Monday, September 02, 2019

On Koch and Monsters

[ this blog is pretty much comatose, but every so often my pet mission of anti-anti-politics comes up and I can't resist. ]

Some people are horrified and disgusted that people are celebrating the death of David Koch. It՚s distasteful – wasn՚t he a fellow human being, with a family and people who cared about him? And isn՚t reveling in the death of a political opponent rather extreme? Should one really wish death on people just because they hold different political views?

I think this betrays a fairly shallow view of politics. The people who say this think it՚s just some unimportant shouting game, or just a sort of intellectual disagreement. This is wrong. Politics is a cousin of war, war breeds enemies, and fuck if I don՚t want to see my enemies dead. They are, after all, trying to kill me.

This is obviously true of the Nazis, fascists, ethno-nationalists and all their enablers. These are obviously people who don՚t merely have a “difference of opinion”, they are devotees of ideologies that would murder me and my family in a heartbeat. This is not a hypothetical; their predecessors did in fact murder a huge swath of my ancestors, not that long ago.

David Koch was not a Nazi*, but he put his enormous wealth in the service of climate denial, which if you multiply everything out is probably going to do a lot more damage to humanity than the Nazis ever dreamed of. He supported a vast number of odious causes, but that one in particular seems like a direct threat to my own life and to everybody else՚s.

This is the stakes of politics in our era, and perhaps every era. Life and death. Existential struggle. It՚s not a debating society, it՚s not an intellectual game, it՚s not a club or identity, although it includes all of those as aspects.

And let՚s be clear – Koch is despised not merely for his “views”, but because he put his wealth and power into the service of promulgating those views, which conveniently were designed to help him maintain that wealth and power. He wasn՚t an intellectual; he bought the services of intellectuals by the truckload.

Sometimes I wish I were more of a doctrinaire Marxist or Foucauldian or something like that, because in cases like this the links between class interest and ideology are so painfully clear and they at least have the language to talk about it. A Marxist would have no qualms about pissing on Koch's grave, but also would not be so prone to think of him as evil -- he's simply pursuing his narrow class interests, which just happen to be opposed to mine.

Politics can be very ugly and stupid. But it's also an inescapable fact of life, and when things get hot you have to figure out what side you are on. Koch had no qualms about promoting his side, and I don՚t have qualms about being opposed to him. He did enormous damage and now he՚s gone, leaving only his family, his institutions, his hangers-on, and untold quantities of money to continue his project of making the world a worse place.

On the other hand: I՚m currently in a situation where  a recently dead person who I respected a lot is under attack by an enraged public mob. Fairly or unfairly, I can՚t say – I have very mixed feelings, the facts are still being hashed out, and I haven՚t yet been able to write about it directly. But it gives me a bit of empathy for the other side, for the people in David Koch՚s life who didn՚t see him as a monster but as a whole person. The cases aren՚t very parallel for dozens of different reasons, but in both cases you can see the machinery by which societies, or factions within society, deal with defining, judging, and punishing purportedly monstrous behavior.

There՚s something primal about this process; it seems both a necessary part of social cognition (that is, it is part of how a society constructs itself; how it establishes its rules for normalcy and deviancy) and also kind of ugly, scary, and anti-intellectual. And it doesn՚t even do a good job of suppressing monstrosity, which seems to get stronger the more it is rejected, repressed, and projected outwards.


*while he wasn՚t a Nazi, part of his fortune came from his father working for Nazi Germany and he՚s got other Nazi-adjacent items in his history, so there՚s that.

2 comments:

patchworkZombie said...

What's your take on Minsky's connections to Epstein?

mtraven said...

I've been avoiding public comment on that, because my feelings are extremely mixed and the topic is extremely fraught.

But since you asked:

- I think it unlikely that he committed the sexual crime he is being accused of. It just doesn't seem plausible given what I know of the man, although I suppose anything is possible.

- But he is certainly guilty of hanging out with Epstein, taking his money, and legitimizing him. That's bad enough, and thoroughly documented. It's a permanent stain on his reputation and legacy, and that's going to have to be dealt with somehow.

- There's a growing murmur on Twitter and elsewhere that Minsky was some kind of horrible patriarchal monster, hostile to women colleagues and students. This is absolute nonsense and I've done what I can to combat it.

What Epstein means for tech culture and specifically MIT is going to be a hotly contested issue for the foreseeable future. Marvin's dead, but there are plenty of others who were just as cozy with Epstein, and they are going to have to deal with it. Currently there is a battle to oust Joi Ito, director of the Media Lab, who took Epstein money for the lab and for his private ventures. This seems like a sensible move, but he is being defended by a lot of people I respect, or thought I did. It's getting political and it's getting nasty.