The Depoliticization of Ron Paul

•December 30, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Even amidst growing concern over his racist and homophobic newsletters, a recent poll found that registered Democrats have quite favorable opinions of Ron Paul. Much has already been said about the Ron Paul Political Report and Ron Paul Survival Report, so I won’t rehash the contents here. I do, however, have a few thoughts on his anemic response to the letters, the overall relationship between libertarianism and racism, and the tendency of the political Left to approach Paul with kiddy-gloves.

First, as numerous commentators have pointed out, Paul’s response to the controversy has been incoherent. He actually flip-flopped on the newsletters: first saying that he had never seen them, and later – once a 1995 video surfaced of him talking about the letters – saying that he was merely guilty of not paying enough attention to their contents. Most recently, he responded unapologetically and then stormed out of a CNN interview when the letters were brought up. The spin from his campaign seems to be, ‘Paul isn’t a racist, there is no public record of him saying anything racist [letters published under his name don’t count], and he has no idea who wrote the letters.’ [this despite the fact that libertarian insiders have widely asserted that the letters were penned by Lew Rockwell, the former Paul chief of staff and founder of the Mises Institute, who remains a close confidant of Paul’s today.]

Their assertion – which seems to hold weight with many even outside the Kool-Aid-pounding Paul lobby – is that because we have no record of Paul saying the N-word (or making some other egregiously racist slip-up), he is somehow absolved of all blame for the letters. The question that I’m left with is: how does Paul get away with such actions, while other Republican contenders would be forcefully called out by the Left for anything even remotely resembling the racism or homophobia expressed in the Reports?

The answer, to put it simply, is that he’s a better politician than the other Republicans. Through a combination of “strict constructionism” (the idea that his views simply emanate from the Constitution), libertarian nationalism (the use of an economistic language sprinkled with emotional references to “the Founding Fathers,” “freedom” and “liberty”), and personal characteristics (his soft-spoken demeanor and consistent logic), he has successfully pushed forward the myth that he is not driven by political considerations, but by some universal quest for Truth, Reason and the American Way. Popular sentiment holds that Paul is more Plato than politician. According to the narrative that has emerged, he is a genuine, straight-shooter. So much so, that if he had racist beliefs, he would surely announce them to the American public. In short, Paul – as a political figure – has been thoroughly depoliticized.

I want to push back against this depoliticization in two ways: first, by noting that the racism in the letters was a strategic attempt to expand libertarian ideals into mainstream conservatism; and second, by reflecting on the inability of libertarian dogmatists (including Paul) to satisfactorily grapple with the historical legacy of American racism.

To begin, racism comes in many forms today, hardly any of which fit the mold of the Nazis, KKK, or George Wallace-like segregationism (though some of the Paul letters come frighteningly close to this). Because such positions are socially unacceptable in today’s political climate, race is more likely to be filtered through a proxy. Instead of calling those of Mexican ancestry “Wetbacks,” they are rhetorically constructed as criminals; instead of African-Americans being likened to animals, they are deemed “welfare queens” and “gangstas” who are suckling off the tax-payer teat (on the construction of Latinos, see Chavez 2008; on the construction of African-Americans, see Giroux 2006).

In fact, this racism-by-proxy (or neo-racism) was an explicit strategy for those seeking to dismantle the welfare state in the 1980s (the success that George H.W. Bush had in deploying Willy Horton in his 1988 campaign is particularly relevant here).[i] The Paul letters came out at a time where this was the political terrain. Paul and his allies were attempting to broaden support for their libertarian projects by appealing to the emotional resonance of this racialized conservative discourse. According to Reason (itself a libertarian shill):

“During the period when the most incendiary items appeared—roughly 1989 to 1994—Rockwell and the prominent libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard championed an open strategy of exploiting racial and class resentment to build a coalition with populist “paleoconservatives,” producing a flurry of articles and manifestos whose racially charged talking points and vocabulary mirrored the controversial Paul newsletters recently unearthed by The New Republic.”

To an extent, this strategy worked. It is no surprise that Paul is a favorite among white nationalists. And while distancing himself from their positions, he has so far refused to repudiate their support. Some have speculated the letters may actually be a selling point for Paul in the primaries, which tells you something about the current state of the Republican Party.

Of course, the issue of race has long been a sticking-point for modern-day libertarians. To understand why, one has to delve into the roots of the ideology.  Though infused with heterogeneous traditions, Libertarianism claims to be the intellectual inheritor of the classical liberal, enlightenment tradition.[ii] And in the American libertarian psyche, classical liberal thought launches off of the ideals of John Locke, who theorized a state of nature in which individuals were relatively free and equal. The purpose of “the state,” for Locke, was merely to alleviate the inconveniences that arise from occasional disagreements, largely through the provision of a neutral judiciary to adjudicate disputes over property (which, he theorized, would be accumulated through the tortuous task of putting Nature to use).[iii]

Yet, American life has historically been anything but free and equal, and the judiciary has been far from a neutral arbiter. As a result, the accumulation of property today is not simply a factor of how hard or with how much skill one labors. Because of a long history of racism (not to mention gendered and sexual discrimination) – in both the public and private sectors – certain populations have necessitated special protections from the state; protections that Paul and contemporary libertarians uniformly deem illegitimate. In fact, historically, the expansion of the national government has had much to do with the inability or outright refusal of states and private entities to protect the rights of racial minorities.

Thus, the prescriptions of libertarians have racialized implications.[iv] The freedom from “coercive force” (coercive force, in this narrative, meaning virtually any action the state undertakes) that they envision gives powerful private actors license to run roughshod over historically marginalized citizens, in particular. Paul is okay with this. As I’ve previously noted, his 1987 book, Freedom Under Siege, voices his opposition to civil rights laws, measures protecting employees from sexual harassment, and government-funded AIDs research. [v] While serious politicians seek to grapple with the continued impacts of a state that had basically institutionalized apartheid up until the mid-1960s (and in some cases much later), Paul lives in a Lockean fantasy-land where all are free and equal, and if the state would simply get out of the way, we would all have an equal potential to succeed on the basis of merit. Kumbaya.

I have lot of other problems with Paul that I’ve detailed here and here. But his position on race might take the cake. Paul may not be a racist (in the way that white supremacists are racist), but he’s certainly guilty of playing politics with race, at the same time as he touts his prescriptions to be color-blind. It’s time to stop giving him an easy go-of-it just because he “seems genuine.” Or because he isn’t as bad as Santorum or Gingrich. Or because he actually gets a couple issues right (like opposing the Patriot Act, not invading Iran, and ending the War on Drugs).

The resonance of Paul’s candidacy with the younger generation (i.e. my generation of 18-30 year olds) is profoundly discouraging to me. And not only because it suggests that young people are too easily swayed by emotionally-tinged alarmist rhetoric, the hopes of legalized weed, and the idea that we have somehow reached a post-racial era. It also reflects the utter collapse of the Democratic Party – its complete transition into a corporatized-military-industrial pawn. There is truly no candidate in 2012 who will represent the interests of ordinary people, let alone racial minorities.

[i] As Henri Giroux observes: “Building on the reactionary rhetoric of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan took office in 1980 with a trickle-down theory that would transform corporate America and a corresponding visual economy. The twin images of the young black male “gangsta” and his counterpart, the “welfare queen,” became the primary vehicles for selling the American public on the need to dismantle the welfare state, ushering in an era of unprecedented deregulation, downsizing, privatization, and regressive taxation” (2006: 172).

[ii] Forget that couching one’s logic in the emotionally-charged symbol that is “the Founding Fathers” runs counter to the ideals of the liberal enlightenment. Sapere audere, my ass – these secular gods have the Truth.

[iii] Locke, for all his prescience, apparently didn’t foresee the emergence of naked short selling, the commodification of genetic materials, etc.

[iv] Paul not only ignores this but actively supports pseudo-historians who provide revisionist views of racial discrimination.

[v] In fairness, it should be noted that a few libertarian prescriptions might actually help racial minorities (ending the war on drugs, for example). These potential positives should be considered in weighing the relative merits of libertarian positions. Like any other rationale, libertarianism is fundamentally political. And in the contemporary American context, virtually any political matter has racialized impacts.


Coming Back

•November 29, 2011 • 1 Comment

It’s been way too long since the last posting. So much rage, so little time. As life is slowing down a bit, I’m hoping to get started again. In the next days, look for some reflections on Occupy and the ever-advancing State of Exception (two phenomena that are increasingly intersecting). For now:

We Almost Lost Detroit

•May 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Gil Scott Heron died today. Among other things, Heron forcefully, yet eloquently, articulated the relationship between the commodification of art forms and the racialization of American consciousness. His powerful words continue to reverberate today:

If only Mitt Romney and the GOP could meet Gil Scott.

Sandmonkey – Be Brave

•February 3, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The current events in Egypt are testimony to the power of the people when they work together to demand change.  I hope that, in spite of all the odds that are working against them, they are able to help affect real and significant change through their protests. Their courage and tenacity should serve as both an inspiration to the world and a source of shame for those of us who  do nothing but bitch about our useless politicians in the privacy of our own homes and friendships.

In the spirit of collaboration for the human rights of all people, I want to repost the latest blog by the Eygptian blogger Sandmonkey, whose blog has been suspended by the Egyptian government.


“I don’t know how to start writing this. I have been battling fatigue for not sleeping properly for the past 10 days, moving from one’s friend house to another friend’s house, almost never spending a night in my home, facing a very well funded and well organized ruthless regime that views me as nothing but an annoying bug that its time to squash will come. The situation here is bleak to say the least.

It didn’t start out that way. On Tuesday Jan 25 it all started peacefully, and against all odds, we succeeded to gather hundreds of thousands and get them into Tahrir Square, despite being attacked by Anti-Riot Police who are using sticks, tear gas and rubber bullets against us. We managed to break all of their barricades and situated ourselves in Tahrir. The government responded by shutting down all cell communication in Tahrir square, a move which purpose was understood later when after midnight they went in with all of their might and attacked the protesters and evacuated the Square. The next day we were back at it again, and the day after. Then came Friday and we braved their communication blackout, their thugs, their tear gas and their bullets and we retook the square. We have been fighting to keep it ever since.

That night the government announced a military curfew, which kept getting shorter by the day, until it became from 8 am to 3 pm. People couldn’t go to work, gas was running out quickly and so were essential goods and money, since the banks were not allowed to operate and people were not able to collect their salary. The internet continued to be blocked, which affected all businesses in Egypt and will cause an economic meltdown the moment they allow the banks to operate again. We were being collectively punished for daring to say that we deserve democracy and rights, and to keep it up, they withdrew the police, and then sent them out dressed as civilians to terrorize our neighborhoods. I was shot at twice that day, one of which with a semi-automatic by a dude in a car that we the people took joy in pummeling. The government announced that all prisons were breached, and that the prisoners somehow managed to get weapons and do nothing but randomly attack people. One day we had organized thugs in uniforms firing at us and the next day they disappeared and were replaced by organized thugs without uniforms firing at us. Somehow the people never made the connection.

Despite it all, we braved it. We believed we are doing what’s right and were encouraged by all those around us who couldn’t believe what was happening to their country. What he did galvanized the people, and on Tuesday, despite shutting down all major roads leading into Cairo, we managed to get over 2 million protesters in Cairo alone and 3 million all over Egypt to come out and demand Mubarak’s departure. Those are people who stood up to the regime’s ruthlessness and anger and declared that they were free, and were refusing to live in the Mubarak dictatorship for one more day. That night, he showed up on TV, and gave a very emotional speech about how he intends to step down at the end of his term and how he wants to die in Egypt, the country he loved and served. To me, and to everyone else at the protests this wasn’t nearly enough, for we wanted him gone now. Others started asking that we give him a chance, and that change takes time and other such poppycock. Hell, some people and family members cried when they saw his speech. People felt sorry for him for failing to be our dictator for the rest of his life and inheriting us to his Son. It was an amalgam of Stockholm syndrome coupled with slave mentality in a malevolent combination that we never saw before. And the Regime capitalized on it today.

Today, they brought back the internet, and started having people calling on TV and writing on facebook on how they support Mubarak and his call for stability and peacefull change in 8 months. They hung on to the words of the newly appointed government would never harm the protesters, whom they believe to be good patriotic youth who have a few bad apples amongst them. We started getting calls asking people to stop protesting because “we got what we wanted” and “we need the country to start working again”. People were complaining that they miss their lives. That they miss going out at night, and ordering Home Delivery. That they need us to stop so they can resume whatever existence they had before all of this. All was forgiven, the past week never happened and it’s time for Unity under Mubarak’s rule right now.

To all of those people I say: NEVER! I am sorry that your lives and businesses are disrupted, but this wasn’t caused by the Protesters. The Protesters aren’t the ones who shut down the internet that has paralyzed your businesses and banks: The government did. The Protesters weren’t the ones who initiated the military curfew that limited your movement and allowed goods to disappear off market shelves and gas to disappear: The government did. The Protesters weren’t the ones who ordered the police to withdraw and claimed the prisons were breached and unleashed thugs that terrorized your neighborhoods: The government did. The same government that you wish to give a second chance to, as if 30 years of dictatorship and utter failure in every sector of government wasn’t enough for you. The Slaves were ready to forgive their master, and blame his cruelty on those who dared to defy him in order to ensure a better Egypt for all of its citizens and their children. After all, he gave us his word, and it’s not like he ever broke his promises for reform before or anything.

Then Mubarak made his move and showed them what useful idiots they all were.

You watched on TV as “Pro-Mubarak Protesters” – thugs who were paid money by NDP members by admission of High NDP officials- started attacking the peaceful unarmed protesters in Tahrir square. They attacked them with sticks, threw stones at them, brought in men riding horses and camels- in what must be the most surreal scene ever shown on TV- and carrying whips to beat up the protesters. And then the Bullets started getting fired and Molotov cocktails started getting thrown at the Anti-Mubarak Protesters as the Army standing idly by, allowing it all to happen and not doing anything about it. Dozens were killed, hundreds injured, and there was no help sent by ambulances. The Police never showed up to stop those attacking because the ones who were captured by the Anti-mubarak people had police ID’s on them. They were the police and they were there to shoot and kill people and even tried to set the Egyptian Museum on Fire. The Aim was clear: Use the clashes as pretext to ban such demonstrations under pretexts of concern for public safety and order, and to prevent disunity amongst the people of Egypt. But their plans ultimately failed, by those resilient brave souls who wouldn’t give up the ground they freed of Egypt, no matter how many live bullets or firebombs were hurled at them. They know, like we all do, that this regime no longer cares to put on a moderate mask. That they have shown their true nature. That Mubarak will never step down, and that he would rather burn Egypt to the ground than even contemplate that possibility.

In the meantime, State-owned and affiliated TV channels were showing coverage of Peaceful Mubarak Protests all over Egypt and showing recorded footage of Tahrir Square protest from the night before and claiming it’s the situation there at the moment. Hundreds of calls by public figures and actors started calling the channels saying that they are with Mubarak, and that he is our Father and we should support him on the road to democracy. A veiled girl with a blurred face went on Mehwer TV claiming to have received funding by Americans to go to the US and took courses on how to bring down the Egyptian government through protests which were taught by Jews. She claimed that AlJazeera is lying, and that the only people in Tahrir square now were Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. State TV started issuing statements on how the people arrested Israelis all over Cairo engaged in creating mayhem and causing chaos. For those of you who are counting this is an American-Israeli-Qatari-Muslim Brotherhood-Iranian-Hamas conspiracy. Imagine that. And MANY PEOPLE BOUGHT IT. I recall telling a friend of mine that the only good thing about what happened today was that it made clear to us who were the idiots amongst our friends. Now we know.

Now, just in case this isn’t clear: This protest is not one made or sustained by the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s one that had people from all social classes and religious background in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood only showed up on Tuesday, and even then they were not the majority of people there by a long shot. We tolerated them there since we won’t say no to fellow Egyptians who wanted to stand with us, but neither the Muslims Brotherhood not any of the Opposition leaders have the ability to turn out one tenth of the numbers of Protesters that were in Tahrir on Tuesday. This is a revolution without leaders. Three Million individuals choosing hope instead of fear and braving death on hourly basis to keep their dream of freedom alive. Imagine that.

The End is near. I have no illusions about this regime or its leader, and how he will pluck us and hunt us down one by one till we are over and done with and 8 months from now will pay people to stage fake protests urging him not to leave power, and he will stay “because he has to acquiesce to the voice of the people”. This is a losing battle and they have all the weapons, but we will continue fighting until we can’t. I am heading to Tahrir right now with supplies for the hundreds injured, knowing that today the attacks will intensify, because they can’t allow us to stay there come Friday, which is supposed to be the game changer. We are bringing everybody out, and we will refuse to be anything else than peaceful. If you are in Egypt, I am calling on all of you to head down to Tahrir today and Friday. It is imperative to show them that the battle for the soul of Egypt isn’t over and done with. I am calling you to bring your friends, to bring medical supplies, to go and see what Mubarak’s gurantees look like in real life. Egypt needs you. Be Heroes.”

Love and Politics

•January 17, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Today we’ve seen and heard just about everyone sing the praises of MLK…and rightly so.  But, as Cornell West has recognized, King’s legacy has been sanitized (4:25 in the video).  So much so that people like Glen Beck and Sarah Palin feel comfortable citing and praising him without any hint of irony (see 7:05), while continually bastardizing the very principles that he stood for.

In a speech to King’s former congregation a year ago, West urged us to stop the “Santa-Clausification” of King. King was a pacifist, a supporter of social democracy, and a tireless advocate for the downtrodden.  King challenged some of Malcom X’s ideas, but Malcom also changed many of King’s.  He wasn’t some apolitical figure, but was, according to the FBI, “the most dangerous man in America.” He wasn’t a “centrist” and he certainly wasn’t seen as a national icon by many.

King was a radical like few are radicals.  He wasn’t afraid of the untimely or the unpopular. And most whites – even many so-called “liberals” – didn’t support him (the most famous being the eight supposedly liberal clergymen who he responded to from the Birmingham Jail).

The church, for King, was – like the idealized polis in early greek philosophy – a space where all of the social inequalities that existed in our imperfect private realities, could be suspended and reflected upon (see “The Drum Major Instinct”).  It was the exact “church of social justice” that conservatives bemoan.   And the love that he espoused wasn’t a “love” cloaked in the fantasies of self-interest or self-indulgence, but one founded upon a compassion for the Other – encompassing, here, not only the down-and-out and discriminated against, but the discriminator and oppressor as well:

“In speaking of love at this point, we are not referring to some sentimental or affectionate emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense.  Love in this connection means understanding, redemptive good will.  When we speak of loving those who oppose us, we refer to neither eros nor philia; we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word agape….Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people…It begins by loving other for their sakes. It is an entirely ‘neighbor-regarding concern for others,’ which discovers the neighbor in every man it meets” (see “An Experiment in Love”).

Sound good for church, but too idealistic for politics?  West and several other progressive theologians disagree.  In the aftermath of Tucson (to name but one event), it might be worth dwelling on this relationship between love and politics:


A (Tuc)son of a Bitch

•January 11, 2011 • 1 Comment

Responses to the Tucson shootings have been predictable: the Right has proclaimed that this was the random act of a madman (and assailed Leftists for making any connections between violent speech and actual violence), while Centrists have bemoaned the toxic political environment that is said to have been created by both sides of the political spectrum.

The problem is that both of these narratives are wrong.  First, ample evidence suggests that there IS a correlation between vitriolic rhetoric and politically-motivated violence.  Second, conservatives and libertarians have relied upon discourses of enmity to a far greater extent than any leftists, and thus, bear at least some responsibility for such acts.

To begin, a great deal evidence points to a connection between public figures deploying violent speech, and an increase in actual violence.  Of course the relationship isn’t neat and linear.  The gunman exhibited signs of paranoid schizophrenia, his political diatribes were more or less nonsensical – united only by “Big-Brother”-like fantasies – and we may well never know exactly what precipitated his decision.  However, it would be a mistake to assert, as John Stewart did, that because we can’t make a causal claim that meets some sort of natural scientific standard, there is no relationship between speech that aims to provoke deep emotional reactions (through metaphors of war, sharp distinctions between friend and enemy, and the dehumanization of opponents) and politically motivated violence.

In brief, here are three pieces of evidence:

  • First, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that membership in so-called “Patriot Groups” (i.e. militant, anti-government organizations) increased by over 200% in 2009.  They note that “[t]he ‘tea parties” and similar groups that have sprung up in recent months cannot fairly be considered extremist groups, but they are shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories and racism.” The full report is available here:
  • Second, the Department of Homeland Security recently released a report noting that right-wing extremist groups are exploiting both the economic downturn and the election of an African-American president to broaden their membership.  It is worth noting that public figures like Malkin, Palin and Beck routinely employ the same discursive strategies as these purportedly “fringe” groups.
  • Third, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has catalogued insurrectionist outbursts since 2008.  Pay close attention to the targets and the motivations of the perpetrators:

If it isn’t already apparent, it is worth stressing that the tendency to draw a false equivalence between the rhetoric of the left and right is misleading.  I challenge anyone who buys into this “can’t we all be civil” narrative, to do a quick sociological experiment.  Examine several political mediums through the following questions:

  • How are opponents being constructed?  Are they deemed rational or ridiculed as insane or dangerous? Are they treated civilly or are they shouted down?  If they are demonized, what types of names are they called?
  • Is the perspective being advanced black-and-white or is there room for nuance?
  • Are appeals being made to reason or passion?  If the former, what is deemed “reasonable?” If the latter, what sorts of passions are being harnessed? (e.g. hope and love? fear and hatred? A combination?)
  • What types of metaphors are being used? What symbols? What types of verbs are attached to the opponent?

You could begin by examining the political leaders.  Take statements of Obama and compare them with those of Boehner or Cantor or Palin.  Then, explore TV news.  Compare Keith Olbermann with Glen Beck and Rachel Maddow with Bill O’Reilly.  Next, move onto Radio.  Listen to the broadcasts by Thom Hartmann and David Sirota and contrast them with Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage. If you aren’t convinced, browse through some of the Tea Party and anti-immigrant message boards and compare them with and immigrants’ rights message boards.  Finally, read through the comments on a Yahoo! article related to politics – look at the language and logic employed by those voicing conservative views as opposed to those voicing liberal views.

When you’re all done, think about which individuals and groups appeal to violence, hatred, and anger. You’ll find that there is little comparison.

Interestingly, while several leftist commentators have used the event as an opportunity to think reflexively and honestly about their culpability in creating such a polarized atmosphere, the conservative and libertarian right has responded to the idea that they are somehow to blame with indignation and scorn.  So much for the “party of personal responsibility.”  The NY Times token “centrist” David Brooks provides a nice illustration in defending the Right against these accusations:

“We have a news media with a strong distaste for Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, and this seemed like a golden opportunity to tarnish them. We have a segmented news media, so there is nobody in most newsrooms to stand apart from the prevailing assumptions. We have a news media market in which the rewards go to anybody who can stroke the audience’s pleasure buttons.”

As an alternative, Brooks returns to the “random act of a madman” excuse, and argues that, if anything, the shooting points to the need for improved care for the mentally ill.

In a sense, Brooks is right: there is no doubt that the factors contributing to this tragedy were multiple, and responsibility doesn’t lie squarely on the shoulders of conservatives.  In terms of rhetorical enablers, our irresponsible media revels in “the spectacle,” and the anonymity of the blogosphere invites vitriol that most would be embarrassed to engage in were they attached to their actual identities.  In terms of proximate political enablers, American mental-health care IS antediluvian, and the ease with which anyone – crazies included – can access assault weapons should be ethically abhorrent for those who haven’t been weaned on the gun-lobby Kool-Aid.

What Brooks doesn’t seem to realize is that any attempt at providing improved mental health care (or sensible gun regulation, or media demonopolization, or any number of potential policy fixes) would be met with heated reactions from the Tea Party and their ilk, forged around a politics of demonization, fear, and, most of all, anger.  So long as this continues, we can’t have real civic engagement, and we are bound to suffer more politically-motivated violence.

“A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.”

•January 3, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Some food for thought here at the advent of 2011.