Choosing the Proper Villain

Geography is everything. Where one lives determines how one thinks. Those who live in the Deep South can never forget the War of Northern Aggression that ruined their way of life, or they wonder about everyone around them who will never move on, while those who have lived their lives up north remember that Civil War about slavery and the concept that this is one country, not a loose association of autonomous sovereign states, and they’ve moved on. That’s odd, but then people who live in New York and Boston and Chicago, and most large cities, think it’s crazy to allow anyone who wants to walk around with a large loaded gun do so, while those who live in the wide-open west and Alaska, or any even vaguely rural area, think it’s both absurd and dangerous for the government to take people’s guns away from them. That geographic split also seems to determine how people think about public transportation and government services in general, and there’s the matter of ethnic and racial and sexual minorities – who belongs here is a matter of where “here” is. A number of Sikh folks in Wisconsin found that out a year or two ago. No one would have noticed them in Brooklyn, or cared what they thought about God and life and all that, and of course no one understands how anyone who actually lives in Hollywood, as some of us do, thinks about anything.

That’s understandable. Here we don’t think about things, per se – we think about how to tell stories about things, for profit. The entertainment industry, and the services that support it, are everything in this town. Real life goes on, as it will, in the rest of Los Angeles, and in the rest of California, and in the rest of the nation and the world. Here we’re once-removed from all that. We tell tall tales that are only related to real life, and we invent heroes of all sorts, and dastardly villains. One must have a dastardly villain – a mummy or a vampire or a zombie, or a Doctor No or a Goldfinger, or a Darth Vader, or a Joker, or a Godzilla (again this year) – or a Gordon Gekko if you want to get topical. There has to be a devious and ruthless villain. There’s no way to grab and hold onto an audience of millions without a devious and ruthless villain, which means that Hollywood is one big villain-factory. At this very moment, somewhere in a conference room around here, a studio team is inventing the next one. That’s where the money is. That’s what puts asses in the seats, so to speak.

That’s not all that unusual. Others think the same way, at least Republicans do. Democrats may talk about issues – economic fairness and social equality and the proper foreign policy and education and the environment – but for decades the Republicans have thought like a bunch of Hollywood studio executives, who know that the perfect villain is what grabs and holds the avid attention of millions. Let the Democrats talk about their policy ideas and how those might make things better for everyone. Republicans talk about villains. In the fifties they talked about communists – Joe McCarty certainly wasn’t talking about policy – and in the sixties it was hippies, who had nothing to do with starting the Vietnam War and weren’t the ones who could choose to stop it. A dozen years ago, Saddam Hussein was the requisite devious and ruthless villain, even if he was a second-rate thug who posed no danger to us at all. That worked. All but a few Democrats threw in the towel and decided that was a fine tall tale to tell Americans. That was a box-office decision – Saddam Hussein got asses in the seats, or kept people voting for you.

That’s why the moderate and pleasant and fairly harmless Barack Obama had to be the devious and ruthless villain, out to destroy America and freedom, because he wasn’t born here and he was Muslim-atheist socialist-fascist or whatever. None of it made much sense, but making sense wasn’t the point. They had a villain. The Obama as the Joker posters were everywhere. It’s a Hollywood thing, and the upcoming Benghazi hearings, the eighth so far, will turn up nothing new, because there’s nothing new to turn up, but they will cast Hillary Clinton as the obvious villain of all villains, which is why the Republicans will make the compelling tall tale in the 2016 elections. If she chooses not to run, well, every Hollywood studio has a major motion picture now and then that doesn’t even make back its production costs. It happens – but you always need a dastardly villain.

The Democrats never got this. Guys, you gotta have a proper villain! You can’t tell your tale without one. Obama did win the presidency twice without going there – he kept saying that McCain was a war hero for whom he had deep respect, and with whom he disagreed about policy for very specific reasons, and he let Mitt Romney proceed and expose himself as an oblivious rich One Percent guy who sneered at the rest of America, without ever once saying that Romney represented everything that was wrong and dangerous and cruel about America – but Obama may be the exception. Smart and courteous nice guys in politics are rare. We won’t see another one of those in our lifetimes, if ever. Politics is like that. It’s all about telling tall tales about villains.

The Democrats, however, hate to demonize individuals – they always want to talk about ideas, ways to make things better – but it seems that they finally woke up:

Flooding the airwaves this election year in battleground states across the country are Democratic ads featuring two men not on any ballot, and not even politicians.

They’re the Koch brothers, billionaire businessmen and GOP mega donors.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid takes the unusual step of regularly ripping Charles and David Koch from the Senate floor. He says they have “no conscience,” calling them “un-American.” And now, is proposing a constitutional amendment to ban the kind of anonymous political giving the Kochs engage in and, some experts say, perfected.

Other high-profile Democrats are hitting the Kochs, too – from Vice President Joe Biden to former Vice President Al Gore, who this week argued Republicans are reluctant to publicly accept the existence of man-made global warming for fear of crossing the Koch brothers.

“I don’t think it’s particularly complicated. They will face primary opponents financed by the Koch brothers and others who are part of their group,” Gore said.

It seems they found their proper villains:

Democratic sources tell CNN it’s a carefully crafted strategy to make the Koch brothers the 2014 election villains – the personification of the rich manipulating the political system – bankrolling a GOP agenda to get richer.

“The Koch brothers seem to believe in an America where the system is rigged to benefit the very wealthy,” Reid says as part of his regular anti-Koch rant.

The Democrats want to make this into a Hollywood movie, and the back-story is already in place:

Forbes magazine puts Charles and David Koch as the fourth-richest men in the United States, with a fortune of more than $41 billion.

Their oil, gas and textile conglomerate, Koch Industries, makes products people use every day: Dixie Cups, toilet paper, Stainmaster products and even LYCRA. Their business is privately held. The brothers own 84% of Koch Industries shares.

Their libertarian politics come from their father, Fred Koch, a chemical engineer whose experience working in the Soviet Union instilled an aversion to big government.

The same thing happened to someone else who lived in Russia too long, Ayn Rand. She left her native Russia and came here and wrote bad novels and developed her ultra-libertarian philosophy, centering on the virtue of selfishness. Fred Koch was a founding member of the John Birch Society. His sons plan to spend 125 million dollars on the midterm elections, to move the country to that every-man-for-himself ideal, where the poor and unlucky and elderly just die, as they should. The Democrats have their proper villains.

There is also a book deal, a tie-in as they say in Hollywood, and that would be Daniel Schulman with Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty – just published, and from a rush review:

At the center of the saga is patriarch Fred Koch, a staunch anti-communist who drilled his political ideology into his sons from a young age. In 1938, then sympathetic to the fascist regimes ruling Germany, Italy and Japan, Fred wrote that he hoped one day the United States would resemble these nations, which had “overcome” the vices of “idleness, feeding at the public trough, [and] dependence on government.”

Elsewhere, Fred warned of a future “vicious race war” in which communists would pit black Americans against white. “The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America,” he wrote.

In private, Fred Koch “ruled the house with an iron fist” and faith in social Darwinism. Schulman recounts how the former boxer encouraged his sons to fight each other, sometimes with horrifying results. “During one bout, Bill bashed his twin over the head with a polo mallet,” Schulman writes. And “David still bears a scar from the time Bill pierced him in the back with a ceremonial sword.”

Perhaps the movie rights are for sale. This is Hollywood stuff. Frederick is the forgotten gay brother shunned by the family, and there’s this:

When the youngest twin, Bill, launched a bid to wrest control of Koch Industries from his older brothers, Charles’ legal team responded by releasing a dossier of opposition research on Bill, filled with sordid details of his personal life. In 2000, Bill’s then-wife Angela, the mother of two of his children, called the police to accuse Bill of punching her in the stomach and threatening “to beat his whole family to death with his belt.” Bill was charged with domestic assault and threatening to commit murder. Angela later recanted parts of her account, shortly before receiving a divorce settlement worth $16 million. Nonetheless, Bill spent decades waging vicious legal battles against Charles and David, which cost the family tens of millions of dollars. Much of the book revolves around Bill’s failed attempts to gain control of Koch Industries.

As Schulman recounts, Bill hired private investigators to bug his brothers’ offices and pick through the garbage cans at their homes. He planted false memos aimed at rooting out spies in his own company, Oxbow, who he suspected were secretly working for his brothers.

While Bill’s anger may have been rooted in childhood rivalries, according to Schulman, it was exacerbated by Charles’ ultra-libertarian business philosophy, which Bill considered bad for business.

Hell, the screenplay practically writes itself, and admit it, in your mind you’re casting the parts right now. Anthony Hopkins already did a masterful job with Nixon – he can do Bill Koch. The Democrats have their villains, for once, and, in the New York Times, there’s the Nicholas Confessore analysis of David Koch’s 1980 run for the vice-presidency:

The Kochs had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the burgeoning libertarian movement. In the waning days of the 1970s, in the wake of Watergate, Vietnam and a counterculture challenging traditional social mores, they set out to test just how many Americans would embrace what was then a radical brand of politics.

It was the first and only bid for high office by a Koch family member. But much of what occurred in that quixotic campaign shaped what the Kochs have become today – a formidable political and ideological force determined to remake American politics, driven by opposition to government power and hostility to restrictions on money in campaigns.

That election also handed the Kochs their first political setback, driving them to rethink their approach to libertarian ideas. Since then, they have built a powerful network of political nonprofit groups that is exempt from most campaign reporting requirements and contribution limits but will spend tens of millions of dollars to influence the 2014 election. They have exerted enormous influence on American politics, battling government regulation and casting doubt on the urgency of climate change. Instead of replacing the Republican Party, they have helped to profoundly reshape it.

“The 1980 campaign was instructive in helping them learn what ideas resonated,” said Robert A. Tappan, a Koch Industries spokesman, “and at the same time, giving them an understanding of the implications of the electoral political process.”

Yeah, the Libertarian ticket will never win, and the implication of that was that one needs to work in the background:

Politics was a dangerous game for those in business, Charles Koch argued in a 1974 speech to libertarian thinkers and business leaders in Dallas. Subsidies and special treatment demanded by corporations had helped turn Americans against free enterprise. Business had colluded with the Nixon administration to design price controls and other “socialistic measures.”

The most effective response was not political action, Mr. Koch argued, but investment in pro-capitalist research and educational programs.

“The development of a well-financed cadre of sound proponents of the free enterprise philosophy is the most critical need facing us today,” he said, according to a copy of his speech in a Libertarian Party archive at the University of Virginia, one of thousands of documents reviewed by The New York Times for this article.

They had equal loathing of both parties, because even Republicans were too unfriendly to big business and wealthy interests:

Charles Koch, then in his first decade as president of Koch Industries, had aggressively expanded the firm’s holdings in oil refineries, petroleum products and commodities, while David Koch worked as an executive at the company’s engineering subsidiary.

As the brothers became more politically active, Koch Industries repeatedly butted against the federal government’s new energy regulations. One month before Charles Koch’s speech in Dallas, a federal audit found that Koch and two other companies had broken federal oil price controls. In 1975, a Koch subsidiary was cited for $10 million in overcharges on propane gas.

The family’s frustrations were captured in a fund-raising letter that Charles Koch wrote on behalf of the 1976 Libertarian presidential candidate, Roger MacBride, a co-creator of the “Little House on the Prairie” television series. Mr. Koch excoriated Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford for backing price controls, and attacked legislation to impose fuel economy standards as “one of the many demonstrations of the bankruptcy of the Republican alternative to Democratic interventionism.”

Yeah, but they didn’t have a political party, and at Salon, Kim Messick discusses how they worked things out:

It has long been customary to divide the Republican Party into three “camps”: big business or “Wall Street” Republicans, the religious right and neoconservatives or “national security” Republicans. The third group, it must be admitted, somewhat unsteadily combines neoconservatives proper (such as William Kristol) with old-fashioned defense hawks (such as Donald Rumsfeld), but perhaps this is the Republican “big tent” we keep hearing about.

In any case, this neat three-part logic was roiled by two events in 2008: the “Great Recession” and the election of Barack Obama as president. The latter’s decision to respond to the crisis with a fairly traditional mix of demand-side remedies – some tax cuts, some increased spending – ignited a fire storm on the right.

That gave us the Tea Party, and also gave the libertarians an opening:

A source of confusion is that “libertarian,” as a rubric, offers Republicans certain rhetorical advantages. It suggests they’re for something and not just against the Democrats, and that this something is related to “liberty.” (And it performs this latter function while avoiding the hated epithet “liberal.”) It also serves an irenic purpose insofar as it gestures at common ground for Tea Partyers, the religious right generally, and Wall Streeters. If these factions can agree on anything, it’s that they want “less government” – meaning less liberal government – and this is easily elided into the claim that they want more liberty. As long as no one inspects the logic too closely, this “We’re all libertarians now” line can seem helpfully plausible.

Messick goes on to discuss true libertarianism and its pale imitations, but all the Democrats need are proper villains, who turn out to be fools who lose to the good guys, and Michael Lind takes care of that:

Why are there no libertarian countries? If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?

It’s not as though there were a shortage of countries to experiment with libertarianism. There are 193 sovereign state members of the United Nations – 195, if you count the Vatican and Palestine, which have been granted observer status by the world organization. If libertarianism was a good idea, wouldn’t at least one country have tried it? Wouldn’t there be at least one country, out of nearly two hundred, with minimal government, free trade, open borders, decriminalized drugs, no welfare state and no public education system?

When you ask libertarians if they can point to a libertarian country, you are likely to get a baffled look, followed, in a few moments, by something like this reply: While there is no purely libertarian country, there are countries which have pursued policies of which libertarians would approve: Chile, with its experiment in privatized Social Security, for example, and Sweden, a big-government nation which, however, gives a role to vouchers in schooling.

Lind isn’t buying it:

Libertarian theorists have the luxury of mixing and matching policies to create an imaginary utopia. A real country must function simultaneously in different realms – defense and the economy, law enforcement and some kind of system of support for the poor. Being able to point to one truly libertarian country would provide at least some evidence that libertarianism can work in the real world.

Some political philosophies pass this test. For much of the global center-left, the ideal for several generations has been Nordic social democracy – what the late liberal economist Robert Heilbroner described as “a slightly idealized Sweden.” Other political philosophies pass the test, even if their exemplars flunk other tests. Until a few decades ago, supporters of communism in the West could point to the Soviet Union and other Marxist-Leninist dictatorships as examples of “really-existing socialism.” They argued that, while communist regimes fell short in the areas of democracy and civil rights, they proved that socialism can succeed in a large-scale modern industrial society.

While the liberal welfare-state left, with its Scandinavian role models, remains a vital force in world politics, the pro-communist left has been discredited by the failure of the Marxist-Leninist countries it held up as imperfect but genuine models. Libertarians have often proclaimed that the economic failure of Marxism-Leninism discredits not only all forms of socialism but also moderate social-democratic liberalism.

But think about this for a moment. If socialism is discredited by the failure of communist regimes in the real world, why isn’t libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world? Communism was tried and failed. Libertarianism has never even been tried on the scale of a modern nation-state, even a small one, anywhere in the world.

There might be a reason for that, but Messick also sees reasons libertarianism has become the rage on the right now:

The first, and most obvious, is simply the enormous appeal of the concept of freedom. Because freedom is a great good thing, it’s natural (for a certain kind of mind, anyway) to think the loudest voice proclaiming it must also be the most reliable, the best. And no one proclaims it more loudly than libertarians.

Shrillness is not the same thing as sense, however. You don’t have to be a Hegelian to recognize in the libertarian rhetoric of freedom one of humankind’s oldest fantasies – the dream of an unconditioned life, one without restraints, in which everything can be represented as an object of our will. Nor do you have to be a communitarian to find this relentless – not to say, obsessive – focus on freedom a bit, well, unbalanced. It is one thing to say that autonomy is an essential part of any dignified human life; it’s quite another to say that autonomy alone guarantees our dignity. Freedom matters a lot, but other things matter too.

These are important points, but my guess is that most liberals aren’t anxious to press them. After all, we value autonomy too. What we want is a deeper, more realistic account of its sources and of the conditions that enhance or thwart it. We know it has limits, but we think our attention is better directed to the artificial limits imposed by human ignorance and malfeasance.

Most liberals aren’t anxious to press these points? That just changed. From the early days of the silent movies to today, Hollywood always knew you had to have that proper villain, or you wouldn’t get those millions of asses in those theater seats. The Republicans figured that out in the fifties, just about the time that Hollywood movie star, Ronald Reagan, was transitioning to politics, and there may be no coincidence there. He was the good guy who could point out the obvious villain – that communist, right there, over to left. Now the Democrats have figured that out, and have the Koch Brothers, standard villains straight out of central casting. They say Hollywood is a strange place, that no one knows what the hell we’re thinking out here. Not so – everyone know you always need a villain. The Democrats were just late to the game.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Choosing the Proper Villain

  1. SalvaVenia says:

    … which means that Hollywood is one big villain-factory. – Hit and sunk! :)

  2. Rick says:

    “If libertarianism was a good idea, wouldn’t at least one country have tried it? Wouldn’t there be at least one country, out of nearly two hundred, with minimal government, free trade, open borders, decriminalized drugs, no welfare state and no public education system?”

    Hey, doesn’t that pretty much describe Somalia?

    Think about it: the most minimalist of governments; whatever trade they have is free; extremely open borders; what “cop” is going to stop you from using or selling drugs?; they certainly have no social security or Medicare, and certainly not even free-markety Obamacare-type programs; and I’m sure no public schools, or at least as far as I know.

    So that thing about, “Libertarianism has never even been tried on the scale of a modern nation-state, even a small one, anywhere in the world,” is not literally correct, although that other famous line, “We have seen the future, and it doesn’t work”, seems about right.


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