With the Supreme Court yesterday eviscerating, as dissenting Justice Stephen Breyer said, campaign finance laws, allowing for aggregate campaign donations -- all under the supposed guise of free speech -- I was reminded of an article I wrote for the Huffington Post four years ago, on January 26, 2010. The occasion was the Citizens United decision, which opened the door to that "money is speech" evisceration.
I thought it only appropriate to repeat that column here.
Last Thursday, the Supreme Court, by its now-traditional 5-4 vote split along conservative/liberal lines, has determined that money is speech and therefore is entitled to complete First Amendment rights, the same as any human being person. There can be no limits on the spending of money by corporations or pretty much anybody because, just like a human being person, money can now walk the walk, because money can talk the talk.
Money is free speech.
While some are concerned how this ruling for unfettered wealth could corrupt democracy, allowing the direction of America to go to the highest bidder, the response is hardly one-sided. Go into most any corporate boardroom, lobby organization or Young Republican's Club meeting, and you'll find a joy at money at long last being granted citizenship, finally becoming a human being person who is entitled to unlimited free speech protections.
The matter is problematic. One that is bewildering, as well. But even though at odds with both common sense and biology, I decided to do what any fair-minded person would do. I chose to hear the other side of the issue. That money is entitled to have free speech rights, the same as a human being person. And so, I went right to the source. I invited a dollar bill to have an open conversation.
We set up an appointment for Sunday, since banks are closed, and it had time off. The dollar arrived, looking a bit wrinkled with a couple of corners bent, but still in bright spirits, knowing its full value now.
"It's about time," the happy dollar bill told me. "For far too long, my paper moneyed friends and I have felt like second-class citizens, scorned in society. Now, though, we're out of the closet and attache cases and brown paper bags and off-shore wire transfers. Now, we can spread ourselves in the open. On the table. We no longer have to hide, no longer need to be ashamed. We've been unable to speak our peace, unable to say what's on our mind, unable to show who we are. Now, we can."
To clarify an important fact, I replied, money doesn't actually have a mind, so it can't really speak what's on it. That wasn't a personal criticism, I explained, or a case of being politically correct, but anatomically correct. He didn't have a brain.
"'If I only had a brain,'" he sang. And then laughed at what he referred to as my nit-picking. "Like having a brain is a big deal. As if having a brain was important in politics. Or society. If having a brain was important, how do you explain the whole Leno/Conan mess? Or 'Dancing with the Stars'? But really, having a brain is so over-rated. Just like the scarecrow said, all it takes for me to have a brain is a college degree, and today with the Internet I can buy one anywhere online. That's how I got my degree and graduated from the University of I Don't Know. Same place as Glenn Beck."
As I began to challenge him more about not being an actual human being person, however, not even being able to vote (yet, in a touch of bitter irony, able to buy the results of elections), he began to squirm. There was a lot of hemming and hawing, and twisting in his seat. A "harrumph" was heard, but luck was on its side. That was when the door opened, and a $50 bill strode in. With only a knowing glance at the paltry dollar, the single quickly slid out of the chair and relieved at the reprieve, shuffled away.
"On behalf of money everywhere, you'll have to excuse our lesser denominations," it smiled somewhat condescendingly. "They don't really have much experience in big-time politics and get flustered easily. What can you buy with a buck these days? You probably can't even get a bumper sticker for your car."
The $50 was crisp and clean, as if it had never been used. Or used to its full potential. Appearances can be a bit deceiving, though, since it became clear this he had been in many a pocket and had simply gotten a good pressing. "Look, I'm every bit a person the same as you are," it said with a glower, clearly attempting to bully. "Just look at me. Have I not a mouth? Have I not eyes? Perhaps I don't have hands and feet and...oh, the rest of a body, but you aren't going to scorn me because I have -- what do you liberals call it? -- a disability? You bleeding hearts embrace us disabled people! It's what you live for."
Except you're a $50 dollar bill, I pointed out, not a person.
"Oh, you're into labels now?" it sneered.
No, not labels. Just reality. Paper money doesn't have a heart, veins, neurological system. Contrary to Shakespeare, I noted, when you prick money, it does not bleed. It doesn't eat, doesn't feel, can't have have sex, nor procreate.
"Can't have sex?" it chuckled. "Boy, what world do you live in? I've screwed more people than Wilt Chamberlain. And as for procreating, I know you know that money breeds money. Put me out there in the political world, buster, and you'll see me and millions of my buddies blanket the world. I am money, hear me roar. Trust me, I know my rights. I am money, I bought my seat at the table. Hey, I bought the table. Free speech! Free speech! Power to the money!"
It all sounds good, of course: money buying access to speech is the equivalent as the speech itself -- "I wasn't bribing him, your honor. When I put that roll of money in his hand, I was just saying 'hello.'" But of course, by this logic, a door is access, too. If it's locked, can one now break it down and claim it had been inhibiting your freedom of speech? I could tell that the $50 bill wasn't comfortable with my question and coughed nervously. Then, I brought up a stickier issue. I pointed out how very convenient it was that money and its defenders all wanted the rights of the First Amendment, the rights of human being persons, but without the obligations and responsibilities. That while money claimed the human right of unfettered free speech and the ability to spend as much as it wanted, it nonetheless couldn't be held accountable for its actions. While corporations can now spend like billionaire sailors on shore leave and bury under piles of money those opposing politicians they don't like, corporations aren't people -- they can't be arrested, can't be put in jail. A corporation can't be subpoenaed. A corporation can't lose its drivers license. Or have one. So, you either have the rights of a human being person because you are one -- or you don't because you aren't.
The $50 bill was now starting to look pale. "Well, yes, but..ahem...I mean, sure, when you...er...you see, you see..." Just as it was about it collapse faster than the rate of depreciation, though, the door swung open with a bang. And standing in the doorway (sorry, "access way"), was an imposing $1,000 bill. With a look of frightened relief, the mere $50 scurried away through the entrance before it had a chance to slam shut. And the $1,000 sauntered in. "May I?" it asked, noting the now-empty chair, and knowing that it may, since it seemingly owned the room.
I'd never seen a $1,000 bill, I mentioned. "Neither have most people," it answered. "Unless you're a conservative Supreme Court justice. That's a joke, you understand. You can't buy a Supreme Court justice." When I looked relieved, a broad grin broke out across the $1,000 bill. "But of course, you can buy access to one. Ha! Get it? Access, got to love it. That's the beauty of free speech. It's protected. First Amendment."
The $1,000 bill looked calm and relaxed. It knew it was protected -- not as much by the First Amendment as by all the politicians and government officials it had bought. "I mean, what are you going to do? Sue me? I'm a $1,000 bill. Ha!" It opened the door, and let its buddies in, and soon the room was full of $1,000 bills, pouring in. Rarely has the air been as peaceful and stifling at the same time. They just began piling on top of one another and filling the room to the ceiling. "You'll have to excuse them, they're coordinating for the 2010 races around the country. Senate races might cost a lot -- and we have a lot, trust me -- but do you have any idea how little money it takes to tilt a local race for a Congressman. Or a mere state or local race? Peanuts. And the sky's the limit now."
It was an imposing sight.
"Sure, you make an excellent point," the $1,000 bill acknowledged with that openness that comes from knowing you can't be touched. "We get all the upside -- spend all of us we want, millions and millions and millions. And we make the heartbreaking case that we're entitled to the same rights as human being persons. But of course we're not people! Of course we're not actually speech. Of course you can't put a corporation in jail. Of course you can't arrest money. Money can't vote. Money can't drive a car. Money can't buy me love. Money is just money. Money is the root of all evil. You know what Jesus said about money lenders. We're just money. Rights?? You've got to be kidding me. We're money. But the greatness of money is that we can buy the right to say we deserve human person rights. And you can't touch us. We're money."
And with that, the room of millions upon millions of dollars burst into laughter and left the room, off to spread out across the country, in every nook and cranny and political district. But as they departed, the $1,000 bill stopped in the doorway and looked back inside. "Here's the cool part. You know how all those conservatives think this is great news? Well, get this. A bunch of us are off to help some liberals. And Muslims. And there's some same-sex marriage initiatives we've been recruited for. And a ban prayer from the classroom thing. Hey, what do we care? We're money. We'll work for anybody. Trust me. In God we trust me. Whatever God you believe in. We're just money."
And with that, they were gone. The room was silent -- but only for a moment. There was a knock, and popping around the corner was a toaster oven.
"Do you mind if I come in?" it asked. "I have an issue I'd like to bring up, if you have the time. If money is entitled to free speech...why aren't I?? I was talking with my pals the refrigerator and bathroom scale, and we all feel slighted. There's no law that says TV stations and politicians and anyone only can accept money for payment. Someone might like a nice kitchen appliance. Or sofa. Who's to say you can't barter for trade. Y'know, clock radios are people, too. It's free speech! Free speech, I tell you. And if you want to talk with money or appliances or food products or clothing, it's all the same. It's all free speech. It's all free speech. It's all free speech!"
And so it is. It's all free speech.
It's just that, who know that free speech was so expensive?
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
Feedspot Badge of Honor