This post is undoubtedly going to irritate some of my longtime readers, but as I often like to say it has the great virtue of being true. I mostly agree with Michael Moynihan that the Koch brothers have too often been used as a cartoon bad guy by liberals painting with too broad a brush and that them buying the Tribune Company and the many newspapers it owns isn’t really that big a deal. Do try to read the whole post before firing up the flamethrower.
Moynihan starts by noting that Warren Buffett, a prominent liberal billionaire, bought up 62 newspapers last year and hardly a peep was heard. Why? Basic tribalism. We’re fine with billionaires we agree with owning newspapers but we object when billionaires we disagree with own them. And then he notes, quite rightly, that a lot of the Kochs’ views are not nearly as bad as you likely presume them to be:
The Kochs are the conservative analogues of Buffett and George Soros; the sinister bogeymen who supposedly pollute American democracy with ideological propaganda. Details that run counter to these simple narratives are often ignored. Politico, for instance, “revealed” last year that David Koch supports same-sex marriage, wants military spending cut, and wouldn’t rule out tax increases to balance the budget. Only one of those positions (the last one) is surprising, considering Koch ran as the Libertarian Party vice-presidential candidate in 1980. It was a scoop freely available in a 2010 New York magazine profile of Koch, which pointed out that “he thought the Iraq War was folly, and supports stem-cell research and gay marriage.”
When BuzzFeed announced that it was hosting an immigration debate “sponsored” by the Charles Koch Foundation, the outraged Twitter brigades (“Fuck you @BuzzFeed you broke my heart taking money from the Koch brothers. You lost a reader”) failed to note that the panel included three immigration reformers and one restrictionist and, as Slate’s David Weigel put it, was “intended to nudge along immigration reform.”
None of this matters, though, because the Kochs have been transformed into “the Kochs.” There was never any suggestion that the David Koch Theater at Lincoln Center (so named in 2008 after he made a $100 million donation) would only stage David Mamet plays, Ronald Reagan film festivals, and Elia Kazan retrospectives, yet the protesters descended, demanding a name change. The Kochs gave $100 million to MIT, underwriting a cancer-research center. But this was, said one critic, mere “manufacturing consent” for their reactionary views. The $20 million to the ACLU—which was heavily criticized by some conservatives—didn’t matter either, because they also underwrote candidates who don’t support the ACLU.
That $20 million contribution to the ACLU, which I believe was the largest single donation they’ve ever received, was to fund their work against the Patriot Act. Now, there’s much to criticize about the Koch Brothers. A lot of the things they fund are very bad, like groups and candidates that work to undermine government regulation of the very industries they own, adding billions to their bottom line while damaging the environment and workers’ rights. Very bad indeed.
But I don’t know why rationalists in particular, who apply the tools of reason to human behavior, should be at all surprised to find out that these people can be both good and bad depending on the issue. We should understand from a good deal of social science research that human beings are often flagrantly terrible in one respect and admirable in others. And we, of all people, should be reluctant to push the kind of overly simplistic, cartoonish black-and-white version of reality that we automatically condemn when they are advocated by the religious.
We recognize this immediately when our political opponents do it. We laugh — rightly and appropriately — when Fox News and the right wing blogosphere plays their “six degrees of George Soros” game, straining to find any way at all to tie a group or individual to George Soros so they can easily dismiss anything that person says. It’s the argumentum ad labelum writ large, an attempt to discredit an opponent merely by applying the “tied to George Soros” label to them. And if we’re going to criticize them for doing that with Soros, we should really avoid doing it to the Kochs.
No, this does not mean we shouldn’t criticize the Kochs. We certainly should, and there is a lot that deserves criticism. But stop using them as an all-purpose boogeyman that ignores a more complicated reality than is convenient for us politically.