Greater Exposure for Koch Brothers Exposed

On the evening of April 4, just days after the film’s world premiere in New York City, Middlebury hosted a showing of Koch Brothers Exposed, the latest documentary by director Robert Greenwald (Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price, Outfoxed, Rethink Afghanistan).

The subjects of the film are brothers David and Charles Koch, co-founders of Koch Industries, a $50 billion conglomerate (oil and gas extraction and pipelines, ranching, minerals, lumber, and paper) that is the second-largest privately held company in the United States. And, according to the film, they invest many millions of dollars to promote an “ideological vision that supports their financial self-interest.”

Kate Hamilton ’15.5 spent her first six weeks of college organizing the showing, and she succeeded in attracting a large audience of students, faculty, and community members to Dana Auditorium. Hamilton, who grew up in Washington, D.C., had already gotten her political feet wet with the 2008 Obama campaign. She said about the purpose of this event, “I wanted to enable an informed discussion about the impact of so much money in politics, particularly on how it will impact climate change legislation because most of it comes from such big oil tycoons.”

While the film itself featured an unrelentingly adrenal soundtrack and graphics reminiscent of cable news “crisis” coverage, it also presented a detailed picture of the Kochs’ influence.. (The Kochs are noted for funding political campaigns, the Tea Party movement, conservative and libertarian think tanks, as well as a number of cultural organizations, including Lincoln Center and the American Museum of Natural History.)

After the showing, Kate Hamilton kept the discussion going. Realizing that Middlebury’s Bill McKibben was interviewed for the film, and that he and political science professor Bert Johnson, a specialist in campaign finance, have different views of the Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark campaign financing case Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission, she had arranged and then moderated a discussion between the two.

Johnson addressed data on how campaign contributions may or may not have changed the election landscape, and McKibben provided an “on the ground” view of resistance to big money in politics.

To the question of whether corporations should have rights, Johnson answered, “I’ll be provocative; yes, they should. But so should the NAACP and the New York Times. The trick is not whether corporations ‘speak,’ but whether others can speak as well.”

Johnson also noted that since Citizens United, wealthy individuals have markedly increased campaign spending but corporations haven’t. More competition in the political sphere is beneficial, he said, and called for new means to finance campaigns that would assist non-incumbents.

What if each contender with a demonstrated popularity threshold received $500,000 to campaign, he proposed, adding, “asking taxpayers to spend $5 billion for more equitable campaigns sounds like a lot. But this is a country that spends $6 billion a year on potato chips.”

McKibben voiced deep misgivings with the notion of corporate personhood. “People are extremely complex—we have desires, we can remember ancestors, we have art,” he said. “That level of complexity isn’t possible for corporations. Corporations are good at one thing—making profits. That’s not a bad thing, except we’ve given them power it’s not in their DNA to exercise.”

Noting that the Koch brothers have promised anywhere up to $200 million to defeat Barack Obama in this year’s election in addition to their heavy funding to defeat climate protection, McKibben called on the public to develop “other currencies.” “You can’t believe what hard work this is,” he said, drawing from experience fighting the Keystone XL pipeline. “You have to spend months doing nothing else to counter the day-in, day-out activity they easily finance. We have to counter with our passion, creativity, and sometimes our bodies—they’ll always outspend us otherwise.”

After Johnson seconded this call for political involvement, Hamilton brought the evening to an end.

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