Thursday, October 23, 2014

Flea Bites Elephant—Elephant Screams

It was the most flattering news Unitarian Universalists have heard in a long time.  So flattering that the UUA and the ubiquitous Standing on the Side of Love campaign can be heard and seen whooping it up all over the social media—and fundraising to beat the band in the reflected glory.  At first guess, you might think that the news is the virtual collapse of state laws prohibiting same gender marriage since marriage equality was the high profile cause with which the denomination has been most closely identified with in recent years.  And yes, that is indeed a cause for celebration and UUs can feel justifiable pride in their tireless work on behalf of that cause.
But that’s not it.  Rather it was the back handed endorsement of UU power and influence by two despised icons of opposition to virtually all of the Association’s most cherished social justice values.  Charles and David Koch, the billionaire moneybags behind a concerted effort to subvert democracy by simply buying it outright lock, stock, and barrel, were wounded by the defections of several high profile corporate sponsors from one of their lynchpin organizations, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  In a plaintive appeal to sponsors who remained loyal to step up their contributions to make up for the loss of high profile, high tech giants like Yahoo! The Koch Brothers’ mouthpiece, ALEC Director of Development Laurel Buckley
Professional activists ranging from Common Cause to the Unitarian Universalist Church just won’t stop. As part of their misleading smear campaign, these activist groups demand members stop working with ALEC. Now we are standing up…I am asking that you show your support for ALEC. Will you show these professional activist groups that you stand with ALEC with a gift today?
Putting aside for a moment that the brothers Koch and their creature can’t seem to tell the difference between the ministers and members of a religious body from “professional activists,” the spectacle of the enormously wealthy and politically powerful bleating pitifully of suffering persecution at the hands of a denomination that claims about 165,000 adult members representing far less than 1% of the population and a reputation for “being on the fringe” seem ludicrous.  Like the elephant screaming about a flea bite in the title of this little screed.
Let’s examine that discrepancy beginning with who the Koch Brothers are and what ALEC and the other parts of their sprawling operation aimed at remaking America are.
The Koch family fortune was established by Fred C. Koch, a Texas oil man and refiner who ironically earned much of his initial wealth building refineries in the Soviet Union in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s. 
Fred was distantly related to Erich Koch, a high ranking Nazi powerful in Prussia.  Erich Koch invited Fred, whose American business was virtually wiped out by law suits by major American refiners against his improved crackling process, into a partnership in producing oil for Germany.  This partnership continued right up to the American entry into World War I and the company that they founded continued to refine oil for the duration.  He was also, although perhaps tenuously, connected to Erich brother, Karl Otto Koch, Commandant of Buchenwald and his charming wife Ilse a/k/a the Bitch of Buchenwald who as a hobby made lampshade from the skin of executed Jewish prisoners.  War Crimes Tribunals sentenced Karl Otto to be hung an Ilse to life imprisonment.  Oddly, after two years imprisonment Ilse was pardoned by General Lucius D. Clay, the interim military governor of the American Zone in Germany.  The public uproar at the mystifying action eventually led to her being arrested by the post-war German government which tried her and again sentenced her to life imprisonment.  Ilse hung herself in prison in 1957. 
I would not assert that Fred Koch was personally a Nazi.  He was more of an opportunist and a shrewd businessman with any eye to turn a profit under any circumstances.  But his close business association with Nazis seems to have sharpened a growing militant anti-Communism that came to full flower back home in the post-war era.
Fred Koch was able to take the profits from his foreign operations and after winning the last of the 44 suits filed against his crackling process, began to build up his domestic business and fortune.  He quietly assembled an empire, largely flying under the radar of public awareness because he did not operate any consumer brands under his name.
In the late 1950’s Koch became the main funder of the John Birch Society, which in turn became ground zero for the new American right wing that would eventually take over the venerable Republican Party.  Not only were his views virulently anti-communist and paranoid—he avowedly believed that both major parties were riddled with Communists and the Dwight Eisenhower was their “knowing dupe”—but they were also profoundly racist.  He believed welfare was a secret plot to attract rural blacks and Puerto Ricans to Eastern cities to vote for Communist causes and “get a vicious race war started.”
The dictatorial pater familias left both Koch Industries and his political ideologies to his four sons, two of whom, David and Charles, took both endeavors firmly into their own hands after the old man died in 1967.  Over the next decade under their management Koch Industries expanded far beyond its origins in the oil business—although energy companies remained top targets for acquisitions.  The companies vast holding now include, just for starters, Invista (polymer products including Lycra), Georgia-Pacific (pulp, paper, and consumer products) , Molex (electronic components and fiber optics), Flint Hills Resources (the core refining and chemical business, Koch Pipeline, Koch Fertilizer, Koch Minerals,  and Matador Cattle Company. 
Koch Industries is now the second largest privately held company in the United States after Cargill, with an annual revenue of $115 billion.  If Koch it were a public company in 2013, it would have ranked 17 in the Fortune 500.  The company employs more the 50,000 in the U.S. and an additional 20,000 around the world.  Chairman and CEO Charles Koch has publicly vowed that it would become publicly owned “over my dead body.”
Koch Industries directly asserts the ultra-conservative interests of its owners through the political action committee KochPAC and sophisticated lobbying operations by all of its affiliates which spent more than $20 million on lobbying in 2008 and $12.3 million in 2009
But the Koch Brothers draw mostly form their own personal vast fortunes—and those of allied billionaires—to fund their political operations.  Self-proclaimed libertarians with a small L they combine their father’s anti-communism  with a determination to smother government at all levels to rudimentary vestiges with enough police power to protect private property and interests domestically and military power to insure American domination of the world.  They oppose most forms of taxation, especially on corporate income and property.  They advocate the dismantlement of virtually all progressive legislation back to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act including all labor and consumer protection laws and environmental regulations.  They seek the abolition of welfare, unemployment insurance, Social Security, and all government medical programs.   They seek to break the power of public unions and then squash the vestiges of a labor movement in the private sector.  They advocate the privatization of most government services including public education, fire protection, and the construction and operation of highways, roads, and all forms of transportation.  They distrust democracy and seek to restrict voting by any and all means, and have openly supported the return of property requirements set at substantial levels to insure only “responsible” people vote. 
It is a breathtakingly sweeping and radical agenda that a decade or so ago would have been written off as the fruitless wet dream of wealthy eccentrics.  But by using their wealth to create a complex web of organizations, institutions, and fronts they have become breathtakingly close to their goals.  

Just try and make sense of this web of money, power, and influence.

They have donated more than $196 million to dozens of so called free-market and advocacy organizations. In 2008, the three main Koch family foundations contributed to 34 political and policy organizations, three of which they founded, and several of which they direct.  All of those numbers are significantly up in the last six years.
Beyond personal $2.6 million dollars in donations to candidates in the 2012 election cycle, which by law are limited, the Koch brothers funnel hundreds of millions of dollars more to conservative causes through several family foundations and other foundations created by allies on which one or both of the brothers often serve on the boards of directors.  A 2013 study by the Center for Responsive Politics said that nonprofit groups backed by the Koch donor network organized more than $400 million in the 2011–2012 election cycle.  These foundations earlier created the Cato Institute, a flagship think tank which the Koch brothers directly control, and a major funders and influencers of the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute.  Together these and similar specialized smaller think tanks specializing in various industries and areas of policy, provide both a laboratory for ideas  to the new Conservative movement and churn out policy analysis papers that are regularly gobbled up and regurgitated by major media outlets as gospel truth. 
On the next level Koch foundations and organizations affiliated with them operate a web of lobbying operations that rivals or exceeds those of Koch businesses.  Then is another layer of PACs feeding funding to compliant candidates.
Way back in 1980 David Koch was the Libertarian Party candidate for Vice President.  The experience soured him on personal political involvement and dashed hope that the Libertarians could emerge as a dominant power.  The brother subsequently began to concentrate their efforts on remaking the Republican Party into their own image by subsidizing insurgent candidacy against perceived moderates and running a virtual guerilla war to take the party over.   In the processes they drove the whole party, including many of those moderates, rapidly to the right achieving almost complete victory in thirty years. 
The election of Barak Obama and the Democratic surge of 2008 was a stunning setback to their plans.  The Koch brothers responded by declaring that they would spend even more money.  And they did.  In 2012 they pledged $60 million dollars to defeat Obama and the Democrats.  Although Obama survived, they did capture control of Congress and especially in the House their acolytes had free reign.
A good deal of that success was laid at the feat of the Tea Party movement which had some genuine right-populist origins, but which the Koch Brothers secretly funded through various foundations and dispersed gifts until they gained control what came to be known as Astroturf organizations.  Tea party groups quickly swung behind the Koch agenda.
The Koch brothers began to hold twice yearly donors’ conferences where they wine and dine leading Republican donors and steer them to favored candidates and causes.
But the Brothers were not just interested in Washington.  Increasingly they turned their attention to state governments to institute their “reforms.”  They began to funnel money into state legislative races, replacing moderate Republicans with self-identified Tea Party crusaders and backing far right candidates for governor.  In the off year elections in 2010, while the country was still in the grip of a depression, Koch backed candidates swept to the governors’ mansions of several states and took solid majorities in both houses of many legislatures.  Scott Walker and Wisconsin were just the picture book example of the Koch success.
ALEC was the lynchpin of this operation.  Ostensibly not a PAC or a political operation at all  but a nonprofit organization of state legislators and private sector representatives which drafts and shares model legislation for distribution among the States. ALEC claims to “work to advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public.” 
They key here is drafting mode legislation.  Democrats and progressives were repeatedly stunned when sweeping regulatory changes, attacks on public unions, and moves to restrict voting began springing up in state after state, often being introduced and adopted with hardly a comma changed.  Conservative legislators that advanced and supported the canned proposals were rewarded by abundant campaign support from the Koch web of PACs and directed contributions by wealthy allies.  Those who opposed it faced being crushingly outspent by challengers.  Compliant governors were elevated to folk hero status and began to hear the sweet music of being mentioned for a place on the national ticket.
All of this largely flew under the radar of the press and public until an August 2010 article in the New Yorker by Jane Mayer laid bare the Koch Brothers’ role in financing the burgeoning climate change denial movement pointing out that they “vastly outspent ExxonMobil [then then the most public face of climate denial] giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups.  The thin skinned Koch boys yelped in outrage and unleashed a minor army of toadies to attack Mayer and her article.  The heavy handed response led only to greater scrutiny.
Since then the Koch brothers have become the whipping boy of the left/liberal/progressive press.  Hardly a day goes by when they are not castigated for something in the Daily Koz or Huffington Post, by broadcasters like Rachel Maddow and Melissa Harris-Perry, or in the pages of liberal magazines.  Individual candidates and liberal PAC fundraise on the threat of what Mayer in her article called the Kochtopus.

Several exposes have been published, notably a Rolling Stone cover article Inside the Koch Brothers. Toxic Empire by Tim Dickinson the September and there have been two documentary films including the widely circulated Koch Brothers Exposed by Robert Greenwald.  These have elicited complaints that boys were being persecuted and that there was a conspiracy to deprive them of their First Amendment Rights as Charles wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

But the attacks have taken their toll, especially a campaign to urge corporate sponsors of ALEC to cut support to that organization   As of this September 2014, at least 93 corporations and 19 non-profits for a total of 112 private sector members have publicly announced that they cut ties with ALEC including such giants as Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Wal-Mart, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, General Motors, Sallie Mae, IBM, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and even News Corporation.  It was these latter abandonments that caused the above mentioned yowls of outrage

Wisconsin UUs in an anti-ALEC protest as part of the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign.

But did the tiny UUA actually do the damage.  While we are proud to claim we did, the truth is we were only a part of a broader movement, albeit a visible one. 

The main reason that the UUA was singled out may have been to rally support from an important part of the conservative coalition that the Koch Brothers and ALEC usually ignore—the religious right for whom Unitarian Universalists with their ardent pro-choice positions, LBGT advocacy including marriage equality support, and neo-pagan earth worship is a sharp poke in the eye.  As Randian libertarians the Koch boys could care less who sleeps with who or about a whole range of so-called family values issues.  All they really ever cared about was unbridled capitalism and a free hand to loot and pillage.  Maybe if they can invoke those hated heretics, they can engage some of the pitchfork and torches religious zealots in their aid.

Libertarian animus to Unitarian Universalism, however, is not new.  Over a decade ago the Rockford, Illinois based free market think tank the Heartland Institute wrote that “pick a scab on the American body politic and the pus that oozes is Unitarian.”

But what have Unitarian Universalists actually done?  Besides generally supporting social justice campaigns in a number of areas where ALEC takes a diametrically opposed positions—on global warming, fracking, and the environment; access to health care;  voting rights and opposition to ALEC’s laundry list of suppression projects; opposition to corporate personhood and the Citizen’s United decision unleashing unlimited corporate campaign spending; and workers rights and income inequality—the UUA through its Standing on the Side of Love campaign and in partnership with the Unitarian Universalist  Service Committee (UUSC) were among the earliest to conduct petition campaigns that helped lead several corporations, particularly the very visible high tech firms, to quit their affiliations.  The UUA and UUSC conducted specific online petition drives directed at each company.  The numbers were not huge—between 2,500 and 4,000 in each campaign, but they were gathered and presented quickly in conjunction with similar campaigns by allies like the Color of Change, NAACP, and People for the American Way.  Right now after victory with Yahoo! a new petition drive in on to urge E-Bay to withdraw.  You can sign the petition here:

But signing petitions won’t in the end cut the mustard as a substitute for more substantitive action.  This is where UUA congregations came through in a big, but overlooked way.  Google UUA Koch Brothers and what turns up is listing after listing of local congregations hosting showings of the film Koch Brothers Exposed.  Sometime the congregation or its social justice committee sponsored the showing.  Sometimes they hosted other organizations.  But in town after town—Kansas City; Peterborough, New Hampshire; Kirkland, West Virginia; San Francisco; Fresno; Hidalgo County, Texas; Fredrick, Maryland; and Edmonds, Washington—to list only the first few shown the place where this information got out to the public was a UU Congregation.

UU social justice activists often feel like we are swimming in peanut butter, struggling hard but not getting anywhere.  Our small, local efforts seem swamped by the enormous forces arrayed against us.  Progress seems slow or nonexistent.  That often leads to burnout and exhaustion.  We often forget how important just being there and keeping the light on can be.  In so many communities if it were not for the UU congregation there would be no place to show films like Koch Brothers Exposed, no place to facilitate discussions, no place to provide vital meeting space for allied organizations, no place to generate letters to the editor in local publications breaking through with dissenting voices when none would be heard.

Sure, we can sign petitions and can provide bodies at local and national events—witness the significant UUA/Standing on the Side of Love presence at the recent New York climate change march, Moral Mondays in North Carolina, or immigration justice rallies on the Tex/Mex border.  But maybe our greatest contribution is just being there.

Our experience in the Marriage Equality Movement, the most significant win many of us have experienced in a long time, should have taught us the same thing.  Just being visible and present as an alternative to hate and bigotry over the long haul was so important in town after town, state after state.

Unitarian Universalists may be a flea on the pachyderm’s ass, but at least we can bite deeply.

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