Opinion

First they came for the donor lists …

Photo of George Scoville
George Scoville
Media Strategist

“Don’t we all have a right to know,” asks Obama campaign manager Jim Messina in a recent fundraising email, “exactly which corporations and individuals are spending millions in attack ads to influence elections — and what their agendas are?” While we should expect this type of rhetoric from bullies who think that the government should force workers to give up their right to a secret ballot in unionization proceedings, making it easier for Democratic supporters to rake new campaign funds from their peers’ paychecks, this is one of those times when “No” is a complete, forceful, and declarative sentence.

But in fairness to Messina, to whom I wish a swift and humiliating trip to the unemployment line this November, we should (for a moment) take his claim at face value. We should ask, “Upon what moral principle” — we’re talking about rights, after all — “is this ‘right to know’ predicated?”

Perhaps Messina took pages from liberal Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz’s playbook. “[T]his theory of rights is a theory of wrongs,” wrote Dershowitz in Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights. We derive our rights in Dershowitz’s world from “… the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, the Stalinist starvation and purges, the Holocaust, the Cambodian slaughter, and other abuses that reasonable people now recognize to have been wrongs.” Setting aside for a moment what an old professor of mine likes to call the “Heideggerian ‘we’” voice with which Dershowitz writes (the “me and my reader who obviously agrees with me, because no rational person would disagree” voice), Messina could here be attempting to derive the “right to know” from injustices suffered by some individuals at the hands of other individuals and corporations.

This is a logical misstep that requires extraordinary, perverted mental gymnastics. Public policy — from labor policy and generous entitlements to environmental policy and financial regulation — has already largely addressed the injustices perpetrated on some individuals by other individuals and corporations. Workers today enjoy rights to overtime pay, or to not be sent down a mine, canary in hand, as a child. Citizens living near factories today largely enjoy a right to breathe clean air and to drink clean water. Citizen victims of Bernie Madoff’s investment schemes enjoy the right to restitution, and are protected by Freedom of Information Act requirements that compel financial firms to disclose certain beneficial transactions. Thus, it remains unclear from where Messina derives this “right to know” — never mind that losing a presidential election in and of itself in no way imperils Messina’s rights, or those of the president’s supporters.

Dershowitz also wrote, “[T]he First Amendment is premised on the idea that there should be a free marketplace of ideas. Private universities, for example, are not constrained by the Constitution, but most choose to follow it anyway, because they recognize that the exchange of ideas — no matter how wrongheaded or obnoxious — is good for education. By accepting this model of open discourse, no university,” or in our case, no political campaign, “can reasonably claim to be ‘dishonored’ by views expressed by students or faculty members …” or in our case, by the president’s detractors paying for political communications that espouse their personal views on a larger scale. If Messina borrowed Dershowitz’s playbook, he must have forgotten this very important page.