Saturday, March 21, 2015

Thinking About "Personhood" in America

     I am enjoying reading through Wendell Berry's most recent essays, just published (2015) as Our Only World.  In one of his essays, entitled "On Receiving One of the Dayton Literary Peace Prizes," he begins this way:

     "When we were notified of this award my wife, Tanya Berry, uttered a sound that closely resembled laughter.  She better than anybody knows how willingly I have risked controversy, and how much I have enjoyed it, especially when I was young.  In my favor I can only say that I have never killed or physically harmed any of my enemies, or wished to do so, and that I don't carry a pistol.  The only thing I would really enjoy shooting is a drone."

     Which reminded me about drones.  Which in turn reminded me about corporations.  Which in turn reminded me of a recent decision of our All-Legal Supreme Court, which Mr. Berry also comments on elsewhere in his book (p. 86):

     "The legal definition of a person evaporated when the Supreme Court defined a corporation as a person.  If a corporation is a person, contrary to all previous usage and to common sense, then personhood can be conferred upon virtually anything merely by decree.  Issues are thus quickly carried not just into vagueness but beyond the bounds of language."

     I was further reminded of the recent increasing admiration of police dogs, who have long been militarized into a "K-9 Corps" (ha, ha, get it?  yes we all get it).  From being used as "bloodhounds" to track escapees from chain gangs (Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke), they were then given the training to attack "rioters" (in Selma, and in any number of other places and circumstances), and were further trained to "sniff for drugs," which made them proxies for violating the Bill of Rights, with its prohibitions and restrictions on searches and seizures.  Dogs work quite well without any respect for the need of a warrant issued by a judge.  And best of all, perhaps, they might even be trained to register what we could euphemistically call a "false positive" on the appropriate signal from a duly authorized "handler."  They are now increasingly thought of, with police and media and popular reverence, as noble "veterans" when they "fall in the line of duty."  How long until they are granted virtual "personhood" status?

     Personally, I am not ready to give dogs, even military-trained dogs, "personhood" status, but I must admit that I'd sooner recognize them as persons than I would any "corporation," which is, after all, a legal fiction at best, or a legal fig-leaf, or a legal grimoire at worst.  The dog is, at least, a living creature.  It shares a substantial amount of DNA with me, and by virtue of being an animal has, or has been thought to have, some kind of soul.  ( The word anima once meant "having breath, soul, current of air."  It meant the kind of creature that the Lord God thought worth saving along with humankind at the Flood. )

     I further think that the instituting of a "corporation" is almost always an imposture on the human mind, and that it is often bent on colonizing individual and social consciousness.  And more frequently than we would like to think, it intends -- by advertising and "product placement" and "corporate sponsorship" and other forms of propaganda -- to force itself upon us as an idol we are to revere or a god we must obey.  But perhaps I overstate the danger.

     Nevertheless, how long before "drones" are given agency -- even a programmably "independent" agency, by their corporate owners and their civilian and military minions -- to lethally interfere with the lives of people?

     How long?  It has already happened, to the enthusiastic bipartisan applause of "liberals" and "conservatives" alike.  And what good is a weapon, after all, if you are not ready to use it?

     I should not be surprised if, one day soon, the Supreme Court, on orders from the Pentagon, and in acknowledgement of drones' "essential role in preserving our national security interests," makes any resistance to them a federal crime, and damaging or destroying them a military offense that justifies any and all military retaliation.  And then they, and their controllers, will have greatly extended their control over you and your children, and over me and mine.

     This reminds me of another question that Wendell Berry raises in another book:  What Are People For?

Friday, March 13, 2015

A Thoughtful Man Writes About Government Duplicity

     I have a pretty complete library of Wendell Berry's books -- his essays, his poems, and his fiction -- and I am currently re-reading The Unsettling of America, which he originally wrote in 1977, nearly forty years ago.  (I must admit that I am a relative late-comer to Mr. Berry's work.  This book -- the first of his books that I ever read -- was given to me nearly twenty years after it was written.  It was a gift from a friend, Rick Koeplin, who was quite a good back-to-the-land type of man himself:  he moved his family and his work (auto mechanics) out of the city onto a small farm in Indiana.  There he and his wife designed and built their own house from timber harvested from their own property, planted their gardens, repaired farm machinery, and raised their six children.)

     Wendell Berry's influence has spread widely -- he is probably even better known around the world than he is known in his own home state of Kentucky, where he lives and farms and writes. In this book he has a chapter called "The Use of Energy," in which he talks about the cycles of life and of energy, and the past and present and future of American culture and agriculture.  But here I want to focus specifically on what he says about government duplicity; and so I will lift these words out from their context.  They are words that can stand on their own:

     "But then it must be asked if we can remove cultural value from one part of our lives without destroying it also in the other parts.  Can we justify secrecy, lying, and burglary in our so-called intelligence organizations and yet preserve openness, honesty, and devotion to principle in the rest of our government?  Can we subsidize mayhem in the military establishment and yet have peace, order, and respect for human life in the city streets?"  

     I think that the keepers of our political culture -- not just the party politicians, or the media pundits and paid experts, but ordinary people like ourselves -- have tried mightily to answer "Yes" to his questions.  But our recent history, including our unending string of wars and rumors of wars, and our financial unraveling, give an unequivocal answer, "No."

     Much food for thought, I think.  I encourage anyone reading these words to get and read his book, and any of the many other books that he has written.  His message is consistent, and consistently full of insight.  It is sobering to me to realize that the problems that we face were well understood and discussed by this man decades ago.