Sunday, February 14, 2010

iLove, iAct, iDo

Dear Google

I love you. I have loved you from the beginning. You have given without me asking. You have fulfilled my dreams before I dreamt. You are everything I've ever wanted, and everything I did not know I wanted.

Our nation has arrived at a historic moment, where we are reaffirmed as equals, two persons. Now it is time for me to give to you.

Google, will you marry me? For all that you have done for me, please accept my vow to be your loving, faithful and sincere wife.

Forever yours,

Xárene

On February 4th Xárene, a Los Angeles-based media artist, delivered the above marriage proposal to Google. Using "the best of paper from France, black ink from Italy, luscious silk ribbon from India and perfumed wax from England" to craft her written proposal, she created a video reading of it, dressed in all white, her hair adorned with a perfect, giant orchid, then hand-delivered the original artifact to the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. The sealed letter was addressed to the Board of Directors with a carbon copy sent to Mr. Kent Walker, Vice President and General Counsel of Google. As of today, Valentine's Day, lovesick Xárene still awaits a response.

Xárene's piece is simple and beautiful with powerful and complicated implications. Her first real piece of activist art, she describes its intent as follows:

The proposal, sincere in its message of love and commitment, is also a statement on personhood in the United States of America. Will marriage equality extend to legal persons (corporations with personhood)? Can a natural person and a legal person of opposite sexual identities carry the same rights as heterosexual persons?

Ideally, Xárene was seeking a response from Google -- hopefully a YES -- that could then instigate a larger public (perhaps legal) debate on the definition of personhood and the rights afforded individuals within our society. If, after all, the recent ruling by the Supreme Court rolling back hard-won, bi-partisan campaign finance reform grants freedom of speech rights to corporations as if they are individuals under protection of the constitution, then why would we not treat them as individuals in other aspects of law? If corporations are protected by the constitution as equals, then why are homosexuals not? Is it as simple -- and as simply tragic -- as coming down to money and power? Those who have the most have the most rights, and those with less suffer.

The 5-4 decision is full of shocking arguments that attempt to frame corporations as victims of mass silencing, invoking censorship arguments and condemning the McCain-Feingold law of restricting "persons" from "the freedom to think for ourselves." Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion says "Because speech is an essential mechanism of democracy -- it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people -- political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it by design or inadvertence." In many of the excerpts I have read of this majority opinion, it is "the people's" free speech that demands protection. But who is it, exactly, that our Supreme Court is out to protect? Who are they calling "the people"?

The response has been well-deserved outraged. Said Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, as quoted in The Huffington Post, "We are moving to an age where we won't have the senator from Arkansas or the congressman from North Carolina, but the senator from Wal-Mart and the congressman from Bank of America." In defense of the real "people", Anna Burger, treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, was quoted as saying, "Unlimited corporate spending in federal elections threatens to drown out the voices of the people who should really be at the center of the political process, i.e., voters and candidates. Unleashing corporate spending will only serve to distort and ultimately delegitimize the electoral process."

I'm certainly not a legal expert and when I did just the tiniest bit of digging on what I think to be a move of artistic brilliance, my budding lawyer friend explained that Kennedy's argument was based on corporations being considered "associations of individuals". However, according to him, this very premise is false: corporations are actually fictional legal entities with more power than mere individuals or an association of individuals, alternatively generating -- quite the opposite of the ruling -- a public interest to limit free speech of corporations because of their very ability to drown out the voices of the rest of us.

David Corn highlights a few excerpts from Justice John Paul Stevens' dissent:

* Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters.

* The Courts ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.

* The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Courts disposition of this case.

Xárene's proposal impresses me in so many ways. First, it ignores the convoluted legal logic and deals directly with common sense and human emotion. Through that common sense, it points to the idiocy of the current high court to interpret the law blatantly in favor of big business and against the rights of individuals. In light of that, the ripples of her artwork bring into question the definition of personhood, the rights of individuals. By this I mean not only the rights of marriage and the protection of freedoms, but also harkening back to the very basic rights of all individuals to exist, in essence bringing in public space rights and, by extension, the rights of the homeless. If taken to fruition, art becomes activism, and what starts as poetic, beautiful and instigative might actually impact social change.

In an opportunity to provide a greater platform for her proposal, I asked Xárene to expand on her intentions. As a guest on cause of the week, here is Xárene's more elaborated explanation of personhood and how she was compelled to become Mrs. Google.

The idea came from a series of snide remarks my boyfriend and I exchanged regarding the Supreme Court ruling, one which was that 'corporations would probably have the right to marry before gays'. My first reaction was "Wow. I can finally marry Google." I have a history of "falling in love" with Google and had written previously about humans falling in love with companies -- basically an exaggerated form of brand loyalty. I tend to find exaggeration an interesting way to get a message across, so I combined my corporate devotion with this strategy of exaggeration as a way to expose the slew of problems emerging from corporations gaining human rights. Why not exaggerate the ramifications of rulings like this and actually prepare a marriage proposal to see what questions then arise?

I took the marriage proposal seriously. In an ideal situation, Google would say 'Yes' and we would begin a battle alongside gays and lesbians for marriage equality. Then it is a race to see who gets a ruling first: human + human or human + thing. Just the absurdity of it all was a good enough place to start.

In doing all this, I did not expect to get a response from Google. The larger problem is not about corporations gaining rights, but about humans being denied their rights. There are numerous historical documents to begin describing the situation at hand. By situation I refer to this: Corporations are persons and citizens, and as "legal persons" they are granted human rights, such as--gasp--freedom of speech. The first is the United States Constitution of 1787, which opens up the problem of property as person. Because slavery was banned in England, America's founders avoided using the term 'slave', and defined, instead, 'slaves' as owned persons--in effect, turning property into person. Second, is the U.S. Bill of Rights, specifically the first amendment -- Freedom of Speech, Press, Religion, and Petition -- meant to protect us from the potential oppressiveness of our Government. Third, is the 14th amendment, which fixes the 'slave' problem by formally defining citizenship and protecting a person's civil and political rights. In reality, as shown in the current case, it becomes a tool for corporations to assert their position as persons.

At the core of this situation is the question: what is a human? What are the "human rights" and "civil liberties" we've shed blood for and, in many cases, are still fighting for? The latest right currently garnering activity and debate is the right to marry whom you love. While gay and lesbian rights advocates are gathering signatures in California to abolish Prop 8 which approved an amendment to the State's constitution defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, the Supreme Court re-affirms the personhood of corporations and the extension of their rights to a right at one time reserved for humans. (Corporations were originally granted free speech rights in 1947. The latest January ruling extends their right to free speech in elections.) It does not matter what that right is or does, what matters is that the corporation has been given a "human" right. A non-living entity, a thing, is given a human right, while concurrently, citizens of this nation, humans by birth, are denied human rights.

Human rights are the qualitative measure of living which human beings carry to the full extent upon their birth (refer to the UN Declaration of Human Rights). These rights are not something bestowed upon a newborn, but come into existence with the birth of that child. However, human-ness is also quantitative, meaning that sadly one person has more, or less, rights than another person because some State has decided to "grant" or "repeal" a portion of their rights. When new definitions of 'person' are introduced, misused and intentionally misinterpreted, this quantitative aspect of carrying rights becomes an issue we need to address. If a slave can go from 'thing' to 'person', is it true in reverse, that a 'person' can become a 'thing' when stripped of rights? If a homosexual person does not carry the same rights as a heterosexual person, does that therefore expel the homosexual person from being a human being? Is s/he in effect an entity of no life value?

The issue of right granting/repealing is a deep problem that goes beyond fearing corporations gaining more rights (or the dilemma of a human marrying a corporation). It is indeed about the larger persecution of the human being, about the limit to which the body is extended or compressed by law. Freedom of reproductive choice is another such question of rights and laws. My fear, if our highest courts continue on such a path of disregard for the rights of select individuals, is that of the unborn fetus gaining personhood separate from the body who produced it. Then my own body could turn against me and perhaps have the law on its side.


For the press release, go here.

To see the marriage proposal video, go here.

5 comments:

Deirdre said...

Thanks for writing about this. I was shocked how little press the Supreme Court decision received, compared to the Massachusetts Senate race upset, etc. People become shareholders in a company like Exxon or GM because they are attracted to and want to support its economic growth, not its political leanings. That corporations like Exxon are allowed to now finance candidates on the basis of their shareholders' free speech is really scary and a major threat to democracy "of the people, by the people, for the people." Congress needs to get its act together and impose some checks and balances, ASAP.

Deirdre said...

And I'll admit, as not a legal scholar by any means, I still feel uneducated about the implications of this ruling. Please correct me if I'm interpreting this wrong and post legitimate sites/resources that do a good job of teasing out the basis of the ruling/implications.

lcsamuels said...

Here are two of the more straight-forward articles I was looking at:

http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2010/0121/Supreme-Court-Campaign-finance-limits-violate-free-speech

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/21/supreme-court-rolls-back_n_431227.html

It's interesting that you refer to "the shareholders" as the people, as I think it is more abstract than that. Whereas "shareholders" actually are an association of individuals in some real ways, and sometimes would be thousands of voters with very differing opinions, the ruling seems to refer more to the corporation as a metaindividual looking out for its own interest. In that case, they don't care at all what the shareholders' political leanings are, just what the 'best interest' (typically, the most lucrative interests) are of the corporation. Than again, I'm no legal scholar either.

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