Jane Mayer and the Koch Family

A friend recommended this very interesting and detailed article in the New Yorker magazine. I really like when someone recommends an article to me, because it allows me to right something that I know at least one person cares about. Also, the article involves many of my interests, including libertarianism and political discussion in this country.

Jane Mayer, journalist at large, has an article in the New Yorker about the Koch family, an apparently powerful political clan that I had never heard of before. And that’s where the sinister tone begins. I haven’t heard of these people and neither have most other people so let’s look into their activities and see what they’ve been up to.

So Mayer comes along with an article brimming with accusations about this family, and some of them are pretty disturbing, but the entire article is trying to pull off a clever reporter’s trick: try to discredit and marginalize viewpoints based on who likes those ideas or who is associated with their promulgation, and everything in this article depends on that illicit logical trap.

Now, in keeping with my usual theme on this blog, I don’t like to point fingers. In fact, I almost didn’t want to write this article because in this post, I mainly just point fingers, and I’m against, for the most part, even engaging in that game because in the end, debate should be expended on ideas. Some ideas are good and some are bad, and some stupid people champion good ideas and some very smart people become interested in bad ones. There is no alignment between personality and the value of an idea. But anyway, I’ve said all this before.

That said, I gave this article serious consideration, and I found a lot of things to disagree with. I’ll try to be fair to Mayer while elaborating on my disagreements.

My overriding point is that most of the criticisms Mayer levels at the Koch’s depends on what actual POLICIES we think are good for the country. If one already agrees with most of the liberal agenda (as I broadly do), then most of the things in this article may seem inflammatory, but then, that’s not really journalism, just pointing out where people who already agree with you can become more angry about other people who don’t agree. And as I said above, THAT’s the real issue –what  policies are good–which of course the article isn’t about and so does not touch on at any point. What a shame.

So for example, Mayer writes at many points about how the Koch family doesn’t believe in global warming. Ok. What I am supposed to do? Go grab a pitchfork? I happen to think global warming is a real problem and would gladly engage people on that question. Then Mayer says “Well they have a lot of oil interests so that’s why they are global warming deniers.” And again, this is just the classic mistake of trying to doubt the sincerity of the other side and IMPUTE maliciousness into one side of the debate. This is very reprehensible behavior for a writer trying to educate the public. Why couldn’t it be that the Koch family just actually doesn’t believe in global warming as human caused? Why can’t we just take them at their word. For example, imagine the other side of how things could go. I say I like healthcare and a conservative says that I just want to destroy freedom or socialize the country. Well, that’s just trying to PIN a motive on me. I don’t want either of those things. I just think the healthcare bill is a good idea. End of story.

Mayer even quotes Koch, who seems to just be stating his own beliefs, (however much I disagree with them):

David Koch told New York that he was unconvinced that global warming has been caused by human activity. Even if it has been, he said, the heating of the planet will be beneficial, resulting in longer growing seasons in the Northern Hemisphere. “The Earth will be able to support enormously more people because far greater land area will be available to produce food,” he said.

This is a perfectly fine position (like I said, I think wrong). It’s a claim that can be debated just like any other.

Mayer continues to harp on this point, noting again and again that the Koch family’s political agenda matches closely with their laissez-faire economic agenda (they own a bunch of big companies). But again, so what? I want to be a professor and so would benefit from the expansion of public universities and more funding for schools. But I support more money for schools simply because I think education is good. Why does Mayer have the right to put motivations into the mouth of this random family I don’t know? Why is that productive? Her article is called “Covert Operations” and that is indeed the theme. For every position that someone takes, Mayer tries to find a covert and sinister motive for his holding it.

This strategy moves to its most absurd level in this section.

“The Kochs have cast themselves as deficit hawks, but, according to a study by Media Matters, their companies have benefitted from nearly a hundred million dollars in government contracts since 2000.”

Hmm. Mayer originally said that the Kochs only champion their economic interest, but when faced with their straight denial of that claim, she tries to pin dishonestly on them by saying that they ACCEPT GOVERNMENT CONTRACTS. Boy is that weak. Even a libertarian government would have to buy stuff from companies, and since Koch’s companies include things like DIXIE CUPS, would it really be that surprising that they would have sold their products to the government? Also, why does filling government orders have ANYTHING to do with the deficit? I mean presumably, if the government didn’t buy anything, the government would not run a deficit, but it would be a perfectly coherent position to want the government to reduce its consumption of, say, I don’t know, tanks and nuclear weapons rather than dixie cups and paper products. (Side note: many libertarians, wisely I think, favor reductions in military spending , something Mayer never even touches on. In fact, they also favor free trade and a bunch of other smart ideas, but Mayer chooses to list only their “scary” and “radical” ideas.)

Last point. Mayer writes this:

“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.).”

This is kind of deceptive. Now, is this Sibyl woman a clear-eyed political analyst? Clearly not. Look though at the context of her comments here. She is responding to a post from a very incensed commenter who was speculating that Obama’s behavior exhibited demonic possession. Yes, I’ll say it, the comment is crazy, but I read West’s response as not endorsing the commenter’s characterization, but using the same word and then trying to soften the point by interpreting demonic possession to mean schizophrenia. It wouldn’t be the first time that a political activist tried to speak in the language of their constituents. Also, it’s not unusual to exaggerate things when talking with like-minded people. I’m sure liberals joked with each other all the time during 2001-2008 that Cheney liked to eat babies, or shoot people (and he did shoot someone, remember?).  That’s my read, but really, I don’t want to harp on this. So what if Sibyl West turns out to believe in demonic possession. We don’t need to jump all over that strange metaphysical view to engage her or her supporters on the issues, which are in her mind, freedom and the constitution.


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