Unless watching C-SPAN is one of your Sunday activities (don’t judge me!), you probably missed an interesting conversation that started last week with Mark Levin’s denial that his new book Liberty and Tyranny was being purchased in bulk by conservative organizations, in part inflating its sales.
The controversy has been, predictably, pretty contained in comparison to the scandals plaguing several state governments in the US. Still, it’s worth noting that the Senate Conservatives Fund (one of the “grassroots” organizations with political goals that are often seen as being in tandem with the Tea Party) has spent nearly a quarter million dollars, according to legal filings, on purchases of the book for promotional reasons.
Since that means this conservative bestseller probably isn’t that much of a hit, what other books have made the list in the same way? How many are being bought en masse, relieving powerful organizations of their pocket money, rather than appealing to the supposedly vast conservative market in the US? Eyeing the New York Times‘ list, my money’s on Charles Krauthammer’s Things That Matter, but I’m biased. Personally, I think he’s about as interesting as watching paint dry.
Still, it’s just a mite suspicious to me that something summarized as “decades’ worth of essays from the conservative columnist” is sitting among the top five, alongside: two books with biblical references in their titles, two that are soon-to-be-released films, and two that very clearly involve highly respected people getting killed in somewhere east of Europe (Lone Survivor is in the lead and fits into the latter two categories). Number six on the list is about a spy network’s connections to George Washington during the American Revolution, which seems to continue a lot of the core themes.
But that particular brand of dry-as-the-Mojave, libertarian-friendly philosophical musing is probably familiar to you if you’ve watched more than a few YouTube videos in the past three years. Here’s a hint: “By definition, military production output is not real wealth.” Did you just instinctively reach for the “skip ad” button? An ad that oh so accessibly starts with Steve Davies announcing that has graced YouTube since 2011 and is still running as a promotion for Learn Liberty, a seemingly education-minded institution. LearnLiberty.org is registered to the rather benign and scholarly sounding Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. A quick glimpse at their website shows that they offer a Hayek Fund for Scholars in memory of Friedrich Hayek. Sounds nice? Well considering he’s the economist and political philosopher that US supporters of reactionary militias in Latin America often cited as an inspiration, perhaps not so much. Hayek also famously defended the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile as “necessary”. His record on Apartheid in South Africa is similarly muddled.
Barely concealed love for coups and racism or not, there’s something strange about how these banal videos have played such a visible role in YouTube advertising for years now (second only to 5-hour energy ads, by my estimations). Namely, how does an educational program afford that kind of advertising? Well, it certainly helps to have one of the Koch brothers as the Chairman of the institute. Based on the resources made available on their site, Koch Industries directly advertises internship positions using the institute, and according to other documents actually bankrolls the program. Rather than get whatever pitiful views they can in a free market (oh the irony), the Koch brothers have effectively purchased ears and eyes online for their bland-as-can-be libertarian philosophizing.
Just as much as we should question the appeal of Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus, and whether Lena Dunham is a voice for millennials or a boomer patsy, we should note that this bizarre brand of Internet libertarianism appears to be better at seeming widespread than actually being widespread. Whether it’s book sales or YouTube ads, the propaganda is worth a second look.