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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights - Thom Hartmann description

While I was reading Unequal Protection, I would often hear two voices. In the foreground, there was the Tim Robbins puppet from Team America: World Police:
Let me explain to you how this works: you see, the corporations finance Team America, and then Team America goes out... and the corporations sit there in their... in their corporation buildings, and... and, and see, they're all corporation-y... and they make money.
Much of it does indeed come across as the kind of crude anti-right, anti-corporate propaganda cleverly satirized by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In the background, though, I could hear the young Joan Baez singing a verse from All My Trials:
If living were a thing that money could buy
You know the rich would live, and the poor would die.
The book may be unsubtle anti-corporate propaganda; but most of it, I fear, is true.

Brian has already done a brilliant job of telling you what it's about in his review, so let me continue with my reactions. The basic theme, in a sentence, is how corporations are rapidly acquiring all political and economic power, and how a major tool they are using is the doctrine of "corporate personhood": at least in the US, corporations have the legal rights of people.


Brian likes the analogy of a zombie plague. My mental picture is a little different. I don't see corporations as zombies. Zombies are slow, stupid creatures, and corporations are neither slow nor stupid. To me, they're closer to the Machines from the Terminator series. As that insightful thinker Herb Simon once said, large organizations are the first true artificial intelligences; like the Machines, we created them to do our bidding, but they have become powerful and autonomous. Hartmann keeps pointing this out. Corporations are potentially immortal, can exist in many places at once, and are able to command far greater resources than almost any human.

As this book shows, corporations, again like the Machines, can in effect travel backwards in time; they do this by retroactively changing the interpretation of legal language. The most interesting and compelling section describes how the notion of corporate personhood got started. Hartmann provides a mountain of evidence to demonstrate that the people who drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were anything but well-disposed towards corporations. Indeed, the American Revolution was more a revolution against the British East India Company than one against Britain itself. Well aware of the potential dangers, they did their best to safeguard the young republic from the menace of overly powerful corporations.

Unfortunately, a legal document like a constitution is in essence a piece of software, and even the most carefully written software generally contains a few security holes. Creative lawyers working for the railroad companies tried to hack into the system. After numerous failed attempts, they succeeded in changing the meaning of a key passage in the Fourteenth Amendment, so that language originally intended to grant rights to slaves ended up granting the same rights to corporations. Once the precedent had been created, it could be exploited in many ways, which Hartmann describes.


Evidently, this is far from being the only trick that corporations have used to increase their power, but I'm startled to see how effective it's been. I'm also struck by how powerless we are to fight it. A case-based legal system, it seems to me, is a bit like the hero of Memento. Once he's tattooed one of those cryptic messages on his body, he can no longer remember where it came from; he just acts on what he reads, no matter how little sense it makes.


The book tries to end on a positive note, describing ways that ordinary citizens can try to fight corporate power. I would like to believe this, but it's not easy. As a chess player, I know, more than most people, what it's like to fight a machine. I have played many games against them, and I am familiar with the dreadful feeling that all modern chess players will recognize. You think you've cornered it, but it just continues to defend, waiting for the smallest lapse in concentration. If you once relax your guard, it will immediately exploit your mistake. The manufacturers actually have a written warning on the box, telling you to be careful about playing Fritz in "unleashed" mode: doing this for too long can be severely depressing.

Well, perhaps there's a John Connor out there, and if so he may be spurred into action by this thought-provoking book. Brian, thank you so much for sending me a copy! I'm immediately passing it on to some other people who'd like to read it.