In order to illustrate the problem with progressives feeling in any way good about Ron Paul, I offer the following hypothetical.
Imagine a candidate, currently poised to capture a significant portion of the GOP primary vote, possessing a unique personality and message as a result of the groundwork he had laid for several decades as a somewhat anti-establishment, anti-government, esoteric political figure. This candidate had been a U.S. Representative from a conservative state for many years. He had once run for President as a Libertarian, and he preserved much of his following, and many of his libertarian beliefs, even as he became a GOP stalwart. He’d run in the GOP primaries before, each time gathering a little more support, and each time forcing the GOP mainstream, and bourgeois politics in general, to consider ideas not normally considered–say, auditing the federal reserve, questioning excessive executive power, and fighting imperialist wars. Given the failure of the Democrats to take a principled stand against both corporate abuses and reckless foreign policy, the candidate had facilitated a discussion of those issues that transcended two-party politics, and made him attractive not only to old school Republican isolationists and paleocons, but also to some progressives, themselves deeply dissatisfied with the Democratic Leadership Council’s ideological hold on the Democratic Party, and the centrist, ever-compromising Democratic presidents emerging from a compromised Party.
Now, imagine that, as this esoteric candidate was once again gaining ground in the GOP primaries, several disturbing facts about the candidate began to emerge into mainstream public consciousness. Imagine that the issue was not racism, but pedophilia and adult-child sex. NAMBLA kind of stuff. The candidate himself had said a few things, in a few speeches a long time ago, that extended the libertarian paradigm into the world of adult-child sex. Imagine he had said, perhaps offhandedly at some point, that the oppressive net of the government interfered with the ability of adults and children to engage in consensual sex. Shocking stuff, but buried in a mountain of other ideologically extreme arguments, and not seen as intrinsic to his message. A few people are deeply turned off to this candidate as a result of his apparent apologetics for child molestation, but millions of others, including some on the left, believe that one shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The candidate may have some unorthodox ideas about pedophilia, they reason, but hey, he still wants to end the war on drugs, he still wants to end imperialist wars, get the government off our backs, etc.
Further, imagine that the candidate had signed his name to decades’ worth of newsletters to his followers, newsletters which contained even more extreme and disturbing statements about pedophilia. The newsletters contained entire articles devoted to critiques of the criminalization of pedophilia. These ghost-written articles, which often spoke in first person as if to indicate the candidate himself had written the articles, spoke of the pleasures of adult-child sex. They questioned the legal limits on consent. They pointed out that adult-child sex had been going on for thousands of years, that the Greek philosophers practices it, and so on. The articles speculated that children could indeed consent to sex with adults. The articles were rhetorically indistinct from literature published by NAMBLA. Because this is a thought experiment, let’s assume that, for some reason, these articles were never seized as child pornography, and the candidate and his cohorts were never investigated by the cops for promoting the rape of children. But the newsletters gained prominence in 2011 when the candidate again ran for the GOP nomination and began to poll extremely well. Democrats, and the candidate’s GOP rivals, began publicizing the newsletters and expressed their disgust with them. The candidate’s handlers repeatedly and aggressively argued that their man had not written the pro-child molestation articles; all he had done was sign his name to them, and in very vague terms, he “repudiates” them now. Of course, although he repudiates the articles and newsletters, he still believes the government should not be in the business of regulating sexual relationships between adults and children. Oh, say his supporters, this doesn’t mean he’s a child molester, and regardless of what those articles suggest, the supporters argue, he still wants to do really cool things like end the war on drugs (which hurts children, after all), and end preemptive wars. And because he wants to do these things, some progressives say that he’s the only viable, electable candidate promising to end the drug war, audit the Fed, and stop going to war.
Further, imagine that the candidate took campaign contributions from known pedophiles, and received NAMBLA’s endorsement, never returning the money or repudiating the endorsement; his campaign staff would periodically deny the candidate was a pedophile and remind the public that he didn’t actually write the questionable articles bearing his name.
In such a scenario, would leading progressive figures call for support of, other at least some encouragement of the success of, the candidate? Would Glen Greenwald compose a widely-read piece outlining how the candidate had a more progressive record on foreign policy and civil liberties than the President? Would my friend Russell Fox post that he wanted the candidate to win a GOP primary because his students were working on the candidate’s campaign, and because Fox recognized a convergence between his own radical ideas and a few of those of the candidate? Would Ralph Nader and Tom Hayden come out in support of the candidate? Would leftist supporters of the candidate dismiss as unreasonable the voices of others on the left (and elsewhere) who were utterly indignant that this candidate could be admired for anything in the face of his facilitation of child rape? Would such critics be accused of moral absolutism and political myopia?
I very much doubt that scenario. It’s likely that progressives, centrists, conservatives and liberals would find it extremely distasteful to give even qualified, conditional, “lesser of two evils” support to someone who was either a pedophile himself, or a facilitator of pedophilia among his ghost-writers. I would speculate that such a candidate would not inspire such logic as “well, he’s the only candidate that wants to end the failed, oppressive, and racist war on drugs, and limit executive power to wage wars of aggression, and if that means we have to hold our noses and tolerate his connection to known pedophiles, that’s a price we’re willing to pay.” Rather, it’s likely that nobody would want to touch the candidate, even though he espoused two or three genuinely “progressive” policy ideas. The political community would simply decide the candidate was much too toxic and disturbing to support or even offhandedly praise.
Replace pedophilia with racism and we have Ron Paul. Some people think racism is an unforgivable political and ideological sin that taints the otherwise positive aspects of any public figure. They believe, like Tunisian-Jewish writer Albert Memmi, that those striving for civilization and justice can tolerate no part of it, ever, in any context. It is, in short, unforgivable and non-indulgable.
The struggle against racism will be long, difficult, without intermission, without remission, probably never achieved, yet for this very reason, it is a struggle to be undertaken without surcease and without concessions. One cannot be indulgent toward racism. One cannot even let the monster in the house, especially not in a mask. To give it merely a foothold means to augment the bestial part in us and in other people which is to diminish what is human. To accept the racist universe to the slightest degree is to endorse fear, injustice, and violence. It is to accept the persistence of the dark history in which we still largely live. It is to agree that the outsider will always be a possible victim (and which man is not himself an outsider relative to someone else?).*
Others (who may not admit it out loud and who may grow quite angry when confronted about it) simply think racism isn’t that big of a deal, or is one factor to be weighed among others. This position ignores the way in which one’s racism concerning issue X might bleed into their policies concerning other things. But it also dangerously ignores the inertial nature of racism, and the fact that any tolerance for it, any willingness to ignore it “for the sake of argument” keeps it alive, and always dressed to kill.
The list of progressives who have consumed the Paul-aide is disturbing. It includes Ralph Nader, willing to bracket his concern for the abuse of the powerless by the powerful in favor of a man who wishes the South would have won the Civil War. It scandalously includes Tom Hayden, who laments Paul’s longing to return to “lunch counter segregation” and says he’d vote for Obama over Paul in a general election, but wants Paul to win the nomination because “he opposes the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.” In fact, it’s far from clear Paul opposes those wars on anything but procedural grounds. Last week, one of his senior campaign advisors desperately told Fox News that Paul was not “anti-war” at all.
Greenwald’s essay is especially disappointing because it seeks to minimize Paul’s racism and other ideogical flaws solely because Paul presents a discombobulating, existential challenge to Democrats who have supported Obama in spike of the President’s warmongering and dismal record on civil liberties. I promise, whatever atrocities Obama has perpetuated as an agent of the ruling class, a President Ron Paul would perpetuate atrocities just as heinous, even if categorically distinct. He may not launch preemptive invasions, but his own rhetoric and the rhetoric he has signed his name to certainly indicate he would look the other way as whites murdered blacks, as children died of malnutrition and childhood diseases because of the Paul administration’s pushing to eliminate the social safety net. A Paul presidency would basically be a Confederate victory 150 years later. We’re talking about a candidate who has zero problem with violations of fundamental human rights, as long as they are committed at the state level. He wouldn’t even object to international warfighting, provided the President received the permission of Congress Greenwald’s silence on Ron Paul’s racism, sexism and homophobia is disappointing because it means Greenwald isn’t asking himself a very obvious question: whether a public figure’s reprehensible beliefs might influence his or her policy positions in ways that would corrupt the very ideals most laudible about that candidate. Greenwald doesn’t speculate as to the possibility that a man who is willing to countanance racism against African-Americans might not really stick to an anti-imperialist agenda, that a person willing to ban all abortion might not really care about civil rights for women, that a person who hires staff members who want to kill homosexuals, or who accepts campaign donations from professed white supremacists, might not really have any “progressive” ideas, or ideas worth converging with progressivism, at all.
In that sense, Greenwald’s silence on the racism/sexism/heterosexism/classism issue appears to be an unfortunate outgrowth of the writer’s relative privilege. Why should he care if his guy hates blacks, women, gays and poor people? Those are street politics. Ron Paul thinks Bradley Manning is a hero and would end preemtptive wars! Burning crosses, women dying from botched abortions, and queers being tied to fences is unpleasantly lowbrow in comparison to such profound geopolitical nobility.
My dear friend Russell Arben Fox unhesitatingly declares his conditional, limited, gee-isn’t-this-kind-of-politically-interesting “support” for Ron Paul.
“embracing”and “voting for” are not the same thing. I recognize that voting is in many ways an expressive act, and legitimately such…but it’s a strategic act as well. In that sense, I disagree with Matt, as I can see some real value, as a leftist, to nonetheless supporting Ron Paul in certain circumstances. For example, should he choose to run as an independent candidate for president after he fails to win the Republican nomination and his name appears on the ballot here in Kansas, which will surely send its electoral votes in the direction of the GOP candidate, I might vote for him, depending on whomever else is on the ballot, to complicate local Republican politics if for no other reason. More immediately, I’m pulling for him to win the Iowa Caucuses next week.
Fox is happy for his students who are campaigning for Paul (whereupon I will ask if he would be equally happy were his students campaigning for David Duke; whereupon he would say that was different; whereupon I would request that, after reading this post, he would explain to me what the essential differences are between a candidate espousing racist garbage and one who has consciously and materially benefitted from others’ racist garbage). Fox wants Paul to win in order to make the GOP primaries more exciting. I know a few people who like seeing career-threatening injuries at sporting events for the same reason. And, he wants Paul to win Iowa for the same reason Greenwald and others are cheering for Paul’s success: It facilitates important political arguments. And this is where I must ask whether Fox would sound the same excitement if we replaced “racism” with “pedophilia” in the Paulian narrative.
Fox writes: “Much of those beliefs of Paul’s are embarrassing and ugly nonsense, but some of them are actually intriguing…” and I think, “nonsense” is an interesting rhetorical minimalization of beliefs which would ultimately justify genocide. And I again ask whether, if pedophilia rather than racism were the skeleton in Paul’s closet…
In exchange for a nominally less imperialistic foreign policy, progressive supporters of Ron Paul are willing to offer up a world where an employer can force an employee to have sex with him or her in order to keep their job, support the candidacy of the lone member of Congress who denounced the 1964 Civil Rights Act on its 40th anniversary, who would ban all abortion, end all aid to needy families, end social security (since he believes it’s unconstitutional), and well, the list goes on and since most progresssives know what’s on it already, there’s no need for repetition. I would add that progressive supporters of Paul are willing to risk economic collapse in return for their legalized weed and fewer wars, but it’s doubtful such supporters know enough about the economy to understand why Paulian economics would be so utterly devastating (and who knows? Maybe such schizoid supporters really want to collapse the system overnight).
Progressive “non-supporting admirers” of Ron Paul, people like Greenwald and Fox, may not be willing to make those trades outright, but they are perfectly willing to look the other way on all counts–racism, sexism, homophobia, confederate sympathies, the whole nine yards–because they’re so terribly excited that someone is challening Obama and the Republicans on fundamental foreign policy and civil liberties issues. They don’t see just how damaging such a candidacy is for those very causes. Or, maybe worse, they just don’t think racism is that big of a deal. It’s not like pedophilia or murder or wife-beating. It’s more like having a DUI arrest on your record–embarassing, morally damaging, but not unforgiveable, not an invalidation of otherwise good political ideas. I disagree. Paul’s racism (or to be charitable, his facilitation of and support from racists) makes him unqualified to be held up as an example of anti-imperialism or civil libertarianism–even hypothetically or as some kind of object lesson for the Democrats. If you disagree with me on this, I’d be very interested to know how such disagreement could not contain, at least as an unspoken correllary, some level of assertion that racism just isn’t that big of a deal. It seems like, in order to claim that Paul’s popularity is a positive thing, somewhere, you have to silently minimize racism.
Radical white supremacists (or those willing to benefit from others’ racism) have always latched on to a few progressive ideas. And Ron Paul has no problem killing people of color at home or abroad so long as it’s done according to his interpretation of the constitution. It’s time to stop cheerleading–even in half-seriousness, even for the sake of “shaking things up” in mainstream politics.
*Racism. Translated and with an introd. by Steve Martinot. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, c2000. ISBN 0816631646