Saturday, January 12, 2008

Live Free or Whatever: A Ron Paul Postmortem


Forgive me for writing one more Ron Paul entry (though I will otherwise stick to my plan to ignore him henceforth). Count the layers of my confusion (probably shared by many libertarians to some extent but perhaps interesting to people haven’t already obsessively catalogued all their own mixed feelings about Paul):

•I was rooting for him — and writing about it — prior to Tuesday, since he’s a libertarian and I agree with him that government should be radically downsized, something none of the other major-party candidates are promising to do.

•And yet: Tuesday, he came in a useless fifth in the New Hampshire primary and was outed as having racist newsletters in his past.

•And yet: Just for the record, an issue of the current, thoroughly non-racist version of his newsletter happens to sit atop the big heap of books and magazines in my apartment right now, and there’s nothing in it that most people would find remotely offensive (unless they really love high taxes or something).

•And yet: That doesn’t erase the ugly past.

•And yet: I still think that his set of preferred policies would be the best thing for America (downsizing the government radically and paying off our debts instead of coming up with new domestic programs and new wars), and I am confident he’s far too ideological and libertarian to do anything terribly unpredictable if he were in the White House (such as pass some racist law — assuming for the moment we agree that the basic libertarian agenda of individual freedom and tolerance is not itself inherently “racist”).

•And yet: I agree that allowing those newsletters to go out under his name years ago (even if they were ghostwritten and he wasn’t paying much attention to them and convincingly claims now not to be a racist) shows astonishingly poor judgment, of the sort one doesn’t want in a president.

•And yet: I am (as is probably no great surprise) sufficiently illiberal to think that racial insensitivity is not such a uniquely horrific, taboo-violating crime that it should disqualify a candidate in a way that, say, supporting the continued existence of the Department of Commerce does not. In the end, the Department of Commerce harms the world far more than Paul’s cranky old hard-to-find newsletters do — and more than any of his policies would.

•And yet: It is perfectly reasonable for the American populace to say — even if they say it in a mildly social-democratic way — that no man aspiring to the one office that ostensibly represents us all should be associated with such animus toward any subset of that populace.

•And yet: No one seems to care that Obama’s mininster-mentor is a purveyor of racist conspiracy theories (in the “opposite direction”) himself.

•And yet: The “other team’s” stupidity never, never excuses one’s own — indeed, thinking it does is half the reason we’re in a perpetual right-vs.-left Punch and Judy show instead of engaging in critical self-examination (you can always point to something stupid the other team did — that way lies a spiral of madness).

•And yet: Paul’s libertarian agenda actually does, I think, offer the best hope of ending that Punch and Judy show once and for all by removing the weapon that is government from our cultural fights, and thereby removing a lot of the animus that accompanies some of those cultural fights (the bigger the state becomes, the more our political dialogues are like a heated argument conducted by two untrusting people standing near a table on which lies a gun that is magically slowly growing in firepower, which either side just might grab and use at any moment — each side thinking “The other person will grab it if I don’t grab it first to pursue my own agenda”). [Note: this metaphor is not an argument for gun control -- gun ownership is much more diverse and decentralized than a unitary state.]

•And yet: Paul never had much hope of being the nominee anyway, and certainly has none now. So, if his candidacy was always to some extent valuable mainly as a publicity stunt for libertarianism, his PR value is so damaged now that he should quickly exit the race.

•And yet: The newsletters controversy hasn’t been as harped-upon or as immediately-fatal to his candidacy as I would have thought.

•And yet: That’s mainly because he has no chance of becoming the nominee — if he started rising in the polls, we would hear more and more about the newsletters (imagine if Obama became the Dem nominee and there appeared to be something more than a snowball’s chance in hell of Paul being the GOP nominee — the Dems would rightly have a field day, saying, “You can choose hope, change, and tolerance or choose the man whose old newsletters warned that the ‘animals’ are coming to destroy suburbia and must be fended off with guns”; no frickin’ contest).

•And yet: The militia-man mindset of some on the libertarian fringe back in the 80s and early 90s, when the newsletters were produced, wasn’t all bad. I wasn’t entirely joking when I went to Kyle Smith’s “90s party” in 1999 as an “Upper East Side Militia” member (I sympathized with the idea of retaining the ability to fight the government openly if it ever became overtly fascistic and — not really expecting it to do so — thought the fightin’ spirit of the militias potentially helped keep people on their toes about civil liberties violations, not so unlike an overheated fundraising letter from the ACLU, which also has its uses).

An aside: My then-girlfriend Indrani went to the same party dressed as Scary Spice (and looked fabulous, I must say — a living argument for miscegenation if ever there was one), while our (pale and Norwegian-descended) friend Scott Nybakken went as a “grunge guy” (an even easier costume to construct than his brilliantly-conceived Halloween costume “Dr. Mullet, M.D.” last year, a costume that itself struck his Pennsic-attending recreational-medievalist girlfriend as too simple). But the weird thing is that despite the party being explicitly advertised as a “90s party,” with encouragement to wear your favorite 90s costume, no one at the party except us interpreted the invitation to mean they should literally dress up, and the others all just looked like the unimaginative yuppies they presumably were (even Kyle, a creative guy, said dismissively, “But it still is the 90s — so the invite was obviously just a joke”). Yet I contend that wearing costumes that parody the present as if it were already a source of nostalgia is plainly an interesting and worthwhile challenge and thus not obviously a joke. People are so uncreative. (If Scott’s girlfriend thinks Dr. Mullet, M.D. is lame, she should consider how many people fail even to put in that much effort — not that we should judge costumes by the vile labor theory of value.)

•Where was I? Oh, yeah: And yet: Many militias were tainted by bizarre, non-libertarian or simply tangential beliefs such as racism.

•And yet: I honestly didn’t know how far into that rhetoric the Ron Paul newsletters got.

•And yet: I’m not entirely shocked. (Departing Reason editor Nick Gillespie apparently is, while his predecessor Virginia Postrel basically says “I told you so,” which seems a little cruel to me — it’s not like we all had access to those hard-to-find newsletters before Tuesday, nor has Paul been saying things remotely like that in his speeches or years’ worth of more recent newsletters. True, plenty of people, such as Dorothy Rabinowitz and Mona Charen, were already saying he was crazy but not for legit reasons — they’d call him crazy just for wanting to shrink government, being wary of creeping fascism, and having some nutty fans.)

•And yet: I gather (though it has not been officially acknowledged) that Lew Rockwell, formerly a Paul staffer, may be the ghostwriter who is in some sense to blame for it all.

•And yet: That doesn’t excuse Paul implicitly endorsing the stuff.

•And yet: Even Rockwell has his uses, doing good work to promote (plain-old, non-crazy) libertarianism and even appearing in mainstream venues like Bill Moyers’ show to intelligently and civilly make his case against Bush foreign policy missteps, in a way that even the most urbane and sophisticated liberal would consider valuable and un-militia-like.

•And yet: It was never the positions unique to Paul and his paleolibertarian cohorts such as Rockwell (like their ardent opposition to the Iraq war or their sometimes-creepy culturally-ultraconservative impulses) that made Paul interesting to me anyway — that is, I am mainly drawn (as are plenty of sane people) to the positions that all libertarians have in common: cut taxes, cut the budget, deregulate, legalize everything that doesn’t harm others’ bodies or property, keep government’s hands off pocketbook and genitalia alike. That’s why I’ve been trying to avoid calling either hawkish neocons or isolationist Paulistas crazy — just cut the damn budget while you’re at it. I’d practically vote for Bin Laden at this point if he convincingly promised to cut the budget (Note to FBI: Just kidding! [Note to critics of the Ron Paul campaign: Just kidding about thinking an FBI conspiracy is listening to me!]).

•And yet: I can understand people thinking war is the most important issue.

•And yet: I can’t understand that belief leading them to any clear-cut conclusions on the topic, whether interventionist neocon conclusions or anti-interventionist paleocon/leftist conclusions. Foreign policy seems like a very complicated, contingent-facts-driven crapshoot to me, not amenable to simple, principles-based answers. (It sounds like one soldier recently killed in Iraq — who was an occasional blogger and a libertarian, as noted in a story linked on Drudge — may have agreed with me, since he had said that if he died he didn’t want his death used to shore up the arguments of either side.)

•And yet: That may mean Paul’s strict anti-interventionist principles, even if too-dogmatically held, happen to be conducive to the best outcomes anyway, gauged in a consequentialist-utilitarian as opposed to strict-principles way (and I’ll try to spell out more of the case for utilitarianism in a post Monday or so, since I brought it up).

•And yet: It really doesn’t matter anymore, except in so far as I may have to pick political candidates more carefully in the future.

•And yet: The others are all arguably still worse and are themselves always mixed bags of good things and worrisome things, so it’s not as if I think, say, Edwards supporters are the “responsible” ones. (Maybe that handful of friends I had who liked Richardson weren’t so crazy…even though he had called for an end to the UFO cover-up, which should please Kucinich…who was, incidentally, the one rival candidate for whom Ron Paul had kind words during his Leno appearance Monday night, which now seems an eternity ago, like a moment from my lost youth.)

A Few Final Ironies

•I just today received word that Ron Paul will be on the New York Republican primary ballot (never an easy thing to achieve — Buchanan didn’t get enough signatures in 1992). So now I have to decide, in my Kantian-yet-utilitarian way, whether I should still cast at least a protest vote for him on Feb. 5 or just pick a new, second-choice candidate. (You can ask me — and my fellow Ron Paul sympathizer John Derbyshire — what we ultimately decided to do when you see us at Lolita Bar the next night, Wednesday, Feb. 6, at 8pm.) Tomorrow, I’ll try to post an entry about the daunting task of hierarchizing my options for a “second choice,” which involves almost as many mixed feelings as have been expressed in this entry.

•With a heavy heart, I reflect upon the fact that I know at least three people who have in the past almost always refrained from voting, on principle (unable to endorse any candidate), but were planning to vote for once this year, thanks to Ron Paul. One of them is still urging people to vote for him, bless her (and she does come from the Berkeley-style California-anarchist wing of the movement, which has often sympathized with conspiracy theories and the like on principle, as a sort of subversive tool, one that I hope will never be deployed again). Another, I suspect, will now stick to his usual practice of sitting out the whole electoral process. I’m too depressed to ask the third one his plans, but maybe he’ll show up on Feb. 6 as well and can be grilled then.

•On top of it all, now Radar and others are amateur-diagnosing Paul as an Asperger’s sufferer (Asperger’s being a sort of mild autism that produces social ineptitude, a blank expression, and weird obsessions — though that just sounds like “being a nerd” to me, which some readers may take as confirmation that I, too, have Asperger’s). I think it’s creepy and Soviet-like to label people crazy without really good reasons — Radar seems to suggest that favoring the gold standard is sufficient to make one certifiable. It’s half-tempting, though, to say that if we can simply blame the racism on the Asperger’s, the two problems sort of cancel out and we still have ourselves a viable candidate (ha ha! sob!).

•Just this week, I had the confusing experience of talking to a Ron Paul delegate from New York who sees himself as basically a subversive liberal infiltrating the Republican convention and undermining it, not by supporting a candidate he truly likes but by supporting the candidate he thinks is craziest (due to beliefs like the gold standard, not the more recent racist revelations), the candidate who would be most embarrassing to the GOP. The delegate at first assumed, when I said I was no longer gung-ho about Paul, that I was also liberal (as many liberal New Yorkers are prone to do upon meeting anyone without horns and a pitchfork). Thus, it took several back-and-forth comments for each of us to figure out what the other actually believed (“supporting…but not really…would still love to see…sort of sad…” etc.). The guy is expecting to get some juicy interviews once he’s “on the inside,” apparently not understanding that convention-attending Republicans — Paul-supporters and otherwise — are more than happy to talk your ear off about what they believe without any need for subterfuge.

(Psst, c’mere man, let me tell you what I really think: we ought to get rid of the whole government, privatize every useful function and abolish the non-useful ones, make everything nice n’ voluntary n’ efficient, about 300 million times more responsive to people’s individual needs than any majority vote could ever be — yeah, you know what I’m sayin’. Now do the secret handshake. Don’t tell anybody I used to read comic books.)

•Finally, an anecdote from what will probably be remembered as Paul’s last good weekend: At that Paul fundraising party I went to last month, there was a young man who was both a libertarian and an employee of, yes, the infamous and conspiracy-theory-inspiring Council on Foreign Relations. If you’re sane, you don’t see that as a huge paradox, and if you do see that as a huge paradox, you’re probably one of the people who’s still gung-ho for Paul (and I am not entirely without sympathy for you, as I hope this entry suggests).

The CFR guy was a big Ron Paul fan, but he was also annoyed with the candidate, since he’d wrangled an invitation to Paul on behalf of CFR to speak to that body — and he hadn’t gotten any response from Paul. “We’re the most important foreign policy organization in the country, and he won’t return my messages — I don’t get it,” he said, or words to that effect.

That should be proof, if you needed any, that not all Ron Paul supporters were believers in (or hip to) the conspiracy theories. (I wonder if McCain ever gets invited to address the Michigan Militia?)

P.S. It’s also ironic that Paul, in reassuring people after the newsletters became public, said “a libertarian can’t be racist,” by which I’m sure he meant that libertarians are adherents of methodological individualism and thus do not judge people solely as members of a collective or group — but that doesn’t strictly speaking prevent them from being racists. Ironically, this is a mirror-image of the far-leftist argument that “black people can’t be racist” since they aren’t part of the dominant, oppressing collective — and that claim is also false.

P.P.S. While looking for the skull/death image above, I stumbled across this cool motorcycle. If the militia-man thing didn’t work out so well, maybe it’s time for outreach to freedom-loving biker gangs — now this plan can’t fail…

P.P.P.S. If you think the Ron Paul campaign is the silliest thing I’ve ever supported for the larger purpose of promoting libertarianism, you obviously need to come back here on Friday and read my next Retro-Journal entry — about the 1994 Howard Stern for Governor campaign.


Meredith said...

It’s all quite depressing really.

badmedia said...

Seems to me that the smart people will be able to see through the attack. It’s been brought up many times in the past, the only reason it’s a big deal now is because people are being told to make a big deal about it. IMO, it’s a last chance desperation move against Ron Paul, the same as excluding him in the NH Fox debate.

If I for 1 second thought Ron Paul was truly racist, then I wouldn’t vote for him. But I know from his real speeches that he isn’t. I know he is the only person on the stage who understands individual rights, and that is inherently non-racist. The only possible way I could see a libertarian being a racist would be if they didn’t believe people from other races weren’t individuals, which I’ve never seen from Ron Paul in anyway.

IMO, those who are calling Ron Paul racist are counting on 1 thing – that the people in the US are too stupid to look at the facts.

Christopher said...

“IMO, it’s a last chance desperation move against Ron Paul, the same as excluding him in the NH Fox debate.”

Given his performance in terms of actual votes, what exactly would imply that there is any need for “a last chance desperation move”? His opponents didn’t exactly have much to despair over even before this issue came out again.

John Reading said...

The notion – that Ron Paul’s mistake in failing to more carefully supervise the newsletter is somehow proof that he is not qualified to be president – is nonsense. That sort of mistake is made by everyone in politics with a staff of humans. Such nonsense is available about every candidate.

That he has gotten as far as he has – in spite of the dishonesty and unfairness of the TV hairdos (they are not journalists) means his real appeal is enormous and he could win if given equal, fair treatment. That our nation is in the hands of the war-mongers and their TV hairdo whores is now obvious.

Evan if a viewer did not know of or care about Ron Paul, seeing John McCain and Rudy and Mitt smirking and giggling likie wicked schoolboys on split-screen while Ron Paul tells the truth would be enough to make clear the nature of the whole ugly, sadistic process of engineering the presidential election by dishonest, government-licensed and corporate-funded TV hairdos.

Good luck America. You are on the road to hell.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Allowing one or two unpleasant ghost-written things to go out under one’s name without adequate supervision: understandable. Allowing stuff to keep reappearing for ten years and keeping the ghost-writer on board as a trusted aide: not so much, unless you just don’t find the things written to be especially unpleasant.

Todd Seavey said...

And just prior to Bush’s election, Jacob wrote a great analysis of why symbolic politics, such as insulting an ethnic group, matters even when there are no major policy consequences, called _The Multiculturalism of Fear_, so check that out:

And in just a few minutes, read my moving-on-to-other-candidates blog entry, alas.

Christopher said...

“The only possible way I could see a libertarian being a racist would be if they didn’t believe people from other races weren’t individuals.”

The whole “libertarians can’t be racist” line that I keep reading is a joke. Clearly people can call themselves libertarians, believe in a minimalist state, and hate people of other races based on incorrect assumptions about them, just as people who call themselves Christians and believe that Jesus is the son of God made flesh sometimes have sex with little boys, kill people, and do other horrible things seemingly in contradiction to the tenets of their beliefs. That’s not to say that Ron Paul himself still or ever has had the views towards blacks expressed in his newsletters, but please drop the whole plea to some kind of mutual contradiction that proves libertarians can never be racists.

Todd Seavey said...

Another Jacob plug: in this entry from his blog, he describes his own ties to Ron Paul stretching all the way back to work on Paul’s _prior_ presidential run when, by my calculations, Jacob was only a precocious four-month-old or so (Jacob also links within it to an article he wrote about two kinds of federalism, the kind that prevents subsidiary factions from doing horrible, bigoted things and the kind that lets subsidiary factions get as oppressive or libertine as they like, roughly speaking — liberal vs. neo-confederate, in some sense):

Zariou said...

A month from now, libertarianism will have reframed its relationship to political intolerance in a way that will profoundly affect its viability for years, maybe decades.

It will either succeed in shaking off the reformed racist publisher currently leading the movement and drumming out his “it’s a smear/that’s not racist, it’s true” supporters.

Or it will continue to defend Ron Paul and confirm itself as a cozy place for small-government racists to call home. And if they move in, libertarianism will be as important and vital as David Duke in American politics.

Flick said...

I don’t have the link with me now ’cause I’m at work, but over the weekend I saw a YouTube video of a guy showing AP-reported results from the N.H. vote. At the top it showed the reported percentages, but below–and what did not get reported–were the totals by precinct. In that portion, Ron Paul’s numbers were far higher than any other candidate. Hopefully, if you want to see it, you find it with a search on YouTube.

Todd Seavey said...

It would appear the website accidentally labeled Paul’s totals as McCain’s and vice versa, which would then jibe with the opinion surveys and official results. As with so many things in life, much easier to be incompetent than to pull off a vast conspiracy, as critics of government should be the first to recognize…

Charles said...

I wrote Paul off as a probably racist when he waved off his John Birch Society connections without so much as an acknowledgment its support of segregation.

Brain said...

We feel your pain, Todd.

Come away from the Dark Side. Come to the side of fiscal responsibility. Come to the Democratic Party.