In protesting the Supreme Court's continued commitment to the First Amendment, Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, trotted out a "quote" by Abraham Lincoln on the dangers of corporations. The attribution of the quote to Lincoln has been widely discredited.
It was odd that WDC fell for this because only weeks before Al Gore had taken some heat for including it in his autobiography Assault on Reason. (Ok, I made up the autobiography part but you've got to love it when the title of a book so accurately captures its contents.)
(And, yes, I know that Gore's book has endnotes citing to the discredited sources of the quote.)
Charlie Sykes called WDC on its error and McCabe is now hot and bothered. In a post called "Catering to Delusion" he defends himself by citing the various (old) sources (Gore used the same ones) that have been called into question. But we know that the phony quote made it into print. That's how it came to circulate. These sources have been discredited not, as McCabe seems to think, by the Snopes website but by Lincoln scholars such as Thomas Schwartz (look for the column captioned "Lincoln Never Said That!")and Merrill Petersen. (Schwartz, incidentally, has also gone after bogus Lincoln quotes favored by conservatives.)
Rather than defend its legitimacy (or concede his mistake), McCabe trots out another Lincoln quote that he thinks means the same thing.
Not quite. The discredited quote has to do with a supposed concern that "corporations" would concentrate wealth and destroy the Republic. (If Lincoln had said that, it would not have been one of his more prescient moments - democracy having survived so far.)
The second quote has to do with the folly of bailing out "greedy capitalists" who "generally" do bad things. I can't say whether the second quote is accurate. The use of the term capitalist in the Illinois legislature in 1837 sounds a tad anachronistic, but I suppose its possible.
Even if the quote is accurate, the idea that corporations or capitalists can can be "bad" is not useful here. We generally do not, for obvious reasons, limit free speech to the universally virtuous.
In any event, what difference does this battle for the soul of Abraham make anyway? I understand that "corporation" and "capitalist" are epithets to some people so that finding that Lincoln or some other hallowed historical figure said something critical of them implies a whole series of views on issues that the figure in question could not possibly have contemplated.
But none of that has much to do with FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life. Although the majority reaffirmed the idea that even business corporations have first amendment rights, the case involved government suppression of speech by a grassroots advocacy organization that did not wish to identify its (likely noncorporate) donors or raise its money in the teaspoonfuls mandated by McCain-Feingold.
Maybe Lincoln would have done just that. If so, he'd have been just as wrong as when he suspended habeas (a point on which I do not expect McCabe will invoke his moral authority) or arrested the "Peace Democrats" or ""Copperheads" who opposed his war and accused him of lying about its purpose.
But let's get back to the quote. How could WDC have made this mistake? One possibility is that McCabe and company don't get out much. Here's his jeremiad against talk radio listeners:
Sykes has something in common with much of his audience. Those who hang on his every word want to be lied to. They don't want to believe in evolution. They want to believe the earth is really 6,000 years old, despite the preponderance of scientific evidence showing they are a few billion years off.
I am gobsmacked by the fact that a presumably sophisticated and intelligent public figure actually thinks that talk radio's audience is made up of bible thumping young earth creationists. If you really think that folks you don't agree with must be a bunch of mouth-breathing morons, I suppose you never will encounter any ideas but your own and will continue to commit howler after howler in your isolation. If you think that you and your friends are oh-so-much-smarter, why take anyone else seriously? Why take the time to make sure that you know what you're talking about?