of freedom of speech? All it does is attack the technology used to distribute ideas and information, not the ideas or information itself. North Koreans can still whisper to their neighbors.

The Internet is the new printing press, the new radio, the new television. It is becoming the main means of communication throughout the world. If access to it is not a human right, then freedom of speech is not a human right, for there is no value to speech that cannot be read or heard by the audience that the speech is intended to reach. The Internet is now one of the essential means by which communication occurs. If there is freedom to communicate, there must be freedom to access the technological means of communication. Whispering to our neighbors is not enough. Since we regard freedom of speech to be a human right, access to the Internet should also be regarded a human right.

Monday, January 23, 2012

What is the Opposite Direction from Republicanism? (First Post)

Imagine the federal government being entirely run by a coalition of the current Republican candidates for president. Romney, who sways with the wind. Gingrich, who would kick people off of food stamps. Santorum, who, if he had his way, would put an armed priest in every bedroom. Paul, who, like the rest of them, would reduce women to being carriers of protected fetuses.

This blog, along with my publications, is about going in the opposite direction from that coalition. But what is that opposite direction? A vision of the opposite direction has been missing for decades. My book, How We Are Our Enemy—And How to Stop: Our Unfinished Task of Fulfilling the Values of Democracy (2011), provides such a vision. This blog will supplement that vision and explore ongoing issues pertaining to our social, political and cultural milieu. That milieu extends from our own homes to the world.

The democratic value to be pursued is that of human equality. You will not hear Republican candidates talk about it. Former president George W. Bush equated democracy with “freedom” and ignored equality. “Freedom” is code for a government that keeps its hands off of big business. “Freedom” is what the U.S. supposedly gave Iraq by removing its oppressive government, without giving much thought to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died in the process. They were not all killed directly, but perhaps as many as a million died from the lack of infrastructure, infrastructure that was destroyed by U.S. bombs and the chaos that followed and continues. (More on this later.)

Yes, we must go in the opposite direction if democracy is to survive. But we must develop, through sharing of ideas, a clear understanding of what the opposite direction is.