Saturday, January 19, 2008

So long, Ron

The January 30 issue of the New Republic features an article by James Kirchick which exposes some unsavory views apparently held by Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. Kirchick took the trouble to dig up old copies of a series of newsletters published by Paul in the eighties and nineties and found them to contain numerous items which can only be described as racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic.

This concerns me only because I once voted for Ron Paul, as I mentioned in a previous post. I voted for Ron Paul when he ran as the presidential candidate of the Libertarian party in 1988. I have voted libertarian for years and was even a member of the party for a while because neither of the two major parties represents my views, which are in general pro-market, small government, pacific though not pacifist, and socially tolerant. The Libertarian party is the only U.S. political party that peddles that line. I was aware, of course, that there was a fringe element in libertarian circles, but then there’s a fringe element in a lot of political movements, particularly the outsider ones. I did my best to ignore what I called “the black helicopter crowd” and joked about it with those that didn’t share my views.

Some people come to the libertarian movement from farther left, like me, and some come to it from farther right. I was aware that Ron Paul was one of the latter, but I was not aware that his views, as expressed in a series of obscure political newsletters published without bylines but with his name on the masthead, were so outright hostile to blacks, homosexuals and Israel (read: Jews), and so accepting of an array of right-wing conspiracy theories and nostalgia for the Confederacy. It is one thing to take a principled stand against black victimology and quite another to suggest, in response to an Al Sharpton provocation, that New York be renamed “Welfaria, Zooville, Rapetown, Dirtburg or Lazyopolis.”

So I hereby renounce any sympathy for Ron Paul. And I imagine that the New Republic expose will cause large segments of Paul’s support to calve off like icebergs plunging into the sea. It is to be hoped, anyway. Libertarianism is essentially tolerant and liberal, and there’s nothing of either in Paul’s views.

There will be a salvage operation, of course; Kirchick reports that the Paul campaign is already claiming that Paul was not directly responsible for the more inflammatory items that appeared under his name, a predictable and laughable attempt at spin. There will also be those who argue that while Paul’s language was intemperate, the points are valid: welfare abetted the black underclass culture, white guilt impedes frank talk about black problems, etc., etc. But you can’t separate language from views that easily: intemperate language indicates intemperate thought. Sorry, Ron. As far as I’m concerned, you’re toast.

It would be a pity, however, if the Ron Paul crash-and-burn worked to discredit libertarian views in general, because I think in general they’re sound. Kirchuck recognizes in his article that Paul is “nothing like the urbane libertarians who staff the Cato Institute or the libertines at Reason magazine.” Thanks— while I’m not sure I’m a libertine, I like to think of myself as reasonably urbane, and I still think that most Americans are like me: they understand that capitalism is a pretty good thing and that the government shouldn’t get too big for its britches, and they don’t think their neighbors’ sex lives or private vices are any of their business. I think, in other words, that most Americans are really libertarians, and I think that’s why they’re frustrated with the big-tent, messy, incoherent, flawed coalitions that are our two major political parties.

If you’re interested in what appeals to me about libertarian thought, read David Boaz’s book Libertarianism: A Primer (The Free Press, 1997). It’s thoughtful and temperate, and I really hope that after all the shouting about Ron Paul is over, it’s that strain of libertarianism that will gain ground. I’d love to see the libertarians shake off the lunatic fringe and start appealing to the majority of Americans who I suspect share their views. But I’m afraid first we’re going to be smeared in the Ron Paul controversy.

Ron, you haven’t done liberty any favors.

Sam Reaves

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