Corporations are [not] people


I’ve been trying for months to write about why corporations are not people. The reason this is such a struggle, I fear, is because corporations actually are people. They are treated like people by other people; what more is there to know?

When the Citizens United case was decided, it resulted in an outcry of, “corporations are not people!” Other than that specific tag line, however, there’s little to suggest that this is true. Mind you, I do not believe that corporations are people (despite being legally a “body”), but the notion that they are is thoroughly embedded in our language, therefore in our thinking. If we wish to separate personhood for corporateness, we need to start with the words that shape our thoughts.

A few examples of language that empowers faceless entities to be treated as people:

  • Someone taking over a local business in my community posted in a social media group, “We are a newly renovated laundromat in town which offers a variety of services.” I’m familiar with the storefront in question, but wasn’t aware it had signed up for Facebook, or even that the building was the requisite 13 years of age.
  • How did NASA see the space station cross the eclipse? Had the organization become self-aware, or was it actually the dedicated workers there who deserve the credit?
  • With what mouth does Exxon state a thing, or the White House deny an allegation?
  • As a friend of my library, should I invite it over for dinner sometime?
  • Exactly how does a legal fiction, possessing neither hands to write or a mind with which to think, make a decision about my medical coverage, and then notify me about it?
  • How does an organization show pride?
  • Discrimination is terrible, but can a bank really discriminate? Maybe it’s actually people doing all the discriminating?

Isn’t this all getting a bit personal?

Despite this purported personhood, corporations are not like humans. They cannot die a natural death, for one, and it’s awfully difficult to throw them in jail. Corporations, the name of which means “body,” have become in effect bodiless bodies, which Webster likened to golems]. In that insightful column, Webster commits the very same personalization to which I am referring: referencing a long-neglected automotive recall, he writes, “Rightly, many are horrified but few have the magical insight or the systems theory to understand how GM could be so stupid.” To wonder “how GM could be so stupid” is to presume that GM has sentience, is it not?

It’s language through which we grant agency, and through language that we ask spirit to enter what has been created. There’s a reason that corporations are compared to golems: we give them power, we give them life. What most of us fail to understand is that we don’t do that through law at all. It’s language which shapes thought to grant agency to corporations.

It was listening to Rush Limbaugh that got me thinking along these lines. (I highly recommend this as an intellectual exercise, especially for those of a different political bent than the man. Limbaugh is a slick debater, and understanding how to uses logical is instructive.) One of his ongoing routines at the time was about sports-utility vehicles. His intention was to salvage the reputation of the gas guzzlers, but his words planted a seed that took years to germinate in my mind.

What Limbaugh did was collect headlines about tragedies involving SUVs. They all had headlines which suggested the vehicle itself was responsible, such as “SUV plows into unsuspecting family.” Drawing upon the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” mindset, he drily proclaimed that these renegade vehicles needed to be stopped. I’ve never been a fan of SUVs, but I came to appreciate his point regardless. If it’s the SUV’s fault, then that means the SUV is a person.

Can humans create spirits? I suspect not, but they appear to be able to influence them by creating attractive hosts for them, the same way I can attract hummingbirds by putting sugar water in an attractive container, or ask that my patron deity dwell in a sacred image formed by my own two hands. Corporations, even more than SUVs, appear to be excellent hosts; they are all but accepted as having the same agency human persons possess. Given the varying ways humans treat other beings as commodities or property, that’s a big leg up.

When I think of corporations, I am actually imagining a wide variety of frameworks which are given rein to act in ways that humans do in our society; anything that has a corpora, or body, is a corporation. Nonprofits, churches, governments, committees, quilting groups, and cat-rescue operations fall into this broad definition, as do many forms of organizing that I know nothing about. If it’s conceived as an entity and is given agency through language or law, that’s all I need.

This isn’t just about the legal status of corporations, any more than enslaving a human being is entirely about laws that permit such an abomination. In his definitive work Animism, Graham Harvey presents the idea that what makes that particular worldview different is simply who is regarded as people. On a related note, in Debt: the First 5,000 Years David Graeber posits that slavery is only possible when the individual’s social connections are cut, thus rendering that individual a non-person It is the culture that permits humans to be treated as if they are property not people, and it is the culture which permits a collection of paperwork to be treated as if it were a person. In short, we are the ones feeding the golem.

Sometimes, when I try to articulate this problem in a conversation on the internet, I can all but see the eyes rolling as people dismiss the notion. Oh, it’s just a figure of speech, they say, and not the problem at all. Really? Is the idea that language shapes thought suddenly alien, then, or is it more difficult to accept one’s own culpability for this terrible situation we have created?

The figures of speech I’m referring to are the shorthand we use when referring to companies and other organizations. Exxon releases a statement, or the White House denies involvement in this week’s political dust-up. We like being considered a friend of our local library or NPR affiliate, perhaps, and get angry when an insurance company denies coverage for a procedure. When we learn about an unfamiliar corporation in the news, we immediately want to know who they are, and whether or not they’re evil.

I get that these are figures of speech, convenient shortcuts because we all know what they mean. I also get that when we look at the words of those who came before us, we do not necessarily know what they meant, and incorrect assumptions are frequently introduced due to a lack of context. In addition, I understand quite well that as much as language represents thought, it also shapes thought, and the evidence of that shaping culminated in the Citizens United decision. Corporations are people because we forgot that our figures of speech didn’t mean anything, and suddenly they did.

This convention is used as shorthand simply because it’s awkward to say that Exxon executives released a statement, a presidential spokesperson denied the allegations on his behalf, we donate regularly to support the library, and it was an insurance company employee who actually denied my Viagra (okay, that last was a bit ridiculous; I don’t think Viagra is ever denied). I know it’s awkward, because I’m a reporter and I have been trying for three years now to avoid personifying in prose that which is not a person in my mind. It’s not only awkward, it’s bloody difficult, too. However, in keeping with the idea that language shapes thought, I’m trying to reshape how I see the relationships in the world around me.

One tool I lean on is the passive voice, reviled because it removes the actor from the action. I prefer to talk about the people behind the veil, but if cannot ascertain their identities, passive voice reminds my readers that I’m not claiming that Skynet has become self-aware. A statement was issued from the corporate office, for example, or new unemployed statistics were simply released, actor inferred.

What I sit with is the fact that whether or not we are creating a new spirit with this collective thought process, we are creating a new way to shift responsibility — be it credit, or blame — away from individuals, and onto faceless entities.

If corporations are not people, then they are also not evil (or good, for that matter). It’s actually other people making the decisions and hiding behind that organizational smokescreen. People have faces. People live in the active voice. The lesson of history is that it’s a lot easier to commit atrocities if one has no face, just as it’s easier if the victim is invisible, faceless. If the faces of the victims cannot be erased, why do we erase the faces of the offenders?

Corporations are not people, but are we too lazy to prove it?

Real money magic: respect


Respect is one of those values which often feels lacking in our society. There is too little respect for human life, and there’s also not enough for the non-human lives lost due to human needs. Respect for the environment — whether untouched wilderness, urban streetscape, or anything in between — also frequently falls short of the mark. Self-respect, for many of us, is completely out of the question. Some people have no respect for education, or the experience of others; some withdraw it wholesale from entire swaths of people: the young, the old, women, those with too much melanin, those with disabilities, those who can’t speak the local language without a strong accent. It’s no wonder that respect for unseen spirits and beings without a voice is hard to muster among many populations, given the number of people who struggle with giving it to other human beings.

I cannot solve the problem of respect overall. Each of us must begin by cultivating it within ourselves, for ourselves. The tide will turn if and only if we choose to turn it.

What I would like to have, on the other hand, is a conversation about respect for money. How we value money and how we value ourselves are related, but that relationship can vary. For most people on the planet, it’s extremely difficult to have no relationship with money at all, but how emotionally invested an individual is in currency depends on eir experience and values. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that money, once it touches a life, rarely leaves it unchanged.

Many people loathe money, or fear it, or crave it, or would do terrible things to obtain it. Sounds a whole lot like alcohol or heroin to me, and the problem is the same: a lack of respect for the relevant spirit, often due to a lack of understanding. Indeed, addiction can be one of the ways an unhealthy relationship with money manifests, just as it’s how it can manifest with the spirits of those powerful drugs. On the other hand, complete avoidance without reason might result in benefits being missed out on, just as a teetotaler won’t gain the benefits to heart health of drinking the occasional glass of red wine.

The comparison is by no means perfect: a gambling or shopping addict likely cannot practice the complete avoidance that an alcoholic should for booze; in that sense it’s more like a compulsive eater’s inability to swear off food entirely. I do not know if it’s possible to have a healthy relationship with opiates any more than it is to have a healthy one with poison ivy. Some spirits are just so strong that they lay waste to humans. There is certainly an argument to be made that money is one of those spirits, but I’m still in the camp that we can find a healthy way to relate to money.

Lack of respect for money in part comes from the assumption that it’s actually a human invention. That’s true in one sense, just as it’s true that the barometer is a human invention, but I don’t think anyone has made the logical leap of concluding that just because we can measure air pressure means we invented weather. Money is a construct, but as such it manifests spirits which existed before humans were ever aware of them. Belief that we invented money is part and parcel with the lack of respect with which we provide it.

To the extent that it is a human invention, what does our use of it say about us? Are you giving money to people to get them to debase themselves, whether it’s shoving it into a g-string or demanding superior table service for your meal? Do you ever give money to a beggar on the street? Whether or not you chose to, how did you feel in that moment? Have you ever stolen money? Have you ever had money stolen from you, by force, stealth, or trickery? How does being a victim feel? If you’ve been a thief, what’s it like to help create those feelings in other people? Do you save for retirement, or instead just hope for the best? Do you know how much much you’ve got in the bank? Do you know how much you make in a month, or how much you must spend on expenses?

Whether drowning in money or stripped of it completely, we all have a relationship with the stuff in this society, and how we relate to money is in part a reflection of how we relate to ourselves. Taking steps to mend that relationship may, in time, make changing the answers to those introspective questions easier.

How to show respect for money:

  • keep paper currency neat and orderly. Smooth out the wrinkles. If a bill is torn, tape it. Bank face the money to make it easy to find the right denomination (unless you have a sight impairment that requires a different strategy).
  • don’t walk by coins on the ground. Show them respect by picking them up; even the lowly penny has value. I consider all found money to be a blessing and reserve it for special purchases. There’s no shortage of pithy sayings about those coins; “money on the floor, money at my door” is one that I was taught by an extremely non-spiritual person. In some traditions, it’s believed that discarded money could be carrying with it a malevolent spirit. In my experience, the spirit of money itself washes away that history.
  • one small change might be to respect one’s small change. That includes found money, but also those coins which end up kicking around the floor or piled in the console of the car or otherwise treated like so much garbage. Stop doing that. Value what you’ve got.
  • look at your money, whether it’s in physical form or electronic. Be aware of what you own and owe. You might be in dire financial health, but looking away accomplishes nothing good, heaping on stress about the unknown. We can neither accept nor reshape a situation which we ignore. Look also at how you spend it, and what values are represented in those decisions. Not judgment; awareness.
  • keep a shrine to money. This is a good idea whether you desire more abundance, wish to give some away, or believe you have just enough for your wants and needs. A money shrine allows space to express gratitude for the money that is in one’s life, no matter if it’s enough, too much, or insufficient. I’ve used mine to save money, for everything from addressing household needs to building up a sum to give to a complete stranger. Put your money in a place of honor in your home, and money might honor you in turn.
  • don’t assume money is a whore. Yes, money can be used to make more money, but don’t treat its spirit like something to be used and tossed away after the money shot. All those spells that use money to draw more money make about as much sense as using sex magic to improve one’s chances of getting laid. Money is not your bitch. Recall that the Hellenic god of prosperity, Ploutos, is blind; when you’re not being watched, how do you treat money? How does that reflect on you?

The question remains: why respect money? The answer turns it about: why respect anything? Respect is one of those acts which reflects upon the actor; giving respect garners respect, although not necessarily in the way one might presume. Treating others with respect — including non-human persons — gets one in the habit of self-respect.

Showing respect for money is not a get-rich-quick scheme, any more than showing respect for one’s sexual partner is a surefire way to get laid. I don’t show respect for money spirits because I expect them to put out, and while I am not living in a mansion and wearing a monocle, and find myself regularly thanking them for allowing me to have enough in my life to stave off poverty. What more does anyone really need?

About Greece


Dear Poseidon,

I’ve been thinking about Greece. It’s in the news a lot now, as it goes through the most recent — and apparently most dire — throes of the debt problems that have plagued it since that country joined the Eurozone. I don’t know how many of my ancestors made offerings to you, Poseidon, but I do know that if they did, it was probably in Greece that it happened. Greece, where you were old when Homer was young. Greece, where today your worship is not recognized at all. Surely there is a lesson hidden in this chaos.

To hazard a guess, I’d have to say that debt is the problem. We love to borrow money, but paying it back isn’t as popular. I’m not a big fan of debt, because I am an animist who honors the spirits of money, and I believe that debt is miasma for those spirits. Debt will show up in a ledger as balanced, because the credit (the amount borrowed) is equal to the debit (the amount owed). That’s tidy, but on a spiritual level the transaction isn’t balanced until the debt is paid. The sheer amount of debt in the world’s economy creates a massive amount of money miasma, which can be mitigated, but really just needs to be paid off. Greece’s government wasn’t able to hide large amounts of debt by inflating the currency once the country adopted the Euro, but its problems were not created by the currency switch. Larger nations and combined economies like the Eurozone can absorb more debt for longer periods of time than Greece could, but eventually we will all be too polluted for the money spirits to work with us.

I’ve long felt that you have a powerful role in the economy, as Asphaleios and Agoraios, so I kind of suspect that Greece going through this is either tough love or dire warning. If I’m correct that debt is the problem, it’s going to be quite interesting to try to solve it. If the cause is something else, I hope we can set aside the hubristic attitude that we control money long enough to figure out what you’re really trying to tell us.

While I’m on the subject, I do you hope can smooth things out for the Greeks, Poseidon. They are lying in the bed that their forefathers made without looking at the instructions. Mistakes were made, and we will all pay for them in full, but if you could manage to help them find the new normal without too much misery, that would be nice. I know lots of regular people are pitching in, so maybe you could, too.

Thinking of you,

TPW

PS — thanks for sending me those extra hymns to write for my devotional to you. The last two really surprised me.  I think I will have the last hymn written by the dark of the moon.

The invisible spirits of privilege


I’ve seen some nasty arguments erupt — or get seriously intensified by — those three little words, “Check your privilege.”  Yes, I’ve been part of some of those fights.  There is something visceral that happens when one’s privilege is hauled out for inspection, something that shuts down any real communication about substantive issues for many people.  Why is that?  What makes denial, defensiveness, and redirection so important in those moments?  Why is it so easy to feel attacked by the very idea that one has privilege?  As my self-identity has evolved, I’ve found myself sometimes part of a non-privileged minority (Republican and hard polytheist among Pagans, for example) that have given me an opportunity to step outside of that bubble.  (The ways in which I am not a participant in the culture of the privileged are all non-visual, so I can often “pass” as part of the overculture; I am mindful that this places its own limits on my awareness.)  Just as I did when examining the spirit of depression, I find that examining privilege through an animist lens is helpful to me.

Privilege is a spirit or, in my view, a group of personal spirits with attributes that vary, but with certain characteristics in common.  While elusive, there are things about these spirits which can be observed.

  • They are beneficial for the human with whom the associate, providing some level of protection from bad luck, miscommunication, and other downfalls and mishaps in life.  The physical health, economic security, and social status of the privileged are enhanced.
  • Spirits of privilege seem to be tied to blood lines, but it isn’t clear why, or how else one can acquire one.  Wealthy people who lose all their money often bounce back, while tales of poor people who win big lottery prizes and quickly find themselves with nothing again are all too common, so money does not equal privilege.  However, some people gain privilege when their ancestors did not have it, so it can be acquired, and likely also lost, by other means.
  • Privilege does not care to be examined.  I liken it to the magical talent possessed by Bink in A Spell for Chameleon, which operated best in secret, and actively protected that secrecy when need be.  That is to say, I liken the results to those in the book; I don’t know the motivations.  What I do know is that when privilege is confronted, the result is disproportionately hostile, defensive, or evasive.  That sounds like the profile of a spirit that wants to be invisible, at least to its host, and will create whatever mental images are necessary to stay that way.
  • On the other hand, privilege is quite visible to those who don’t have it, and to anyone who has pierced that veil in their own lives.
  • Awareness of privilege, whether by the privileged or those who are not, does not seem to weaken this spirit, so why it wishes to be invisible remains a mystery.
  • Privilege spirits exist in community.  One does not see solitary, privileged people.  Even if they don’t participate in society, their spirits derive some benefit from proximity.

Nothing says “privilege” quite like an ermine cloak.

I can’t see it, but I can picture privilege, and I do so as a cloak.  Because these are individual spirits, they’re not all the same.  As a cloak, my spirit of privilege is bright white, reflective and protective in the way that white tends to be.  (Side note:  for many years, I’ve heard about the disproportionate number of black males in prisons, and I have wondered if it isn’t possible that for some reason they just commit crimes more often.  Just this past week, I finally heard a data point on the radio that specifically addressed that unvoiced question;  the speaker noted that black and white youths are equally likely to be carrying marijuana at any given time, but that black youths are ten times as likely to be stopped and frisked.  That’s the invisible way that a white spirit of privilege deflects and protects.)  My privilege-cloak has other advantages, too, like the pair of hefty balls hanging from the back that keep the wind from blowing it around, and the lovely clasp, shaped like a “C” for cisgendered, which keep it from falling off my shoulders.

My cloak does not have a crucifix appliquéd across the front, but there is a handsome American flag on the shoulder.  There are cloaks with lustrous gold silk linings, hoods in the academic sense, buttons, pockets, and trim, none of which I enjoy.  Visible and invisible influences on my life each contribute to the whole of my cloak, but it’s a good thing it’s not actually a visible garment.  After all, there are places where American citizens are in danger of being killed, not celebrated, and there’s not a single factor that contributes to one’s privilege which can’t put a person at a disadvantage in certain contexts.  Perhaps that occurs when a privilege spirit is cut off from others of its kind, and that they derive their power from numbers, even as they benefit individuals.

Privilege spirits don’t seem to be malevolent, but the fact that not everyone has creates some pretty big problems.  I can’t imagine a down side to everyone being privileged, but I think its spirits resist that idea.  Do they possess a selfish nature?  Is this just vestigial reflex, like the tendency to sweat during job interviews?  Are they trying to screw with us, or aren’t they even aware?

What I do know is that while it’s good advice to tell people to keep calm and listen, there is a spirit in the ear yelling, “Panic!  Run!  Fight!” which often wins the day.  I can’t promise I will be as clear on this issue tomorrow as I am right now, and find myself reacting defensively yet again.  I don’t know if it’s possible, or even prudent, to exorcise this spirit, but being aware of its existence is probably a good start for some of us.

Privilege makes people act irrationally.  Keep patient and keep talking.

The tenacious spirit of depression


I think it’s a poverty of the English language that we use the same word to describe how a 5-year-old feels when his baseball game gets canceled because it’s raining and the way someone feels who’s about to jump off a bridge because life has become unlivable and untenable.

Andrew Solomon

I never heard of Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness until today, when I listened to the above-linked author interview on NPR.  Solomon’s quote brought me back to a time in my own life, soon after Darkness Visible was first published, when I attended a healing ritual led by a highly respected individual at my very first Pagan conference.  The room had close to eighty people in it, and after setting the sacred space, the facilitator performed triage to ascertain who was seeking healing, and what they needed help with, so that the energy workings could be organized.

For me to even speak the name of my problem aloud takes an incredible gathering of will, but when it was my turn, I admitted that I suffer from depression.

“Oh,” she said with a smile, “we’ll do you at the end, with ‘warm fuzzies.'”

What ‘warm fuzzies’ entailed, after a couple of hours of working to heal people with cancer, broken bones, chronic pain, and other life-altering diseases, was a group hug and a singalong, the words to which it seemed everyone in the room but me knew.

If you’ve suffered from depression, you are not surprised that I was crestfallen to have my malady so glibly dismissed.  If you’ve been depressed, which I describe as having a terrible event in your life precipitate a period of near-paralyzing negative emotion, you may be puzzled.  Being depressed, sometimes called “major depression,” is a serious affair, one that starts from a trauma like death, divorce, or something else from which we all generally heal; sooner if we have proper support.  Depression (“clinical depression” in common parlance, which already suggests it’s not as much of a problem because of the lack of the word “major”) is not something that is assuaged by support that comes from the community, like group hugs or therapy or venting to friends or being reminded that people care about you.  As an animist, I believe that’s because depression is a spirit, while being depressed is an emotional state.

Having been depressed and gotten through it, when one encounters someone in depression there is a sense that they, too, can “get over it,” and that this process can be facilitated with love (as described above) or by getting tough and explaining to the victim that you know it’s hard, but we don’t get given more burdens than we can bear, or that the person needs to stop feeling sorry for emself.  I recognize that people who have been depressed have indeed shown remarkable inner strength, and that the emotional support received by the community surely helps in recovering from tragedy, and that because the outward symptoms are similar this is not an unreasonable conclusion to draw, but it is the wrong one.

Depression is a malevolent spirit which feeds on the strength of the person it rides.  It works to undermine each and every tool which might be used to defeat it.  What a person in depression experiences isn’t exactly pain, insofar as pain is a sensation, something of the body, but reactions to it are the same as what one might do in response to pain.

  • Community values are undermined by antisocial behaviors like argumentativeness, nitpickiness, being demanding, curt, or cross.  The result is often isolation.
  • Personal strengths are sapped:  self-confidence is overwhelmed with doubt, sociability with intense shyness, concentration and creativity with a thick, mental fog.  At its worst, depression can weigh down the ridden so heavily that e cannot get out of bed.  This serves to intensify isolation and feelings of uselessness and powerlessness.
  • Together, the above can make it hard to keep any but the most solitary and menial of jobs.
  • Spiritual connections can be completely gutted.  Why perform magic if you don’t believe it will work?  Why pray or make offerings if the gods would allow you to suffer so?  Are there even gods?  Get the ridden to this point, and the spirit of depression can feed at is leisure.

What else can it be, if not a spirit?  Can a mere illness, or even a severe emotional trauma, work so tirelessly to ensure its own survival?  Victims carry a sense of shame which silences pleas for help, and that can’t be blamed entirely on society, which creates stigma by mixing personal experiences of depression with the confusion over the two sense of the word.  And yes, I lay that very confusion at the feet of depression itself.

The ridden are often given respite, which tells me that they must recharge if they are to feed the spirit.  While suicide is strongly associated with depression, I think it is not the desired goal, any more than a flea desires to kill by spreading plague.

I do not know what makes someone vulnerable to being ridden by depression, but judging by the things it drives from its victims’ lives, it does not thrive in an environment of community support, creativity, and religion.  However, therapy and medication — even self-medication — don’t seem to be enough.  And as well-intentioned “warm fuzzies” may be, they aren’t enough, either.  As we move into and through the darkest time of year for most of the human population, perhaps it is time to reimagine treatment for depression.  It must be holistic, treating the spirit as well as the mind and body, and it must never be confused with being depressed, for all it appears the same, for the healing powers of humanity are perfectly cut out for the latter, and are no defense against the former.

I can barely write this post, for even now I am convinced it will result in mockery, or pity, or avoidance.  Its spirit seethes within me, as it has for decades, but today, I shall overcome, if only for a moment.