David Koch and the Limits of Tolerance

“I believe in gay marriage.” So, in an interview with Politico last week, GOP megadonor David Koch came out in support of marriage equality. His remarks were widely reported as a “break” from the official Republican party line and Mitt Romney’s position on gay marriage. But Koch “joins a near-majority of young Republicans under the age of 35 who support marriage equality,” according to Human Rights Campaign. Among libertarians, gay marriage tends to be a non-issue. There’s little reason to be surprised or scandalized.

The whole affair reminds me of an exchange that Peter Hallward had in an interview with Noam Chomsky a short while ago. Chomsky and Hallward are talking about gains in the areas of human and civil rights, Chomsky maintaining that “the country has become a lot more civilized” in the past forty or fifty years, since the 1960s.

“Elementary rights” – Chomsky mentions women’s rights and gay rights, and the repeal of anti-sodomy laws – “were more or less marginalized until pretty recently, but now we can almost take them for granted.” (My emphasis here would be on almost.) Hallward readily concedes that human and civil rights gains were “hard won,” but hastens to add that ultimately “they don’t conflict with class interests.” Chomsky concurs:

The ruling classes are able to accommodate civil and human rights, pretty easily. In fact if you look at the opinions of CEOs, you find that their social attitudes tend to be fairly liberal. These things don’t affect their position. When you start to touch on questions relating to authority and the concentration of power in the system you run into more challenging barriers. But still, the freedoms that exist elsewhere give you the opportunity to work against those barriers.

Along with his brother Charles, David Koch certainly represents a concentration of power in the system. So does Goldman-Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who recently appeared in a Human Rights Campaign video advocating same-sex marriage. “America’s corporations learned long ago that equality is just good business and is the right thing to do,” says Blankfein in the video, urging us to join him “and the majority of Americans who support marriage equality.” And there is no reason to doubt Blankfein means what he says here. The Goldman CEO has helped advance legislation for marriage equality in New York, and under his leadership Goldman has made it a policy to reimburse employees for the extra taxes they pay on domestic partner benefits. (And that’s a draw for talented people – a big plus for Goldman.)

All this might lend Goldman the aura of a “socially responsible” company. But it’s worth noting that this issue is a good distance from the space where Goldman operates. “If Mr. Blankfein was taking a radical stand on pay you could say wow, that’s big,” Paul Argenti said when asked to comment on Blankfein’s video appearance. “But [marriage] equality is simply not an issue you associate with Goldman.” Advocating for marriage equality likely won’t raise serious questions about the role Goldman plays in the system of global finance, or the influence the investment bank exercises over American economic policy. (Those issues, by the way, are the focus of a new documentary based on Marc Roche’s book The Bank: How Goldman Sachs Rules the World, set to air on tonight on the French-German Television channel, Arte.)

Of course it’s better to have business moguls and power brokers like Koch and Blankfein join hands with young Republicans on the side of marriage equality or civil and human rights. No doubt about it. But before we break out into a chorus of Kumbayah it’s important to consider the limits of their tolerance – which is essentially what Chomsky is asking us to do – and ask where they draw the line. That’s where they will come out to fight.

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