Guest opinion: Court created a civic monster with Citizens United
The German silent film “Der Golem” (1915) – considered the first horror movie – featured a legendary monster that medieval Jews created to protect their ghettos from anti-Semitic attacks.
One version of the story is set in 16th-century Prague, where the head rabbi created a golem from the mud of a local river. He brought it to life by chanting certain sacred words over the clay body.
The golem proved to be such a threat to the gentile community that Emperor Rudolf II begged the rabbi to restrain the monster. The emperor promised to stop all persecution, so the rabbi deactivated the golem. Some claim that its lifeless body is still kept in the attic of the Prague Synagogue.
So far, we can say this much about golems and corporations: They are artificial entities that have been brought into being by either sacred or legal incantations. The Jews, however, were smart enough not to call their soulless protector a person.
Unlike the life-less golem in the attic, British Petroleum and other companies have “perpetual existence.” Human persons can be damned to hell for their sins, but the laws of all the states grant limited liability to stockholders.
Even though golems and companies are mute, the U.S. Supreme Court argued, incredibly enough, that Citizens United is a “speaker” with the full First Amendment rights of a natural person.
In some versions of the legend, the golem runs amok and starts killing Jews as well as gentiles. Initially, most Republicans saw nothing wrong with unlimited corporate contributions. But now that Mitt Romney’s super PAC has destroyed conservatives more to their liking, perhaps they are having second thoughts about the monster the good justices have created. Again, the Jews were wise to decommission the golem when it starting killing their co-religionists.
In the early American republic, corporations were considered legal persons, but not natural, or as I prefer to say, moral persons. Natural persons have inalienable rights, but corporate rights are granted and can be taken away by legislative fiat.
Corporations were actually viewed with much suspicion by our founders. As Thomas Jefferson states: “We shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and to bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
Jefferson would be shocked to learn that 220 years later the Supreme Court would declare that corporate money is protected speech under the First Amendment.
In the Gilded Age of the 1890s, courts gave constitutional rights to corporations that the framers would never have countenanced. According to right-wing slogans today, these men were “activist” judges “legislating from the bench” and “creating rights out of thin air.” So were the five justices who ruled two years ago that corporations would become a “disadvantaged class” if they did not have the right to express their political opinions with massive unregulated campaign contributions.
Philosopher Gary Gutting argues that privately owned, for-profit companies “have no core dedication to fundamental human values. Such corporations exist as instruments of profit for their shareholders. This does not mean that they do not make essential economic contributions to society. But left to themselves they can be serious threats to human values that conflict with the goal of corporate profit.”
One core human value that is jeopardized is truth, because advertising “explicitly aims at convincing us to prefer a product regardless of its actual merit.”
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., has introduced the People’s Rights Amendment, which is the best means to reverse Citizens United. Similar measures have already passed in California, New Mexico, Montana, Hawaii, Massachusetts and dozens of local jurisdictions.
A 2011 Hart Research poll found that 80 percent of those surveyed did not approve of the Supreme Court decision. Perhaps this overwhelming response could turn into enough political support to overturn the greatest threat to American democracy.
Citizens United has unleashed a golem that must be legally sedated and placed in the dusty attic of history.
Nick Gier taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years.