Assigned, must-read reading of the day: Jane Mayer’s amazing article synthesizing the political and “philanthropic” careers for David and Charles Koch. They are basically the funding arm of the Tea Party movement, secular libertarianism, and have their fingers all over global warming denialism. I put “philanthropic” in scare quotes, because while the Koches give lots and lots and lots of money to non-profits, they usually do so with their own self-interest in mind. Their self-interest is, of course, their enormous corporation Koch Industries. They’re oil billionaires, giant polluters, and they really don’t like environmentalists or the little, insignificant non-billionaire portions of the population.
There’s a couple of insights Mayer brings to her analysis of the brothers Koch that I want to pull out and expand a little on. By no means are these the sum total of the article, so please do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. But I want to talk about what I consider a major misunderstanding of the relationship between the peons who show up at Tea Cracker protests and read right wing blogs, and the big money people who spread a lot of cash around convincing the peons to be angry about things like scientists telling the truth about global warming. There’s a tendency amongst liberals to give rich right wingers too much credit, which shows that even as we decry classism, we still fall for some of the prejudicial fallacies, such as believing the rich to be more clever than ordinary people. A lot of liberals spin this story of how big money types like the Koches put together these ridiculous stories that they then feed to the plebes, who regurgitate stuff like signs demanding to see the birth certificate. We see them as puppet masters whose ideas are so silly that they couldn’t believe it themselves. But that’s wrong. While I think there are definitely political operators who are purely cynical, like Karl Rove, in general most wingnuts, even the rich ones, are true believers. And one thing I really get off this article is that the Koches are able to sell their ridiculous ideas to the public not just because they spread money around like it’s cream cheese, but because they themselves believe their own bullshit.
Indeed, the article is an interesting examination in how to create someone whose worldview is so screwed up that he believes he’s doing the right thing by screwing the needy and destroying the planet for future generations. The Koches’ father was a standard issue racist nut who bought into all the John Bircher nonsense, including believing that Eisenhower was a Communist. (No wonder it’s easy to rationalize believing this about Obama!) And he raised his sons in a way that is what I suggest you do if you want to distort their understanding of what life is all about:
Koch emphasized rugged pursuits, taking his sons big-game hunting in Africa, and requiring them to do farm labor at the family ranch. The Kochs lived in a stone mansion on a large compound across from Wichita’s country club; in the summer, the boys could hear their friends splashing in the pool, but they were not allowed to join them. “By instilling a work ethic in me at an early age, my father did me a big favor, although it didn’t seem like a favor back then,” Charles has written. “By the time I was eight, he made sure work occupied most of my spare time.”
He also spent a lot of time indoctrinating them, but I think this is perhaps more important. Depriving someone of a childhood to instill a work ethic in them is a great way to bring someone up who doesn’t understand the value of work or of non-work life. Marc and I were having an interesting discussion on the subway yesterday, about “Mad Men”. (Which I’ll have to post about tomorrow, sorry!) We got to talking about their portrayal of Conrad Hilton, which actually softened the real life man’s uglier, harder edges, if you can believe it. And Marc said that, in his eyes, Paris Hilton is by far the better human being. After all, she knows what money is *for*, which is in service of living. The rich, he argued, are better off being the idle rich than getting sucked into the crazed business of making more and more money just to do it. Is it really a “work ethic” if you start to believe that money is the end, and not just the means to an end? Not that running hotels is somehow evil, but the end game of making money just to make money is purely evil, since it disassociates money from what it exists for, which is in service of human beings. And once you do that—once you start to see human beings as existing for money and not the other way around—libertarianism, anti-environmentalism, and general hostility towards government and social services all follow. To call that a “work ethic” is to put a moralistic gloss on immoral behavior.
This anecdote shows almost better than anything the relationship between conservative hostility to pleasure (at least any pleasure dissociated with flaunting wealth) and their political views. To feel good outside of showing off your financial successes is to remember that we’re human beings who exist for our own reasons, and are not just cogs in a machine. No wonder the elder Koch didn’t want his sons to just goof off and play. First you enjoy life outside of the grind of making and spending money, and next thing you know, you start to have kooky thoughts, such as believing that there’s more to life than the markets. Which could, in turn, cause you to entertain taboo thoughts, such as, “Poor people are human beings,” or “The environment is shared by all and shouldn’t be destroyed by a polluter just because he’s rich.” Koch seems to have taught his sons well, as a former friend of theirs can attest.
The Kochs have given millions of dollars to nonprofit groups that criticize environmental regulation and support lower taxes for industry. Gus diZerega, the former friend, suggested that the Kochs’ youthful idealism about libertarianism had largely devolved into a rationale for corporate self-interest. He said of Charles, “Perhaps he has confused making money with freedom.”
The only thing I disagree with is the notion that there is an idealistic libertarianism that exists outside of the ugly view that humans exist in service of money or social hierarchies. As far as I can tell, that’s the whole point of libertarianism. I think there’s a tendency amongst liberals to think of libertarians as hedonists who support legalizing drugs and prostitution. While those people exist, they’re a tiny sliver of libertarianism as it actually exists in the real world. And even then, mostly the arguments about legalizing these things stem from a sick belief that everything is a market, a love of reducing all human experience (including sex!) to dollars and cents. But I’d say that at this point in time, secular libertarians who give even an ounce of a shit about these kinds of things are a small fraction of the people who promote their ideas, with the latest incarnation being the Tea Party. The far more popular strain of libertarianism is the Christian libertarianism that you’re seeing in the actual Tea Party-backed candidates like Rand Paul, Sharron Angle, and Ken Buck. These people believe the markets are sacrosanct, pollution is fine, but that the government does have a duty to enforce social hierarchies by oppressing women, gays, non-Christians, basically anyone who is considered uppity for demanding equality.
The common thread between secular libertarianism and the more whole cloth Christian libertarianism is this rock solid belief that people exist to serve powerful institutions, and that existing hierarchies that put the wealthy on top (and men on top of women, and whites on top of non-white people) are inviolable because of this. It sucks to be a lesser person in the system, they believe, but that’s too bad. You’re just collateral damage. And in many cases, this is all rationalized as moral to the person who believes this because they view themselves as cogs in the same machine. They just think they’re bigger, more important cogs. But you still see that same distrust of those human activities that exist outside of the grind of working to maintain power hierarchies.
The Koch family—and other wealthy libertarians like them—are able to sell their ideas not just because they have money, but also because they believe in them so firmly. But these ideas wouldn’t get far if there wasn’t an audience for them. This general worldview that’s suspicious of pleasure, that conflates making money with genuinely meaningful work, that sees human beings as existing for institutions and not vice versa? It’s really common. It helps rationalize privilege to people who have it. That rationalization counts for more with many people than actual material benefits, which is why they often vote for policies that are ruinous to their own bank accounts, as long as the hierarchies are maintained.
This is getting long, so consider it part one. I want to talk about something else fascinating in this article in a post for later.