Corporate Conscience

Helen Caldicott  , physician and author, whom Kurt admired for her wisdom, compassion and courage .

Helen Caldicott, physician and author, whom Kurt admired for her wisdom, compassion and courage .

Awakening to the manifold monstrosities committed by corporate enterprise, people frequently perceive the rain of assaults upon their sensibilities with bitterness or anger, reacting to recurrent rapacity as though rudely shoved toward the rim of despair, numbingly buffeted by reading about one ripoff after another, enormous conceits of greed and blatant crimes against Nature. One mindful lesson we may discover in all this is suggested by the idea of PERSPECTIVE, as a metaphor of the process depicted both by Dürer and Duchamp, and as studied by Polaiuolo and Panofsky. How else are we to retain our respect for the historical dignity of human institutions and the accomplishments of civilization? How else, while retaining our sense of humor, are we to achieve a realization of cosmic interaction between Wisdom and Compassion? For, as the cautionary instruction of Greek tragedy makes clear, vengeance and retribution are unpromising modes of response, ones that perpetuate a curse of continuity all their own. In the end, we may be much better advised to prepare ourselves for practicing forgiveness.

We may get lots of practice before somehow effecting a social and cultural reorientation toward the fundamental principles of life, with a sense of wholeness and well-being for all that lives. This is not news to the "nuts," nor to most decent, ordinary human beings; still, there is something to be said for its affirmation as a central theme that has--for millennia--provided definitions of basic sanity. It may help us to bolster courage and determination in addressing the problem heroically, head-on, taking a brave dive into the river of awareness as a baby-like innocence is being swept towards an imminent cataract.

The news media and standard press--pressured by vested interests and coerced by the clout of corporate advertisers--now serves as a virtual propaganda vehicle, stuffed deeply in the pockets of public relations experts with callous talents for putting their self-serving spin on what chance few revelations of corporate lapses come to light. The public's perception of a gargantuan global catastrophe is undercut systematically by the emblazoned sensational sequence of local mini-disasters. The issues of really large scope and scale, such as that of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (though tantamount to planetary suicide) are not very "sexy" so the stories languish, while the lone mass-murderer--though certainly sad enough as a reflection upon human beings gone astray--is featured on the front page and prime time from the first instance of perpetrated crime to the last gasp of execution.

The occasional sanctimonious editorial wheedle and whine about our ongoing ecological devastation--treated as a trendy topic, and offered as a sop to the insulted intelligence of newspaper and magazine readers, radio listeners and viewers of television--is seldom the subject of trenchant cause and effect analyses. In a pervasive paroxysm of paranoia, the pocketed press--a fatuous, "Grand Fallooning" Fourth Estate, fearful of litigation and conniving for influence--though it may indicate an agency or corporate entity bearing responsiblity for the Disaster of the Day--seldom gets down to brass tacks.

Individual human beings are behind every corporate decision: company CEOs, board members, presidents, directors, major shareholders, and managerial personnel--sometimes right down to the workers in field or factory. A corporation-man who once ruled over the domain of professional baseball, Mr. Peter Ueberroth, became a banner waver for the contrived "California Council on Competitiveness"--similar to a national program headed by Vice President Dan Quayle--which, while faking concern for commercial competition, actually assaulted educational funding and subverted worker compensation programs to the advantage of insurers. This Council urged lowering taxes on corporate entities, proposed new limitations on product liability, with sanctions against "frivolous" lawsuits to discourage individuals from proceeding against any corporation, and "repeal of the law which holds corporations criminally liable for their acts." A spearhead of the attack was directed toward environmental awareness, aiming to gut the California Environmental Quality Act by concentrating permit authority in the hands of the governor. Then Mr. Ueberroth was named to help rebuild riot-torn L.A.

[Robert B. Gunnison, "Economic Panel Urges Overhaul For California: Council on Competitiveness attacks state's `well-honed job-killing machine,'" San Francisco Chronicle, April 24, 1992.]

If destruction of the global ecosystem is at all a "business," then it is a bad business and must stop. If the nature of the job leads to leeching lead into groundwater, producing generations of sickly, sad and suffering children with their poor brains malformed and their bodies wracked with wretched pain, and poisoning the Earth itself, then these are jobs no one should be doing. After all, it's not as though the work that really needs to be done or all the work worth doing has been completed. We have big messes that need cleaning up, and worthy projects for repairing and rebuilding basic infrastructures both in the United States and in other nations. There is no surfeit of noble, challenging, rewarding, kind and compassionate jobs plainly good for business, good for people, and good in themselves.

In the good Doctor Caldicott's diagnosis of the pestilential affliction imposed upon our dear planet Earth by the exponential increase of population, she takes into account the implications of persons both real and imaginary. Her practical wisdom and reassuring tone of rationality doubtlessly derive (at least in part) from treating the symptoms of suffering displayed by ordinary human beings among whom were many children, and with whom--in the strength of their innocence--one can really communicate only by telling the truth.

A noteworthy example of the deceptively vast extent of transnational corporate influence, among the several she cites in her various publications, is the case of the Gulf Oil Company:

Gulf Oil owns some publishing companies in New York. They own some media companies. They own God knows what. They masquerade as Gulf Oil, but underneath that sign they own a huge amount of corporations, probably making food and all sorts of things. All of our food is produced by huge conglomerate corporations. The ...result of these cooperative takeovers is that in the end only one corporation will own the whole thing. That's the logical conclusion, and it's happening really fast. That's not free enterprise. That's not capitalism. That's economic feudalism. It isn't right.

[Caldicott, "Saving the Earth," p. 9.]

Or, consider another of Doctor Caldicott's shattering examples, that of General Electric, which emphasizes the determined intention of transnational corporations to control, not only policy, but both the content and the distribution of information itself.

We must also examine the corporations that now own the U.S. media and their connections with other businesses. For instance, General Electric, which owns Raytheon, manufacturer of the Patriot Missile, also owns the National Broadcasting Corporation. It is surely fair to ask, therefore, whether NBC could be impartial in its analysis and reporting of nuclear power stations, radiation accidents, demonstrations against nuclear weapons testing, the freeze, detente, or the Persian Gulf war. Impartiality appears impossible. [Indeed, malicious disinformation about the bogus effectiveness of the Patriot Missile during the Persian Gulf war--used deliberately to mislead Congress and the American public--came to light a year after the war, but in the media, the story was allowed swiftly to die.]

General Electric may serve as a prototype transnational corporation that has an enormous impact through the media. You might think that General Electric is true to its motto and "brings good things to life," like irons, stoves, washing machines, and refrigerators (all of which use electricity). But what is this corporation really doing behind its benign facade?

Its operations extend into fifty countries, in its search for markets, production facilities and raw materials. Ronald Reagan was its devoted salesman for some [eight] years, as the host of the "General Electric Theater" television programs from 1954 to 1962. GE built an electric house for the Reagans in the 1960s, complete with such new inventions as a garbage disposal unit and a dishwasher.

GE has been involved in nuclear weapons production since the end of the Second World War, as well as in the construction of nuclear power plants. In 1945, GE's president, Charles Wilson, opposed conversion of the military economy to civilian production and helped set in motion the machinery to ensure a permanent war economy...GE had, by 1991, become one of the largest nuclear weapons producers in the land, grossing $11 billion in nuclear warfare systems in the period 1984-86. It makes parts for the Trident and MX missiles and for the Stealth and B1 bombers. It is the developer and sole producer of the trigger for every nuclear weapon made in the United States; it manufactures Star Wars components, and it has a key role in the manufacture of all nuclear weapons...ranging from uranium mining [in itself, possibly the greatest long-term source of global radiation hazard], plutonium production, weapons testing and nuclear waste storage.

Since 1945 GE has helped shape government policy to increase sales and profits for its nuclear weapons and related divisions....GE executives also belong to key business groups and think tanks that exert enormous pressure on government policy....Not the least, GE executives belong to very influential Pentagon committees. For instance, one executive who held various positions in GE, in 1987 headed a presidential space commission that strongly recommended that NASA develop a space station [decried by many scientists as an unnecessary and impractical adjunct to space research and a squandering of financial resources], and in that same year GE was awarded an $800 million contract for work on it.

Like most corporations, GE has been involved in takeovers and purchases of other companies. For instance, it bought RCA for $6.4 billion in 1986, thereby also acquiring NBC.

[Caldicott, If You Love This Planet: A Plan to Heal the Earth, Norton, New York (1992), pp. 180 ff.]

So, let us suppose that we decide to get our news from one of the other television stations...say, ABC. But what does Helen Caldicott tell us about this channel, in the context of her chapter on "The American Media and the Fate of the Earth?"

...ABC is owned by Capital Cities, a huge company with interests in radio and publishing. In 1985, it bought ABC for $3.4 billion. But who owns Capital Cities? William Casey, deceased director of the CIA under Reagan, founded Capital Cities in 1954. When he was forced to put his stocks in a blind trust in 1983 because of his administrative appointment, he quietly kept control of his largest single stock, $7.5 million in Capital Cities.

The history and purchase of ABC is in itself very interesting. In November 1984, Casey, as CIA director, asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to revoke all of ABC's radio and TV licenses because one of their news reports suggested that the CIA had attempted to assassinate a U.S. citizen. In February 1985, the CIA asked the FCC to apply the fairness doctrine to ABC; in March, Capital Cities bought ABC. Not a good beginning, for the newly acquired ABC, in impartiality and fairness in reporting. It was now owned, in effect, by the head of the CIA. Other board members of Capital Cities sit on the boards of, or are connected with, IBM, General Foods, Johnson & Johnson, Texaco, Avon, Conrail, and many others. See the interconnecting links between transnational corporations and the media?

[Caldicott, If You Love This Planet, p. 182 f.]


Obviously, in the corporate world as in the world of individual, real human beings, one may project judgments of "good guys and bad guys." Sometimes those who wear the white hats and those who wear the black may find their roles dramatically reversed, as in Alexander Nevsky, when director Sergei Eisenstein costumed the invading Teutonic Knights in white while portraying the heroic defenders of the Russian homeland in stark black against the ice and snow of Lake Chudskoye. Interestingly enough, Marcel Duchamp anticipated certain features associated with the modern corporation, from his attraction to the machine aesthetic and the processes of mass production to favoring a rather impersonal quality of style and his efforts to transcend the preciousness of a traditional artistic ego. Duchamp's collaborations, his invention of the alter-ego Rrose Sélavy, and even his sense of privacy and penchant for secret projects could be seen as reflecting characteristics of contemporary corporate behavior. The most explicit instance for such associations, however, was Duchamp's instrumentality in founding (with Katherine Drier and Man Ray, in 1920) the Societé Anonyme--the very name of which is a French form of designating the corporation. This was a visionary venture conceived as a pioneering Museum of Modern Art, which succeeded in sponsoring lectures, issuing publications, and producing over eighty public exhibitions while building up a large collection of international modern art--a track record truly worthy of corporate enterprise.

The "person problem" emerges as a quintessential aspect of the four main areas of human activity that we have chosen to represent by the four nuts and bolts of the sculpture. Furthermore, the problem with persons--real and imaginary, which is to say individual and corporate--can be reduced, fundamentally, to a question of number. It now appears that we have--or soon may have--too many people on this planet. Conversely, given that corporations are among us, if not by Divine Will then possibly as formalizations of higher mammalian instincts for cooperative behavior, and that they will not go away all by themselves, we may soon have--paradoxically--too few corporations.

The first conclusion is rapidly becoming obvious, and indeed unavoidable, in the eyes of many quite ordinary people--although it raises difficult, painful, impassioned partisanship when broached in debates about birth control, abortion, child welfare, medical care, disease, starvation, and the inevitable consequences of pollution.

The second conclusion, although perhaps more surprising, admittedly lacks the same force of logic, because it is based on economic assumptions about the benefits of open competition. In this view corporate enterprise, as with simpler forms of trading among individuals, must respect conventions, rules: it cannot be allowed to degenerate into war. Accordingly, one must play fair and in the spirit of the game; otherwise--as in sports when a team is penalized or players ejected--there must be sanctions (beyond bankruptcy proceedings) applied in an appropriate and timely manner, say, by revoking a corporate charter, and thus providing at least one qualification for "immortality."

We have elected to emphasize as "quintessential" here, certain monumental, symbolic features of the person problem. As with counting by-the-numbers in our analysis of With Hidden Noise, the question of measure and number also epitomizes several other subsidiary issues. When asked (in Spring, 1992) what she thought was the single most pressing environmental issue, Helen Caldicott characteristically resisted providing a simplistic answer. Nevertheless, she came around to the implicit but inescapable conclusion that every aspect of our deleterious impact upon the ecosphere can be related in a causal way to the sheer, increasing multiplicity of human beings, teeming like vicious, increasingly psychotic rats in an ever more crowded cage, devouring one another and suicidally contaminating the material circumstances defining the very habitat necessary for (our own) survival:

[Yet,] there are no single issues that are most pressing. They all come together in a bunch, and they are: overpopulation of one species, homo sapiens, which is us; species extinction of thirty million other species; deforestation; ozone depletion; greenhouse warming; chemical pollution; and radioactive pollution. That's just some of the issues--the main ones--and they're all as serious as each other. And if we don't do anything about any one of them, we're in trouble.

[Helen Caldicott, M.D., "Saving the Planet: Rethinking Our Bond With Nature," interviewed by Richard Wolinsky, editor, Folio, Listener Sponsored Pacifica Radio, Program Guide for KPFA & KFCF (April 1992).]

Never before in history has the impact of our mere numbers been so implacable, despite the beligerent denial of evidence from those locked into a Pollyanna philosophy of wish-fulfillment that would make magical incantations of words like GROWTH, PROGRESS and DEVELOPMENT.

We've never been in a situation like this where we're increasing exponentially, where there are so many of us. The old religions that talked about abortion and birth control are totally obsolete. In a certain sense, religion is obsolete when it deals with reproduction in human beings. In fact, the Catholic Church even a hundred years ago had no policy on abortion. It wasn't even an issue. And then, suddenly, they decided it would be an issue....

[Caldicott, "Saving the Planet," p. 1.]

Delivering her incisive mind on the same topic, although in a different publication, Dr. Caldicott saw the parallel between the anti-choice position of the Reagan administration and the obssessive concern on the part of the Roman Catholic Church with subjugating, controlling and denying full human capacity to female homo sapiens. But when this address was first given, she could not have known the details--since published in a Time magazine cover story--of the (Un-) "Holy Alliance" linking Reagan's anti-abortion, right-wing political program to conspiracy with the Pope in support of Poland's Solidarity movement. Even this bit of sensationalism was weakened, however, by the Time-Warner corporate censors who could not see their way clear to articulate the certainly impeachable nature of this act, insofar as it constituted a deliberate deception and circumvention of Congress in the secret conduct of United States foreign policy by conspiring with the foreign head of a religious denomination--expressly the sort of thing America's Founders feared, and the very reason for mandating in the Constitution a balance of powers requiring the President to secure advice and consent in the conduct of international affairs.

Let's get in on the major issues. Let's talk about overpopulation and the Catholic now there are 5 billion people on the planet. We're increasing exponentially, doubling, so in the next century there are going to be 14 billion people on this planet that can't sustain the number of people we have already. So what did Reagan do?

In the Reagan White House they said to any country which is practicing birth control and abortion, "We'll cut off money for birth control [and abortion, and all family planning]. Then we had the...Catholic Church [which] is run by old white men, who have never had sex and if they had they shouldn't have, telling women what to do with their bodies. They don't even know about relationships with women and how hard it is to have a heterosexual ongoing relationship....Anyway, they're running around telling people they can't practice birth control, contraception or abortion. How dare they say that! On a planet that's dying from a plague of human beings! We're a plague, an absolute plague! We're incredibly egocentric. We think we're God's gift to the world. It says in the Bible man was given dominion over the planet. But who wrote the Bible? We are in the process of making extinct one hundred species per day....

What are we doing? We developed this tiny little thing we are in a very short space of evolutionary time. We developed this, the opposing thumb, so we could hold instruments and weapons. And we could master our environment, and we developed this, this huge neocortex which made us so darn intelligent and we can communicate with each other, and we totally control and sublimate and subdue this [the heart]....We are subduing the planet and destroying it. We don't think about that. We're reproducing....That's what the human race is like, an absolute plague, and we're so egocentric. Who are we? Is my life more valuable than the life of an elephant? What I do during my life is much more damaging to the ecosphere than any elephant ever did. That goes for all other species on earth except us. We are ethnocentric, egocentric human beings. We think the world belongs to us. We think our life is very precious....I suppose it is....But really, if you think of's more important for all the other species to survive than us.

[Caldicott, "Saving the Planet," pp. 4 ff. See, Carl Bernstein, "The Holy Alliance," Time, Volume 139, No. 8 (February 24, 1992), pp. 28 ff., and "The U.S. and the Vatican on Birth Control," p. 35.]

The key to A bruit secret is secrecy, but what does secrecy really mean? Intertwined issues of secrecy and accountability (or, the avoidance thereof) have seriously imperiled the constitutional conduct of government and undermined the principle of the rule of law in the United States. In relation to corporations, the same issues have abetted and contrived to conceal a wholesale assault on the biosphere in the name of maximizing profits. One might suspect these events are related; but then, corporations are into virtually everything. Several running feet of bookshelf space can be found in libraries and in the bigger bookstores on the activities of corporations, on how this many, or that many, may actually rule the world. The number of really big contenders seems to be around two dozen--far fewer if we consider only the handful of transnational corporations that control the markets for grain, the basic food stuff, and with that (bruiting the secret), thepower to draw an uncompromising bottom line for persons, the ultimate determination: whoever eats will live, and whoever does not will die.

Apart from the wrath of a vengeful cosmos as a punishing reproof for humanity's lamentable collective insults to our own Mother Nature, the medieval scourge of deadly sins may yet return to chastise bodies corporate in our modern world. Individual pecadilloes and transgressions--now with karma magnified and reduplicated as in a hall of fun-house mirrors--force us to see ourselves again anew, in a vastly broadened scope and on a scale grossly ballooned, acting in a Middle-Ages morality play, behind the multiple personae of corporate masks, through the furtive business of companies come into being wholly by powers of invention through acts of unnatural law. For those who remain awake among the disempowered and disdained, non-incorporated order of real, INDIVIDUAL human beings, the disingenuous scurrying about for profits, political power and the promise of dynastic perpetuity, terrifyingly token a set of impending threats to the harmonic continuation of life (as we presently know it) and the achievement of cosmic fruitfulness on this, our precious planet home.

Kurt von Meier
Excerpted from A Ball of Twine: Marcel Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise