20 June 2019

Follow the Money

You know those people wringing their hands over the "incivility" on college campuses?

They are bought and paid for by the Koch Brothers, so we know that they are not paid to tell the truth:
There is a war on free speech, and the front lines are YouTube ads.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that, following the outcry of politicians and commentators over YouTube’s temporary decision to demonetize the videos of conservative pundit Steven Crowder, who makes money from the ads provided by YouTube’s platform. Crowder had been called out by Vox journalist Carlos Maza for a long history of homophobic abuse, including calling Maza “a lispy queer” and selling T-shirts that say “Socialism Is for Fags.”

The incident set a certain set of free-speech warriors ablaze. Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan, and other pundits who have made their name online for defending free speech—particularly those organized under the umbrella of the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web,” or IDW—have made Crowder a martyr of a pernicious war on civil discourse.

You’ve probably heard their arguments before: They claim to be opposed to censorship, “no-platforming” (when people are excluded from online or offline forums because of the views they express), and any attempts to discourage the open expression of ideas. These figures—who self-identify as classical liberals, conservatives, and libertarians—say that their project is completely non-ideological: It’s just about giving everyone a fair hearing.


TO UNDERSTAND THE origins of the free-speech movement, its priorities, and its funding, you have to start not at today’s social media battlefields, but at college campuses. The narrative that has emerged in recent years is familiar: College campuses have become ground zero for a new generation of intolerant leftists.


These actions go far beyond mere personal animus. In peeling back the curtain on the funding networks that have popularized the IDW’s cause, an even more nefarious picture emerges: a coordinated, strategic effort by right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers to extinguish any opposition to their political, economic, and social agenda.

Don’t take my word for it—Richard Fink, president of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, has openly bragged about it. According to his “Structure of Social Change” philosophy, the goal of the Koch Foundation’s philanthropy is to make grants in a strategic way so as to best affect public policy and influence broader social change. And what does Fink insist is a key part of this strategy? You guessed it—college campuses. Koch money is all over organizations that advocate for campus free speech, like the infamous astroturf group Speech First.

But it goes much deeper than the obvious, ideological nonprofits—many members of the IDW are directly involved with Koch cash.

Dave Rubin’s influential podcast, The Rubin Report, for example, has a financial partnership with Learn Liberty, a think tank started by the Koch-funded Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), where Charles G. Koch himself sits on the board. When the Canadian government denied Jordan Peterson funding for his work, Rebel Media—a group funded with Koch money and headed by Ezra Levant, a far-right Islamophobe with ties to the Koch networkraised cash for him (Peterson has since returned the favor, fundraising for the IHS). Ben Shapiro has collected speaker fees from the Koch-funded Young America’s Foundation and Turning Point USA. And Bret Weinstein was hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Stout’s Free Speech Week, a project of their Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation—funded by, you guessed it, the Charles G. Koch Foundation.

It’s not just the IDW itself: Some of its key popularizers also get Koch funding. Bari Weiss and The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf—who has been one of the most visible defenders of Peterson in the mainstream media—have both received cash prizes from the Koch-funded Reason Foundation, where David Koch himself sits on the board of trustees. And remember “The Coddling of the American Mind”? Well, one of its co-authors, Greg Lukianoff, is the head of that campus free-speech watchdog, FIRE. That organization is funded, of course, by the Koch brothers (for good measure, the Charles Koch Institute also did a laudatory write-up of the piece).

The Atlantic is perhaps the worst offender. Last year it launched “The Speech Wars,” a reporting project that seeks “to understand where free speech is in danger and where it has been abused.” Even though the magazine had just been bought by billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs and was seeing all-time high circulation and web traffic, The Atlantic solicited funding for the project from none other than the Charles Koch Foundation (the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Fetzer Institute are also underwriters).


The mission of the free-speech movement, from its IDW evangelists to its Koch funders, is to advance right-wing ideas, to marginalize those on the left who challenge them, and to mobilize useful idiots of the center as political cover. It’s tempting to dismiss this as conspiracy, but the Kochs have left a paper trail of their designs on suppressing the speech of any who disagree with them. Documents released last year by George Mason University—a hotbed of libertarian scholarship—show that in exchange for giving millions of dollars to the university, Koch-controlled entities were given influence over academic affairs, including faculty appointments and hires, and even student admissions. A similar controversy had emerged years earlier over a Koch Foundation gift to Florida State University. With the Koch brothers estimated to have spent over $250 million on more than 500 colleges and universities, it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see the impact that could have on suppressing left-wing speech.

It’s not just the Kochs. FIRE, for example, has also received funding from the right-wing billionaire Olin and Scaife families. Through the right-wing media sites The Daily Wire and PragerU, the billionaire Wilks brothers have helped bankroll the rise of IDW stars Ben Shapiro and Joe Rogan. In the U.K., William Davies has written about how the right wing promotes its agenda under the guise of “free speech” in the exact same way. And as investigative reporters like The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer have shown, this isn’t just about a couple of billionaires throwing some money around: It’s an organized project by an elite class to preserve its power in the face of an existential threat from the left.


What makes the free-speech movement most nefarious is it takes those of us best equipped to stop this trend—the left and marginalized communities—and claims that we, who have for so long been silenced by those in power, are the real threat to free speech. That’s an issue far greater than Steven Crowder and YouTube ads, and one that we must all work to fight. Our very freedom—to speak, to protest, to challenge power and live dignified, fulfilled lives—is at risk.
If you think that this is tin foil hat, you have not been paying attention to what the right wing has been doing since August 23, 1971.


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