We can combine two interesting bits of recent news productively.
Koch and the Neo-Confederate
The first is the news comes courtesy of the student group, UnKoch my Campus. It seems one of Charles Koch’s many foundations disbursed money to Florida Atlantic professor Marshall DeRosa to start a classes in civics education for prisoners returning to society. DeRosa was a one-time member of the League of the South (LOS) a neo-Confederate hate group. As The Nation concludes:
The reality of the situation is staggering: An academic who worked with a neo-Confederate organization is teaching inmates, including many of color, a curriculum he designed, funded by one of the wealthiest conservative political donors in the country and instituted at the facilities of a notorious, predatory private-prison company that is accused of violating federal anti-slavery laws.
The Charles Koch foundation has scrubbed their article touting their connection to DeRosa (fortunately, the internet never forgets). And, even after DeRosa left the LOS for the (supposedly) more respectable Abbeville Institute, his views are still reactionary and ill-informed. What should we make of this? Is it reasonable to think that DeRosa’s prison activities are benign? Is it reasonable to think that the Koch Foundation just didn’t know about his unsavory past and present views and associations?
The Jews Control the Weather
The second bit of news was when a DC councilman claimed that the incoming snow on the Atlantic coast was the result of a conspiracy:
“There’s this whole concept with the Rothschilds — control the World Bank, as we all know — infusing dollars into major cities,” said White, according to video footage that the city routinely releases after official meetings. “They really pretty much control the federal government, and now they have this concept called resilient cities in which they are using their money and influence into local cities.”
The councilman later explained that he had no idea that invoking the Rothschilds was invoking an old antisemitic slur. So, while he meant to say that a shadowy cabal controlled the weather, he certainly didn’t mean that a shadowy cabal of Jews controlled the weather.
In both cases a reasonable question is: while the Koch Foundation and the DC Councilman might have been ignorant that they were linking themselves to racist ideas, should they have known? It is an interesting historical question worth exploring.
The Koch Brothers are only the latest in a long line of rich men who have funded free market writers and publications. As Kevin Kruse and Kim Phillips-Fein have shown, immediately after World War II, rich industrialists like the du Pont brothers and J. Howard Pew poured significant money into rehabilitating free market economics, the role of business in society, and limited government. One organization that benefited from their largess was Merwin K. Hart’s National Economic Council (NEC). The du Ponts for example, not only funded Hart’s efforts but also lent their name to him to recruit other rich donors (p. 403-4). One rich benefactor who was especially impressed by Hart was Harold Luhnow, the director of the libertarian Volker Fund. According to Hart, the fund was much more impressed by the NEC than by Leonard Read and the Foundation for Economic Education:
Mr. Luhnow is the backer, I understand, of Leonard Read. He surprised me by saying he was disappointed by Bead’s accomplishments so far. He said that they had printed a lot of other people’s stuff and that in spite of the fact that they had able writers like Orville Watts, they had not published a thing that any of them had written.
Luhnow made a subscription of $5,000 while I was there for the Council’s work and in particular for the Restore the Republic program. He took a checkbook from his pocket and wrote me a check. (p. 238)
Luhnow was undoubtedly impressed with Hart’s close connections to many important figures of the nascent libertarian movement. In 1942, Garrett Garet helped Hart pitch a publishing effort to defend the free market. In 1944 Hart proposed the formation of a “Committee of Individualists” arguing that “We observe that history shows no instance where the irresponsible and omnipotent State has failed to become a force for unmitigated evil both inside and outside its own boundaries.” He published a monthly Economic Council Review of Books which was first written and edited by Albert Jay Nock and, after his death in 1945, by Rose Wilder Lane. He worked closely with Austrian economist, Percy L. Greaves, even testifying before Congress with him (pp. 359-382).
The reason that Hart’s efforts on behalf of the free market are not better known is that Hart was, in the words of the Anti-Defamation League’s chief investigator, Arnold Forster, “a clever bigot” who “never reveals his anti-Semitism in a vulgar way” (p. 61). By 1950, when Forster published those words, Isaac Don Levine, a Jewish anti-Communist writer had published a blistering exposé in his magazine Plain Talk. “The tragedy is that Mr. Hart brings to the noble cause of freedom the disease-carrying elements of hate and civil strife.” The immediate spark for Levine’s outrage was Hart’s bi-monthly newsletter the National Economic Letter, in particular the issue entitled “Is Christianity to Die?” which Levine claimed “no sound or decent person reading it can doubt that Mr. Hart is waging the same old anti-Semitic campaign marked by certain tactical changes only.” Levine systematically worked through Hart’s newsletters for the previous year or so showing Hart’s constant theme of Jew baiting (see here or here for examples cited by Levine).
That did not stop the Volker fund from underwriting Hart’s efforts. After Forster and Levine (among others, I should note) had sounded the alarm about Hart, the Volker Fund funded the distribution of Hart’s materials. For example, they paid for the distribution of 11,000 copies of newsletter #208 (p. 428) which argued that the Jews prevented businesses from fully embracing the cause of freedom:
It seems highly likely (indeed, we have well-defined rumors which we ourselves believe) that some Zionist stockholders have made it their business to try to see that a corporation in which they hold stock should not make a contribution to any organization which these Zionists don’t approve. Intimidation of a ruthless nature on the part of Zionists is nothing new.
Ultimately, rather than funding for the distribution of particular newsletters, the Volker Fund paid for 500 library subscriptions to the Economic Council Letter thus guaranteeing that Hart’s antisemitic message could be read by those who would otherwise not be able to access it (pp. 556-62).
What kind of judgments can we make about Volker or Koch funding racist ideas? One question is to ask: why did Hart or DeRosa seek out funding from the sources they did? One possible answer is that the distance between their views and those of their funders were very closely aligned.
For one thing, libertarian arguments for minimal government often aligned closely with those who wished to maintain white supremacy. Libertarians were firmly opposed to fair employment practices. Thus, when notorious racist, Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo spoke out against them on the Senate floor, he could simply cite Merwin Hart in support of his cause. When Prince Edward County, Virginia defended its school privatization plan (that kept black students from education for the five years it was enacted) in front of the Supreme Court they explicitly cited Milton Friedman as an authority to support their plan (pp. 75-78)
In the current Koch controversy, The Nation reports that DeRosa and a colleague “taught a three-day LOS ‘summer school‘ together in 2000 on topics including ‘Why secession was, and is, constitutional’ and How the Fourteenth Amendment was never constitutionally passed by Congress nor ratified by the States.'” These are old, trusted themes in segregationist discourse. The idea that the “the Fourteenth Amendment was literally forced upon the helpless States of the South” at gunpoint was a very popular theme during the civil rights era, made popular by Charles Tansill, among others. And, we know that Rothbard and his progeny at the Mises Institute were always fans of secession.
At this stage, we don’t know what the curriculum is for DeRosa’s civics classes to prisoners. Some enterprising journalist might be able to find out through Florida’s Sunshine Law and then we’ll have more information. It is possible that the curriculum is scrubbed of any extreme positions but we can question whether that would make the situation better or worse. For example, Forster noted that Hart’s newsletter entitled “Shall Alien Minds Determine America’s Future?” left little doubt that those “alien minds” were Jews since Hart supplied a list of 82 of the “alien-minded,” 72 of which were Jewish. When Representative Paul W. Shafer read Hart’s newsletter on the floor of Congress it was sanitized simply by omitting that list of names. The central message of “alien” control of our country was the same while the underlying antisemitism was harder to spot:
Every day we meet business and professional men of standing in their fields, as well as men and women highly regarded for their generous attitude toward their fellow men, who simply do not know what it is all about. They do not realize that many of the very views they express have been formulated by cunning men and women; and that through New Deal control of radio and New Deal Influence among most of the country’s writers, these ideas have been implanted in their minds so cleverly that they never doubt they are their own.
If we are to speculate as to the content of DeRosa’s curriculum, it is certainly possible that it is fairly innocuous. Against that possibility is DeRosa’s confession that he sees programs such as his as an opportunity for conservatives to inculcate the “very constitutional principles which conservatives hold dear.” His views on last summer’s controversy on Confederate monuments makes clear his views of the proper view of those principles and sound very much like Merwin Hart; it is because of a the conspiracy an alien-minded opponent:
The belligerents in this war are identifiably in two camps: the revolutionary aggressors and traditionalist defenders. The latter are instinctively defending the traditional Western political order, the pillars of which are Christendom, the rule of law, and government based upon the consent of the governed. The former shrewdly seek to establish secular humanism, the rule of elites, and a rule of law sanctioning a Marxist dystopia.
This is the man who the Koch Foundation thought should be teaching civics classes to prisoners; one who believes that those opposing confederate monuments do so because they are seeking out a Marxist dystopia.
There is little in DrRosa’s published writing that should give confidence that he should be the one teaching “constitutional principles that conservatives hold dear.” Few conservatives, for example reject the doctrine of judicial review, which dates back to Marbury v. Madison. DeRosa does and that is reflected in his celebration of the lack of such review in the rebel Confederate States of America:
The CSA Supreme Court was never organized. The long-term implications of this possibility on the Confederate political order are profound when one considers the prominent role SCOTUS has played in US political development. In other words, had the Confederacy survived the Southern people and its Native American allies would not be subject to the ideological whims of nine lawyers occupying their all too powerful positions on US Supreme Court.
Few conservatives agree with DeRosa that slavery in the United States had little to do with white supremacy. DeRosa argues that “black supremacy is the origin of Southern slavery. It was blacks and Asiatic Muslims on the African continent that enslaved and sold other blacks to the slave traders” and that “Current public opinion equating the Confederacy with slavery/white supremacy dismally fails to recognize the core value of the Confederacy, that core value being the rule of law.” Do I need to mention that this read cuts against the reasons explicated by the states of the confederacy when they seceded?
It is extremely unlikely that Volker did not know of Hart’s antisemitic views when they chose to fund him and it is unlikely that the Koch Foundation did not know of DeRosa’s views regarding the Confederacy when they chose to fund him. It seems equally unlikely that Volker shared Hart’s views of the Jews and it is probably unlikely that Koch shares DeRosa’s views of the Confederacy. However, the fact remains that Volker funded the spread of antisemitism in their defense of minimal government. Similarly, Koch is spreading neo-Confederate ideas for the same reason.
No doubt Koch’s defenders will accuse me of rushing to judgment. We still do not know what his curriculum is, after all. Perhaps it contains none of the views. Perhaps DeRosa abandoned the very views that he spent a lifetime developing. Perhaps he scrubbed his views of all that stuff about the Marxist dystopia. Perhaps. It does not seem very likely, however. It seems much more likely that Koch was willing to fund DeRosa for the same reason that Volker was willing to fund Hart: they are willing to tolerate a little racism if it means advancing their ideas regarding “freedom.”
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