David Koch in 2012 (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)David Koch was conservative precisely because he cared about high culture, not in spite of it. We could use more like him.
Beverly Hills, Calif. — The late David Koch put his name on a few things and his money behind a great many, prominent among them the theater in which the New York City Ballet performs. The facility had become run down, and Koch put up $100 million for renovations and ongoing maintenance. That is one of the neat things you can do when you are a billionaire.
An “infamous right-wing billionaire,” L. A. Weekly called him. In announcing Koch’s death on Friday, the New York Times described him as a funder of the “right-wing libertarian movement.”
Is there a “right-wing libertarian movement”? And was David Koch emblematic of it?
Koch was for many years a trustee of Reason magazine and a benefactor of the kind of politics associated with it. I am not at all sure that if the term “right-wing” today means anything at all it means something that includes former Reason editor Nick Gillespie or current Reason editor Katherine Mangu-Ward. Koch himself was a supporter of gay rights, abortion rights, drug legalization, and much else that does not fit very comfortably on the current “right wing” agenda, although to be sure that political calculus gets pretty complicated pretty quickly: There are a fair number of libertarian-minded conservatives who, though they object to abortion on libertarian grounds (that it violates the rights of the unborn child), take a much more liberal attitude toward the private lives of consenting adults.
But the part of David Koch’s career in public life that may be most offensive to the contemporary incarnation of the “right wing” isn’t the drugs or the abortion or the gay rights, or anything else on the current policy agenda.
It’s the ballet.
Is there anything more “elitist” than ballet?
Koch, born in 1940, came from an era in which conservatives had not abandoned the cities, their institutions, and their culture, had not declared Lincoln Center and all of Manhattan — and California and Chicago and Wall Street and the Ivy League — enemy territory. He was part of a conservative movement founded by William F. Buckley Jr. (born 1925) and adorned by such men as art critic Hilton Kramer (born 1928), who co-founded The New Criterion (where I had the honor of writing the theater column for a few years) with Samuel Lipman, a celebrated pianist and trenchant critic of the National Endowment for the Arts and the politically driven vulgarization of all it touched. These were urban men, members of the hated “elite,” and even in many cases part of the “establishment.” Some of them were known to frequent Bohemian Grove.
Because I write for National Review, I sometimes receive accusations of “elitism,” as though “elitist” were a disqualifying epithet, and as though “elitism” consisted of knowing which fork to use and making a terribly big deal of it. I sometimes remind people that National Review was founded by a man whose challenges in life included figuring out how to get his harpsichord onto his yacht so that he could play J. S. Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasy” when he wanted to. (He kept an electronic keyboard on the boat for continued practice at sea.) Buckley could be a scouring critic of elites failing at their natural responsibilities — his public career began with a book-length assault on the failures of Yale, and he had a famously low opinion of the collective political wisdom of the Harvard faculty — but he also despised the supposed “authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth.” I cannot imagine that it ever would have occurred to him that there was something more authentically American — or more conservative — about raising hogs in Arkansas than about dancing in the New York City Ballet.
Before he linked up with Team Trump, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas sneered at the future president as an embodiment of “New York values.” Ted Cruz of Princeton and Harvard, clerk to a chief justice of the Supreme Court, husband to a muckety-muck at Goldman Sachs, resident of the nation’s fourth-largest city, for some reason felt the need to turn up his nose at “New York values,” meaning urban values, some of which — for instance, the ones on display from time to time at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center — are the envy of the world.
Republicans love Texas — except for Austin, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and other cities, where they habitually lose almost every office they stand for. In many cases, Texas’s values are not really so dissimilar from New York’s. The New York Philharmonic currently is conducted by Jaap van Zweden, who is from Amsterdam and now divides his time between conducting in New York and conducting in Hong Kong. His job before that? Conducting in Dallas. To some people who think of themselves as conservative, that represents everything that is wrong with the world: snooty urbanites with transnational careers — “rootless cosmopolitans,” as Joseph Stalin, some contemporary British trade-unionists, and certain people in Donald Trump’s orbit call them. Those critics spit out “Georgetown cocktail parties” and “Upper West Side cocktail parties” as though these were the fifth and sixth circles of Dante’s Hell.
(They’ll give my friend Jay Nordlinger an earful of it, as soon as he gets back from Salzburg, even though he serves root beer at his Upper West Side cocktail parties.)
Imagine being brought up on an intellectual diet of right-wing talk radio and then taking your first trip to Europe, having been taught for your entire life that France is a moldering socialist pigsty — except there are no pigs, because everything’s run by the Taliban, and it’s basically Afghanistan with fancy cheese. And then you get to Paris, and it’s — Paris, rather than Hotel Rwanda or even The Elementary Particles. Or consider Los Angeles, for that matter: A lot of the places in the United States you’re supposed to hate if you’re a good conservative turn out to be pretty nice in a lot of ways, too. There are a lot of young, smart, ambitious people moving to those left-wing hellholes, for some reason. They aren’t going to New York for the weather, and they aren’t going to California for the low taxes and reasonable cost of living.
But imagine being able to combine what people like about New York and California with low taxes and a reasonable cost of living. You want a winning political agenda — there it is.
Conservatives are not going to win urban-minded culturally curious people over to our way of looking at the world by telling them that they want all the wrong things for themselves, that anything of apparent value they find in New York, California, Chicago, Boston, Austin, etc., is only fools’ gold. I am writing this from Beverly Hills (oh, the rigors of book publicity), which doesn’t entirely represent the sort of life I’d want for myself or my family, but who could say there isn’t anything to like about it? My friend Glenn Beck once wrote a book called The Real America, which on its cover had a prairie scene with a picturesque little barn. But Beverly Hills is as much a part of the real America as Muleshoe, Texas — and there is no future in trying to build a political coalition that makes a loyalty test of preferring the latter to the former. If conservatives are going to write off the parts of the country where the people and the money are, and where the growth is, we are going to lose. We are ceding that ground in small ways and in big ways.
David Koch, “right-wing billionaire,” put $100 million into the New York ballet. Ain’t much on God’s green Earth more elitist than that, and, if there is, you’d have to go to Gstaad to find it. Imagine all of the freeze-dried apocalypse dinners he could have bought! Imagine the mountains of Scotts Turf Builder!
There was a time when some conservatives were conservatives because they cared about high culture, not in spite of it. David Koch was one of them. We could use a few more of his kind.
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