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David Koch’s ‘dark money’ was misunderstood

The reflexive reaction to David Koch’s death has overlooked the true nature of his philanthropy

August 24, 2019

10:37 AM

24 August 2019

10:37 AM

Here’s a shocker: people are more complicated than the caricatures disseminated by their enemies suggest. Witness the stupefyingly rich David Koch, who together with his brother Charles, presided over a business empire worth some $115 billion. David, who died on Friday at 79 after a long battle with prostate cancer, was at one with his brother in embracing a staunch libertarian philosophy of government and also in his belief in the power of philanthropic investment. When you control a personal fortune of $50 billion, you are in a position to distribute philos to many anthropoi.

This the Koch brothers did, on a breathtaking scale. A lot of their money, and a lot of money they leveraged from other conservative donors, was siphoned to political candidates of whom they approved. Many, many millions more went to various cultural, medical, and educational causes.

Yet the Kochs’ money was often taken grudgingly. Their position as bêtes noires of the left was already well established when the odious Jane Mayer published her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Neither George Soros nor Tom Steyer was available for comment on the question of what made the Kochs’ money dark while theirs was full of light and unicorns.

Part of what made Mayer’s snapping turtle of a book so preposterous, apart from its basic dishonesty and ideological ferocity, was its deep misunderstanding of what the Kochs were all about. The subtitle of her book speaks of the supposed ‘rise of the radical right.’ But neither Koch was a member of that tribe. They were libertarian, which on some issues puts them squarely at odds with the right in any normal sense of the word. This was dramatized over the last year. Probably sick and tired of being screamed at by the loony left, the Kochs made overtures to various ‘progressives,’ including George Soros himself, along with Cory ‘Spartacus’ Booker, and Van Jones, a truculent space cadet from the Obama administration. One of the topics that brought them together was the legitimate issue of over-criminalization, though whether their ambition to reduce the prison population by 50 percent was prudent is another question.

The truth is that the Kochs’ libertarian leanings always made them at best erratic allies of the right. They did not like big government. So far so good. But they also were suspicious of national borders and indeed of national identity in any robust sense. They were agnostic on questions like abortion and almost all so-called ‘socially conservative’ topics. They loathed Donald Trump (he returned the sentiment) and were apoplectic about his America-first trade policies and, especially, his fondness for tariffs as a negotiating chip (or hammer).

I disagreed with the Kochs about many things. And I thought they ran their philanthropies in a ham-handed, bureaucratically impenetrable way (they may have been opposed to big government, but big corporate was another matter). Yet the journalist who described David Koch as ‘a singular force for liberty’ was correct.

It tells us a good deal about the moral complexion of the reflexive left that someone like Bill Maher, whom the herd of independent minds clusters around when it wants to indulge some particularly ungenerous impulse, should have greeted the death of David Koch with the remark that ‘he and his brother have done more than anybody to fund climate science deniers for decades, so fuck him. The Amazon is burning up. I’m glad he’s dead.’

‘Climate deniers.’ ‘The Amazon is burning.’ ‘I’m glad he’s dead.’ A better example of stupidity fired by heinous moral obtuseness would be hard to find. It almost goes without saying that Maher’s television audience erupted in applause and titters at his ignorant and shameful observation.

In another bit of news yesterday, it was reported that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had just completed yet another round of radiation to treat the recurrent cancer she has been suffering from. The venue for her treatment was Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York. Only a few stories noted that in 2015 David Koch donated $159 million to Sloan Kettering, thus plausibly salvaging the life of one of the left’s hoariest icons.


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