Today we celebrate UNESCO’s World Poetry Day, recognizing poetry as cultural heritage and “the song of our deepest feelings.” For many years, I found poetry difficult to read. As a painfully logical thinker, I like to “get to the bottom” of things, and the best poems have no bottom. The longer I live in this world, however, the less I need to find a singular reading. Each time I listen to these three poems, they activate new strands of thought, passion, meaning and commitment. Since I have not yet exhausted what I can get from these, perhaps others would like to join me in making meaning through listening to these poets speak their truth.
Since corporations are a preoccupation of this blog, I start with one of my favorite poems on that topic:
I first saw this clip about a year ago when I had the good fortune to attend a small workshop on poetry for social change. I’ll never say what a poem is “about,” but his relationship to his voice and the need to speak still takes my breath away:
Finally, this piece takes a well-worn word and allows me to hear it anew, one of the most important words that should always be a living act, not just a political buzz-word. There is so much power in this 2-minute performance, it makes everything seem possible:
Since the US Supreme Court lifted restrictions on corporate political contributions in its 2010 Citizens United ruling, concerns about corporate political power have been growing in this country. And not just among activists: the vast majority of US voters across the political spectrum believe that corporate money is a major threat to our electoral process. As a 20-year veteran of corporate campaigning, I share these concerns, although the focus on election spending strikes me as overly narrow. Political spending is only one of the ways corporations influence our policies and our very perceptions. From junk science to revolving door relationships to PR and outright ownership of the media, the threat is real, but it is not new.
Citizens United and the rulings that preceded it rest on the legal extension of “personhood” to allow corporations to usurp citizens’ Constitutional protections, with little of the accountability. In 1911, Ambrose Bierce defined a corporation as “an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” Today’s transnational giants wield exponentially more wealth and power – political, economic, legal and cultural – but Bierce still holds a critical insight: corporations aren’t persons, but their beneficiaries are.
One of the most important precedents for Citizens United was the 1978 Bellotti case, in which First National Bank successfully challenged state restrictions on corporate political spending by means of a First Amendment claim that such spending constituted protected speech. Of course a bank doesn’t have opinions, it represents the interests of its owners and managers: that is who gains extra access and extra representation under this legal regime, through their association with this fictional “person.” If First National, now Bank of America, were a person, it would have been locked up years ago for mistreatment of its employees, customers, competitors, regulators, and the communities in which it operates. This list chronicles the bank’s dozens of fines, settlements and misdeeds since the financial crisis and bailout. And those are just the legal infractions, it doesn’t even capture BoA’s environmentally destructive investments and its equally destructive pollution of our democratic process.
Of course if Bank of America were a person, it would be hard-pressed to find a safety net equal to the 2008 bailout. The fact that we are incarcerating, disenfranchising and abandoning our fellow human beings at heartbreaking and globally unprecedented rates while these serial offenders continue their rampage virtually unchecked should give us all cause for outrage. Unaccountable elites have hidden behind the corporate shield for generations. Granting political rights to structurally amoral, profit-seeking organizations corrupts one of our most important mechanisms for protecting the public interest and pursuing progress. Government of, by and for the people may be an unfulfilled ideal, but moving toward that goal requires a movement that encompasses a breadth of creative strategies and forms of activism. Whether we’re building local solutions, challenging specific harms or building toward broader policies like a Constitutional Amendment, it is we – the human persons on whose consent this government exists – who must make the rules.
I’ll end on a hopeful note because I truly believe in the power of organized (human) people. Do yourself a favor and check out Twice Thou’s the Bank Attack, written for a national protest against Bank of America and starring inspiring organizers from City Life/Vida Urbana, which is fighting back against foreclosures and building strong communities in Boston.
I can’t overstate the power of music. It is one of the few sources of inspiration that I don’t over-think, it has sustained me through rough times, provided the soundtrack to my best moments, and helped me feel connected, energized and ready to charge ahead. So I’d like to welcome each new month on this blog with a song, starting with one of my favorite videos of all time. If we could all “be what I am” and love ourselves like Mariposa Solar, life would be so much richer.
Enjoy, and welcome the new month with me!
Countering ingrained assumptions: writing is integral to my un-learning process.