How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Of the People, by the People and for the People

“…That government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19th, 1863)”

“I hope we shall…crush in its birth the aristocracy of the moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country (Thomas Jefferson, 1816)(1).”

Our democracy is founded on the belief that the rights of individuals are the cornerstone of the political system. The government’s responsibility is to safeguard those rights, which are clearly defined in the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. On December 15th, 1791, the United States congress ratified the Bill of Rights which guarantees among other freedoms, the freedom of speech.

Until last week, the right to freedom of speech guaranteed by our Constitution was limited to flesh and blood people, but in a landmark ruling by the Roberts’ Supreme Court, corporate entities, by virtue of their “corporate personhood,” are now also entitled to express their views without restriction. For all practical and legal purposes, inanimate corporations are “people” under the law.

Many differences between corporations and the average American citizen, apart from the obvious biology, make the Court’s recent ruling disastrous for our democracy. While human individuals are limited by law to a maximum campaign contribution of $2,300 to any political candidate, corporations are able to funnel millions into campaigns through various legal loopholes that allow them to make contributions on behalf of their employees and shareholders. Corporations also have the resources available to spend on buying candidates that the average citizen lacks. Of the top 100 economies in the world, 53 are corporations. Exxon’s economy is larger than that of 180 sovereign nations (2). The Supreme Court’s ruling opens the door for corporate interests to pour their limitless funds into the electoral process in order to influence elections.

Why should we fear some of the most powerful entities on earth interfering with our election process? Corporations have a legal mandate to pursue self interest in the form of profits. They have no such mandate to behave morally or ethically. In modern psychology, a sociopath is described as a person who lacks empathy and has no concern for the negative impacts of his actions on others. A sociopath regards his own self interest as paramount and will stop at nothing to further his own agenda(3). According to this clinical definition, corporations are legally bound to act as sociopaths.

Corporations go out of their way to avoid the cost of cleaning up their environmental and social messes. By lobbying Congress to reduce or remove regulation, they are able to avoid these costs and refer to them as “externalities.” Corporations also enjoy “limited liability,” meaning shareholders are not legally liable for the actions of the corporation and cannot be sued or fined for any corporate actions that may cause harm to others. The corporation has thus evolved into an entity that goes to great steps to avoid responsibility for its harmful actions. When harm does take place, those who profit from the corporation’s predatory behavior (i.e. the shareholders) are not held accountable. Corporate sociopaths now have the right to invest in our electoral process with impunity. Furthermore, due to corporate secrecy laws and jurisdictional loopholes any corporation can take part in the process including corporate entities from other countries. Saudi Arabian oil interests, Chinese industrialists and even corporations with ties to terrorist groups are now all granted the right to speak freely and weigh in on US elections. The only limitation will be the size of their purse strings.

The Bill of Rights and the Constitution of the United States were written to protect the rights of flesh and blood individuals and do not even mention corporations. Indeed, these foundations of our democracy never intended to extend personhood to non-human entities; nevertheless, in the 1886 Supreme Court Case Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad, a court reporter incorrectly recorded a comment made by one of the justices declaring that Southern Pacific Railroad was entitled to the protection of the 14th Amendment, and this judicial mistake has been used ever since as legal justification for the seemingly oxymoronic precedent of corporate personhood.

Since the 1886 debacle, Congress and the Supreme Court have swayed back and forth over the legal rights of corporations. During a particularly dark period known as the “Lochner Era,” the Supreme Court extended human rights to corporations with abandon. Eventually the Great Depression (4) threw light on the dangers of allowing unrestricted privileges to corporations and many of the Lochner Era rulings were overturned.

The Tillman Act of 1907 banned corporations from making campaign contributions (5), and for the past 100 years, the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld this legislation, recognizing that the interference of powerful entities such as corporations in the electoral process is contradictory to democratic rule.

Ironically, Justices Alito and Roberts both swore at their confirmation hearings that they were strict Constitutionalists and the both adamantly advocated against “legislating from the bench.” Now, without legal precedent, these same right wing judges have determined that corporate entities can make unlimited and unrestricted campaign contributions, as to infringe upon this right would be to deny the corporations’ right to freedom of speech as per the United States Constitution.

Our nation was founded on the belief that all persons are created equally, and that no one person should have more influence over the legislative process than any other. Our brave forefathers risked their livelihoods and lives to create this great democracy, and with one fell swoop, the Roberts’ Supreme Court has just undone the revolution. Once again, the legislative process will be determined by those with the largest bank accounts. Instead of monarchs, we now have corporations.
References and Recommended Resources
2- Speth, James Gustave, 2009. The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.
6- (Just for Fun) The Colbert Report at

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Least of Our Family

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me (Jesus in Matthew: 25.35-40)”

“We’ve already donated to Haiti. It’s called the U.S. income tax (Rush Limbaugh on his radio show 1/13/10)”

“They got together and swore a pact to the devil…Ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other (Pat Robertson on his Christian Broadcast Network 1/13/10)”

The United States is the wealthiest country on earth. Even in the face of our current economic downturn, Americans enjoy a higher quality of life than the vast majority of the Earth’s citizens.

Haiti, in contrast, is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. 80% of her people are unemployed and over half live on less than $1/day (1). 80% of Haitian people over the age of 15 cannot read or write, and the government lacks sufficient funds to educate all of the children. Haiti has the highest rate of HIV infection in the New World. 30,000 people die each year, and to date 150,000 children have been orphaned by the disease. Access to clean water and sanitation is rare.

From our vantage point in the United States where even the poorest among us can count on food stamps and public housing, it is almost impossible to know what real poverty feels like. We cannot imagine what it feels like to go to sleep at night listening to our children whimper because of hunger pangs in their stomachs. While we are feeling sorry for ourselves because our mcmansions are being foreclosed, we should consider how lucky we are simply because our fate made us American rather than Haitian.

Now, Haiti has suffered a devastating earthquake. Initial reports indicate as many as 100,000 people may have lost their lives in the disaster. Those who can least afford further calamity are now enduring unfathomable suffering. They do not deserve this terrible fate.

During the 15 years I lived in the Turks and Caicos Islands (a small island country 90 miles north of Haiti), I had the privilege of knowing several people from Haiti. I found them all to be remarkable, resilient and hardworking people. In spite of the adversity the accident of birth played in their fate, they never gave up striving to improve their lives. My Haitian friends all love their families, friends and community. They are a deeply religious people, but unlike many Bible-bashing Americans, Haitians put their religious money where their mouths are. In spite of having very little themselves, the majority of Haitian people would give their last dime to help a friend in need. In spite of deep, economic poverty and limited educational facilities, Haiti is a wellspring of talented artists, musicians and herbalists, who contribute to a rich culture that is uniquely Haitian.

Many of the Haitians in the TCI live in makeshift dwellings constructed of scraps of plywood and cardboard. The risk their lives on a regular basis on less than seaworthy boats making the crossing from Haiti to TCI with the hope, endemic to their people, of working for a better future. The story of the Haitian people should serve as a source of inspiration to us all. Their story is one of unfaltering endurance and hope even in the face of unimaginable hardship.

Yet some would choose to condemn the innocent for their own misfortune. Pat Robertson, famous televangelist, claims Haiti’s woes are the result of a “pact with the devil” they entered into in the 18th century in order to free themselves from the tyranny of slavery and French imperialism (2). Apparently Robertson’s god believes the Haitian people should have remained slaves and that the great-great grandchildren of the brave Haitians who rose up against their oppressors over two-hundred years ago are somehow responsible for the actions of their ancestors. Unfortunately, many Americans pray to the same, vengeful and hateful god that Robertson worships. Meanwhile, as Robertson damns the Haitian people for all eternity, he sits on a personal fortune, made largely from his hateful diatribes, estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. What would Jesus do Pat?

Rush Limbaugh criticizes our president for acting quickly to deal with the disaster and adds his own selfish version of events to the dialogue. Rush, for some reason, would feel better if our president waited like Bush did for several days before addressing the devastating situation after Katrina. Limbaugh also feels we have done enough as Americans for the Haitians because a meager portion of our income taxes has gone to humanitarian aid over the past few decades. Rush makes multiple millions spewing hate. He is obviously a glutton, yet he would let others in the world starve. As Rush and Pat cling to their perverse version of Christianity, their personal millions of dollars and their hatred, they do not deserve to call themselves American, much less Christian.

I have a different kind of pride to be American. I side with the humanitarian Jesus, and hope our great country will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of our materialism, self indulgence and personal greed to become a nation of great philanthropy, generosity and compassion for all of our larger family of humanity and organisms.

Be thankful for the roof over your head. No matter how meager it may be, you can be certain it is better than 99.99% of the dwellings in Haiti. Be thankful for the food in your stomach and clean, disease-free water to drink. Be thankful your children can go to school and that you can read this. Then express your thanks by being a great American and making a donation to the relief efforts to help the least of our family.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

The World We All Want

In this era of declining resources, unsustainable growth, global climate change, pollution, poverty, mass extinction and inept government, despondency about the state of the world is understandable. Humankind has set Earth on a cataclysmic course with a dire destiny, and if one listens to political pundits on both sides of the political debate, hopelessness can be overwhelming. The rhetoric has become so frenzied and contentious that working solutions for solving the world’s immense problems seem almost unattainable. Decision makers spend all their time arguing about the methodologies for policy and seem to forget the whole reason for their existence is to resolve problems rather than create discord with their political opponents.

Sadly, what has been lost in the debate is the whole point of the exercise. Politicians now spend the majority of their energies posturing and pontificating in an effort to maintain their positions of power. Even if a politician has a sincere desire to positively affect public policy, his desires are thwarted by the diseased system in which he must operate. A direct correlation between campaign funding and electability means most candidates must spend an inordinate amount of time simply raising money. The majority and easiest money is given by corporations and other private interests. Due to the astronomical costs of running a campaign, candidates happily accept corporate contributions; however, these monies are not without attached strings. Once a corporately-sponsored candidate is in office, he must bow down to the private interest that funded him or risk losing precious campaign funds.

To make matters worse, the institution charged with keeping the public informed has become complicit in the miasma of dysfunction. Media air time is critical for publicity, and the more controversial a candidate’s or pundit’s statements are, the more airtime he will likely get. The resulting media circus is a comedy of the absurd with the most outrageous and extremist viewpoints filling the airwaves, while relevant issues and civil debate are rarely if ever broadcasted. The mainstream media, also owned by the same corporate and private interests that fund political campaigns, thrives on division and strife. Division and strife work conspiratorially to maintain the status quo. As long as both sides are fighting one another, little attention is devoted to changing the system.

The current debate over healthcare is case in point. Rather than debating genuine positive options by studying and assessing the numerous successful healthcare paradigms from across the world, Congress spends its time debating such fantasies as a “government takeover of healthcare,” and geriatric euthanasia, neither of which have anything to do with the various proposals on the table. While our elected representatives get bogged down in the resultant quagmire, the private insurance industry, which currently enjoys a lucrative monopolistic control over our health, laughs all the way to the bank, and they should be happy. Their investments in elected officials have certainly paid off.

Unfortunately, a large proportion of the American population have not had the benefit of a decent education that encourages free and independent thought and simply place too much trust in the very media that serves only its own interests. They believe the absurd suggestion that the healthcare debate is actually about bumping off octogenarians or a potential communist takeover of government. Anybody who supports genuine reform of the status quo is then classified as the embodiment of pure wickedness. Neither side is immune to this phenomenon. The political divisions take hold within the collective psyche as a battle over nothing less than good and evil. The legislature is paralyzed by dysfunction, and the status quo is effectively maintained, a status quo we can all agree (with the exception of multi-millionaire Rush Limbaugh) needs to be changed.

Meanwhile, the “us against them” perpetual mindset pervades the American public that belies a deeper truth. We are more alike than we are different. In reality, we all want the same things. Regardless of how we may disagree on strategies for achieving our collective goals, our first task should be to identify the baseline desires we all share.

We all want to live in a world where poverty and hunger have been eradicated. We want our children to breathe clean air and drink clean water. We believe every person should have access to good, affordable healthcare. We want an economy that produces rewarding and secure jobs that provide a living wage. We do not believe any organism should suffer extinction at human hands. We would like to see all children “welcomed to life” and the number of abortions and teenage and unwanted pregnancies reduced. We want our food to nourish us, not make us sick. Americans believe in religious freedom and are proud of their national heritage. We respect the need to maintain Earth’s resources for future generations. We want to live in a world without war. We cherish the wild places on earth that remind us of our humanity and connection to nature. We all fear for our future and the future of the planet. We want our elected officials to fear the loss of our votes more than they fear the loss of corporate sponsorship.

If anyone doubts we share these common ideals, take the time to talk to someone on the other side of the isle without discussing political ideology. We all share the same core values. We love our families, our country, our gods and our earth. We should not allow political, private and media interests to divide and conquer us thus preventing us from achieving our shared goals.

Once we stop arguing amongst ourselves over petty distractions, we can demand our policy makers do the same. The task is not impossible. Americans have come together time and time again, putting aside differences for the common good.

We say we are the greatest nation on earth, yet we allow ourselves to get emotionally drawn into childish bickering and hold our representatives to a pathetic standard. We should believe our own rhetoric. We are the greatest nation on earth and we should act accordingly. In this new decade, let’s clear the smokescreen of all the nonsensical and emotive distractions and concentrate on our goals. Once the road is cleared of the scrub and brush that litters it, the path is easy to navigate.