This past weekend, a curious story appeared in the news about a man in California who had been arrested for driving alone in a carpool lane, not because he was in a hurry to get to work or go home, but because he was trying to make a political statement. He had brought the articles of corporation for a company with him in the car and was making the claim that, because corporations are people, there was another person with him and therefore he could legally drive in the carpool lane. Obviously, he was expecting to be arrested and will probably have to pay a fine, but his actions bring up what seems to be a recurring problem in American politics: poorly thought-out protest.
About one month ago, Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia visited Princeton to deliver a lecture about constitutional law, but the only thing that most people remember about that lecture was an audience member challenging Scalia over his rhetoric on gay rights. No matter what stance you take on that issue, it seems that even students who attended the lecture were misinterpreting Scalia’s remarks. This was only magnified when the whole fiasco made its way into the mainstream media. Public sentiment may have ended up heavily against Scalia, but those who make up the public are not the ones who make political decisions.
Like gay marriage, corporate personhood has become one of those subjects that seem to inspire vitriol whenever they are brought up. It seems safe to say that the majority of Princeton students — and college students in general — generally have negative feelings toward the concept of “corporations are people,” and that certainly fits with many college students’ view of big business as inherently evil. However, that kind of idealistic worldview is a double-edged sword; the same idealism that motivates Princeton students to fiercely protest what they see as injustices also occasionally prevents them from realizing how complex those issues are.
For many of us, our first encounter with the idea of corporate personhood happened when the Citizens United case made its way to the Supreme Court and subsequently ended up all over the news. The resulting hubbub was mostly concerned with the repercussions of allowing politically motivated spending, such as advertisements, to constitute free speech, which really has more to do with campaign finance than corporate personhood. It is pretty concerning to see the entire argument against the Court’s ruling packaged into an “end corporate personhood” mantra that is easy to digest and easy to regurgitate. Considering corporations to be people does not entail treating them exactly the same as a physical person but rather extending them certain rights that people have, such as the ability to sue in court. This is not solely beneficial to the corporations; for example, because they are given the ability to sue in court, they can also be sued in court, something that we often take for granted.
I’m not saying that the Citizens United ruling was correct or that corporations should be allowed to create Super PACs and donate large amounts of money through them — in fact, I think campaign finance reforms are long overdue and sorely needed — but oversimplifying the whole issue is not going to help. It only serves to distract from well-developed ideas for campaign finance reform by encouraging the repeated and loud chanting of a slogan. In fact, the whole “end corporate personhood” idea seems eerily similar to the Occupy Wall Street campaign, albeit not quite as radical. Both movements undoubtedly created lots of buzz, but I think “end corporate personhood” won’t end up producing much in the way of tangible results and will end up fizzling out eventually, just like Occupy Wall Street, all while drowning out the voices of those who actually have good ideas.
All of the protests I’ve mentioned so far have been basically just publicity stunts. While publicity is not a bad thing at all, it has to have a follow-up, such as suggestions for compromise or reform of some sort. Without concrete ideas to back up the act of protest, the publicity stunt will remain simply a publicity stunt. Most of the American public and even a large portion of Princeton students have probably forgotten about the Scalia fiasco by now.
Protest is certainly a good thing, but those who decide to protest should make an attempt to appear rational and reasonable. The civil rights movement succeeded in part because its supporters protested not only without being violent but also without being smart-asses about it. When protestors, like our man in California, try to be too clever, it only serves to undermine the point they are trying to make.
Spencer Shen is a freshman from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.