The Money Belt
April 4, 2007
A few days ago, while waiting for the traffic report on a certain claptrap wingnut radio station, I heard the name of billioniaire philanthropist George Soros being taken in vain for the umpteenth time. It’s one thing to hear Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity (or, in print, Marty Peretz) pronouncing anathema on the man for the sin of supporting progressive causes, but when his name comes rolling out of the mouths of drive-time ranters you know the wingers have done their work well. Thanks to them, knuckle-draggers who wouldn’t know a hedge fund from an arbor vitae make the sign of the evil eye whenever the dread name of Soros chills the air.
By contrast, how many people have heard of the Olin Foundation? Barbra Streisand’s penchant for writing checks to Democrats is common knowledge, but how many people have ever heard of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation? Richard Mellon Sciafe’s money helped bankroll a nearly decade-long legal jihad against the Clinton administration, and Howard Ahmanson’s checks sustain the Discovery Institute as it labors to inject crackpot theology into science curricula, but when a Star-Ledger editorialist recently cited big money influence in presidential elections, the best examples he could come up with were La Streisand and entertainment mogul David Geffen.
This Eric Alterman piece about the role conservative moneybags played in elevating the obscure wingnut theorist Charles Murray into an influential public intellectual. This despite the fact, as Alterman points out, that his initial foray, Losing Ground, attacked anti-poverty programs on the most specious grounds, while his co-authorship of The Bell Curve made him the pseudo-scientific heir of Cyril Burt and a generation of long-discredited racist quacks. Murray’s career is not an example of how powerful ideas make a place for themselves in the public discourse. It’s a story of how institutional money, channeled toward right-wing causes, amplified and promoted the work of a man whose career consists of buffing up old nostrums until they shine like the dollar signs in Tom DeLay’s eyes.
Like the song says, money changes everything. Conservative money, carefully deployed through foundations and think tanks, has certainly changed things in this country. I don’t know if Richard Mellon Scaife can sing anywhere near as well as Barbra Streisand, but his money talks a lot louder and longer than hers.