Saturday, January 12, 2008

Ron Paul and that New Republic Piece

Racism is simply an ugly form of collectivism, the mindset that views humans strictly as members of groups rather than as individuals. Racists believe that all individuals who share superficial physical characteristics are alike: as collectivists, racists think only in terms of groups. -- Congressman Ron Paul

As you may know, a recent article in The New Republic by James Kirchick, a protege of the hawkish and strongly pro-Israel Martin Peretz, has escalated the flap about Ron Paul's newsletter to a new level. The blogosphere has been abuzz about it for a week. I was going to ignore it, thinking that I had read enough about that newsletter and was satisfied with Paul's explanations, but was shocked to see David Boaz of the Cato Institute taking the article at face value and denouncing Paul. I decided to take a closer look. Although, as Paul supporters have pointed out, the article does use some classic smear techniques, it also reveals that the problem with the newsletter is deeper than I had thought. I want to try to sort this thing out. (See Ron Paul's response to the TNR article here.)

Kirchick begins by telling us that Ron Paul's newsletters have been issued since 1978, giving the impression that the nasty things he quotes from them go back that far. Indeed, he says that "what they reveal are decades worth of obsession with conspiracies, sympathy for the right-wing militia movement, and deeply held bigotry against blacks, Jews, and gays." It seems to me that the evidence he cites, though it may be decades old, isn't decades long.

Some of the arguments he gives can, in my opinion, be easily discounted. He is horrified that Paul spoke in 1995 at a conference on the ethics and politics of secession and has long expressed sympathy with the right of secession. The idea seems to be that a century and a half ago there was a secessionist movement that was motivated by the desire to keep blacks in bondage and so people who believe in the right of secession must be racists. This, to say the best of it, is just silly. Every other secessionist movement I can think of, other than this one, was an attempt to get away from a tyrannical central government. In fact, the newsletter passage Kirchick quotes on this issue mentions the breakup of the Soviet Union as an example of a secessionist movement -- which it was!

He also cites some mildly conspiracist talk from the seventies and early eighties about the Bilderberg Group and the Trilateral Commission. I guess all I can say about that is that, though Ron Paul is much more sympathetic to conspiracy theories than I am, at least his theories are about groups that actually exist and have real power.

Having said that, there are a lot of statements in those newsletters about gays and blacks that are genuinely offensive, and in some cases downright odious. But as near as I can determine they are all from a time period of four or five years, from some time in 1989 to some time in 1994. That is also true of all the offensive comments that libertarian journalist Dan Koffler cites here.

I met Ron Paul before that time-period, when he was running for the Libertarian Party's nomination in 1988, and though I voted for Russel Means at the state convention, I was very impressed by Paul. I also have read or heard many of his public pronouncements since then. What I see in those nasty newsletters bears no relation to the Ron Paul I have seen and heard. And the comments on blacks from those years are totally inconsistent with the excellent statement I quoted at the head of this post. What is going on here?

A glance at Wikipedia shows that this time period of creepy weirdness falls between 1988, the Libertarian Party run for the Presidency, and roughly the time when he decided to run for Congress again (that bid was successful in 1996). I don't have a way of checking this, but this was apparently a period in which Paul had dropped out of politics and was practicing medicine again full time. It looks like he allowed the newsletter to continue under his name but in the hands of others, and did a dreadful -- it must have been non-existent -- job of monitoring what they were doing.

This of course is Ron Paul's account of what happened. As others have pointed out, though, even this account is damaging to him.

One difference between a political movement and a philosophical movement is this: A philosophical school of thought is defined by the underlying premises the members share. A political movement is defined by the policy results to which one's premises lead. Members want the same policies but for different reasons. Sometimes you hold your nose and ally yourself with people whose premises you find troubling. But you need to draw the line somewhere. Eventually, holding your nose is not enough. Whose checks are you going to cash, and whose will you return to the donor? It looks like Ron Paul has at times failed to draw that line where he should. Whoever wrote those obnoxious newsletter articles, he or she was an associate of Paul's, someone he put into that position and trusted.

His response to these revelations has to some extent been reassuring. He says the he was "horrified" when he learned of the offensive articles, that he fired those responsible, that he is "ashamed" that it happened on his watch, that he "denounces" them -- but as others have said, he needs to do more. I had previously thought that the problem with the newsletters was a matter of one or two articles. Now I realize that it was something that went on for several years (not for several decades, as Kirchick says) -- and that needs to be explained. Who wrote them, why was this person in a position to do so, and why did it go on for so long?

This is not just about his campaign. Ron Paul has done more to popularize liberty than any American since Ayn Rand. Any slime that clings to him is likely to touch the ideas he has represented, at least in the minds of the many people who don't already understand what these ideas are.*
* Note that I do not include antisemitism as one of features of the articles written in that troubling time period. The only evidence that Kirchick presents for that charge is that Paul has long been a harsh critic of Israel. To those of us outside the Kirchick/Peretz school of thought, that isn't per se evidence of antisemitism. Antisemitism is indeed one reason to be anti-Zionist. Unfortunately, it isn't the only one. I don't agree with Ron Paul's position on Israel, but as evidence of antisemitism I think it's much weaker than the evidence against Desmond Tutu.

Added later: The President of the Austin Texas chapter of the NAACP, who has known Paul for 22 years, weighs in on Paul's alleged racism here. The article appears on the website of conspiracist Alex Jones, but I don't think that affects its credibility. Here is a recording of the interview reported in the article.

Added still later: Here is an article in Reason by David Weigel and Julian Sanchez, revealing the the author of most of the notorious newsletter material, the stuff that came out in the crucial '89 to '94 period, is almost certainly Lew Rockwell. During his very last declining years, Murray Rothbard became associated with Rockwell and they devised a cynical strategy to expand the political base of libertarianism by consciously appealing to the some of the nastiest elements of the conservatives' base, including their resentment of "the underclass" (gee, I wonder who that could be?). This explains why Paul has not been so forthcoming about this thing. Rockwell is still a friend of his. I guess it isn't realistic to expect Paul to rat out his friend. That means that responsibility falls on Rockwell to explain what happened and say how sorry he is about what a jerk he was in those days. He can also explain how he has seen the light and is no longer an asshole. As Carol Moore says, confession is good for the soul. He might also add that the success of the Paul campaign, achieved without coded appeals to intergroup hatreds and resentments, shows that the Rothbard/Rockwell race-bating strategy was, aside from everything else it was, completely unnecessary. Like someone said in another context: it was worse than a crime, it was a mistake. Anyway, it was a mistake. (See Justin Raimondo's reply to the Sanchez/Weigel piece here.)


Anonymous said...

Nobody likes anti-semetism, bigotry or racism but considering the wacky evangelical zionism of Rev Hagee and other Texas ministers where Ron Paul is from, the backlash which Paul supporters show is understandable. Hey, it still is free speech (hopefully) in this country.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Forgetting the New Republic dust-up for the vmoment, I was struck by Paul's equation of collectivism and racism. They aren't synonymous or even close to it. Paul's lack of understanding of the terms he uses is even worse than what's revealed in the article.

Lester Hunt said...

PW, I think by "collectivism" he means something like "what is important is groups, not individuals." You might call that moral collectivism (as opposed to political collectivism, which is based on it). In that sense, I think he's got it exactly right. The racist treats you as if your most morally important characteristic is that you belong to a certain group, not what you are as an individual. If racial-group-membership were the most important feature of people, the racist would be right. But it isn't, and they're not.

Anonymous said...

Winkler, "racism" and "collectivism" are two of the most ill-defined words in the language. You can't blame anyone for not sharing your definition if them.

Anonymous said...

I would say that although the words are somewhat ill-defined, Paul is dead on. Racism is a question of group supremacy vs individual rights. (i.e. individualism vs. collectivism)