Lying About Libertarians: The New Republic and Ron Paul

Feb 3rd, 2008 | By FEO Admin | Category: Comment

Philip Bounds

One of the more interesting candidates in the current round of presidential primaries in the USA is Congressman Ron Paul, who sits for Texas’s 14th District in the House of Representatives. Characteristically described as ‘outspoken’, Paul is arguably the most uncompromising member of the Republican Party’s libertarian (as opposed to liberal) wing. At the core of his political outlook is an extreme suspicion of the federal government and a passionate belief in individual liberty. He has consistently campaigned for the abolition of income tax, an extension of free trade and the right of the individual to bear arms. It seems fair to say that most readers of Fifth Estate Online would prefer to see anyone in the White House but him.

No one supposes that Paul has any chance of winning the Republican nomination. In the Republican primary in New Hampshire on January 8th he secured 8% of the vote and came in fifth behind John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani. Yet Paul’s campaign has recently been the subject of unusually forceful criticism in America’s left-wing press. The most scabrous attack so far has been launched by James Kirchick of The New Republic, whose article ‘Angry White Man’ (January 8th) argues that Paul has a ‘bigoted past’ and is ‘filled with hate’. Kirchick bases much of what he has to say on the political newsletters which Paul has been issuing to supporters for more than thirty years. Having surveyed a stash of these newsletters at the University of Kansas and the Wisconsin Historical Society, he insists that many of the articles contained in them are riddled with racism, homophobia and various other forms of illiberal prejudice. Asked about Kirchick’s accusations by David Weigel of the magazine Reason, Paul denied that he was the author of the offensive material and claimed not to endorse it.

Why should this relatively obscure political tiff be of interest to us? The main reason is that Kirchick’s article exemplifies a worrying trend in radical journalism which does the left considerable harm. Although Kirchick is an honourable man and a talented journalist, his attack on Paul is clearly intended to excommunicate the libertarian right from mainstream politics by misrepresenting its views, distorting its objectives and generally accusing it of the gravest political crimes. In so doing he demonises libertarianism at the very moment when the left has most to learn from it.

Kirchick’s problem is his unwillingness to engage with libertarian ideas on their own terms. Faced with any piece of writing in Paul’s newsletters which explores controversial ideas about race, gender or sexuality, his instinct is to impugn the honour of the person who produced it. He makes no attempt to explore the first principles on which it is based, though if he did he would surely realise that the libertarian perspective is not necessarily as malign as he initially fears. Here, for example, is what he has to say about an unsigned article which appeared in the Ron Paul Political Newsletter after the Los Angeles riots in June 1992:

‘Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks three days after rioting began,’ read one typical passage. According to the newsletter, the looting was a natural byproduct of government indulging the black community with ‘”civil rights,” quotas, mandated hiring preferences, set-asides for government contracts, gerrymandered voting districts, black bureaucracies, black mayors, black curricula in schools, black tv shows, black tv anchors, hate crime laws, and public humiliation for anyone who dares question the black agenda.’ It also denounced ‘the media’ for believing that ‘America’s number one need is an unlimited white checking account for underclass blacks.’

Now let us be clear. The passages which Kirchick quotes are insensitive, grossly provocative and offensive in the extreme. But rushing to accuse them of ‘racial bigotry’ is neither politically principled nor intellectually scrupulous. If we do their author the courtesy of assuming that he has something serious to say, it immediately becomes clear that he has put his overheated rhetoric at the service of classic liberal principles. In his idiosyncratic way he is telling us that the members of oppressed groups cannot be liberated – indeed can only be brutalised – by a combination of high welfare spending, positive discrimination and cultural special pleading. Instead they must take their chances in the free market, where they will not be imbued with a dangerous sense of automatic entitlement. This argument might be reactionary. It is certainly untrue. But there is nothing necessarily racist about it. Its purpose is to discredit a particular set of policies, not to ascribe inferiority to an entire racial group.

Kirchick is no more impressed by Paul’s understanding of American history than he is by his politics. As ‘Angry White Man’ points out, Paul is one of several prominent libertarians (others are Thomas E. Woods Jr. and Thomas DiLorenzo) who regret the fact that the Confederacy lost the Civil War. Kirchick clearly implies that Paul’s support for the South is rooted in contempt for people of colour, whose liberation from slavery would not have occurred if the secessionists had prevailed. His mistake here is to conflate two different strands of historiography. It is perfectly true that retrospective support for the South has sometimes been voiced by fascists, deranged members of the Ku Klux Klan and other apologists for slavery, but the idea of a Confederate victory has also appealed to more liberal souls – some of whom, like the great Marxist historian Perry Anderson, are very far from being men of the right. When the more respectable ‘revisionists’ make their case, they take care to point out that slavery was a ‘historically doomed’ institution whose abolition was long overdue by the 1860s. They insist that the irresistible force of capitalist modernisation would have swept it away even if the South had seceded from the USA, leaving the road clear for democracy and the free market. Their case for the South is not rooted in sympathy for slavery but in a concern for freedom. If the Confederacy had gone its own way, or so the argument goes, the USA might not have developed into a repressive super-state which habitually interferes in the affairs of other countries. It is not necessary to agree with this argument (personally I disagree with it profoundly) to recognise that there is more to it than Kirchick would have us believe.

Kirchick accepts that Paul was not necessarily the author of many of the articles which appeared in his newsletters. He also seems to accept that not all the articles reflected Paul’s views. Paul himself has confirmed that this is the case, pointing in particular to the disparity between his own opinion of Martin Luther King (whom he reveres) and that of a peculiarly unbuttoned contributor who described King as a ‘world-class philanderer who beat up his paramours.’ Yet the central plank of Kirchick’s case, expressed in language every bit as unrestrained as that of the libertarians he seeks to expose, is that Paul would not have published ‘material consistently saturated in racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and conspiracy-mongering … for so long if he did not share these views.’ Here again one detects a misunderstanding of the libertarian perspective. Men like Ron Paul are nothing if not tough-minded in their attitude to free speech. There is practically no opinion, image or idea that they would wish to see suppressed, even if they sometimes make exceptions for state secrets and criminal libels. Moreover, while they accept that the right to free speech does not entail the right to have one’s opinions published in any particular forum, they worry about the fact that some people have an easier time getting their voices heard than others. This has frequently led them to open their publications to people whose views they would not accept, simply in order to draw attention to the rich proliferation of ‘minority’ opinions which the media, the universities and mainstream politics tend to ignore. This is the tradition to which Paul belongs. By using his newsletters to disseminate a range of ideas from the hard right, some of them admittedly bordering on the pathological, he is knowingly putting his political credibility at risk in order to stimulate debate. This is the behaviour of an instinctive democrat, not a man weighed down by ancestral prejudices.

One does not have to be Samuel Huntington or Norman Podhoretz to recognise that liberal civilisation is now under sustained attack from a combination of clerical fascism and domestic repression. If the left is to play a meaningful role in defending it, we will have to make common cause with people from other parts of the political spectrum who share our belief in free speech, moral autonomy and due process. This is why Kirchick’s evisceration of Paul makes so little sense. The great virtue of right-wing libertarians is that they stolidly defend freedom even in the hardest cases. Anyone can bang the drum for free speech and individual liberty in the abstract; but it is usually only the savants of the right who articulate those uncomfortable truths which the rest of us shy away from – that hate speech should not be banned, for instance, or that the more lurid forms of adult pornography should not be suppressed. This is as true in Britain as it is in the USA, as a visit to the website of the Libertarian Alliance will prove. It is time to recognise who our friends are. Ron Paul is one of them.

James Kirchick’s article on Ron Paul can be accessed at: http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=e2f15397-a3c7-4720-ac15-4532a7da84ca

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