Last week The New Yorker published a missive by Jane Mayer on one of the most dangerous families in America: billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, heirs to the Koch family fortune forged by their father, Fred, himself one of the most influential conservative figures of the 20th century. Their fortune came, predictably, from oil, though their business holdings have been widely diversified since its inception.
What made this article so important was the painstaking manner in which Mayer unraveled the Koch Industries juggernaut to reveal a multi-decade effort by the Koch family to present itself as cultural and political icons whose generosity is beyond reproach. Their donations to museums and think tanks give the impression they are part of the cultural elite, a seminal segment of the charitable establishment that funds areas of our society that government has left behind. This carefully managed image as benevolent billionaires belies the insidious nature of their true life’s work as polluters, climate-change deniers and political dissidents who will stop at nothing to dismantle the system of regulation and taxation in America. In the past decade alone Koch Industries, a $35 billion privately held petrochemical company, has been forced to commit more than a half a billion dollars to environmental remediation, lawsuits, fines and settlements for their scandalous business practices.
The article sparked my memory of having run across the Koch name on two previous occasions. The first was when reporting on economic issues related to Indian tribes. In 1999 Koch Industries was found guilty of poaching oil from Indian reservations. The second was in researching Wendy and Phil Gramm’s involvement in the oil speculation scandal during the summer of 2008—the former serving as a Distinguished Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center, the Koch-funded think tanks at George Mason University synonymous with government deregulation. Wendy Gramm’s staunch advocacy for deregulation and Phil Gramm’s rampant legislative penchant for it eventually led to delightful little treasures like the collapse of Enron, oil speculation, black-market exchanges and the 2008 banking catastrophe. (Postcard from the recession: Dear Wendy and Phil. Thanks for this! Wish you were here. Signed, America.)
Every hazardous product manufactured by Koch Industries and every conservative and libertarian think tank established by the family members—Mercatus is eclipsed in absurdity by their other venture, the Cato Institute—pales in comparison to their most important creation to date: the Tea Party. This movement is the culmination of 40-plus years of radical free-market fanaticism beginning with the John Birch Society, of which father Fred was a founding member.
There is, of course, no central nervous system within the Tea Party. Nor is there a comprehensive platform or call to action other than to call for a return to traditional faith-based Christian values and less government intervention in our lives. For many Americans these are extremely palatable and positive concepts. But the true architects of the movement, such as the Koch brothers, who stoke the flame of discontent in America, are shielded from the public eye; it is as though the machines have come alive through artificial intelligence and are hell-bent on destroying humanity. This week, the anointed spokespeople and demagogues fronting the movement, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, hosted a bizarre yet extremely well-attended rally on the anniversary of Dr. King’s famous civil rights march on Washington where he delivered perhaps his most famous “I Have a Dream” address.
Beck’s hokey, milquetoast evangelism and Palin’s gosh-golly, you-betcha wink-fest played perfectly to the assembled masses who celebrated, or rather, declared that….um…called for us to follow God—well, Christ really—and that we’re going in the wrong direction because the right direction is… uh…backwards! Yes, we need to go backwards! (I watched the speeches and quite honestly I have no idea what the point of the rally was except to further the strength of the Koch zeitgeist through Rupert Murdoch’s bully pulpit and impute the Obama administration for all that is wrong with America.)
This much I do know: The Koch brothers are powerful and evil. Mayer’s deconstruction of the Koch plan for America—or, if you prefer, plan to increase their personal wealth at the expense of the planet and all those who inhabit it—has also exposed the likes of Palin and Beck as the patsies they really are. They aren’t quite stupid, per se, but intellectually inadequate to understand how they are being lulled into the menacing plutocracy that the Koch brothers have woven.
And then, there’s the rest of us. Most Americans don’t have the time or inclination to peel the onion of American politics to reach the rotten core. We are busy raising families, helping neighbors, putting food on the table. In between, however, we are pummeled by talking heads who decry the evils of the left and of the right and tell us how government is either at the root of your woes or the answer to your prayers. Right now, the Koch brothers are riding high by deriding the government and playing the recession for all it is worth. But Jane Mayer peeled back this particular onion to reveal its true inner core and, as expected, not only does it stink, it might even make you cry.
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