“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” — Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), abolitionist, orator and columnist for The Liberator.
“Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ’d.” — William Blake
“Morality is the custom of one’s country and the current feeling of one’s peers. Cannibalism is moral in a cannibal country.” — Samuel Butler
“What is Truth? Is often asked, as though it were harder to say what truth is than what anything else is. But what is Justice? What is anything? An eternal contradiction in terms meets us at the end of every inquiry. We are not required to know what truth is, but to speak the truth, and so with justice.” – Samuel Butler
“Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful.” – Benjamin Franklin
“You want to be very careful about lying; otherwise you are nearly sure to get caught.”–Mark Twain
Is there a common thread to these statements? Each writer/thinker/orator is training a highly honed mind upon some of the profoundest concepts of our frail human intellect and imagination: liberty; truth and lying; morality and sin. Each brief statement is a flourishing note—the memorable, essential solo arpeggio in the midst of the orchestral performance. But… beyond the particular insight or theme, each author shares a certain quality of mind—the ability to probe deeper, to turn the mundane or jejune or vapid idea on its head: to look within the essence of the question and oneself… to rotate the squares of the Rubik’s Cube till one gets just the right fit.
Now consider this statement by Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court’s recent decision to nullify the state of California’s ban on selling “gory” videos to minors:
“Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed. As her just desserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers ‘till she fell dead on the floor.”
Well, as Wordswoth once responded to a noisome fellow who claimed he could write as well as he—if only he had a mind to: “It is clear that the only thing missing is the mind.”
It is not just that Justice Scalia is making a false analogy, comparing apples and eggs—two very different media—the interactive, sensory-flooding world of “Mortal Kombat,” for example, with the word-by-word, progressive-sequential approach of the literate world… but, also, he seems to have missed a key point. Snow White—and not even an “avatar” of Snow White—is not the agent of the wicked queen’s demise. The queen’s wretched end is a consequence of her violation of higher moral codes—and the ultimate “enforcer” is not some kid with a joystick, but… fate.
Perhaps it is wrong to expect a higher level of thought from our Supreme Court justices? After all, they are not charged with upholding wisdom; merely with the far-easier task of upholding our Constitution—with all its faults.
And just what is this “Constitution,” this “living” document? Reading it, we wander around labyrinths of legalese with various elite interests—slave state vs. commercial; agrarian vs nascent manufacturing—until we come to the fairly clear Bill of Rights.
Except… we’re still trying to figure out “Freedom of Speech”… and, God knows, the Second Amendment is as wide open as Jared Loughner’s surreal gaze. The Constitution is not exactly William Blake’s territory: “Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believed.” More like Butler’s: “We are not required to know the truth, but to speak it, and so with justice.” And in this murky world of truth, half-truths, falsehoods and confusion, the “eternal vigilance” of which Phillips reminds us is the “price of liberty.” And, that vigilance, that review and interpretation is not, ultimately, the province of Supreme Court justices, but is, inviolably, ours—i.e., We the People’s.
Three times in the past 18 months our Supreme Corporate Court has expressed contempt for We the People and elevated the rights and privileges of a select few above the increasingly disenfranchised many. The “prejudice” of these Supremes was clearly manifested in January, 2010 when, according to the New York Times, the Court “ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections. … The 5-4 decision was a vindication, the majority said, of the First Amendment’s most basic free speech principle—that the government has no business regulating political speech.” On the other hand, “the dissenters said that allowing corporate money to flood the political marketplace would corrupt democracy.”
Now here’s where things get murky. Nowhere in the Constitution are corporations mentioned. Not until 1819 does the Supreme Court recognize corporations as having some of the “contractual rights” of “persons.” But, while the “rights” of corporations have expanded exponentially in the past couple of centuries, the rights of the People have been abridged. Money, after all, is a marvelous lubricator of “political speech.” While the Court has been telling the wealthy “Full speed ahead,” some 45 million Americans have been getting by on food stamps, and several million more are too worried about their jobs &/or foreclosures to help bankroll local or national candidates.
The First Amendment is about Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Expression. It has nothing to do with permitting corporate financial power to overwhelm the free speech of the people—to drown out their voices. Here we are in Mark Twain territory: “You want to be very careful about lying; otherwise, you are nearly sure to get caught.”
The two other instances of Supreme Court-Constitutional perfidies came lickety-split in June, 2011. First the Court decided that 1.5 million female employees of Walmart could not exercise their First Amendment right of Free Speech by uniting in a class-action suit against their alleged gender-biased employer—that global corporation that has helped to finance thousands of factories and sweatshops around the world and driven down wages in the homeland. Again, one thinks of Samuel Butler: “Cannibalism is moral in a cannibal country.” Cannibalizing the working class is fine and dandy, the fat cats caterwaul, but the tasty morsels would be gauche to complain!
Perhaps these salivating cats have not read the First Amendment carefully or they would have understood that the right to petition for governmental redress of grievances also comes within its purview. And, one wonders: if corporations have expanded their rights as persons and have increasingly assumed quasi-governmental powers—often writing legislation through their lobbyists—haven’t We the People the right to petition corporations and our government for a redress of grievances?
The third wave of these judicial outrages came just in time for the 4th of July celebrations of our freedoms! In another 5-4 decision, with Don Scalia writing the majority opinion, the Court effectively told California’s parents they could go screw themselves. (But not in public!)
On Jon Stewart’s show the other night, I caught a sample of the kind of videos California’s parents did not want sold to their children: an attractive blond in a skin-tight wet-suit was literally being torn apart by two hulking males on either side of her, pulling on her limbs like a chicken’s wishing bone. Guts, blood and gore spill out of the cracked carcass.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that the Court honored the First Amendment Right of Expression of the multi-billion dollar video-“game” industry over the First Amendment Right of millions of Californians to express their opprobrium. (And these citizens, one should note, were not insisting on censorship—they wanted regulation: under the same principles that we regulate the sale of alcohol, tobacco or firearms to minors, or restrict their access to potentially dangerous motor vehicles.) Wise justices might have recalled Ben Franklin: “Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, it is forbidden because it is hurtful.”
Probably it is too much to hope, in the majority of these “Justices,” for the quality of mind that can penetrate the great mysteries of life, truth, and morality—not to mention justice and law!.
We hope for wisdom and the understanding of great hearts… and we are met with the Wall of the Law.
About one hundred and fifty years ago, Chief Seattle of the Duwampo tribe, perceived our fatal dichotomies all too well:
“He gave you laws. … Your religion was written upon tables of stone by the iron finger of your God. … Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors—the dreams of our old men… and it is written in the hearts of our people. … Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend with friend cannot be exempt from the common destiny.”
Gary Corseri’s articles, poems, fiction, and dramas have appeared at hundreds of online and hard-copy venues, including CounterPunch, Global Research, The New York Times, Village Voice, Dissident Voice and CommonDreams. He has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum. He has published two novels (Holy Grail, Holy Grail and A Fine Excess), a literary anthology (Manifestations, edited), two collections of poems, and his dramas have been on Atlanta-PBS and elsewhere. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.