The problem with college is that you’ll try anything – or maybe that’s the best thing about college – but that Behavioral Sciences major was damned cute, and she needed subjects for her experiment. Sure, sign up to be part of the test group. She was trying to demonstrate something about conditioned discrimination – telling one thing from another, when they were pretty much alike, is not something that happens naturally, by some innate process or by instinct, but is a learned response. It had to be imposed by some process, and she was out to find that process. Fine, but her experiment involved having us listen to long passages from string quartets by Ravel and Debussy, alternatively, until we could all, by hearing just a few notes, immediately identify any work by either, time after time, infallibly, even if we didn’t know a damned thing about classical music, and especially about these two meandering French dudes. Of course it didn’t work. One gauzy chromatic ramble sounds pretty much like any other. All the data showed we learned nothing at all. She was unhappy with us, but she was still kind of cute when she pouted. The process by which we all learn to tell one thing from another, when the differences are subtle, is a mystery.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t real differences, differences that matter, when things seem very much alike. Ravel and Debussy don’t matter much to anyone, but in other matters, saying they’re really all alike, whatever they are, can get you in trouble. There’s that famous incident where George Bush was surprised, very late in the game, just before we invaded Iraq, to discover that there were Sunnis and Shiites – they weren’t all just Muslims over there. Who knew? All the speeches he’d made about what we’d accomplish there, and all his thinking about the matter, had been based on a false premise. Oops. The mistake was fatal.
Many of the frustrated folks on the left make the same mistake about Republicans, muttering about how they say no to everything, even the stuff they thought up, filibustering everything is sight, even if the public wants this or that, like universal background checks on those who purchase guns, even if stopping this or that hurts millions of people, like blocking free-to-states Medicaid expansion, or crashes the economy, like refusing to raise the debt ceiling. All they care about is making sure Obama isn’t seen to have a win on anything, even the most minor thing. What isn’t pointless obstructionism is close to sabotage – of the whole government, in spite of what has been passed into law and what even most Republican voters say they want. They must be nuts, and they’re all alike.
That just isn’t so, and it’s a fatal mistake to try to come up with a one-size-fits-all strategy to deal with all the nonsense. After losing two national elections in a row, Republicans are showing everyone there are all sorts of Republicans, now fighting with each other like Sunnis and Shiites – except it’s even more complicated than that. There are establishment Republicans, generally pro-business and against regulation and corporate and capital gains taxes – the rich oligarchs. They don’t give a hoot about the social conservatives, the Jesus folks, hot and bothered about abortion and gay marriage and traditional values and the evils of Hollywood out here – who in turn don’t give a damn about the establishment Republicans. There are the small-government no-taxes Tea Party folks, blended with the social conservatives, who inhabit a different world than the national-security Republicans, the neoconservative hawks who want us to go to war now, or yesterday, to make the world into what it should be. Those two factions simply talk past each other. Intermixed with all of these are the nativists, who want America to return to the days of Ozzie and Harriet, where odd people from other lands just don’t live here, and the states’ rights crowd, who see each state as a sovereign nation and the federal government as worse than useless. It all used to blend together, but now it doesn’t anymore. Pro-business establishment Republicans really do want comprehensive immigration reform – more cheap labor, that’s actually legal, would be quite nice. The nativists want no such thing. The Tea Party crowd wants to be taxed less, but then someone’s got to pay for the next war the neoconservatives cook up.
It’s a mess, and now there are the libertarians. Ron Paul and his son Rand used to represent a fringe element of the party – kooks who wanted to return to the gold standard and close every base we have overseas and end all foreign aid and never go to war again, and basically have no laws about anything, so we’re all free. That’s changed. Rand Paul may be the Republican nominee in 2016 – he’s on a roll. The American Enterprise Institute isn’t the hot think tank in town anymore – all they think about is business. The hot think tank is the libertarian Cato Institute. No one is consulting the neoconservative Weekly Standard anymore, they’re reading Reason. All that is fine, except even with libertarianism there are a few wrinkles:
Libertarian schools of thought differ over the degree to which the state should have a role. Anarchist schools advocate complete elimination of the state. Minarchist schools advocate a state which is limited to protecting its citizens from aggression, theft, breach of contract, and fraud. Some schools accept government assistance for the poor. Additionally, some schools are supportive of private property rights in the ownership of unappropriated land and natural resources while others reject such private ownership and support various forms of left-libertarianism.
This is worse than figuring out Ravel and Debussy, except Rand Paul seems to fit in the second school – government should be limited to protecting its citizens from aggression, theft, breach of contract, and fraud, and no more than that. That’s why he went on the Rachel Maddow show and said the 1964 Civil Rights Act was stupid – sure, people shouldn’t discriminate, but the government has no business telling anyone how to run their business. If some restaurant doesn’t want to serve blacks, then that’s their choice. It’s a bad choice, one he says he’d never make, but to tell them how to run their business takes away their freedom. There’s logic to that, but it’s a cold logic. That position does allow for a whole lot of blatantly racist behavior, with government sanction, if not approval. That may not be how we want this country to be, but Paul’s position is that sometimes you have to tolerate widespread systemic boorish racism, and folks being denied what they think are their rights, if everyone is to be free. There’s the matter of property rights too. That racist’s business is his private property, and that should trump everything else. The government exists to protect private property – no one can take what’s yours. That’s pretty basic.
After that interview on the Maddow show there was a lot of talk about Rand Paul being a racist, which stunned him. He was talking about freedom. Entrenched systemic racism was an unfortunate side effect of freedom, something he hated, but he loved freedom more. He didn’t see how anyone could call him a racist. That made no sense, to him. Libertarianism has nothing to do with racism. You can’t lump the two together. Ravel isn’t Debussy after all.
No, he didn’t mention Ravel or Debussy, but the principle is the same. Don’t confuse what seems so alike, when it isn’t.
People sort of understood that and Rand Paul was off the hook, or at the time he was only the junior senator from Kentucky and not a big gun – but now with his party in disarray and his own star rising, things have changed. Now he has to live through this again, with an embarrassing association:
An aide to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has a history of inflammatory comments about race and the Civil War.
As first reported by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online publication, Paul new media staffer Jack Hunter has for years been a provocative talk radio host who called himself the “Southern Avenger.” Before that, he was a member of the League of the South, a group that advocates Southern secession.
“Sen. Paul holds his staff to a standard that includes treating every individual with equal protection and respect, without exception,” spokeswoman Moira Bagley said in a statement.
It’s not clear how close Hunter is to the senator. He serves as Paul’s new media director. According to a recent Washington Monthly article, Hunter has been advising Paul on foreign policy. In addition to his current work for the senator, Hunter helped Paul write a 2011 book, “The Tea Party Goes to Washington.”
Hunter says he hates racism, and that slavery was a bad thing, but there’s a history here:
“Americans aren’t wrong to deplore the millions of Mexicans coming here now,” he wrote in 2007. “A non-white majority America would simply cease to be America for reasons that are as numerous as they are obvious – whether we are supposed to mention them or not.”
That same year, discussing a racial disparity in school suspensions and expulsions, he wrote, “there are probably more black youth who deserve to be expelled … who never receive proper punishment out of fear of accusations of ‘racism.'”
In 2004, he lamented a “racial double standard” that meant that “Not only are whites not afforded the same right to celebrate their own cultural identity – but anything that is considered ‘too white’ is immediately suspect.”
Another 2004 post declares that “not only was Abraham Lincoln the worst President, but one of the worst figures in American history” while arguing that “John Wilkes Booth’s heart was in the right place” when he assassinated the president.
Hunter told the Beacon that he has changed his views on Lincoln’s assassination, race and Hispanic immigration.
That’s nice, but this isn’t:
For years, Hunter wore a Mexican wrestling mask made out of the Confederate flag. “The whole idea of the Southern Avenger was to be an anonymous superhero,” he explained in a 2011 article in the Charleston City Paper, where he writes a column. Hunter ditched the mask in 2007, when he moved from being a guest on a local music station to talk radio.
It’s a problem:
Hunter’s history is particularly sensitive because Paul has made an effort in recent months to reach out to black and Hispanic Americans. The senator spoke in April at Howard University, and in his remarks he emphasized that the GOP is the party of Lincoln. (Hunter actually accompanied Paul to that event.) In a speech at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in March, Paul endorsed a new path to legalization for illegal immigrants (although he opposed the final Senate immigration compromise.)
Before working for the senator Hunter was a supporter of Paul’s father, former congressman Ron Paul of Texas, and the official blogger for his 2012 campaign. The elder Paul is no stranger to race-related controversy. He faced scrutiny over newsletters put out in his name in the 1990s that made derogatory comments about black and gay people. He has also described the Civil War as a “senseless” way to end slavery.
This is a problem Rand Paul has tried to contain. He now says he has always supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act, despite all evidence to the contrary, and in 2009, a staffer for Paul’s Senate campaign resigned after a racist post left on his MySpace page surfaced.
Now it’s damage control:
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is defending a former staffer who has argued in favor of secession and the Confederacy. …
“Are we at a point where nobody can have had a youth or said anything untoward?” Paul asked the Huffington Post. He compared it to the scandal when a college student accused the senator of being involved in a collegiate, pot-fueled hazing.
“If I thought he was a white supremacist, he would be fired immediately,” Paul said of the aide, who once described himself as the “Southern Avenger” and wore a Confederate flag mask. Paul said Hunter was “incredibly talented,” even if some of his writing is “absolutely stupid.”
And in case there was any doubt “I’m not a fan of secession,” Paul told the liberal online news organization.
He’s a fan of freedom, not its side-effects, but Josh Marshall wonders about that:
The idea that there is an ideological divide or set of philosophical questions or priorities that make some libertarians embrace the Confederacy and secession and despise Abraham Lincoln while others do not is, to put it generously, nonsense. Neo-Confederates, pro-secessionists, whatever else you want to call them are varying hues of white supremacists or to put it even more simply, racists. That’s not an accusation. It’s simply identifying them as a distinct political strain in American politics.
They may not be violent or actively call for legal discrimination against blacks or other non-whites. It’s also not wholly bound up with the racial polarity of whites and blacks. It also feeds off related but not identical nativist traditions in US politics, which adds an additional dose of conspiracy thinking and paranoia about the government being in the hands of sinister alien forces. But let’s not kid ourselves. That is what neo-Confederacy and all the rest of it are about, a vision of white supremacy expressed through a retrospective embrace of the Confederacy and the racial mores of the Jim Crow era. No one familiar with this phenomenon can question this.
Now I’m not saying that people who do Civil War reenactments or even people who are just really into Confederate history and nostalgia are like the folks I’m describing. Being a bit too much into Confederate nostalgia may be a sign of some questionable politics. But we’re talking here about a very specific neo-Confederate political movement in the United States, with a group of known voices, magazines and institutions, which has somehow managed to get itself listed as “libertarian.”
Let me also say that I don’t think this has anything to do with the people at the Cato Institute or Reason magazine or most of the other people tied to the libertarian movement or Libertarian party going back forty years or so. It’s not a movement I agree with on many things. But it’s philosophically consistent, isn’t basically about race but is a form or what I’d call hyper-individualism. Not my cup of tea but a perfectly legitimate political movement.
What Rand Paul sees as a nasty side-effect is actually another primary form of libertarianism:
Part of the confusion, of course, if we can call it that, is that libertarians and “neo-Confederates” do meet up on opposition to certain exertions of state power – libertarians on principle; neo-Confederates because that’s been the main vehicle for vindicating the rights of non-whites. More deeply though there’s something about how the rhetoric of “freedom” and “liberty” appeals to the “neo-Confederate” mindset which is paradoxical and considerably more toxic and corrosive than the ways many of us think about those terms. Freedom can also mean freedom from any check on my actions. My freedom. My group’s freedom. A warlord who totally dominates his followers has a sort of perfect liberty and freedom. Just not quite the sort we think of in a civic context. It’s the same authoritarian mindset of Stormfront and the militia crazies, just through this looking glass where it twists into “freedom” and “liberty.”
Marshall just wants to be clear here:
It’s not for me to referee the intramural disputes within the libertarian movement. I’m sure they have no desire for me to try. But the neo-Confederates, the Lew Rockwells and that whole crew are fundamentally about white supremacy and nativism. And the Paul clan has been thick as thieves with those folks forever.
Who knows what’s in their hearts and frankly who cares? But none of this latest stuff should surprise us. And I don’t know why real libertarians waste any time making any sort of common cause with these folks. ‘Neo-Confederacy’ isn’t some outgrowth of or logical deduction from libertarianism. You’re a neo-Confederate because you believe in white supremacy. People just can’t figure why good upstanding libertarians keep ending up finding themselves connected up with people who really don’t seem to like black people or Hispanics and believe in weird conspiracy theories about black helicopters stealing your lawn furniture…
One of Marshall’s readers takes him to task for all that:
While I think your forthright denunciation of neo-Confederates as racists, plain and simple, is on the mark and valuable, the sharp division you attempt to draw between such people and “philosophical” libertarians is based on little evidence. I understand the desire to see people at the Cato Institute as “philosophically consistent, [not] basically about race but … a form or what I’d call hyper-individualism. Not my cup of tea but a perfectly legitimate political movement.” Being able to have civil, political discussions with those with whom one disagrees is important. Worthy political opponents are, in general, a good thing. But, as a matter of fact, the histories of neo-Confederate racism and this other, seemingly more “legitimate” branch of libertarianism have been deeply intertwined for more than half a century. Ron Paul was the Libertarian nominee for President in 1988, after all (and his candidacy was controversial within the party mainly for his anti-choice position on abortion, not his racist ties). You cannot simply say: the Pauls and Lew Rockwell = evil; Cato and the Libertarian Party = wrong but legitimate. There are clearly individual libertarians who deeply dislike the neo-Confederates and want nothing to do with them. But, institutionally and organizationally, there are very few clean hands here.
There’s a reason for that:
It’s that the intervention of the government, especially the federal government, has been the most effective method of protecting minority rights. As a result, racists have been among the most prominent opponents of “big government” since at least the end of the Civil War. In this way, libertarianism in this country is a bit like the rhetoric of “states’ rights.” There may be no necessary philosophical connection between states’ rights talk and white supremacy, but there happens to be, as you know, a deep historical one. The same is true of the connection between libertarianism and white supremacy. To pretend that this is about two quite separate groups of people who have somehow found themselves stuck with the same name is to ignore this history.
That’s arguing the other way. Rand Paul says don’t confuse what seems so alike, when it isn’t – but these two sides have been in bed together for a long time. Rand Paul may think he’s not a racist, and Cato Institute and Reason magazine may not think they’re racists either, but the effect of it all is racism all the same. Jack Hunter was just more honest about it, for a time.
Still all Republicans are not alike, and you can watch them fight with each other every day. The only worry is that the last faction standing will be the libertarians, and that’s a real worry.