Lao Tzu

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

If the Corporation is a Person, What Kind of Person Is It?

“The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference.” —Elie Wiesel

First, who ARE those “natural,” real people behind corporations?

In a speech to Congress on September 9, 2009, President Barack Obama made the
following remark: “Insurance executives don't do this because they are bad people. They do it because it’s profitable.”

Um...what? I mean, we’ve all heard plenty of remarks by politicians that don’t pass the BS test, but that one has to be among the worst. When he said it, I couldn’t help wondering about Mr. Obama’s moral compass—so, let’s see...injury to others is okay, as long as the injury happens within the context of profit-making? In this society, certain people can escape a designation as “bad people,” if profit is involved?

Amazed, I had to ask— when did making a profit become a justification for acts —criminal neglect, overt disregard for safety, dishonest, exploitive or unfair practices— that injure American citizens and the environment? Could that work for crystal meth producers too? Putting aside the illegal bit, what could possibly be wrong with people who produce this product and indirectly injure others? If it were legal, there’d be no reason to judge the makers and distributors of the drug—hey, they aren’t bad people; they’re just trying to make a profit!

Hello? How does that work, where the essential immorality of corporate crime in the guise of free enterprise, that is, bad people doing bad things to innocent people, cannot be acknowledged? Obviously, it doesn’t work, except in the upside-down world of the “free” market, where those who make profits at the expense of others are thought to be “amoral,” not immoral, i.e., bad people. And, what does that say about us that we cannot at least hold these people accountable, not only just as we hold common criminals accountable, by exacting criminal penalties —jail— but even minimally in the way we judge their character?

We are allowed to judge character, aren’t we? Martin Luther King:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

...judged by the content of their character, but judged, nevertheless.

I’m sure Mr. Obama has met insurance executives and corporate CEOs and perhaps found them to be charming and intelligent. But let’s be reminded of what the Canadian psychologist Robert Hare has brought to our understanding of human psychology, a check list of personality and behavior traits common to psychopaths. I do believe these traits are not only common to criminal psychopaths, but also to professional sociopaths in business, academia and politics:

superficial charm
grandiose ego
conning or manipulativeness
pathological lying
lack of remorse or guilt
lack of empathy
failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions.

I am far from being the first to point out that these are traits fostered and nurtured in America. Dare I say, Americans love a sociopath? “He’s got power and wealth—what a winner!”

And who ARE those not-so-natural, corporate “persons?”

So, if the corporation is a person, what kind of person is it? How many legs does it have? Does it have one head, two heads, or is it a monstrous, multi-headed person, where for each head cut off it grows two more, like the Lernaean Hydra of Greek mythology? Does it, like the Hydra, have a poisonous breath so virulent even its tracks are deadly? I’m afraid that’s about it, in some cases.

Surely, the Supreme Court has created a monster, this corporate person, which has profit at the top of its hierarchy of values, a monster with superficial charm, and all the other character traits on Hare’s list, including the failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions. But what else does it say about the character of that Learnaean Hydra that it values profit above all? What kind of person puts cold cash as a value above the lives of others, above the health of other species and the planet, above all?

In my opinion, the distinguishing characteristic of the profit-obsessed, corporate “person” (an entity made up of real people) from natural, actual persons, is one important thing: deep indifference.

Deep indifference corresponds with “lack of remorse or guilt, lack of empathy, and failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions” on the Hare check list, but it goes beyond those human characteristics. It is something wholly alien from natural persons. Unlike the failures of natural people in denial of their humanity, or even actively engaging in hatred, the monster corporation’s indifference is wholly disconnected from human feeling: The corporate Hydra is capable of deep indifference, because it is built to be a non-human entity with no other purpose than profit and power. Its managers and CEOs, trained to spite their own humanity and that of others, devote themselves to the purpose of the monster, as mindless converts to the cult of “free” enterprise.

Question: Why not apply enhanced legal penalties to corporate criminals for indifference to the suffering of others?

If we as a society ever evolve to reject the notion that profit-making absolves corporations and their owners of moral and legal culpability for the damage done in the course of their self-interested ambitions, will we allow indifference toward the suffering of others as grounds for the attachment of enhanced penalties for their crimes? Can we say corporate criminals commit crimes of indifference, and, thus, their crimes are as equally deserving of our disgust as are so-called hate crimes?

(Illustration by Zenzoë)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Slouching Toward Extinction Now, Waking up Wise Tomorrow

"...The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity...

...And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" —William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), THE SECOND COMING

Despite everything, millions of Americans still thrill to Obama’s silky chords of rhetoric every time he stands at the podium. From there they are taken on a heady ride, where style supplants substance and all’s right with the world.

The problem is, it’s going to take more than lip-service to effect a change that will turn this empire back into a democratic republic and the planet back to health. Campaign rhetoric, while the planet parboils at 392ppm CO2, is not enough to get the job done. Mother Earth does not care about the insincere blatherings of politicians, or what your charismatic leader promises to care about while crossing his fingers behind his back.

No. It’s going to take more than business as usual. For one thing, ordinary people will have to get damn angry enough to demand responsible government, and demand it in loud, kvetching, furious, complaining tones.

The women who fought for the vote did not wait for an Obama, nor did they worry about being labeled as extremists, or radicals, or commies, or socialists, or threats to the all-American, patriarchal family. Nor did they feel they needed to couch their demands in nice, lady-like, diplomatic terms, to avoid seeming like angry hussies, which I’m sure they were called. Instead, their Declaration of Sentiments has a list of seventeen complaints, each beginning with “He has”, and so forth, a list of human rights abuses done for so long by men against women that anger had to be the only proper tone of their declaration.

Today we face equal and worse threats to human rights, democracy, economic security, and, most troubling, the very life of the Earth. You would think the people would wake up and take to the streets. But no. We are too well-schooled in the life of denial and distraction, and badly schooled in civics. As well, we have been long-conditioned to the uselessness of acting out. Our recent Democratic and Republican Conventions were witness to gross violations of First Amendment protections, where protesters were caged in “free speech zones,” out of sight and mind of those the protesters would petition for a redress of grievances; but, where protesters managed to get closer to exercise their Constitutional rights, SWAT police cornered them, fired pepper-spray, pepper balls, rubber bullets at them, injuring many.

Conservative Democrats and Republicans in Congress ...not to mention the FBI... categorize progressive activists as “extremists,” “radicals,” “persons of interest,” possible terrorists. The media ignore them. Barack Obama treats them with affable condescension, unperturbed and unmoved. Last April in San Francisco at $5,000-a-plate breakfast fundraiser, when protesters interrupted Obama’s speech, singing a song and holding up signs that read “Free Bradley Manning,“ Obama said, ““That was a nice song. You guys have much better voices than I. Thank you very much.” Then he turned back to his speech with, “Where was I?” adding, “Now there’s an example of creativity.”

Well, Obama can afford to feel secure. He is solidly established as the “velvet glove on the iron fist” of empire, as some have aptly noted. He does not have to resort to crude asides as did the former White House Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, who famously described the progressive base of the Democratic Party as “fuck'n retards.”

And so we get the same ol’ same ol’ crap—politicians posing as sweet-talking progressives, likening themselves and their supporters to heroes of the past, “liberals” who then make a sharp turn to the right, as soon as they’ve nailed the election. Thus, nothing changes, and here we go again, but this time slouching toward extinction.

It’s a puzzlement, this seemingly hopeless situation, but it’s also damn scary. MLK may have felt the “fierce urgency of now,” but it was nothing compared to this. You may think there’s time to “show up,” effect a slow take-over of the Democratic Party by progressives and turn this thing around, but there’s not. Thus, I refuse to pretend: I am going to remember that fears for the planet, disgust about over-population, or anger over our ever-growing list of political, economic and social ills, is not a sign of depression or yet another new psychological disorder (“Post Perky Negativity Disorder”?) needing the latest pill. Instead, perhaps it’s a sign we’re gaining in courage and losing our slouch.

Waking Up to Wisdom:

As science has it, learning —change— sometimes happens in a most mysterious way—by epiphany.

In Harper’s Magazine’s August 2011 Findings section, we find this nugget: “...babies learn language not through gradual habituation but in epiphanies.”

Imagine it—no need for rote memorization, for flash cards, for the stern nun looming with punishing ruler in sir. Baby brains, instead, absorb, leap ahead, then, lo and behold, they’ve got it.

I believe growth by epiphany is not limited to baby development. Is it not our constant enabler throughout life? I certainly can identify important epiphanies in my own life, and lesser epiphanies, those near-imperceptible growth spurts, allowing skills to proceed toward mastery, or at least competency, where trying too hard had never worked.

This may also work for entire societies. Others have noted it. They named it collective epiphany. Thus, someday, when a series of events converge in the midst of chaos, the American people will suddenly comprehend what is being done to them and their world, and who is doing it. When the catastrophes of empire, or tyranny, or plain ol’ incompetent governing, produce enough intolerable misery, the people’s consciousness just might take a leap. Then all it will take is one galvanizing event, and —flash!— the change we’ve been waiting for will no longer be a cliché, but a reality.

It’s an old story—death and resurrection.

Certainly, the Arab Spring, was initiated by epiphany, yes?

One question for me becomes, however, whether localized rebellion would be sufficiently profound for us, where the issue of global climate change must be addressed along with our pet projects of civic and political life? We don’t want to dawdle at door knobs, while the planet fades on a stretcher in the emergency room, or we could be facing not an American Spring, but a worldwide sizzling summer that has no end.

Thus, the sort of epiphany we need is a sudden change of our collective mind-set, one not limited to progressives, but one including those powers-that-be we love to blame for everything, one where, suddenly, masculinist ideology gives way to a balanced approach, blending both masculine and feminine ideals, where suddenly no other choice is possible but sustainable living, where all things cruel (war profiteering, industrial farming), stupidly dangerous (nuclear power, off-shore drilling, fracking), or selfish, wasteful, and immoral become impossible, because to choose them is to choose extinction: resurrection denied.

Under the radar, the signs appear:

If Ray Anderson, CEO and “recovering plunderer,” could manage it, why not the others?

And this: “Why The Insurance Industry Gets Climate Change

“We all have the extraordinary coded within us, waiting to be released.” —Jean Houston