Saturday, January 22, 2011
On May 17th, a black-tie audience at the Metropolitan Opera House applauded as a tall, jovial-looking billionaire took the stage. It was the seventieth annual spring gala of American Ballet Theatre, and David H. Koch was being celebrated for his generosity as a member of the board of trustees; he had recently donated $2.5 million toward the company’s upcoming season, and had given many millions before that. Koch received an award while flanked by two of the gala’s co-chairs, Blaine Trump, in a peach-colored gown, and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, in emerald green. Kennedy’s mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, had been a patron of the ballet and, coincidentally, the previous owner of a Fifth Avenue apartment that Koch had bought, in 1995, and then sold, eleven years later, for thirty-two million dollars, having found it too small.
The gala marked the social ascent of Koch, who, at the age of seventy, has become one of the city’s most prominent philanthropists. In 2008, he donated a hundred million dollars to modernize Lincoln Center’s New York State Theatre building, which now bears his name. He has given twenty million to the American Museum of Natural History, whose dinosaur wing is named for him. This spring, after noticing the decrepit state of the fountains outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Koch pledged at least ten million dollars for their renovation. He is a trustee of the museum, perhaps the most coveted social prize in the city, and serves on the board of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where, after he donated more than forty million dollars, an endowed chair and a research center were named for him.
One dignitary was conspicuously absent from the gala: the event’s third honorary co-chair, Michelle Obama. Her office said that a scheduling conflict had prevented her from attending. Yet had the First Lady shared the stage with Koch it might have created an awkward tableau. In Washington, Koch is best known as part of a family that has repeatedly funded stealth attacks on the federal government, and on the Obama Administration in particular.
With his brother Charles, who is seventy-four, David Koch owns virtually all of Koch Industries, a conglomerate, headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, whose annual revenues are estimated to be a hundred billion dollars. The company has grown spectacularly since their father, Fred, died, in 1967, and the brothers took charge. The Kochs operate oil refineries in Alaska, Texas, and Minnesota, and control some four thousand miles of pipeline. Koch Industries owns Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Georgia-Pacific lumber, Stainmaster carpet, and Lycra, among other products. Forbes ranks it as the second-largest private company in the country, after Cargill, and its consistent profitability has made David and Charles Koch—who, years ago, bought out two other brothers—among the richest men in America. Their combined fortune of thirty-five billion dollars is exceeded only by those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests. In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. And Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a “kingpin of climate science denial.” The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.
In a statement, Koch Industries said that the Greenpeace report “distorts the environmental record of our companies.” And David Koch, in a recent, admiring article about him in New York, protested that the “radical press” had turned his family into “whipping boys,” and had exaggerated its influence on American politics. But Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said, “The Kochs are on a whole different level. There’s no one else who has spent this much money. The sheer dimension of it is what sets them apart. They have a pattern of lawbreaking, political manipulation, and obfuscation. I’ve been in Washington since Watergate, and I’ve never seen anything like it. They are the Standard Oil of our times.”
A few weeks after the Lincoln Center gala, the advocacy wing of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation—an organization that David Koch started, in 2004—held a different kind of gathering. Over the July 4th weekend, a summit called Texas Defending the American Dream took place in a chilly hotel ballroom in Austin. Though Koch freely promotes his philanthropic ventures, he did not attend the summit, and his name was not in evidence. And on this occasion the audience was roused not by a dance performance but by a series of speakers denouncing President Barack Obama. Peggy Venable, the organizer of the summit, warned that Administration officials “have a socialist vision for this country.”
Five hundred people attended the summit, which served, in part, as a training session for Tea Party activists in Texas. An advertisement cast the event as a populist uprising against vested corporate power. “Today, the voices of average Americans are being drowned out by lobbyists and special interests,” it said. “But you can do something about it.” The pitch made no mention of its corporate funders. The White House has expressed frustration that such sponsors have largely eluded public notice. David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser, said, “What they don’t say is that, in part, this is a grassroots citizens’ movement brought to you by a bunch of oil billionaires.”
In April, 2009, Melissa Cohlmia, a company spokesperson, denied that the Kochs had direct links to the Tea Party, saying that Americans for Prosperity is “an independent organization and Koch companies do not in any way direct their activities.” Later, she issued a statement: “No funding has been provided by Koch companies, the Koch foundations, or Charles Koch or David Koch specifically to support the tea parties.” David Koch told New York, “I’ve never been to a tea-party event. No one representing the tea party has ever even approached me.”
At the lectern in Austin, however, Venable—a longtime political operative who draws a salary from Americans for Prosperity, and who has worked for Koch-funded political groups since 1994—spoke less warily. “We love what the Tea Parties are doing, because that’s how we’re going to take back America!” she declared, as the crowd cheered. In a subsequent interview, she described herself as an early member of the movement, joking, “I was part of the Tea Party before it was cool!” She explained that the role of Americans for Prosperity was to help “educate” Tea Party activists on policy details, and to give them “next-step training” after their rallies, so that their political energy could be channelled “more effectively.” And she noted that Americans for Prosperity had provided Tea Party activists with lists of elected officials to target. She said of the Kochs, “They’re certainly our people. David’s the chairman of our board. I’ve certainly met with them, and I’m very appreciative of what they do.”
Venable honored several Tea Party “citizen leaders” at the summit. The Texas branch of Americans for Prosperity gave its Blogger of the Year Award to a young woman named Sibyl West. On June 14th, West, writing on her site, described Obama as the “cokehead in chief.” In an online thread, West speculated that the President was exhibiting symptoms of “demonic possession (aka schizophrenia, etc.).” The summit featured several paid speakers, including Janine Turner, the actress best known for her role on the television series “Northern Exposure.” She declared, “They don’t want our children to know about their rights. They don’t want our children to know about a God!”
During a catered lunch, Venable introduced Ted Cruz, a former solicitor general of Texas, who told the crowd that Obama was “the most radical President ever to occupy the Oval Office,” and had hidden from voters a secret agenda—“the government taking over our economy and our lives.” Countering Obama, Cruz proclaimed, was “the epic fight of our generation!” As the crowd rose to its feet and cheered, he quoted the defiant words of a Texan at the Alamo: “Victory, or death!”
Americans for Prosperity has worked closely with the Tea Party since the movement’s inception. In the weeks before the first Tax Day protests, in April, 2009, Americans for Prosperity hosted a Web site offering supporters “Tea Party Talking Points.” The Arizona branch urged people to send tea bags to Obama; the Missouri branch urged members to sign up for “Taxpayer Tea Party Registration” and provided directions to nine protests. The group continues to stoke the rebellion. The North Carolina branch recently launched a “Tea Party Finder” Web site, advertised as “a hub for all the Tea Parties in North Carolina.”
The anti-government fervor infusing the 2010 elections represents a political triumph for the Kochs. By giving money to “educate,” fund, and organize Tea Party protesters, they have helped turn their private agenda into a mass movement. Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist and a historian, who once worked at the National Center for Policy Analysis, a Dallas-based think tank that the Kochs fund, said, “The problem with the whole libertarian movement is that it’s been all chiefs and no Indians. There haven’t been any actual people, like voters, who give a crap about it. So the problem for the Kochs has been trying to create a movement.” With the emergence of the Tea Party, he said, “everyone suddenly sees that for the first time there are Indians out there—people who can provide real ideological power.” The Kochs, he said, are “trying to shape and control and channel the populist uprising into their own policies.”
A Republican campaign consultant who has done research on behalf of Charles and David Koch said of the Tea Party, “The Koch brothers gave the money that founded it. It’s like they put the seeds in the ground. Then the rainstorm comes, and the frogs come out of the mud—and they’re our candidates!”
The Kochs and their political operatives declined requests for interviews. Instead, a prominent New York public-relations executive who is close with the Kochs put forward two friends: George Pataki, the former governor of New York, and Mortimer Zuckerman, the publisher and real-estate magnate. Pataki, a Republican who received campaign donations from David Koch, called him “a patriot who cares deeply about his country.” Zuckerman praised David’s “gentle decency” and the “range of his public interests.”
The Republican campaign consultant said of the family’s political activities, “To call them under the radar is an understatement. They are underground!” Another former Koch adviser said, “They’re smart. This right-wing, redneck stuff works for them. They see this as a way to get things done without getting dirty themselves.” Rob Stein, a Democratic political strategist who has studied the conservative movement’s finances, said that the Kochs are “at the epicenter of the anti-Obama movement. But it’s not just about Obama. They would have done the same to Hillary Clinton. They did the same with Bill Clinton. They are out to destroy progressivism.”
Oddly enough, the fiercely capitalist Koch family owes part of its fortune to Joseph Stalin. Fred Koch was the son of a Dutch printer who settled in Texas and ran a weekly newspaper. Fred attended M.I.T., where he earned a degree in chemical engineering. In 1927, he invented a more efficient process for converting oil into gasoline, but, according to family lore, America’s major oil companies regarded him as a threat and shut him out of the industry. Unable to succeed at home, Koch found work in the Soviet Union. In the nineteen-thirties, his company trained Bolshevik engineers and helped Stalin’s regime set up fifteen modern oil refineries. Over time, however, Stalin brutally purged several of Koch’s Soviet colleagues. Koch was deeply affected by the experience, and regretted his collaboration. He returned to the U.S. In the headquarters of his company, Rock Island Oil & Refining, in Wichita, he kept photographs aimed at proving that some of those Soviet refineries had been destroyed in the Second World War. Gus diZerega, a former friend of Charles Koch, recalled, “As the Soviets became a stronger military power, Fred felt a certain amount of guilt at having helped build them up. I think it bothered him a lot.”
In 1958, Fred Koch became one of the original members of the John Birch Society, the arch-conservative group known, in part, for a highly skeptical view of governance and for spreading fears of a Communist takeover. Members considered President Dwight D. Eisenhower to be a Communist agent. In a self-published broadside, Koch claimed that “the Communists have infiltrated both the Democrat and Republican Parties.” He wrote admiringly of Benito Mussolini’s suppression of Communists in Italy, and disparagingly of the American civil-rights movement. “The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America,” he warned. Welfare was a secret plot to attract rural blacks to cities, where they would foment “a vicious race war.” In a 1963 speech that prefigures the Tea Party’s talk of a secret socialist plot, Koch predicted that Communists would “infiltrate the highest offices of government in the U.S. until the President is a Communist, unknown to the rest of us.”
Koch married Mary Robinson, the daughter of a Missouri physician, and they had four sons: Freddie, Charles, and twins, David and William. John Damgard, the president of the Futures Industry Association, was David’s schoolmate and friend. He recalled that Fred Koch was “a real John Wayne type.” 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.” David Koch recalled that his father also indoctrinated the boys politically. “He was constantly speaking to us children about what was wrong with government,” he told Brian Doherty, an editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, and the author of “Radicals for Capitalism,” a 2007 history of the libertarian movement. “It’s something I grew up with—a fundamental point of view that big government was bad, and imposition of government controls on our lives and economic fortunes was not good.”
David attended Deerfield Academy, in Massachusetts, and Charles was sent to military school. Charles, David, and William all earned engineering degrees at their father’s alma mater, M.I.T., and later joined the family company. Charles eventually assumed control, with David as his deputy; William’s career at the company was less successful. Freddie went to Harvard and studied playwriting at the Yale School of Drama. His father reportedly disapproved of him, and punished him financially. (Freddie, through a spokesperson, denied this.)
In 1967, after Fred Koch died, of a heart attack, Charles renamed the business Koch Industries, in honor of his father. Fred Koch’s will made his sons extraordinarily wealthy. David Koch joked about his good fortune in a 2003 speech to alumni at Deerfield, where, after pledging twenty-five million dollars, he was made the school’s sole “lifetime trustee.” He said, “You might ask: How does David Koch happen to have the wealth to be so generous? Well, let me tell you a story. It all started when I was a little boy. One day, my father gave me an apple. I soon sold it for five dollars and bought two apples and sold them for ten. Then I bought four apples and sold them for twenty. Well, this went on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, until my father died and left me three hundred million dollars!”
David and Charles had absorbed their father’s conservative politics, but they did not share all his views, according to diZerega, who befriended Charles in the mid-sixties, after meeting him while browsing in a John Birch Society bookstore in Wichita. Charles eventually invited him to the Kochs’ mansion, to participate in an informal political-discussion group. “It was pretty clear that Charles thought some of the Birch Society was bullshit,” diZerega recalled.
DiZerega, who has lost touch with Charles, eventually abandoned right-wing views, and became a political-science professor. He credits Charles with opening his mind to political philosophy, which set him on the path to academia; Charles is one of three people to whom he dedicated his first book. But diZerega believes that the Koch brothers have followed a wayward intellectual trajectory, transferring their father’s paranoia about Soviet Communism to a distrust of the U.S. government, and seeing its expansion, beginning with the New Deal, as a tyrannical threat to freedom. In an essay, posted on Beliefnet, diZerega writes, “As state socialism failed . . . the target for many within these organizations shifted to any kind of regulation at all. ‘Socialism’ kept being defined downwards.”
This, I know, is bound to be an unpopular essay that is likely to incite intense emotions and harsh accusations against me. Yet I feel compelled to express my thoughts on the matter in part because the commercial media does not allow dissenting views to be heard. Also, the majority of my fellow citizens have been drinking the mind altering kool-aide that distorts reality into fabulous forms that bears little resemblance to reality. Added to the formula is the fact that so many of us choose to live in denial rather than face the haunting specter of American history that might prove too disturbing for us to acknowledge.
Far too many Americans are so thoroughly indoctrinated in popular myths and propaganda that they are unable to recognize reality when they see it. They desperately need to cling to the absurd myths conjured by our rulers and deny the most criminal and unethical behavior upon which this nation was founded. Aided by a bogus educational system, we then contort them into virtue. Thus, murderers and robber barons are celebrated as self made industrialists who built America into a world class power. But as Thoreau stated, “Any truth is better than make believe.”
Unlike the majority of my fellow citizens, I do not take pride in the American flag. I do not get choked up when I see ‘old glory’ flapping in the breeze. My understanding of American history does not permit such unfounded patriotic stirrings. Too many atrocities have been committed under the flag for me to see any beauty in it, especially under the Bush regime. Indeed, seeing the flag often flushes me with shame and regret. I refuse to pledge allegiance to any flag. However, I pledge to live by a credo of social justice that does not recognize national borders. We are all one big family.
Historian Howard Zinn wrote, “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.” I am inclined to agree.
For most Americans the flag stirs elements of sentimentality and reverence. It is celebrated as a symbol of freedom and democracy, the triumph of justice over injustice; good over evil. But symbols of noble ideals vanish into the mist when one critically examines the historical evidence. Millions of innocent people have died under the flag, including those who have carried it into battle in the belief that they were fighting for something nobler than corporate profits (see USMC General Smedley Butler’s 1933 essay “War is a Racket).”
To me the flag symbolizes much that is wrong with America. The flag is used as another clever marketing ploy against the people to manipulate and to control them, selling them a fictionalized version of history. The flag has been used, like the idea of patriotism, to motivate men to commit horrible crimes against earth and humankind. Rather than conjuring images of freedom and peace in my mind, it portrays the darkest side of human nature such as conquest, invasion and occupation. It reveals a litany of crimes against nature and humanity that I cannot dismiss from memory. Critical thinking demands that one weigh the evidence and draw one’s own conclusions based upon the facts, whether they contradict our preconceived notions or not.
I keep another flag, one that more accurately portrays the truth about America, in the trunk of my car, which I carry at anti-war rallies and demonstrations. Like the American flag, this pennant is red, white and blue. In place of the fifty stars there are corporate symbols that depict the corporate states of America. My flag portrays the reality of what the American flag really stands for. It is all about corporate power, global conquest, death, destruction and oppression. What do these have to do with democracy and freedom? What do they have to do with social justice?
Once again the people were sold a vision that is at odds with reality. The truth is that America is the polar opposite of everything we have been told she is. That is why so much of the world is aligned against us. They see us as we are, not merely as what we pretend to be. Most of the world’s 192 nations have been the recipients of our benevolence in the form of CIA interventions, land mines and carpet bombs.
When I see old glory fluttering in a brisk breeze I hear the lies of an imperialist dictator named George Bush and all the horrors they have wrought for so many echoing across the tides of time. I recall the brazen lies of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, and the entire neocon cabal that has resulted in the criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq, Abu Griab, and the inhumane horrors enacted daily at Guantonimo Bay, the massacre of innocent civilians by U.S. marines and the attendant cover up. I see the theft of Iraqi oil by U.S. forces handed over to oil companies and defense contractors on a silver platter. I see the entire civilized world held at gun point, stripped of its dignity and its freedom by the largest crime syndicate the world has ever known. It is hard to get all puffed up and to take pride in that.
I recall the overthrow of democratically elected governments around the world by an imperialist nation, particularly in Latin America; the assassination of populist leaders who refused to be puppets for U.S. corporations. Chile’s Salvador Allende’ provides an example. Visions of Columbian death squads trained at the School of the Americas move like ghosts in my mind. They are not to be ignored. I perceive the threatening overtures directed at true democratic socialist governments in Venezuela and Bolivia that I know will probably result in the eventual assassinations of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales. These threats and violent overtures are part of a familiar historical pattern. It is not difficult to imagine what will follow. Democracy is a threat to corrupt power and it must be assassinated. Power in the hands of the people will not be tolerated by the Plutocracy. Under the red, white and blue profits matter more than people. They always have.
The historical evidence demonstrates that populist movements and true democracy are the avowed enemies of the corporate states of America and the ruling Plutocracy. We have a long history of destroying democratic, left wing governments. When has America ever over-thrown an oppressive right wing government? Death squads do not exist to celebrate democracy or to liberate the oppressed.
We have troops stationed at permanent bases all over the world and they are not fostering democracy, they are suppressing it. These acts are committed under the banner of the stars and stripes and given noble explanations in the commercial media. Every day the madmen who are running the government are planning new horrors, an endless litany of death and mayhem to be committed in our name for corporate profits. So forgive me if I do not pledge allegiance to the flag of the corporate states of America. Pardon me if I do not get choked up with pride when I see a bumper sticker that reads, “These colors don’t run.” Most people, it seems to me, have no clue about the atrocities that are being committed by their government. They do not want to know.
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Friday, January 21, 2011
Among the many memes floating around in the wake of the 2010 election is that America has taken a rightward turn, and conservative pundits seem re-energized in calling America a center-right nation. After all, a plurality of American voters (42 percent) now call themselves “conservative” — as compared to just 35 percent who say they are “moderate” and 20 percent who say they are “liberal.” Two years ago, moderates and conservatives both were at 37 percent.
But new research suggests that pundits ought to be cautious of overinterpreting the conservative label: It doesn’t always mean what they think it means: Only a quarter of self-identified “conservatives” may actually be true conservatives on the issues — less than the 30 percent of whom are not conservative at all, but simply like the label.
The reason why so few “conservatives” turn out to be solid right-wingers is that the word “conservative” has different meanings for different people, according to political scientists Christopher Ellis of Bucknell and James A. Stimson of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who describe their findings in a new working paper, “Pathways to Ideology in American Politics: The Operational-Symbolic ‘Paradox’ Revisited”
According to their research, some people genuinely know what it means to be a conservative in the current political debate and indeed express matching preferences across all issues. But these “constrained conservatives” (as Ellis and Stimson call them) account for only 26 percent of all self-identified conservatives.
More common are the “moral conservatives” (34 percent), who think of themselves as conservative in terms of their own personal values, be they social or religious. And they are indeed right-leaning on social, cultural and religious issues. But they also like government spending on a variety of programs and generally approve of government interventions in the marketplace, hardly making them true conservatives.
And still others, “conflicted conservatives” (30 percent), are not conservative at all on the issues. But they like identifying themselves as conservatives. To them, it somehow sounds better. “They like the word,” explained Ellis. Or at least, they like it better then their other choices in the traditional self-identification questionnaire: moderate and liberal.
Finally, a smaller group of self-identified “conservatives” (10 percent) could be classified as libertarian — conservative on economic issues, liberal on social issues.
Self-identified liberals, on the other hand, are consistently liberal on all the issues, according to Ellis and Stimson. Two-thirds of liberals fit into the category of “constrained liberals,” who pick the label because it actually describes their worldview.
A good part of the reason why moral conservatives keep calling themselves conservative (despite dubiously conservative issue positions) is that these are voters who don’t follow politics closely enough to fully understand what it means to be a political conservative. Conflicted conservatives, meanwhile, identify as conservatives because they hear liberals defend programs and Republicans defend principles and agree with both without confronting the contradictions.
“People don’t hear conflicting arguments, but rather two sets of arguments,” explained Ellis. “Conservatives talk about a commitment to conservative values, and liberals talk about what we can do for you on education or the environment. Elite conservatives never say cut education spending, and elite liberals never say we’re proud to be liberals. The two groups of people talk past each other.”
This is a longstanding phenomenon. In another paper, Ellis and Stimson have shown going back to at least 1937 — the heart of the New Deal — that the American public, on average, has been operationally liberal and symbolically conservative. That is, that when asked about specific “liberal” government programs — be they spending on education, environmental protections, regulation of business — the majority of voters consistently say they approve.
But when asked to self-identify as liberals, moderates or conservatives, many of the same voters say they are “conservative.” The gap widened in the 1960s, when Republicans started making a concerted effort to turn “liberal” into a four-letter word. Since then, there has been an enduring 20-25 percent gap between the percentage of Americans who identify as liberals and who actually support liberal policies.
For both true liberals and true conservatives, however, the contradictions between self-identification and actual policy preferences can be maddening.
“Liberals would say, these people like all these things but call themselves conservative, so it just must be an artifact or a label,” said Ellis. “Conservatives would say these people call themselves conservative, they share our values and principles, but they don’t understand these policies are not reflective of our values.”
As for the supposed conservative shift this election, Ellis believes that voters were thinking more about symbols and values than about specifics: “The tenor of the discussion was about smaller government, lower taxes and traditional social values,” said Ellis. No wonder, then, that a few more people identified themselves as conservatives. (Other research has suggested that ideology can shift depending on the situation and that conservatism tends to rise in response to anxiety and uncertainty.)
But that doesn’t mean that the recent uptick in conservative self-identification provides a ringing endorsement of conservative policies for a simple reason: Most so-called conservatives just aren’t that conservative.
“I hope what this does is provide a grain of salt in reading public opinion,” said Ellis. “We’re more conservative now than we were two years ago, but the raw numbers are misleading. They give a picture that’s just not there when you dig deeper.”
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