Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ron Paul is the Cause of and Solution to Everything That Ails Us

Over at Reason, Brian Doherty makes a strong but inevitably unpersuasive argument for simply ignoring Ron Paul's endorsement and possible authorship of decades' worth of racist, conspiracist newsletters--an argument which is, by extension, an argument for just sort of resigning ourselves to the sinister nuttiness of the entire Ron Paul phenomenon. Doherty's argument goes a little something like this: yes, racism is bad. But you know what's worse? The drug war:

And, more importantly, I believe it's less important to beat up on and condemn a certain set of powerless and marginalized people who think and believe some nasty things everyone agrees are wrong than it is to beat up on and condemn the set of incredibly powerful people who actually act to commit crimes and rights-violation and damage to life across the globe who everyone thinks are perfectly right to do so. And Ron Paul is the only candidate with any public traction and fans who condemns and would fight to stop such crimes, from the drug war to non-defensive overseas wars to armed assaults on people because they sell raw milk to rampant violations of American's civil liberties and privacy to an organization in charge of our money supply that uses that power to scuttle the entire world economy and bailout its buddies.
And right he is, sort of (not down with that bit about the Fed at the end....). The drug war is the single most appalling perversity in American politics. It turns millions of productive citizens into criminals, and virtually every politician into a shameless hypocrite. At least in theory, American liberalism is about fighting against militaristic, neo-imperialist policies that trample civil liberties, buoy the prison-industrial complex, provide a tacit endorsement of widespread tax evasion, and exert a grossly disproportionate effect on minorities and the poor. At least in theory, American conservatism is about fighting policies that waste tens of billions in taxpayer dollars, mock the very concept of states' rights, and vastly expand the power of every level of government. And while the beauty of American democracy is that it forces liberals and conservatives to compromise their own deeply-held principles in the name of some greater social good, what's disgusting about American drug policy is that it depends upon every major politician of either ideological stripe constantly violating these principals in the name of allowing the NYPD to harass black and Hispanic New Yorkers to its heart's content, enabling the Justice Department to funnel assault weapons to Mexican drug cartels, and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders. There's a widely-circulated picture of our current president puffing on what's probably a spliff, but Obama's former enjoyment of a relatively mild controlled substance hasn't stopped his government from raiding medical marijuana dispensaries. Michael Bloomberg famously admitted to liking pot--but once he made it to Gracie Mansion, he found no contradiction in presiding over a racist, despicable and probably unconstitutional stop-and-frisk campaign.

Nothing makes me more cynical about politics than the near-universal hypocrisy over illegal drugs. No one is willing to stand on principle, even when ideology and plain human decency (and, more often than not, science) demand it. Ron Paul is the leading--and possibly only-- exception. Doherty is right that this is an incredible, and even historic moment in American politics--hell, America's highest-profile civil libertarian and drug war opponent is about to win a presidential primary in one of the most conservative states in the country! And with our congress on the brink of more or less criminalizing the entire Internet, this is an encouraging development, maybe even the kind of encouraging development whose provenance I can convince myself to ignore.

But I can't ignore it. Once known, things cannot be un-known, as Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying.

Here's what I can't un-know. I can't un-know a long, torturous, conversation (or political dispute or whatever) I had with a Paul supporter in DC a little over a year ago. He was an articulate enough chap, but when I brought up the newsletter controversy his argument was something along the lines of an elaborate "so what?" What kind of person, I wondered, could possibly remain indifferent to the fact that their favorite politician gave his imprimatur to every sort of virulent racist filth for like, 15 solid years? Doherty is intellectually honest enough not to be indifferent, but I wonder if the same can be said of the Paulite rank-and-file.

I can't un-know an even more torturous run-in with a Paulite at an oyster bar in New Orleans. He was sitting alone at the end of this long, communal table, and it turned out he was an army officer who had once been sent to look for POWs in Vietnam back in the mid-90s. It also turned out this person was sort of insane. I let him rant for awhile about how Social Security was unconstitutional before politely altering him to the possibility that President Ron Paul would strip him of the social safety net he earned through his military service. He said he didn't care, that the country was on a fiscal and moral knife's edge and that the difference between Paul supporters and the rest of humanity is that they're willing to make the kind of steep individual and collective sacrifices that us latte-drinkers would never even dream of making ourselves. This is an odd and perhaps incoherent philosophy, this idea of negating American greatness in order to salvage it. The girlfriend delicately pointed this out to him. "You're not engaging with me," he said with a vaguely violent lilt in his voice, and a less-vaguely craven look in his eye. "You're not respecting me." A few moments later, I thanked him for his service and faked a stomach ache. Unfortunately, before we learned this person was nuts we'd told him we were off to hear Walter Wolfman Washington at the nearby Maple Leaf Lounge, and I spent the rest of the night nursing a tangible fear that the guy would come looking for us.

I can't un-know the Paul supporters I met in the wild, western fringes of Zucotti Park, people who, unfortunately for libertarianism in America, were among the sanest Paulites I've ever met. Most of all, I can't un-know this, which is one of the most bizarre documents of this entire presidential campaign (a campaign that's produced its fair share of bizarre documents, mind you), the gist of which is this: forget Paul's racist newsletters. Those were politics. What you should really worry about is what Paul actually believes, namely that the Jews pushed the U.S. into World War II and shouldn't have a country of their own, that the invasion of Afghanistan was a mistake, and that the CIA coordinated the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Paul's craziness, and the craziness of many of both his chief (Andrew Sullivan, Lew Rockwell, Mondoweiss, for fuck's sake) and supernumerary supporters, is just ridiculously well-established at this point. I'm abstractly sympathetic to the narrowly utilitarian view that small pockets of crazy are insignificant so long as they stand a chance of unsettling an entire system of crazy. On the other hand, so what if the drug war just happens to be more racist than Ron Paul? Isn't it curious--or rather, disturbing--that this sort of question even needs to be posed in the first place? The question that Ron Paul's racism poses for me isn't "so what?" so much as "what does it say about our political system and society--what kinds of horrifying, horrifying things does it say--that one of our most reasonable mainstream political figures is also by far our craziest?"

If I could speculate on that for a moment. A couple of weeks ago, popular former two-term New Mexico governor Gary Johnson left the Republican party to seek the libertarian nomination for president. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever accused Johnson of being a racist, and had he prevailed in the Republican primary, he would have been the first major party presidential nominee to have successfully climbed Mount Everest. Now, Johnson never had any realistic shot of getting the Republican nomination, and he was fairly clueless about how to organize a campaign and present himself to a voting public that still has basically no idea who he is (if he had a clue, Johnson would have run for Senate in New Mexico as a Republican, won, patiently built a large and well-organized national organization the way that Ron Paul has, switched parties, and then run as a Libertarian in 2020 and 2024). But he was and is a kind of Ron Paul without all the moral hazard, a man whose libertarianism is a genuine function of his cosmopolitanism, rather than the product of a poisonous paleoconservative milieu. Paul has succeeded partly because of a shrewd refusal to distance himself from what Doherty euphemistically calls the "sociological overlap between the radical politics of libertarianism and certain other radical beliefs." But Johnson's political career is basically over because he naively believed that he could turn himself into a national figure by force of argument, or by force of ideas. Alas, people are the willing conduit of ideas, and ideas die when no one volunteers to carry them forward.

And in the long run, they also tend to die when the people carrying them forward are, for the most part, crazy. See the truly depressing thing about Paulism is that it entrusts the most essential and eminently reasonable ideas--ideas that need to be discussed and even acted upon, for the greater good of both this country and the world at large--to some of the most loathsome figures in American public life. Ron Paul's apologists want us to believe that a little craziness is the price we have to pay for eventual political and fiscal sanity. But this is a false choice, and until it's recognized as such, I suspect that the drug war, authoritarian policing of the Internet, mass incarceration, anti-immigrant hysteria and the other evils that Paul supposedly stands against will be with us for a long time to come.

This week's song isn't a song so much as one very important (libertarian) thought:

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