Confusing Metaphor with Reality


In her scathing piece for Slate about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Dahlia Lithwick compares the Supreme Court’s actions to those of the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio, saying that they turned “a corporation into a real live boy.” Lithwick doesn’t try to peer into the future (like Greg Palast does), but she does highlight what is, to me, the most important issue in this case, and in any case involving corporations–their legal personhood.

Lithwick quoted an earlier case in which former Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that treating corporate spending as the First Amendment equivalent of individual free speech is “to confuse metaphor with reality,” and that the metaphor won a real battle before the Supreme Court. And it did, no question. My question for the Justices who made this opinion is this: where will corporate personhood stop? Will Coca-Cola get to vote soon? Can the corporation run for President? It’s over 35 years old and a natural-born citizen of the US, after all. And who would actually make the day-to-day decisions the President makes–the CEO of Coke? The shareholders? But we didn’t elect him or her, or them.

We can take it farther, of course. If a corporation breaks the law and is convicted, who goes to jail? If people incorporate themselves, will they get two votes–one for the person and one for the corporate person? If corporations are truly citizens, should they be counted in the census for the purpose of apportionment of Congressional representatives?

See, this is where the metaphor starts to have problems–when it clashes with the real world. Because even at their most effective, metaphors are only analogs, descriptions, comparisons. They’re necessary for communication, but they never do more than approximate the world they try to describe or inform, and when you try to subject them to the rigors of actual existence, they fall apart because they’re not real.

Which is not to say that the conservative Justices who wrote this decision haven’t thought out the consequences of their decision–I suspect they have thought them out very carefully, and decided they wanted to play the part of the Blue Fairy and bring Pinocchio to life. And like the Blue Fairy, they’ll be able to avoid the fallout of their decision for the most part–they are protected by money and privilege and age and the fact that they’re the least accountable political figures in the country. They can flit away and concern themselves with other matters, while the rest of us get to figure out what to do with the new kid who’s a hundred times our size and is a bully besides.

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →