David H. Koch has hurled barrels of money at two goals that many consider mutually exclusive: turning the country libertarian and making the city a more civilized place to live. For now, he has failed in the first, freeing liberals to appreciate his accomplishments on the second front.
You could spend a deluxe day in Manhattan bouncing from an orthopedist’s appointment at the Hospital for Special Surgery (to which Koch has donated $25 million) to the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing ($20 million) at the American Museum of Natural History, passing by the soon-to-be-restored plaza of the Metropolitan Museum of Art ($60 million), winding up at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater ($100 million).
For New York’s cultural elite, the price of enjoying these amenities is implied gratitude to a union-hating, regulation-scorning tea-party booster. During an intemperate election season, that gave urgency to the question: When is it moral to accept gifts from a donor with loathsome views and nefarious goals? An offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement staged a takeover of the Dinosaur Wing, and the art blogger Charlie Finch called for a Met boycott to protest Koch’s “cultural bribe.”
Those attacks assumed that philanthropy is a way for robber barons to launder their reputations through nonprofit organizations. But if every time we checked into a hospital or attended a concert we had to check the donor’s belief system against our own, this would be a purer, but poorer, world. The election has temporarily mooted this moral quandary. The people have spoken: We’ll pass on your candidate, but thanks for the hospitals and museums. Feel free to keep them coming.