Paul Andersen: Fair Game
September 5, 2010
The Koch Building at the Aspen Institute will never be the same for me – not after having read “Covert Operations” in last week’s New Yorker.
The Koch Building has always meant the free exchange of ideas, a common ground for exploring common cause. The Koch Building is where seminars are held to discuss morality, leadership, ethics, equality, environment, and diverse points of philosophy.
Standing before that building is a statue of Mortimer Adler, who founded the Executive Seminar in 1950. Adler identified two competing triads in the world: the Platonic ideal of the good, the true, the beautiful; and the Machiavellian pursuit of money, fame, and power. The Koch Building represents the ongoing battle between Plato and Machiavelli, in which Machiavelli appears to be gaining the upper hand.
The New Yorker reveals that two of the Koch brothers – David and Charles – are using their money, fame and power to undermine the legitimacy of government in America by fomenting a virulent strain of radical libertarianism. According to the New Yorker, they hope to smear Barack Obama, dismantle environmental laws, obstruct health care reform, deny the human role in climate change, and attack social welfare, all while maximizing profits for Koch Industries. Their links to the Tea Party are many and indicative of their far right politics.
Judging from the New Yorker, Machiavelli would have applauded the Kochs for their ruthless strategies. Despite the Koch’s generous and highly visible philanthropy, the plutocracy they practice is a form of tyranny over the one-man-one-vote democratic ideal. Dollars aren’t supposed to buy ballots, yet that’s how our political system operates under demagogues like the Kochs, who have amplified their father’s wildcatting ideology (and his hundreds of millions in inheritance) to galvanize a regressive political movement based largely on popular prejudices and misinformation.
David Koch, whose presence in Aspen is most visible in the Koch Building and in his Ashcroft vacation home, the former Elk Mountain Lodge, has contributed more than a million dollars to the Institute and serves on its board, so I assume he has attended a seminar here.
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If so, then David Koch would have read Antigone and grasped the tragedy of King Creon, whose rigid, authoritarian rule destroyed his family and state. He would have read the Declaration of Independence and learned that tyrants and despots are the enemies of a free people. He would have learned from James Madison that rogue factions are dangerous to a healthy Union. Plato would have warned him against the unlimited accumulation of wealth. He would have gleaned from Rousseau the sacred covenant of the Social Contract. He would have cheered Milton Friedman’s paean to free markets while ruing Darwin’s theory that innate human sympathy is the foundation of all ethics. Vaclav Havel would have infused in him the need for personal transcendence in order to embrace the mutuality of all existence.
Perhaps the Kochs do not welcome the free exchange of such ideas. This would be a blatant incongruity with the Koch Building, where free exchange is the key to intelligent discourse. But then, incongruities abound for the Kochs, as the New Yorker reports: On the one hand, they make huge contributions to cancer research while, on the other hand, they fight the EPA on listing formaldehyde as a carcinogen, which Koch Industries produces for a profit. David Koch’s largesse to the Institute furthers the Institute’s mission of values-driven leadership for social good, while his political allegiances evince an opposite approach to the public welfare.
According to the New Yorker, The Kochs are the shadowy financial power behind an anti-government, right-wing insurgency whose goal is the emasculation of federal authority so that government no longer stands between the public interest and corporate domination. The Koch’s stance on climate change is a “flat earth” obstinacy designed to protect their oil revenues. The Kochs support education, but how much education does it take before their agenda is seen as a gross manipulation of representative democracy?
Standing before the Koch Building, I wonder if David Koch has internal struggles over the ideals of humanism expressed within its walls, or whether he contributed bricks and mortar in an effort to assuage a conscience only tyrant Creon could appreciate.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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