As this article offers (I hope) a truly novel, valuable insight about Citizens United, I'll launch it in a refreshingly novel way. I'll begin by quoting, in its brief entirety, one of the most insightful political poems born of the twentieth century's fascist horrors, W. H. Auden's "August 1968."
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
For the record, this concise gem--paired with two likewise compact Yeats masterpieces, "The Leaders of the Crowd" and "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death"--played an incalculable role in my own poetic and political education. But as Auden's mini-laser of piercing political insight (penned in indignant revulsion after the Soviets brutally crushed Czechoslovakia's 1968 democratic revolt) relates most tightly to Citizens United, it's the poem I'll discuss here.
Now, for me, "August 1968" has a weight and scope that far transcend its actual political context. So much so that before I knew that context--and having forgotten its title--I suspected it was written about Nazi Germany. And perhaps, as an Englishman of that horrifying era, Auden had filed away memories of Nazi practice for later poetic use. For brutal political regimes--especially in their modern fascist or totalitarian form--have a common "ogrish" essence that survives their wide differences in historical trappings. And one crucial feature of that common core is their ogrish inability to master speech.
Or rather, since the ogrish "drivel" in question here is propaganda, we might say they've developed fiendish mastery of a hideous, gurgling tongue appropriate only to ogres. A "speech," if the word appies at all, that's a monstrous parody of the complex moral, rational, poetic, and political glory that is human speech.
If I've stressed the word monstrous here, it's to honor--indeed, to glory in--Auden's penetration in making the Ogre, a hybrid figment of humanity's nightmare imagination, his emblem for modern regimes at their most brutal. For even the word "brutal" (derived from the behavior of "brute" animals) gets things morally wrong; human beings at their most degraded simply don't become animals, creatures utterly innocent of human-style folly. But of course, to be understood, we must adopt the conventional terms our native tongue has given us; and sometimes these conventional words or phrases are quite felicitous. So, while I agreed with playful "critics" of my proposed lipsticked pig as Hillary's campaign mascot--they called it an insult to pigs (see comments here)--I still can't resist the multilayered aptness of this symbol. To wit, the pig as emblem of capitalist greed, a lipsticked pig emblem of deceitful public hypocrisy, and lipstick itself the perfect emblem for a candidate whose sole proposed "merit" is her gender (see here).
But I fully agree that human beings at our most debased are better thought of as monsters-- deeply unnatural creatures--than innocently natural animals. Which brings us back to Auden's Ogre. And that most monstrous of court decisions, Citizens United.
What seems clear to me is that Auden, writing in 1968, remained deeply imbued, in his mind and poetic imagination, with the totalitarian horrors of the Hitler and Stalin eras. Whereas, for the Supreme Court majority in Citizens United, the twentieth century's unthinkably bloody history lesson on the sheer fragility of democracy might never have even occurred. For not only did the Court go grievously wrong in treating corporate dollars as speech but--and this unacknowledged error may be still more sinister--it failed to consider the nature of the "speech" those dollars are dished out to buy. And this, I submit, is not true human speech at all, but its ogrish debasement, propaganda. Anyone the least sensitive to the hellish role this subhuman ogrish "drivel" played in creating the twentieth century's worst horrors would not be opening media's floodgates to its domination. Yet, that's exactly what our Supreme Court did.
See, many have already taken exception to low tone of campaign attack ads. But that low tone is merely symptomatic of a far graver problem: that the ads themselves are already a planned perversion of human speech. Or, perhaps in some cases, not so planned, since all the relevant parties, whether in politics or media, unthinkingly accept such ads as familiar scenery--simply the way politics gets done. But the best political advertising minds, whether Goebbels or Karl Rove, are fully, consciously aware of their intended subversion of speech and reason. Their demonic role, as rational perverters of reason, explains their equally demonic effectiveness.
So, where the aim of today's political ads is already so low, their low tone should hardly be surprising; it could be said to follow by rigorous logic from the nature of the project. But the nature of the project itself--to bypass human reason, to influence without informing-- is where we really need to focus our attention. And, in a political world where the chief activity the Supreme Court enabled in Citizens United, and exacerbated in McCutcheon, is the purchase of advertising, we should be asking the radical question of whether the mass propaganda methods developed in advertising (Goebbels gratefully acknowledged his debt to U.S. admen) are compatible with the existence of representative democracy at all. The nightmarish horrors unleashed by twentieth-century mass propaganda make a potent case they are not.
Yet I defy anyone to show me any real difference between the endless "drivel" our Supreme Court has authorized and Goebbels' most fiendish creations. So why do we expect our democracy to survive any better than Germany's this onslaught of "ogre speech"? Especially when our news reporting--that lynchpin of any free society--is already so censored and spin-doctored as to itself constitute a type of "ogre speech."
Inquiring minds--ones that treasure the miracle of human speech and reason--want to know.