America’s Thin-Skinned Billionaires

(Image: PETT; Lexington Hearld-Leader / CartoonArts International / The New York Times Syndicate)(Image: PETT; Lexington Hearld-Leader / CartoonArts International / The New York Times Syndicate)

Never mind freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear. What America’s embattled billionaires are demanding, as their birthright (and I mean that pretty much literally), is something much more important: freedom from criticism.

Making a desperate stand in The Wall Street Journal, heroic, oppressed men like Tom Perkins and now Charles Koch have been telling it like it is: anyone who says anything negative about them is just like the Nazis, or maybe Stalin.

O.K., to be fair, Mr. Koch didn’t explicitly say that his critics are like Hitler or Stalin. Here’s what he wrote in an op-ed in the Journal recently: “Instead of encouraging free and open debate, collectivists strive to discredit and intimidate opponents. They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.) This is the approach that Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century, that Saul Alinsky famously advocated in the 20th, and that so many despots have infamously practiced. Such tactics are the antithesis of what is required for a free society – and a telltale sign that the collectivists do not have good answers.”

So, as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait pointed out, Mr. Koch could be referring to some other despots. Maybe Francisco Franco?

And yes, character assassination is the mark of collectivism. You would never, ever, see The Wall Street Journal doing that; and liberals are absolutely never subjected to personal attacks from conservatives. Oh, wait.

But freedom from criticism isn’t meant to be a universal right. It’s for the job creators. You might call it the “droit du seigneur.”

Anyway, what’s interesting is just how thin-skinned these people are.

A Whiner-Take-All Society

There are definitely times when our winner-take-all society also appears to be a whiner-take-all society; it’s really amazing how quick billionaires are to portray themselves as victims because some people say nasty things about them.

One remarkable aspect of this whining is that the nasty things aren’t really all that nasty. When someone says that the Koch brothers are using their wealth to promote a political agenda that will make them even wealthier, that person is making a substantive claim, not engaging in character assassination; it’s not at all the same as, say, suggesting that Hillary Clinton is a murderer. Yet the Kochs and Perkinses act as if it were utterly vile, an attack on their liberty.

The other remarkable thing is the instant escalation of hurt feelings, so that Godwin’s Law quickly comes into play. You see, liberals criticize the Koch brothers, so that makes them just like Hitler and Stalin, who murdered their opponents.

But wait, there’s more. What I’ve been hearing from Koch defenders is that people like me have no standing to ridicule billionaires. You see, I sometimes say sarcastic things about the arguments of people who disagree with me, and even question their motives when they say things I consider obviously wrong. And that’s just like comparing such people to Hitler.

The thing is, I don’t think these crybaby reactions are just acting, put on for strategic purposes. I think they’re real. Billionaires really are feeling vulnerable despite their wealth and power, or perhaps because of it. And the apparatchiks serving the .01 percent are deeply insecure, culturally and intellectually, so that ridicule cuts deep.

It’s kind of sad, really, but also more than a bit scary: when people with fragile egos have great power, seriously bad things can happen.