So Ron Paul’s been getting beat up pretty hard this past week, as he picks up speed in Iowa and the mainstream media suddenly remembers to vet him. There are two major criticisms leveled at Paul right now. First, and most damningly to a lot of liberals, the vile, racist newsletters published under his name in the ’80s tend to show that he’s, at a minimum, a man so cataclysmically inept at management that he didn’t know what was being published under his name; or, more likely, that Paul engaged in race-baiting cynically, as a way to sell more newsletters to the racist (but nominally “libertarian”) right-wing fringe.
I don’t believe Paul is harboring, deep in his heart, devious designs to turn back the clock on race in America. For one thing, as Conor Friedersdorf points out in this excellent post,
[The newsletters’] style and racially bigoted philosophy is so starkly different from anything he has publicly espoused during his long career in public life — and he is so forthright and uncensored in his pronouncements, even when they depart from mainstream or politically correct opinion — that I’d wager substantially against his authorship…. It’s a level of bigotry that would be exceptionally difficult for a longtime public figure to hide.
I think this is about right. Paul is, to all appearances, completely uncensored. Every crazy theory that passes through his head falls out of his mouth. This makes it easy for mainstream liberals to dismiss him as a fringe kook not worthy of serious debate, but it also makes it unlikely that he’s a closet racist. (At least any more than any other 76-year-old coot who grew up in a different world and is mildly cranky about Snoopy Snoopy Poop Dogg.) If you’re looking for serious racism in the Republican party, you should be concentrating on the shallow pricks who encouraged Herman Cain to run on the theory that he’d be some kind of “anti-Obama” who would inoculate them against charges of racism — “I seriously considered voting for a black man!” — but who would never, ever get the nomination on account of being a complete buffoon.
The real knock against Ron Paul is that he actually is a doctrinaire libertarian, rather than a racist or a homophobe or a sexist running under libertarian colors. Paul genuinely believes that government — especially the federal government — has vastly exceeded its authority and needs to take a few steps back. Preferably to sometime in the early 1900s. In an ideal Ron Paul world, we would eliminate or cripple the Federal Reserve, return to a gold-backed currency, delete five Cabinet departments entirely, effectively end Social Security, shrink aid to the poor, and repeal the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, and most environmental regulations. And he wants to get rid of the personal income tax, about which more in a moment.
That Paul’s libertarianism leads him to take positions which will have the effect of rolling back civil rights gains seems undeniable, though not without complications. Ron Paul claims not to want to interfere with states’ ability to recognize gay marriage, and he’s famously in favor of letting states decide whether to decriminalize drugs. But by the same token, he wants to let states regulate abortion for themselves, which in states like Oklahoma and South Dakota would be the final nail in the coffin for legal abortion. And he doesn’t believe the federal government should come around telling bigoted business owners they can’t keep black people out of their Woolworth’s.
Recently, my wife and I have been working on a theory we like to call, “Other people are not idiots.” Here’s a silly example: we have gone to Ikea’s showroom many times, and we have always walked briskly past the Poäng chair — I felt it was ugly, and Elana thought it took up a ridiculous amount of floor space. But it’s a perennial bestseller, which has always caused us to view the Ikea buying public with a certain amount of smug contempt. Anyway, yesterday, a day when we did not have much to do, we dawdled in the chair section, and we tried out some different chairs for fun, and eventually I sat in a Poäng. And OMFG YOU GUYS IS IT COMFORTABLE.
Other people are not idiots. They have reasons for doing what they do and standing by the things they stand by.
Ron Paulistas who share his desire to repeal the Civil Rights Act — assuming the market will simply punish any business owner who excludes minorities — are falling into the “other people are idiots” trap. They’re failing to look at history and the simple power dynamics of small cities and towns, especially in the South, where the market did not punish discrimination. They fail, with some degree of willful obstuseness, to understand why it has been so necessary, and such a useful thing, for the government to step in and do what the market could not and would not in rectifying discrimination. Paul and his supporters have failed to sit in the Poäng chair before dismissing it.
But at the same time, it must be said that there’s a sector of the liberal blogosphere that’s falling into the same trap about Ron Paul. Jeffrey Feldman, for example, calls Paul’s ideas “nonsense” and “puerile hokum.” Feldman grudgingly notes that Paul’s speeches are “laced with seemingly humane calls to end wars,” but he feels that these are canceled out by Paul’s “promises to abandon the sick, poor, and elderly.” Feldman claims to be unable to comprehend “why Ron Paul is still on that stage.”
Really? No clue at all? Can’t begin to imagine why, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ron Paul might be an appealing candidate “for the young and disgruntled, for those who dimly perceive that something is wrong in this country, for those who are earnestly appalled by the madness of our criminal justice policy, for those who have watched a steady erosion of our civil liberties, and have seen their concerns met with an appalling silence on the national stage”?
Ron Paul is wrong about the Civil Rights Act. But when he says, for example,
The real problem we face today is the discrimination in our court system, the war on drugs. Just think of how biased that is against the minorities…. They go into prison much way out of proportion to their numbers. They get the death penalty out of proportion with their numbers. And if you look at what minorities suffer in ordinary wars, whether there’s a draft or no draft, they suffer much out of proposition. So those are the kind of discrimination that have to be dealt with….
is there any sensible — or even breathing — liberal who disagrees with him? People who should know better — like MoJo‘s Kevin Drum — are trotting out the old “even a stopped watch is right twice a day” cliche, as though Paul’s utterly self-consistent and principled stands on foreign wars and drug prohibition somehow resembled the occasional lucid-seeming moment in a paranoid’s ramblings. Meanwhile, where the fuck is Obama on ending the racist drug war? Oh, that’s right — he’s too busy getting us into new conflicts (which were not the unqualified success for peace and democracy we were led to believe) and flying his model airplanes (which hobby has also been problematic).
But to return to Feldman’s assertion that Paul intends to “abandon the sick, poor, and elderly” — isn’t it painfully clear that we have abandoned the poor and the sick already, and that the elderly are next? Again, I ask — where is Obama on all this? The Affordable Care Act was a fine start, twenty years too late, and its best shot at creating meaningful change is essentially to make health insurance an unprofitable business. And I haven’t heard a peep out of the White House about fixing Medicare or the awful prescription drug bill or creating meaningful programs to employ people and lift the 1 in 2 Americans who live in poverty out of the cycle of insolvency they’re trapped in.
(And now I suppose I will hear from some of my fellow liberals about President Obama’s staff’s highly-nuanced white paper which is available sixteen pages into MyBarackObama.com. Guys, if you’re hiding your light under a bushel for long enough, about enough things, after a while I begin to suspect you don’t actually want anyone to use it as a lamp.)
The truth is, our vision of America — the liberal/progressive/socialist vision — has utterly failed the poor, the sick, and the elderly. And you know why? Because we didn’t try. Democrats never really try to implement things like a national health service or real maternity leave or better public works projects, in part because for so long they’ve felt vulnerable and unlikeable on topics like gay rights and drug policy and prayer in schools. Democrats get a bad rap for running and hiding when they hear the word “socialism,” but the truth is that they run and hide about everything.
Well, imagine a Ron Paul candidacy. Imagine if the Democrats were running, not against a Christian conservative gay-panic alarmist like Michelle “my husband is definitely not gay” Bachmann, but against a libertarian who says, “I don’t care if people use heroin or have gay sex. That’s an expression of their personal freedom.” What would that even look like? What would it mean to have a presidential debate that focused on the best method for America to create prosperity, freed from a lot of the typical cant and bullshit that gets in the way? Could Obama make a straight-up progressive/socialist argument for the ideas of the left? If he couldn’t — if that brilliant Chicago Law professor couldn’t explain why Paul’s 19th-century economic policies would hurt the poor the most — then maybe our ideas deserve to lose.
And at the very least, maybe Paul’s candor about the drug war and the other wars and TSA security theater and all the rest of it would give Obama the courage to take actual liberal positions on those issues, too. And if he still refused to do so… well, I guess we’d be left in no doubt about what he really thinks, wouldn’t we?
Here’s my refutation of Feldman’s unstated assumption that somehow our country is doing right by the poor and the dispossessed, and it’s Ron Paul’s wacky economic ideas that would screw all that up. It comes from the comments section of this article about Paul’s views on sexual harassment. I’m going to reprint almost the entire comment by someone calling himself ConstructionDude, because I think if anyone can explain the appeal to the young and disenfranchised of Ron Paul’s “leave me the fuck alone” philosophy, it’s this dude. Here he is — be patient with his odd syntax and punctuation, because this is really worth it:
I’ve had the most abusive employers verbally and physically that you can imagine. I’ve never collected an unemployment check in my life because I’ve always been called an independent contractor so they didn’t have to pay any of the extras like the 7.5% social security tax, unemployment, workmans comp, or insurance. I work like a dog in bitter 5 degree to scorching 105 degree temperatures 30 foot up walking on pulins where my feet might never step on anything wider than 3.5 inches all day an it’s not the impact when you fall that is going to do you it is the stakes sticking up that you will impale yourself on and all the stuff than will fall on you and beat you into the ground. The joke is that if you fall you are fired before you hit the ground for violating the safety rules. I’ve never had insurance in my life and anything less than a 4″ gash I fix with super glue and duct tape. Osha don’t come round here . . .
When the housing market crashed I found my self with a 3 day notice in January 2008 and guess who doesn’t get unemployment? The independent contractor who was really an employee by any department of labor standards but they don’t care and the unemployment office doesn’t care. I can’t work for a corporation because I have that misdemeanor weed conviction from 12 years ago (Ron Paul wants to end that lifelong discrimination for the all too common indiscretion of youth). My application when I am competing for the rare opening against the other thousands of unemployed construction workers in the same boat will not make it past the receptionist because I have to put that I am a weed criminal in that little box.
So I go months without work and finally get 6 weeks of work with a totally insane guy tiling and when that ends I go another 3-4 months and that is how was for 2 years. I have $15,000 worth of various tools from when I did have work so I got myself licensed and get some work by word of mouth and on craigslist having to do it on the cheap because there is not a lot out there and a lot of people who spent decades learning the trades and can’t just change some other occupation over night which are scarce anyway. If you get a little behind on your child support the States answer is to take your drivers license even if you have a great relationship with your sons mom and she is doing well financially and calls them and asks them not to . . . they don’t care, they are the all powerful state and their one size solution will fit all. They put every obstacle in the way that they can for you just to feed yourself and live indoors and have heat and and be a dad to your noncustodial 13 year old son.
The only thing that gets me by is I live in a house I purchased in the ghetto for $12,000 on contract over 5 years and I can get wifi from the Martin Luther King Center a half a block away. My neighborhood is littered with abandoned homes because no one wants to live near the public housing projects. No body ever suggests that the people that bought a house that they could afford should get bailed out of the ghetto while they like to suggest that people that bought nice houses on the hill that they can’t afford should get bailed out. Most of the people that rant about Ron Paul being a racist wouldn’t dream of walking down my street where I am the only white guy but they think of themselves as really progressive on race. I like my neighbors and except for a few real criminals that the system can’t make room for because they spend all their money locking up petty drug offenders we do all right.
You know what all the white construction workers and all my black neighbors have in common? They hate the government with a passion. They can go on and on about how the wonderful government puts the screws to them constantly. They don’t trust the government and they don’t call the cops. Somebody will make an anonymous call if they guy with the knife in him don’t look like he can get up and that’s about it. No body is going to testify because courts are just another place that victimizes them and if you are a victim the police will try to turn it on you somehow. The police treat everyone as if a white person in my neighborhood must be buying drugs and if you are black you must be selling drugs. The police run in wolf packs and we all are their prey. I wouldn’t say that the people are racist here, I would say that the drug war is racist and as the police are troops of the drug war the ghetto gets to feel it.
We don’t want anything from the government! We want them to go away! You can go on and on about getting the government to help us but we don’t want it. Every thing they sell as a way to help us just makes us victims at their hands! You want Obama’s health care plan? Just a fine they are going to stick me with for not having insurance. I don’t want to fill out a form that says that I am poor! I want to be left alone. I don’t care if my life is struggle I do not trust that they are ever capable of ever administrating justice or of doing anything but come up with another way to screw us! If we give them money they will give it to wall street billionaires to party on and build their monopolies and crush the little guy! They will give it to Walmart so they can build a big store where nobody makes a living wage 3 miles away so that all the mom and pops in the ghetto close and now we all have to get 3 miles to Walmart and all the money leaves our community!
Ron Paul wants to end the taxing of the little guy so some social engineers can give it to their cronie billionaire buddies. All power corrupts and if they have the ability to redistribute wealth they will distribute it to the wealthy. I would much rather have to quit a job because of the conditions than to give the federal government any power at all. At least with local jurisdiction in the matter you stand a chance of somebody having a heart and caring because they actually see the people on the ground. The small community organiztions are the only ones that even pretend to listen. I can go to city hall and speak but congress does’t want to hear me. Leave us alone with your federalism! Why don’t you minimize the federal government and then try to socialize your community if that is what you want so that you can have the system where the people are and it actually can help them with what they really need and not some one size fits all keeps you down check but what you really might need is a one time $2000 for a car so you can work and pay your own way.
I live in Illinois 6 blocks from the bridge across the Mississippi River from Iowa and I am am going to be at a caucus precinct Tuesday (the rules allow it) with a camera to make sure that every one of Ron Paul’s votes get counted and the party insiders don’t try to misrepresent what really happened and steal this from him. Ron Paul is the republican no corporate money outsider that is going to give the republican party the enema that they need.
Now, I should say, I think this guy is wrong. I think he’s wrong when he says that Ron Paul wants to end the taxing of the little guy and giving the money to big corporations. Paul’s tax plan, which proposes to eliminate the personal income tax and replace it with excise taxes, would almost certainly result in a shifting of tax burdens from high-income to low-income people, since those with lower incomes spend a greater percentage of their income on the goods that would be taxed. Excise taxes are also a peculiar choice for a supposed libertarian, since they tend to focus narrowly on particular products, in essence penalizing the use of some products and incentivizing the use of others — exactly the kind of tax-code activism libertarians frequently decry in the current tax code.
But I do think ConstructionDude’s sense that government is utterly corrupt and doesn’t work for him, but for Wal-Mart and Halliburton, and his perception of the police as a thuggish “wolf pack,” would mesh perfectly with the views of most of the Occupy movement, for example. ConstructionDude and Ron Paul are utterly pessimistic that the reins of government can ever be taken back from the great corporate powers, and so they want to minimize government altogether. I disagree with their solution, but can anyone on the left really argue with their diagnosis? Wouldn’t you rather debate someone like Paul, who at least sees the problem, than someone like Gingrich or Perry, both of whom manifestly personify the problem??
Some of my relatives (and Eric over at SOTSOGM, whose political instincts I usually trust) have expressed shock and dismay that some liberals find much to admire in Paul’s philosophy. Well, I understand that. But when the guy in whom I placed a whole lot of HOPE in ’08 is either M.I.A. on the important issues or actually hostile to the policies I’d like to see enacted, and the wacky Republican with the gold currency fixation is the one saying sensible things about civil liberties and war… what the fuck am I supposed to do?
(PS — if I do decide to vote libertarian this year, it’ll probably be for Gary Johnson. He doesn’t have the history with icky, racist newsletters that Paul does, and he was a successful two-term governor. But right now it’s Ron Paul who’s talking about the things Obama’s all wrong on, and so it’s Paul and his supporters I’m defending here.)