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Citizens Koch

The Face Outside the Window – 

It’s hard to know what to say about Charles Koch after reading Jane Mayer’s astonishing expose in the August 30th issue of The New Yorker. American politics have been running hot for decades; finally we can name the source of the fever. Together with his brother David, Charles Koch owns Koch Industries, the second largest private company in the US; only Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are thought to be wealthier. In a remarkably narcissistic and anti-democratic act, the Koch boys long ago anointed themselves the heroic duo who would “rip government out by the roots.” In the grip of this wayward intention, they have, for the past four decades, pumped billions of dollars worth of high-grade hatred into the bloodstream of American politics. From the PR campaigns against Jimmy Carter in the 1970s to the anti-Clinton crusades of the 90s, to the faux populism of today’s Tea Party, the Kochs have pushed the envelope on right wing propaganda while their corporation rakes in mega bucks on the progressive policies they have thwarted.

Until the New Yorker article the Kochs accomplished all this from the shadows via front groups with deceptive names like the “Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE)” and “Americans for Prosperity.” Now that they have been revealed, hissing, serpent-like, behind the drapes, it’s worth pondering what it is, finally, that has gotten them so pissed off. Forget about David, who plays the submissive role in the relationship; it’s Charles who emerges as a poster child for the neurosis of the Protestant male in its aggressive, active mode, a cartoon version of daddy Warbucks villainy, a caricature of the malignant oligarch in full bloom.

Feeling compassion for a man like Charles is challenging when you consider what his actions have done to working Americans…or why the nation is slipping from the first world to the second…or why our roads are pitted, our health care a global joke and our prisons over-crowded. Given the grandiosity and malice that have animated Charles’ mindless assault on our collective well-being, it’s hard to draw close enough to see clearly what exactly is being acted out. But only by drawing close will we see a way to ease the pointless suffering in the situation, Charles’ as well as everyone else’s.

When the wealthy embrace the principle of weak government there’s the obvious motive of greed, government being that which, via taxation and regulation, impinges on the pure sovereignty of wealth. Rich libertarians are simply feathering their already well-feathered nests when they espouse such “ideals.” In the case of the Kochs, Jane Mayer does a good job showing how their libertarian advocacy dovetails neatly with their financial interests. As one of the top ten US polluters, for instance, Koch Industries benefits directly from the fake controversy Charles Koch has rustled up concerning global warming. Mayer cites other flagrant examples, such as one Koch lobbyist making the ridiculous claim that air pollution reduces the risk of skin cancer by obscuring sunlight. She also cites how the Koch brothers, shortly after contributing twenty-five million to the American Cancer Society, began lobbying hard to prevent formaldehyde being named a carcinogen. She points out that Koch Industries had just become the nation’s largest formaldehyde producer, and stood to gain much more than twenty-five million if regulation could be derailed.

But to point out the transparent fallacy of libertarianism as a political “philosophy” is actually to fall into a tar baby trap. Libertarianism is not a coherent political theory at all – it is a tantrum masquerading as a political theory. Like all tantrums, its true intention is simply to generate opposition. Why the great need for opposition? Once again, David Loy provides an answer:

“… since the sense-of-self is a psychosocial construct, it is ungrounded and ungroundable—hence always insecure. The self is inherently anxious because it is not a “thing” that could ever be secure. We identify with things that (we think) might provide the grounding or reality we crave: money, material possessions, reputation, power, physical attractiveness, etc. This means that if, for example, a preoccupation with making money is my way to become more real, then no matter how much money I may accumulate, it will never be enough.” –Self Transformation, Social Tranformation, Tikkun Magazine

Afflicted by the groundlessness Loy describes, the libertarian strikes out aggressively at the dominant value system, generating a response that seems to provide, albeit in a negative way, a firm foundation for his existence.

Reading Mayer we learn that the Koch’s father, who was among founders of the John Birch Society in the 1950s, made his fortune building oil refineries for Joseph Stalin. The Koch patriarch was harsh with his boys, traumatizing them in the classic authoritarian manner. One way to view the Koch trajectory is that Charles has devoted his adult life to exporting the pain of this emotional abuse on the rest of us rather than experiencing it himself. The anger at the father is split off and projected outward onto “government” that can be campaigned against. And victory is not really the point of the campaign because with victory would come the realization that this Other was just a stand-in for a battle long since lost: the pain waits in the wake of every triumph and the conflict begins anew with ever-higher stakes.

But mixed in with the self-exonerating contempt wealthy men like Koch seem to feel for those less fortunate, one detects an odd element of resentment. In extreme cases this resentment manifests, bizarrely, as a form of envy. To understand what might be at work here, let’s zoom in on a specific imagined event. Let’s imagine Charles Koch being driven through downtown Wichita toward whatever moated sanctuary provides his head with a pillow for the night…and let’s imagine at a stoplight Charles glances out through the tinted glass…and catches the eye of a homeless veteran begging with his cardboard sign. It’s easy to understand why that glance that might trigger in Charles’ heart feelings of disgust, annoyance, contempt, even guilt…but envy?

Perhaps the answer to this riddle lies in the different ways these two men relate to the experience of our common mortality. After all, there will come a time, in the dead of a night not so far from now perhaps, when death steals in through Charles’ bedroom window and makes a bee-line for that delicate, beating heart. There will be no bargaining then. Money will have no currency. And though that night has not yet arrived, Charles’ sleep is troubled already by the dark mystery of his inevitable death much as the vet’s sleep is troubled by the idea of dying. It’s not hard to imagine Charles lying sleepless disturbed by the realization that there will be no difference, finally, between the death of Charles Koch and the death of his newfound acquaintance crouching in his plywood shelter.

The insidious aspect of wealth is how it supplies an ability to arrange things in a way that encourages the delusions of the self. To a narcissistic personality this ability to arrange things seems to imply a control that he does not have, and can never have. When such a man encounters the “less fortunate” he discovers, in the moment, that the story of wealth is just that: a story. Having money does not, in the end, address the feeling of lack that we all hope it might address. As Loy points out, the homeless man on his street feels himself to be, in the moment, as “real,” as Charles does looking out his window. The vet is, if anything, more likely to be reconciled already to his own vulnerability such that he experience his life with some amount of presence. And this is why it’s not hard to imagine Charles looking out and feeling something like envy toward the vet…and being bewildered, scandalized even, by this feeling of envy.

If visualizing a homeless man introduces distracting issues for you, feel free to substitute any working American into the above scenario. The point is that the problem with wealth, adorned as it is with false promises, is how it can seduce us away from our true humanity…sometimes so far away there is no path back. Then we must confront our death alienated from our fellow man and feeling as though we have not been truly alive. This knowledge may be buried deep at the level of dreams, but it consumes our hearts with bitterness and regret. Spiritual leaders have understood this quite clearly. Remember, for example, Jesus’ famous dictum that it’s easier to “pass a camel through the eye of the needle” than to bring a rich man into heaven. Such statements point to how corrupting wealth can be when it is allowed to fuel the delusions of the self.

On one level, the levers of power must be removed from the hands of Charles Koch, and men like him, as quickly as possible. The power wealth gives these deluded souls will only add to the sum of human suffering, theirs included. But accomplishing this task will be easier when the curtains around Charles’ little Oz machine have been pulled aside. Then we will recognize how his affliction is just an amped up version of our own struggles with delusion, malice and longing…and we can move on and devote our common energies to the very real problems that confront us.

Comments

  1. I too was impressed and appalled by the New Yorker articles on the Koch brothers, of whose existence I was previously unaware. Thanks, Guy, for your Buddhist/psychological analysis of the reason that wealth is never enough for the wealthy, a phenomenon I have encountered in a number of wealthy (in one case extremely wealthy) people I have met and worked for.

    The one word that I did not encounter either in Jane Mayer’s article or your comments is “demagoguery.” The manipulation of public sentiment is clearly playing a huge role in the so far quite successful attempts of wealthy right-wing “libertarians” to stymie desperately needed progressive reforms. It may be a cliche, but it’s impossible not to think of Roman bread and circuses.

    Thanks also Guy for contributing to the comment around this important article. I wonder how much impact if any it is going to have. The New Yorker is a classically “liberal” publication that often preaches to the converted. There’s a question whether the hoodwinked can ever be convinced that they have been hoodwinked.

    Be that as it may, your analysis has given additional depth to an already very important piece of investigative journalism.

  2. Brendan Hickey says:

    Mayer’s article was a revelation. But how do we use this information? Will the left mythologize them, as the right vilifies George Soros, for example, for his ‘puppetry’ — leaving him essentially untouched — or will this information become the locus of a concerted campaign to tear down their curtain of obfuscation and phantom populism? Or are we left, finally, to console ourselves with the fact that these guys won’t live forever?
    ‘Tantrum’ was perfect, Guy.

  3. Harvey Perr says:

    Jane Mayer’s piece seemed so meticulously researched and so freshly observed that I thought nobody could possibly deny its validity and I was obsessed with the idea that everyone I know must read it. And, of course, when Frank Rich wrote about it, I felt validated. But, still, in a raging debate with a “libertarian” on Facebook, that finally led to a barrage of insults that seemed never-ending lest I walk away from it, the gist of which was that Mayer feeds into paranoid hysteria, I saw another side that was truly terrifying but, oddly enough, not unexpected. So I welcomed your “another side” (and the wonderful stills from Citizen Kane), illuminating the discourse in ways I could relate even if, at first, my reaction was not to make philosophical sense of ii but to become furious with rage.

  4. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Thanks, Tom and Harvey, for these comments. We human being do have a terrible time understanding this issue of wealth, particularly here in America. The current situation – income inequality rising daily in ways that threaten democratic institutions already riddled with contradictions – makes the topic even more crucial. No belief is held so tightly as the belief that wealth is to be desired, and the more the merrier. But on an empirical level it turns out not to be true – studies show that beyond a certain level more money doesn’t make us happier at all. While this fact has been cited frequently in the pages of our leading newspapers and on network news shows, there’s a curious disconnect about what this could mean. This odd flatness of affect about this issue can be linked to the fact that the two traditional critiques of wealth – Christianity and Socialism – have been rendered inoperative since the 1920s, which is the last time we faced this degree of inequality. Those opposed to a state of affairs where the top .001 percent of the population control a majority of the society’s wealth are left mumbling incoherently in isolation like cattle.

    Basically, everyone on the “left” needs to forget all complaints against Obama and the democrats and vote in this mid-term. We should all reach out to 4-5 people who otherwise wouldn’t vote and get them to make the effort, because this is a crucial election.

  5. Sissy Boyd says:

    as always, I thank you Guy. so important and so clear.

  6. Cheryl Slean says:

    Guy, thank you for this! Both Mayer’s article and your commentary are important exposes to the hypocrisy and malevolence of the power players on the right. It’s invigorating to see your dharma-read on the psychology of such players and the libertarian stance in general. But as the Buddha asserted on numerous occasions, it is a very subtle thing to see the conceptual nature of one’s “self”, and this depth of looking inward is generally only motivated by sincere compassion for oneself and others; a genuine longing to understand the nature of suffering, thereby integrating the path to its end. It seems unlikely that people devoted to the illusion that they might insulate themselves from pain via wealth would be able and willing to awaken to their true natures. At least, as you say, until the process of dying opens a window to the truth; a window that every sentient being, even narcissistic demogogues like Chuck Koch (and Ivan Ilych) can step through, at the end. Unfortunately, too little too late, for those of us called upon to help ease the suffering of all beings, including that caused by the greed of ignorant rich folk. I would agree that rather than trying to reform the ignorant with subtle truths that are directly at odds with their rabid self-interest, the actionable item here is to take power out of their irresponsible hands; most notably by equalizing the playing field of political/legislative endeavor, via sweeping campaign finance and lobby reform. EG: http://www.publicampaign.org
    Thank you, as always, for your informative posts!

  7. Chris Kelley says:

    Well said Guy. I appreciate very much the description of the Libertarian “tantrum.”

  8. Brooke Adams says:

    Interesting. Thanks Guy

  9. Anna Marie Piersimoni says:

    Really beautiful analysis and writing. And, when the curtain is lifted from the puny and all too human man behind it, will we be offered a hot-air balloon ride to a “tea party” or awaken from a beautiful but terrifying nightmare, surrounded by fuzzy warm new progressives with a call for citizen funding? http://huff.to/alIeEE

    In another connection, here is a virtual homeless project, replete with uncaring passers-by even within a protective digital interactive interface – and citizen-funding. Would Charles have texted a few bucks in to help?

  10. Dov Rudnick says:

    From now on all revolutionary organizations, theatre groups, dance companies and reading groups should go under the title “Koch Industries” in order that the name of the enemy should be front and center and it be made clear that every act of hope, every step of inspired grace, every tender gesture of love… simultaneously calls for the exposure, denunciation, public debasement, prosecution and castration(while we’re at it) of the wretched scum. Guy, you are far too sweet to propose compassion for the two, especially as you do your part to expose their sinister aims to the light of day.

  11. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I believe my analysis leads into interesting waters and I’m happy to know people have found something of value in this piece. At the same time, it’s become clear to me over the past few days that I wrote the piece in the grip of what might be called “aversive” energies. Anger, essentially. I’m not sure what to do about it. Emending the piece wouldn’t address the problem, which has to do with tone. Retracting the piece seems wrong for several reasons. But I have to cop to the fact that I was writing from a place of anger at the Koch’s. My “buttons” were pushed by the Mayer article and the sense of regret I am feeling has to do with how important this subject matter is – the high stakes make it even more important to write from a place of equanimity. To give myself a break, it’s also clear to me that this terrain – income inequality, the issue of wealth and social justice – is “loaded” with traps and challenges of every type.

    For the moment, this comment is the best I can do to offset the imbalance in the post… but I will attempt to re-visit the issues I’m raising when I can and write this time from a less reactive place. In the meantime, thank you all again for your comments.

  12. Guy Zimmerman says:

    And, finally, to underscore what I am really trying to say via Barak Obama’s speech today: “This is a time of difficulty for our country. And it is often in such moments that some try to stoke bitterness – to divide us based on our differences, to blind us to what we have in common. But on this day, we are reminded that at our best, we do not give in to this temptation. We stand with one another. We fight alongside one another. We do not allow ourselves to be defined by fear, but by the hopes we have for our families, for our nation, and for a brighter future. So let us grieve for those we’ve lost, honor those who have sacrificed, and do our best to live up to the values we share – on this day, and every day that follows.”

  13. As a voter, neither can I forget GoldmanSachs’ $1,000,000 to Obama’s own record-setting, unreformed, and primarily (rhetoric aside) corporate-bankrolled campaign. While Soros, Gates, Buffett et al. may be arguably more transparent than the repellent Koch family, there’s no free lunch or ballet recitals for us voters. Both parties are ever more complicit in the oligarchy that manipulates our democratic marionettes in office.

    The desperation (mocked nightly by the elite on Comedy Central) of some Tea Partiers to resist this sway has been hijacked by those eager to advance plutocracy as if populism, and neither party cares about true reform. Dems act as if they cannot advance change, but they are the same golf buddies and yacht cronies who dine on the other side of the country club as the slickly tanned likes of John Boehner. A few more dresses, a few more shades of complexion for the purported saviors of we common folk, but nobody gets elected or stays in power without selling out. That is the underlying lesson: both parties are hopelessly seduced as was Kane.

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