On Friday night my wife and I watched Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Having enjoyed much of Mr. Tarantino’s previous work (Pulp Fiction, in particular) I was anticipating with great relish another dose of his enormous flair for form, pacing, humor, dialog, color, and hubris. He did not disappoint. Bloody, violent, and disturbing, yes, but a great treat all the same.
I had two philosophical issues with the movie. One quite limited and aesthetic, and the other raising a broader question. The first I will explain by saying that I prefer solid wood to veneer. Veneer inserts a fiction between the viewer and the object. Solid wood permits the viewer to see the object for what it is. Tarantino’s script rewrote certain important, nay critical, aspects of the Second World War. While a pleasing veneer from a plot perspective, his choice seemed to me to be unnecessary.
The second issue had to do with something more fundamental. Ends and means.
The script bristled with rousting “let’s stick it to those krauts” moments with its eponymous hand-picked cadre of scalping killers bent on instilling rampant fear in the ranks of the German army. But once or twice I wondered whether Tarantino didn’t perhaps want us to feel just as uncomfortable about the brutality of the good guys as he did about the brutality of the bad guys. (If so, the movie perhaps ventured into new moral territory for Mr. Tarantino, who has previously cleaved to the open plain of moral expedience.)
The Inglorious Basterds slaughter and scalp and leave bloody mark on their victims, and we root for them, don’t we? I mean they’re fighting against the Nazi’s, after all. Later we see the self-important Nazi sharp-shooter hero turned actor picking off allied soldiers in a Goebbels propaganda movie and we’re supposed to feel disgust for him, aren’t we? After all, he’s fighting the allies.
After a while there’s so much wanton mayhem on both sides that we begin to lose sight of who holds the moral high ground. I was confused. I got the feeling that perhaps Mr. Tarantino was confused.
But that’s not what I really set out to write about. I really set out to write about those inglorious basterds the conservative supreme court justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, and Alito. As written about in the NY Times, their recent majority decision on campaign finance puts the free speech rights of corporations and other organizations on a par with that of individuals, opening the door to an increase in corporate money in politics.
Lead dissenter, Justice Stevens pointed out that no new principle required overruling two major campaign finance precedents. “The only relevant thing that has changed since” those two decisions, he wrote, “is the composition of this court.”
The conservative justices sought to equalize the rights of corporations and individuals. But surely the freedoms of corporations or organizations should be distinguished from those of individuals rather than equated to them?
Society affords certain rights and privileges to its individual members by virtue of the fundamental equality it wishes them to have. This is eminently sensible. But to say that corporate entities inherit these same rights by default rests on nothing but a sleight of hand. Corporate entities or other organizations serve society only as far as they don’t impose on the general rights or wants of society. That’s why corporations are regulated, so that we can keep them in check.
The right of free speech implies the voice of an individual conscience expressing itself. Where in a corporation would you find that individual conscience? If it’s in one person, then let that person speak. If it’s in a board room, then let those board members speak. If it’s in the shareholdings, then let those shareholders speak.
Let’s be frank, corporate free speech implies corporate special interest. Permitting it willy nilly in politics further dilutes the voice of the average American citizen.
“While American democracy is imperfect,” writes Justice Stevens, “few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”
Bravo, Justice Stevens.