Freedom and Equality vs. Cliches in the Fresno Bee

There’s a remarkably silly op-ed column in The Fresno Bee this week. Unfortunately, it’s typical of hundreds of editorials published around the country every year. This one is by a professor of political science at Fresno State University named Thomas Holyoke, who has written a book called “The Ethical Lobbyist.” It’s probably unfair to rip on Prof. Holyoke (whom I have never met and of whom I know nothing beyond this op-ed) because so many others are saying similar things. But what’s interesting is the raw number of non-sequiturs and ipse dixit assertions made in this article (as in so many others). Basically, Prof. Holyoke is upset that a federal judge in California has ruled that Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a tax-exempt charity that does not spend money on or contribute to political campaigns, cannot be required to turn over its list of donors and members to the State of California.

I won’t repeat the assertions of Prof. Holyoke’s op-ed in toto. You can read it at the link above if you want. In a nutshell, he claims Americans for Prosperity Foundation is spending terrible “dark money,” and from there flow all the usual assertions. Here are a few thoughts I had as I read his piece, which is so wrong on so many levels.

When The Fresno Bee publishes a staff editorial, we don’t know who wrote it, or whether it was a decision of the Editorial Board or the publisher. But we don’t call them “dark editorials.” When Bee reporters use anonymous sources, we don’t call them “dark sources” and get all worked up. Rather, the reader simply considers that in evaluating the article. Suppose Prof. Holyoke wrote this piece at the suggestion of someone else – some “dark” friend. Indeed, suppose the ideas are ones he picked up from a “dark” colleague in the faculty lounge. We wouldn’t know, would we?

Prof. Holyoke thinks that funding “civic speakers” is “socially useful,” but if those speakers urge people to vote in some way, apparently that is “problematic.” Why is educating people about political candidates not considered “socially useful”? Would it be better if people (and candidates, perhaps?) never discussed politics, or the merits of candidates for office? What if those civic speakers urge generally that the state should spend more money on Fresno State University? Is that “socially useful”? I’m glad Prof. Holyoke is there to make the decision. I suspect urging listeners to support more spending on higher education would meet his “socially useful” test.

Prof. Holyoke suggests that Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charity (tax-deductible), should not be treated as one, because there is also an Americans for Prosperity, Inc., a 501(c)(4) non-profit (not tax-deductible). Sort of like saying that you should no longer get a tax deduction for your charitable activities, because you also spent money on yourself last year.

“When we hear, and thus behold, a speaker, we can listen, argue, agree and even ignore that speaker,” says Prof. Holyoke. “More importantly,” he adds, “we can respond to that speaker and call him or her out when we believe they are wrong.”

Wait a minute? Call out the speaker? Shouldn’t we call out the ideas we believe are wrong? Is Prof. Holyoke arguing for an ad hominem basis of civic discourse? What if you’re the authors of the Federalist Papers? Or the author of “Common Sense”? What if you’re an African-American recording artist in the 1940s, and are concerned your music will not be well received if people “behold” the color of your skin? Or a woman author in the 19th century, who thinks your ideas will get more traction if people don’t know you are a woman? History is full of people who have made their arguments in the “dark,” precisely to raise up the quality of public debate and discussion; the “darkness” allows arguments and work to be evaluated on the merits. The work and ideas are called out – not the speaker. This has long allowed unpopular minorities to raise up public discussion and in the process strike a blow for their own equality. It has long helped unpopular individuals, or individuals who face threat to their livelihoods and even their lives because of their ideas place those ideas in the public square.

And what of this idea: “The cornerstone of republican government is one-person, one-vote, where everyone has equal power in the political process”? Where did that come from? Notice how easily he slides from equal “voting” to “speaking” and to the idea of equal influence. Of course we have equal votes. But we don’t have equal opportunities to speak, or equal influence. We never have. Do you feel you have the power of the editors of The Fresno Bee? When was the last time you were offered op-ed space in the paper, like Prof. Holyoke? Does your job give you a captive audience of students to speak to on a regular basis, where you might discuss things like “political science,” “ethical lobby[ing],” and other topics with no relation to politics? If everyone should have equal “political voice,” how does Prof. Holyoke justify those vaunted “civic speakers” and their “socially useful” comments? Don’t they have more “voice” than others? Might not their words influence how people think about life, about public affairs, about issues, and about who should hold office?

As citizens, we have equal votes. We all, as equals, have a right to privacy, and an equal right to hear the opinions of others. We have equally a right to use our talents and abilities to try to influence for the better the world we live in. That’s what Prof. Holyoke is trying to do. He’s just trying to do it by denying those same liberties to others.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.