04/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Freedom of Speech Versus the Tyranny of Greed

Cicero wrote in his Dialogue, De Oratore that "speech matters in those forms of government where consensus is achieved by reasoned persuasion rather than by autocratic decree, and where political decisions are submitted to the crucible of argument and counter‐argument in the public forum."

As Robert Pogue Harrison put it in his "Essay on the Human Condition," "thought must flower in speech and the public sphere must blossom with discourse. In the architectonics of the American political system, Congress is one place where we still have that public forum. And because that forum is representative of ALL the people, Congress must be the keeper of the flame of our freedom to speak."

But so, you ask, who has removed that freedom to speak? The majority opinion in Citizens United only opens the floodgates of speech to a larger group of speakers bound together by their corporate ties, their business interests. What could the harm be? And is that harm real or only imagined in the minds of those who disagree with the Court's opinion?

The harm is not so much in the ruling itself but in what it portends for this country. It is an unfortunate circumstance that in this 21st Century, the direct ties of the people to their representatives have either been severed or ignored. Congress was created as a place where the 'commonweal' was the business of the day and that wealth was supposed to include all people in the civil body politic. Rather than binding us each to each by our mutual loyalty and generosity, Congress, our principal public forum, has become a marketplace where ideas are bought, sold, and traded to the highest bidder, held hostage to the bribery of political fortunes. If it were indeed a place where many opinions could be aired, where speeches were clear, concise, and had a point, where generous understanding was the order of the day, then Congress could truly be said to be a public forum where speech could breathe free.

America in this century has become a voyeur society. We are lazy when it comes to participating in our political system. Television and film cannot take the place of a public forum. We have allowed ourselves to be engulfed by couch potato politics where the communication is always silent on one side of the screen. And if we are allowed to talk back to the screen it is usually only for a quick yes or no answer that satisfies only the voracious appetite of the pollster.

So, you ask again, where is the harm done by Citizens United? There is none if freedom to speak is not enslaved by the tyranny of greed or by the desire of a few to take over the voice box of the many. Whether tyranny is thrust upon us from outside or self‐imposed by our own lethargy and ignorance, it is tyranny nonetheless. The harm of greed will not come forward and warn the people of its intentions. Television will dutifully transmit it through cute and clever ads for products and services and the dumb pipe of our financial services will disguise its effects.

Corporate greed is not new or inevitable. America and the world at large have recently witnessed a showing of corporate greed that dwarfs the robber barons of the mid 19th Century. Our Congress seems to have lost its way‐‐it cannot see or hear or be touched by the misery of ordinary people. Congress is supposed to be the bridge, the tie that binds the people to that brand of democracy that is the hallmark of 21st Century America: one person, one vote. The people have lost patience with the representative democracy created by the Founders. We are not willing to wait for the right to catch up with the enforcement of democracy -- an enforcement that might follow as fast as circumstances should permit, as Abraham Lincoln once famously wrote.

Now more than ever, our elected representatives have to be hyper‐vigilant and pro‐active and not turn away from the face of corporate greed -- either foreign or domestic. And though our mantle of democracy may not fit our swollen representatives quite as well as it once did, our system of representative democracy requires our combined and collective goodwill for ALL the people. It is what the majority of the people‐‐voting through their elected representatives‐‐want that should be enacted and/or re‐enacted into law.

I come back to Cicero. I want America to be a democracy where "speech matters"; where it is not just a rhetorical device used to obscure or trick people into thinking they are being heard. Words that contain hope can be bold; they can lift the veil that clouds the mind and hardens the heart. Words can become deeds. And our deeds will set us free.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?