The Colbert Report last night featured one of the most subversive and brutally honest half-hours of television in recent memory. It's a sad commentary that it takes a comedy program to provide more news and information on one of the most critical subjects in American politics that anywhere else in our broken media and political landscape, but I'll take this argument wherever I can get it.
Colbert spent two full segments of his show focusing on the Citizens United Supreme Court case, which could - and probably will - lead to deregulating the entire campaign finance process, allowing corporations to give unlimited money to any candidate of their choosing. This severe step backwards with enormous implications has been barely discussed in any traditional media setting, but Colbert went after it vigorously, discussing the consequences and even the flawed legal rationale, a true third rail of American politics, corporate personhood. Colbert explained that the 1886 case (Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad) that conferred 14th Amendment equal protection rights onto corporations wasn't even in the original ruling. But when the Chief Justice made an off-hand comment that the Court wouldn't hear an argument on whether the 14th Amendment applied to these corporations (saying, "We are all of the opinion that it does"), the court reporter wrote it into the ruling opinion, and the precedent has held ever since. And that reporter of the Supreme Court didn't only have ties to the railroad barons, he used to run one.
These are subjects you just never hear about in the American media, precisely because the American media is owned by giant multinational corporations, who benefit from the corporate personhood rule and would stand to benefit more from deregulating elections so they could use their "speech" to buy candidates and fund their own with unlimited resources. And despite being on a Viacom-owned network, Colbert says, skewering the immorality and psychopathology of the corporation, "Corporations are legally people... they do everything people do, except breathe, die, and go to jail for dumping 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River."
There's some backstory to that remark. Colbert actually worked with Robert Smigel on the "TV Funhouse" bits from Saturday Night Live (he's one-half of the Ambiguously Gay Duo), including the infamous episode from March 1998, Conspiracy Theory Rock. Here are some of the actual lyrics (remember this aired, albeit one time, on NBC, whose parent company is General Electric):
It's a media-opoly
The whole media is controlled by a few corporations
thanks to deregulation by the FCC.
You mean Disney, Fox, WestingHouse, and good ol GE?
They own networks from CBS to CNBC.
They can use them to say whatever they please,
and put down the opinions of any one who disagrees.
Or stuff about PCB's.
What are PCB's?
They come from power plants built by WestingHouse and GE.
They can give you lots of cancer that can hurt your body,
but on network TV, you rarely hear anything bad about the nuclear industry [...]
But the bigshots don't care.
They're all sitting pretty.
Thanks to corporate welfare.
What's that now?
They get billions in subsidies
from the government.
It's supposed to create jobs,
but that's not how it's spent.
They pulled this cartoon from the rerun broadcasts and it never aired again.
Colbert didn't just provide this lesson in corporate control of government in his "The Word" segment, but then had Jeffrey Toobin on to explain how the expected Supreme Court ruling would impact elections:
COLBERT: If this goes through, if they decide in favor of the corporations here, what's going to happen to elections?
TOOBIN: Well, they will be essentially deregulated. Corporations will be allowed to give money, corporations will be allowed to broadcast programs that are in favor of one side or another, it'll basically be no more rules about what corporations can do in political campaigns.
COLBERT: Now when I ran for President in 2008, as the Hail to the Cheese Doritos Stephen Colbert campaign for President, I was told that I actually couldn't do that, that I was breaking federal election law by being sponsored by that corporation. But if this goes through, if this court case, if they win, does that mean that I retroactively won the election?
TOOBIN: I don't think it means that.
COLBERT: But could you do that? Could I actually just wear a NASCAR suit and just have logos all over me and run for President as the sort of Gatorade Thirst for Justice campaign for President?
TOOBIN: You definitely could. No question.
COLBERT: What does it mean to individual donation? A corporation, as a person, gets to give any amount of money, but I as a person can give only $2,500.
TOOBIN: That's what's potentially the next legal challenge. Because if giving money is a form of speech, as the Court has held at various times, you can't prohibit a company from giving money. And then presumably the next step would be that you couldn't have limits on how much individuals could give either. That's the potential implication of this decision.
COLBERT: So right now, corporations would actually have more power as people than people, until people catch up with corporations.
Here's the point. Stephen Colbert, a comedian, devoted his show to arcane campaign finance law to show the power of corporations to engage in a hostile takeover of government and extract virtually any law they choose, with no consequences for any wrongdoing. Consequently, the self-described populists on the right - aided by a hapless political class - are working their minions into a frenzy over some unidentified alien "other" coming to take your hard-earned tax dollars, without the pernicious influence of rapacious corporations ever entering into it. Anonymous Liberal had a great post on this yesterday.
But even if you take these film-makers at face value and assume the worst, the reality is that ACORN has thousands of employees and the vast majority of them spend their days trying to help poor people through perfectly legal means (and receive very little compensation for doing so). Even before yesterday's Senate vote, the amount of federal money that went to ACORN was very small. This is a relatively insignificant organization in the grand scheme of things, but it's an organization that has unquestionably fought over the years to improve the lives of the less fortunate in this country.
That the GOP and its conservative supporters would single out this particular organization for such intense demonization is telling. In September of last year, the entire world came perilously close to complete financial catastrophe. We're still not out of the woods and we're deep within one of the worst recessions in U.S. history. This situation was brought about by the recklessness and greed of our banks and financial institutions, most of which had to be bailed out at enormous cost to the American taxpayer (exponentially more than all of the tax dollars given to ACORN over the years). The people who brought about this near catastrophe, for the most, profited immensely from it. These very same institutions, propped up by the American taxpayer, are once again raking in large profits.
But rather than focus their anger on these folks, conservatives choose to go after an organization composed almost entirely of low-paid community organizers, an organization that could never hope to have even a small fraction of the clout or the ability to affect the overall direction of the country that Wall Street bankers have. ACORN's relative lack of political influence was on full display yesterday, when the U.S. Senate (in which Democrats have a supermajority) not only entertained a vote to defund ACORN, but approved it by a huge margin (with only seven Democrats opposing).
Absolutely. Set aside the fact that the Glenn Becks of the world are smearing community organizations that help low-income folks, often at variance with the facts. It's the intensity of focus from the privileged on the poor, the disenfranchised, and yes, minorities, when measured against the influence and giant multinational corporations who are on the verge of buying American elections, that strikes such a discordant note. But not for the hucksters pushing the smears and the paranoids and racists who lap it up. They want to believe that black people have the power in America and they're coming for you and your children, so they can ignore the fact that they've been duped - that the ruling class has controlled the political machinery to keep them underfoot, and handed them welfare queens and illegal immigrants and all sorts of other members of the "lower orders" on which they can focus their attention. This boils down to a largely homogenous class of people not wanting their money, or anything, really, to go to people who don't look like them. "Illegals" or the undeserving poor need not apply. It's been a time-tested tactic going back to Richard Nixon's Southern strategy. And it allows a majority ruling class of whites, terrified that their stranglehold on the country is slipping away, to pretend that a race war is coming when it's the class war grinding them into the dust.
Matt Taibbi called it the peasant mentality. The powers that be get the lower classes to fight amongst themselves and split along ideological or tribal or other identifying lines, leaving room for them to prosper. For Republicans, that means painting their opponents, who are less homogenous and are made up of so-called "outsiders" of society - the poor, the disenfranchised, African-Americans, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, etc. - as undeserving of really anything; and painting the leaders of that party - whether it be a Governor from Arkansas or a war hero from Massachusetts or South Dakota or a multicultural community organizer from Illinois - as the head of a movement to destroy American culture. That's really basically it.
And all the while, both sides in DC studiously ignore the near-complete capture of the country by companies seeking only profit, and the corporate-owned media just follows the manufactured drama and goes mute on the critical stuff, such that it takes a comedian to shine a spotlight on this unexamined corner.