The Midnight Hunter Musings, ruminations and wild rants about life from the Midnight Hunter.

January 31, 2010

General Motors and Me

Filed under: Uncategorized — me @ 7:26 pm

General Motors and I are exactly alike.  Can’t you see the resemblance?

General Motors Headquarters Me

The Supreme Court of the United States of America sure can. As far as the “supremes” are concerned, GM and I are exactly alike, perfectly equal. This is all due to a colossally bad idea known as corporate personhood.  The idea of corporate personhood goes back only to the 19th century, when the Supreme Court first determined, in Dartmouth College v. Woodward that corporate charters were, in fact, contracts, and thus protected under the constitution, which prohibits states (but not the federal government, curiously) from passing laws “impairing the obligation of contracts”(Article 1 Section 10).

This all seems harmless enough; corporations, once chartered, can’t be simply legislated out of existence at whim. But in the 1880s the justices went a dramatic step forward, and in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad ruled that for the purposes of some rights granted in the United States Constitution, specifically, the 14th Amendment (the right to due process for all persons before state courts) corporations are equal to persons. Again, this might seem harmless, but it has ever since been used to claim that corporations are equivalent to so-called “natural persons” in virtually all circumstances.

Why is this such a colossally bad idea? Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad has opened the floodgates to a never-ending line of litigation opening various rights to corporations, the latest of which is the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision guaranteeing to corporations the “right to free speech.” This decision is problematical for several reasons. Perhaps at some other time I’ll discuss the problem of equating the spending of money with speech, but for now I’ll remain focused on the problem of corporate personhood.

In the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission the Supreme Court essentially gutted campaign finance reform on the basis that corporations (which include not only for-profit businesses, but also unions, non-governmental organizations, universities, churches, Rotary Clubs, you name it…) are just the same as people, albeit “people” with billions of dollars and the ability to cajole and coerce their employees and members into contributing even more dollars to their “free speech”.

The real problem with corporate personhood, however, comes when those corporate persons break the law, or act in ways that harm society. If you or I, natural persons, break the law by stealing a large sum of money, or causing the death or serious injury of another person, we will likely be sent to prison for a number of years. If the offense is grave enough, we might even be subject to capital punishment. But despite all the erstwhile claims of equivalence, when corporations break the law the consequences are orders of magnitude smaller. If I am put in prison for ten years, I am unable to do very much of anything I might like. A corporation committing the same act might receive a fine, usually amounting to no more than a month or two worth of income, and often far, far less than even that. Even worse, a large enough corporation simply pays a few hundred lobbyists or bribes (legally or illegally) a few politicians to legislate ex post facto immunity for the corporation and no penalty is paid at all.

It is this inequity in the way natural persons and corporations are treated when the law is broken that is most problematic. It has engendered a complete contempt for the law and a total disregard for the welfare of our society among the titans of corporate boardrooms. It has also encouraged widespread apathy toward and distrust of our government and justice system among natural persons who see our corporate “equals” treated very unequally. The most recent behavior that resulted in the Great Recession of the 2000’s is but the most recent, and hardly the most egregious example.

Corporate personhood is not the only way to protect the contractual obligations of businesses. It creates fundamentally and inescapably unequal “persons” and ensures that they will be treated preferentially before the courts and the legislature. It is, in short, a colossally bad idea.

Until the Revolution, Yours,


January 16, 2010

Walls Tumbling Down

Filed under: Uncategorized — me @ 5:07 pm

Like most everyone else with a computer or TV set on this little planet, I’ve been watching with awe and horror the images from Haiti this past week. Unlike most, I’ve actually been to Port-au-Prince and have images of the city that were already in my head, which have been competing with these latest images all week, images of a somewhat happier, definitely less devastated time. Elsewhere on my website you can read a story of one of my experiences in Haiti, Schools Are Heavy. I am excerpting a small part of the story here:

Traveling through the city you had noticed that everything here hides behind walls.  There were no yards, no parking lots, no plazas, no open, empty lots in the city, only walls.  Some were simple cinderblock affairs, unpainted and uninviting.  Some were stucco or cement, studded with shells or bright colored stones.  Some were even painted with fading murals.  They had corrugated metal gates, heavy steel gates, painted wooden gates or even ornate wrought iron, but everywhere there were walls.  Now you were in the country and instead of seeing the occasional pleasant farmhouse you saw… walls.  And the further from the city, the more inventive the walls.  Lack of money, it seemed, was no barrier to constructing walls.  Stones and hedges replaced cinderblock as the day wore on.  And somewhere about the center of the island, you saw the most enterprising and forbidding wall of them all: a neatly trimmed prickly-pear cactus wall.  And you learned, this land is all about walls.

At 4:48 on Tuesday, January 12, those walls, which have for so long sheltered and protected the Haitian people, came tumbling down, killing, maiming and entombing tens, likely hundreds of thousands of people. I urge you to give what you can to help the Haitian people in this hour of distress.

January 9, 2010

The New Liberum Veto

Filed under: Uncategorized — me @ 9:42 pm

As I was walking home from the gym this morning I thought about how the US congress has become so much like the Polish Sejm of the Middle Ages. Admittedly, this may seem like a strange non-sequitur; perhaps due to the effects of the extreme cold on my addled brain. Most people trudging home in 14 degree cold would be thinking of warm places like Florida, but I really don’t like Florida, or other such places, so my mind focuses on other things.  Anyway, I digress.

What do the United States Congress and the Sejm, or parliament, of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth have in common? The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a large and powerful nation that evolved in the Middle Ages. Poland at that time was larger and further east than the modern nation. The commonwealth included central and eastern Poland, Lithuania and Belarus, much of modern Latvia and Ukraine and parts of Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Estonia and Russia. It was a remarkable nation; a powerful, multi-ethnic and multi-religious state noted for it’s tolerance. Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians and even some Protestants and Muslims lived in the Commonwealth. Dozens of nationalities lived within its borders. It was ruled by an elected monarch and what was at the time perhaps the most powerful legislature in the world. Surrounded by absolute monarchies and despots, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the beacon of liberty in it’s day. With it’s famous winged Hussars, it also saved Europe from the advances of the Ottoman Empire, breaking the siege of Vienna, making it a sort of seventeenth century superpower.

The Polish Sejm, however, developed over time an institution known as the Liberum Veto, which would prove it’s and the nation’s undoing. The basic premise of the Liberum Veto was that any member of the legislature could veto any legislation. This was further amplified by the fact that all legislation that passed the Sejm in a given session was lumped together as a single resolution, therefore, the Liberum Veto negated not just a single piece of legislation, but the entire legislative session. Over time, the political environment in the Commonwealth became more and more fragmented and contentious while Poland’s neighbors, Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary grew more powerful and learned to manipulate the various factions in the Sejm to weaken and ultimately dismantle the state. Poland was partitioned three times and by the end of the eighteenth century ceased to exist.

What are the similarities to the United States congress? The answer is quite simple; the evolution of the institution of the Senate filibuster. As absurd as the Liberum Veto appears to us today, the current system of filibuster and cloture in the US Senate certainly would have appeared equally absurd to the framers of the American constitution, who witnessed the partition and elimination of the Polish nation from 1772 to 1795.  The filibuster, which is based on the Senates parliamentary rules and is not mentioned (nor is cloture) anywhere in the constitution, was first employed in 1837. Cloture, the vote of a super majority (originally two thirds of the Senate, presently 60 votes) to end debate and call the question, was introduced in 1917 as a means to improve the situation. In reality, it has only gotten worse.

As American politics has become more and more contentious and the Senate more partisan, the ultimate result is a de-facto Liberum Veto, in which currently nearly all legislation requires sixty senate votes to pass. In the current environment, it is impossible to imagine the passage of bills such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark legislation of the New Deal, or even the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. The result is an ineffective legislature unable to address the nation’s health care crisis, civil rights for gays and lesbians, reform of corporate governance or any other serious threat to the civil and financial health of the nation.

The Liberum Veto evolved as a means of protecting vulnerable minorities within a diverse multi-ethic state. Many would argue that the filibuster is likewise a means of preventing majorities from running rough-shod over minorities in our sprawling and diverse nation. While the current system of filibuster and cloture is clearly not the same as the Sejm’s Liberum Veto, the Liberum Veto, and it’s ultimate impact on the survival of the state, provide a sobering object lesson on the use of parliamentary tactics to subvert the will of the majority.  History’s verdict has been deservedly unkind to the Liberum Veto, and I’ve not doubt it will be likewise of the filibuster and cloture.

Until the revolution, yours,


January 3, 2010

Great Books … Great Recordings?

Filed under: Uncategorized — me @ 8:46 pm

A couple of seemingly unrelated threads came converged in my head one recent evening.  I’ve been considering buying an ebook (the Sony Daily Edition is the target of my current interest). Getting actually close to purchasing the device, I’m now considering just what to put on it, which rekindled my interest in the old concept of the Great Books… that list of fine literature which some academics in the early or mid twentieth century determined to represent the epitome of Western civilization, and which several major universities built their liberal arts curriculum around.

In an originally unrelated event, I received from my parents for Christmas a boxed set of CDs of the original Columbia recordings of Simon and Garfunkel; 5 great albums, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM; Sounds of Silence; Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme; Bookends and Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Listening to these albums again (I already owned a boxed set of the albums on vinyl, but rarely fire up the turntable anymore) I was struck by the thought: “What are the Great Albums that one simply cannot be fully “literate” in Western culture without the knowledge of?” After all, the idea of the Great Books was that they are relevant to the great ideas and issues that have occupied the minds of great thinkers through the centuries.  Isn’t music a part of that conversation as well? Rolling Stone has compiled a list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, but their criteria are not the same as mine, they are more interested in the musical influence than the greater cultural influence. Of course, recorded music is a phenomenon of only the past century or so, with Johannes Brahms being perhaps the first recorded musician, and his wax cylinder recording (made by a representative of Thomas Edison) being barely recognizable today. Still, a century is long enough for the medium to have an impact on the great minds of the recent past, and certainly on those of today.

So what are the great recordings? Here’s a short list of albums I consider to be worthy of cut:

  • Tapestry (Carole King, 1971)
  • Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (Simon and Garfunkel, 1966)
  • Revolver (The Beatles, 1966)
  • Dust Bowl Ballads (Woody Guthrie, 1940)
  • Time Out (Dave Brubeck Quartet, 1959)
  • Bringing it All Back Home (Bob Dylan, 1965)
  • Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan, 1965)
  • Déjà Vu (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, 1970)
  • Bach: The Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould, 1955)
  • In the Wee Small Hours (Frank Sinatra, 1955)
  • Getz/Gilberto (Stan Getz, João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim, 1964)
  • West Side Story (Original Broadway Cast) (1957)
  • Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)

There are many other important albums I’ve not mentioned here, either because my poor memory fails me, or they are of a genre I’m not much familiar with, or because, although they are beautiful, excellent albums, they haven’t contributed to the greater conversation in Western culture. And there are single songs that rise above the rest of an album to reach that level (Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones quickly comes to mind). But as far as I’m concerned, this baker’s dozen albums is unquestionably a part of the conversation.  Your thoughts?

December 16, 2009

Signs of the Revolution – Decline of the Nation-State

Filed under: Uncategorized — me @ 9:31 pm

In my previous post I spoke of awaiting the revolution. OK, it’s fair to ask, “What does this revolution look like and how will I know when it’s come?”

It’s a fair enough question, but not one I can readily answer. It’s much easier to imagine what the revolution will NOT look like than what it will. There are several things I’m pretty certain will not survive the revolution, the predominance of the nation-state and the personalization of corporations to name a couple.

Here I want to talk briefly about the decline of the nation-state. I’m sure I’ll tackle the personalization of corporations in a future post.

Revolutions are hardest on people who like things to be “the way they’ve always been”. To many such folks, and even to many who like, or want, or crave change, the nation-state may seem to be one of those things that’s always been. They have a hard time even imagining any other way of organizing the world politically. Historians, however, know that the nation-state is actually a rather recent creation. Many historians point to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, out of which the concept of national sovereignty grew, as the beginning of the nation-state. Others view the rise of nationalism in the 19th century as the true beginning of the system.

Either way, the nation-state is a recent arrival in the history of man, which stretches back several thousand years. “What, then”, you might ask, “came before the nation-state system?”

Well, the feudal system is in many ways seen as the predecessor to the nation-state system. This system treated land as private property of the ruler, to be disposed of as he or she wished. Imagine, for instance, if Barack Obama decided that on his death he wanted to split the United States into to separate pieces, two different countries, one ruled by Sasha and the other by Malia. Or suppose he decided that since Texas didn’t vote for him, and it’s kind of pesky and he doesn’t like it very much, he’ll negotiate with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to trade it for New Brunswick, which seems like a much nicer place. During the feudal era, this would have seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do. This is how Germany came to be divided into hundreds of little independent states, the French-speaking Channel Islands came to be ruled by the United Kingdom and the town of Llívia, Spain is completely surrounded by France.

Before the feudal system, there was an even older system, based on tribal membership and laws. Under this system, if two people living in adjacent homes committed the same act, one might be “breaking the law” and the other not, depending on which one belonged to which tribe, and what the laws of those tribes were. All if this is a round-about way of saying that nation-states, far from being the only method of politically organizing the world, are only the most recent of a long string of political systems. And in my humble opinion, not a system that has held up particularly well.

Why is that? Let’s take, for instance, the little matter of migration. The nation-state is predicated on the idea that this nation lives in this place (state) and that nation in that state, forever. Humans, on the other hand are always on the move, crossing boundaries, and bringing their national affiliations with them. Whether it is the Mexicans “invading” the U.S. or Eastern Europeans flooding into Western Europe or refugees from war-torn Sudan fleeing throughout Africa, nation-states don’t cope well with the innate nature of humankind to move. And then there’s the problem of nations without states, such as the Catalans, or the Kurds or practically any African people you could name, not to mention the problems caused by multinational corporations that are wealthier and often far more powerful than all but a small handful of the largest nation-states.

Back in the mid seventeenth century, when it all started, the idea of nation-states must have looked like an attractive and revolutionary answer to the myriad problems of feudalism: the incessant warfare, the dizzying proliferation of states and the fragmentation of peoples. But today’s nation-states have come with another set of problems: incessant warfare, a dizzying proliferation of multinational corporate and non-governmental powers stepping in to solve the problems nation-states won’t and the separation of peoples across ever more meaningless borders… Like I said.

Until the revolution, Yours,


December 6, 2009

Awaiting the Revolution

Filed under: Uncategorized — me @ 8:54 pm

I will start my blogging career with this post.  I had considered naming my blog Awaiting the Revolution but decided not to because it might be confusing, since the rest of the site is The Midnight Hunter.  So what about this revolution?  What revolution?  And why wait for it?

You might think that as an Historian, I could be referring to the American Revolution, but that would be silly since it happened two and a quarter centuries ago, so there’s not much need to wait for it.  Or you might think that as a Socialist, I could be referring to some revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. Here you would be a little bit closer, but I refer to something larger than even that. The world, or at least America, today stands ripe for change, and not just some evolutionary minor adjustments, but truly revolutionary change.

Change seems to be a popular word these days; popular enough to risk becoming cliché. But for all the talk of change, all the demands for change, all the declarations of change, not much seems to be actually changing. At least, that is, changing for the better. In fact there has been significant change over the past few decades and none of it good. More people are uninsured; more people are under-employed; more people are over-educated. Our infrastructure deteriorates at a frightening pace, our schools, our highways, our airports and our planet are increasingly overcrowded. Our warms, our seas rise, our farmland and wilderness disappear beneath acres of asphalt, all with alarming speed.

And yet, despite years of debate, argument and protest, despite promises upon promises of change, nothing has reversed these worrisome trends. One could blame Mr. Fukuyama and his End of History theory, but I am no fan of his. Socialism is far from dead and capitalism’s star shines much less brightly these days as banks go bust weekly and unemployment soars. A future such as that envisioned by Mr. Fukuyama, in which no one challenges the ‘accepted norms’ of political and economic reality, would inevitably degenerate into a dystopian hell that would look very much like… well, very much like the world we live in now where everyone demands change and yet no one seems to be able to actually achieve it. The famous popular definition of insanity comes to mind: doing the same things over and over again, expecting different results.

This is exactly why I believe the world is ripe for change, true change; revolution. The changes we haven’t been able to stop; climate change, economic decline, social disengagement, are on the verge of making the world we’ve lived in simply no long viable. Change will come not because people want it too. In fact, many of those most loudly demanding change fear actual change more than anything. But true revolutionary change will come simply because it has to come. There is no possibility of maintaining the status quo ad infinitum. It is just not an option.

“So,” you ask, “why wait for it? Why not get off your ass and do something to make it happen?”

Well. I’m not young enough, or healthy enough, or wealthy enough, for that matter, to go rollicking around the country protesting in the streets, engaging in acts of non-violent resistence, etc… Besides, the type of waiting I’m referring to is not the passive, sit and stare at the walls type of waiting. Quite the contrary. The Biblical parable of the ten bridesmaids comes to mind(Matthew 25: 1-13). In the parable, the five bridesmaids who squander their ‘waiting time’ miss out on the party, while those who take time to prepare for the eventual arrival of the bridegroom are rewarded.

This is the type of waiting I am referring too. Keeping watch. Keeping an open mind. Looking out for real, revolutionary change, not the tired, meaningless clichés we are constantly fed.

Until the revolution, yours,

T. E. Tyler

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