Werner's Reviews > Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights

Unequal Protection by Thom Hartmann
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Dec 04, 13

bookshelves: other-nonfiction
Recommended to Werner by: My Goodreads friend Bird Brian
Recommended for: Persons interested in current political and socio-economic issues
Read from February 24 to March 07, 2012, read count: 1

Thom Hartmann is a liberal (he prefers to avoid the l-word, with "progressive") talk-radio host and writer of popular-level books on current issues. (To his credit, he's also quite active, along with his wife, in philanthropy for children in need, and relief work abroad.) His core subject here is one of the most crucially important and timely ones imaginable: the ongoing drastic deformation of society, the economy, government, and law in America and around the world, at the hands of profit-driven megacorporations intent on concentrating all the world's wealth and power into their few hands. He lays this deformation bare under a piercing searchlight, and what he reveals is appalling; before I read this, I already considered myself relatively knowledgeable about the problem, but he exposed information that even shocked me. And he makes it clear that the principal legal weapon of these corporations is a warped interpretation of corporate "personhood."

While Hartmann isn't an historian (and it often shows), he's researched some themes and key events in American history thoroughly enough to be on sure ground. As he documents, abuses of power by multinational corporations working hand in glove with bought politicians to create monopolies and exploit the masses are nothing new; they were rife in the 18th century, with the East India Company one of the biggest players. The Boston Tea Party, and the boiling unrest it symbolized, wasn't solely about a tax on tea; the tea dumped into Boston harbor was tax-free tea, brought in by the East India Company in a sweetheart deal with Parliament, which would allow them to undersell and bankrupt all of their small American competitors who were selling taxed tea. America's founders were familiar with these abuses and didn't appreciate them; most were opposed to monopoly and supportive of small business and healthily competitive free enterprise (in the actual, lexical sense of the term). The legal and political climate they created in early America was one in which active Federal and especially state regulation of corporations and their business practices and political activities, for the common good, was taken for granted.

In English/American common law, however, corporations traditionally were reckoned as "artificial persons," a legal fiction that allowed them to do some of the same things a natural person can, such as own property and be a party to a lawsuit. At this point, it was not argued by anybody that corporations did or should possess all the rights of "natural persons" (that is, flesh-and-blood human beings). After the passage of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, aimed at protecting the rights of freed slaves, however, this amendment was highjacked by corporate lawyers who now argued exactly that, in a barrage of lawsuits aimed at striking down any regulation of corporate actions. Their crucial victory is usually supposed to be the 1886 Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad case, in which most historians tell us that the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are "persons" for 14th Amendment purposes. In fact, as Hartmann amply documents, the Court's actual opinion explicitly refused to rule on that claim; the subsequent misrepresentation of the ruling rests entirely on a headnote by the court clerk (despite two explicit Supreme Court rulings that headnotes have no legal force), probably written with a deliberately disingenuous intention. Since 1886, corporations have repeatedly used the courts to assert their "rights" as "persons" not to be "unequally" taxed vis a vis individuals; to be protected from health and safety inspections; and even to falsely advertise, on the grounds that this is constitutionally-protected "free speech." A major milestone in this campaign was the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which ruled that any restriction on corporate expenditures for political advertising are an unconstitutional violation of their "free speech" rights as "persons."

Besides a veritable chamber of horrors of actual U.S. court rulings in favor of corporate abuses, the book provides a wealth of statistics on the accelerating concentration of national and global wealth into a relatively few hands, and the attendant actual decline of wages (if the figures are adjusted for inflation) of most Americans. Hartmann also documents a disturbing trend towards state laws criminalizing any "whistle-blowing" of corporate secrets, and perverted use of the concept of "libel" to criminalize criticism of corporate actions and poolicies, such as the laws in 13 states that make it a crime to "disparage the food supply" by suggesting that it's contaminated by corporation-caused pollutions or unsanitary practices. And he gives attention to the corporate-caused systematic destruction of small business and of human-scaled community. He also documents the increasing monopoly domination of the news (and other) media by megacorporations, and their willingness to use this dominance to silence criticism and promote their own agendas.

To remedy this death threat posed to our democracy and economy, the author proposes a two-pronged approach. On one track, he favors the enactment of local (city, town, county or township) regulations of corporate behavior, creating more opportunity for litigation that may give the court system a chance to correct its past misinterpretation of the Constitution (as, say, Brown vs. the Board of Education corrected Plessy vs. Ferguson). On another track, he favors a push for a constitutional amendment making it explicit that the rights of persons extend only to natural, not artificial, persons (though I don't share his optimism that the Supreme Court would change its rulings in that event, given a legal culture that denies the normative significance of the written text of the Constitution anyway.)

In all of the above, I found Hartmann's analysis sound, timely and educational. (For instance, it convinced me that the Citizens United decision was not only incorrectly decided, but bad policy; I was previously inclined to oppose restrictions on political ads run by bona fide non-profit issue-oriented groups that are incorporated, but there's no legal way to separate the bona fide ones from the fronts for for-profit corporations. The McCain-Feingold Act didn't prevent individuals, or candidates, from exercising their free speech rights.) The core message of the book is one everybody should be made aware of, and would, considered by itself, have merited a 4 or 5-star rating. So, why did it only get three? The answer could be summed up as flawed presentation, and gratuitous ideological posturing.

As a talk-radio host, Hartmann can probably get by with being rather disorganized and repetitive in his comments; the medium doesn't lend itself to sustained, well-organized presentation of developed arguments. In a book, though, you need the latter, and here it's too often lacking. His ignorance of history, outside of the narrow areas where he's really researched, makes his attempts at broad historical analysis so cringe-inducingly oversimplified, distorted and actually erroneous that they're essentially waste of paper. He also has more than occasional misuses of terms here. But more importantly, even though he recognizes at one point that the traditional Democrats vs. Republicans and Tories vs. Labor party distinctions are less relevant than the fundamental distinction between the politicians working for corporations and those working for ordinary citizens (and explicitly demonstrates that "Third Way" politicos like Clinton, Blair, and Obama are tools, not opponents, of the corporations), he's still a highly partisan child of the hard Left, for whom the Democratic Party is his old school tie and Republicans are essentially incarnations of evil. This colors his writing repeatedly, and demonstrates that although there are coalescent possibilities galore in his core program (and it stands no chance of being enacted without a coalescent realignment of political allegiances!), ever getting those possibilities realized is going to be an uphill battle. When he's forced to recognize that some Republicans/conservatives agree with aspects of his case, his response is sometimes to disparage them anyway, as when the fact that Chief Justice Rehnquist felt that the Santa Clara "precedent" was wrongly decided and that corporations do NOT have human rights is met with a completely gratuitous and poorly-reasoned "racism" smear. And he goes out of his way to drag in every irrelevant liberal shibboleth he can think of; his enthusiasm for Roe vs. Wade, for instance, grates like long fingernails scraping over a blackboard, and demonstrates that his enthusiasm for faithful constitutional interpretation is confined to cases where he'd like the result. (In fairness, though, his only chapter-long excursion into irrelevant ideological territory, his attack on the 2000 Supreme Court ruling in the Bush-Gore Florida electoral vote battle, does provide factual information that the more superficial media accounts did not, and convinces me that the Supreme Court intervened in the case improperly.) His examples of horrible behavior are invariably drawn from the Right, as with the revelation (which he conclusively proves) that right-wing organizations and campaigns are hiring people to post pre-supplied talking points on the Internet, wherever sites allow people to comment --a phenomenon I find as alarming as any he describes here. (But if the Right is doing this --and they are-- does anyone seriously imagine that the Left is not?)

In summary, then, this is a flawed presentation of a serious (make that vitally-important!) wake-up call about a serious threat to our basic foundation as a nation. Even with its flaws, I think it would be a worthwhile eye-opener for many people to read, because it presents facts and arguments in one place that aren't often met with, and might not be as compactly assembled in very many other books. If you "take the meat, and throw away the bone," you can still find a lot of meat here!
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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Laura (Kyahgirl) This book sounds interesting. I look forward to your review. Ever since I read 'The Creature from Jekyll Island', the story of the creation of the Federal Reserve, I've been aware that there is a lot of 'dissembling' going on and its hard to find the truth!


Werner Thanks, Laura! I hope to finish it in perhaps another couple of weeks, give or take.


Stephen Terrific review, Werner.


message 4: by B0nnie (new)

B0nnie His ignorance of history, outside of the narrow areas where he's really researched, makes his attempts at broad historical analysis so cringe-inducingly oversimplified, distorted and actually erroneous that they're essentially waste of paper.

ouch! this kind of thing really kills *all* credibility in a author


message 5: by Ron (new)

Ron Good job, Werner!


Werner Thanks, Stephen and Ron! Actually, I forgot to mention one important point Hartmann covers (it was getting late when I finished, and the review was pretty long already). That's the corporation-inspired creation of international economic bureauracracies like IMF, the World Bank, NAFTA and WTO, set up under treaties that have the force of law. Especially under the last two, corporations can sue nations for restraint of trade, in bureaucratic courts responsible to nobody, with anonymous membership, that deliberate in secret and allow no appeal. These bodies are empowered to invalidate --and repeatedly have done so--democratically passed U.S. Federal and state laws, and foreign laws, that impose environmental, safety and health or employee-protection regulations, laws banning imports made with child or convict labor, etc. This should be a major concern to anybody who cares anything about national sovereignity.


Werner Apologies to anybody who's already read through this review before, in my updates --I had to go back just now to correct a typo! :-(


message 8: by midnightfaerie (new)

midnightfaerie Nice review!


Werner Thanks, Janine!


Werner My pleasure, Brian! Thank you for donating a copy to the BC library; we appreciate it.


Whispers from the Pirate's Ghost Whisper This is still a great review Werner.


Werner Thanks, Hugh!


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