January 4, 2012
Ron Paul And The Presidency

While I am convinced that Ron Paul will never make it out of the GOP primary, the eve of the Iowa elections seems like a good time to ruminate on his candidacy.

I am not a Ron Paul supporter.  I think his obsession with the Gold Standard is dangerous and I agree with Milton Friedman that the Gold Standard is itself un-libertarian.  I think his desire to end the Fed, while based on laudable intentions, is nonetheless a recipe for economic disaster.  I think his opposition to the Civil Rights Act is based on a troubling brand of Federalism that is so strict that it’s actually unlibertarian.  And frankly, I think he can be a bit kooky.

But I have given serious thought to voting for him if he made it out of the primaries, despite it all.

Much has been made in the past month or so of Ron Paul’s racist newsletters.  He has been justly criticized for some truly disgusting writings that he either approved of or, at the very least, shamelessly profited from.  There’s no need to cite any of this.  It has pretty much dominated the political discourse.

Much has also been made of the fact that there are quite a few people on the political Left who have nonetheless voiced qualified support for Ron Paul’s candidacy, because even though the newsletters are awful, Ron Paul has promised to end certain policies that are harmful to minority communities.  Ron Paul also has a desire to reign in the post-9/11 Security State, peel back disturbing expansions of executive power, and to re-align America’s foreign policy.  In other words, there are those who feel that putting someone in office who actually has the political will to end policies with racially disparate impacts is more important than the awful crap that he may have personally done in the past.  

This is admittedly pragmatism over principle.  But pragmatism is the preferred method when a person’s choice is not simply between good and bad.  Sometimes the choice is between bad and worse.  And blindly adhering to principle under these circumstances can lead one to the undesirable station of allowing the perfect be the enemy of the good.  In the process, you risk doing yourself and those you care about more injury than if you’d been willing to compromise.  Thusly, the question with Ron Paul for me is not whether he personally ratified or benefited from a race-baiting newsletter.  He did.  The question is whether there’s enough good in his candidacy left that a rational person might still vote for him regardless when compared to the available alternatives.

I am in the category of individuals who believe that Ron Paul doesn’t personally hold overtly racist views (anymore than the average rich old white dude), but that he nonetheless shamelessly profited from a series of newsletters that thrived on race-baiting.  It is also my opinion that the only way Ron Paul could even begin to redeem himself for what was said in those newsletters is to voluntarily disgorge himself of the profits he made from them.  If he truly didn’t write them, and actually wants to disavow them (as he claims he does), he has a moral duty to disavow them materially as well as ideologically.  That he hasn’t done so yet only tends to confirm that he doesn’t actually regret the newsletters; or if he does, he doesn’t regret them enough for it to matter.

With this in mind, as I mull over Ron Paul’s candidacy, I am reminded of something Walt Whitman is purported to have said in response to an interlocutor:

"Do I contradict myself?  Very well then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."  

Whitman’s rejoinder reflects the idea that people can and of often do hold seemingly inconsistent beliefs with respect to a given topic.  Whitman’s quote also reflects the idea that there’s no such thing as “fundamentally X” person.  Ta-Nehisi Coates touched on this subject while reflecting on Christopher Hitchens’ death.  Coates acknowledged that, while Hitchens participated in a lot of reprehensible behavior (including a vindictive streak that possessed him after 9/11), Hitchens still managed to have a profoundly positive impact on many people:

 Virtues don’t excuse sins; they cohabit with them. Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder. Perhaps worse he was a slaveholder who comprehended, more than any other, the moral failing of slavery, and it’s potential to bring the country to war, and yet at the end of his life he argued for slavery’s expansion, and on his death many of his slaves were sent to the auction block. 

…Given Hitchens own ties to this magazine, of which I’m very fond, I’d like to say that—at least in this space—there’s no demand for exclusion, or any sense that Hitchens worthy of unalloyed admiration. No one should ever receive, or wisely desire, such a thing. I can’t really speak for other people, but I don’t believe in an essential, irreducible moral nature. I don’t see Hitchens, or anyone else, as a case of either/or. 

Ron Paul’s sins must cohabit with his virtues.  As bad as the newsletters are, under current circumstances I cannot bring myself to write him off on this alone.  Just as I praise Obama for ending DADT, changing the political landscape on the enforcement of DOMA, and his relative restraint with respect to Iran, so too do I condemn Obama for expanding executive power to include extra-judicial killings of American citizens, victimizing medical marijuana users, and detaining innocent “terror suspects” indefinitely in defiance of a court order.  

The fact is that right now, I believe that the difference between Obama and 99% of the GOP field, in terms of the policies I believe are most hurting this nation, is the difference between a knife in the knee and a knife in the back.  Those two policies, without exception, are the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.  These policies have resulted in the unprecedented incarceration of American citizens, an unprecedented expansion of the police state, and have also created an unconscionable level of racial disparity in the criminal justice system for Blacks, Hispanics and Arab/Muslim citizens.  It is without reservation that I say the War on Drugs is a war on people of color, and the War on Terror is war on Arab and Muslim citizens.  It is not their stated purpose, but it is their empirical effect.

So while I care about the racism in Ron Paul’s newsletters, in terms of racial justice, I care far more about voting for the candidate whose policy platform will materially improve the lives of minority citizens.  The answer to that question is not nearly as clear as others would have it.  And frankly, when I read stories like this, I’m reminded of why I am willing to overlook Paul’s newsletters if it means getting a candidate in office who will actually try to end at least one of the two policies enumerated above:

Wearing prison-issue yellow clothes, Patricia Spottedcrow reflects on her first year in prison through the lens of tears and determination. 

One year ago, on the week of Christmas, the first-time offender was checked into the Eddie Warrior women’s prison - the first holiday away from her four young children. 

“I cried and cried just thinking of my kids opening presents on Christmas and I wasn’t there,” she said. “This year, it’s going to be any other day. I try not to keep up with days in here.” 

At her mother’s home in Kingfisher, there is a somber tone among her children - ages 2, 4, 5 and 10. 

“We’re crying here too,” said her mother, Delita Starr. “We’ll try to make sure there is money in her account for a phone call. What else can we do?” 

Spottedcrow, 26, was arrested and charged for selling $31 in marijuana to a police informant in December 2009 and January 2010. Starr, 51, was also charged. 

Because children were in the home, a charge of possession of a dangerous substance in the presence of a minor was added. 

In blind pleas before a judge, Spottedcrow received a 12-year sentence and her mother received a 30-year suspended sentence. Neither had prior criminal convictions.

This is insanity.  The racially disparate impact of the War on Drugs is so meticulously and exhaustively documented that its continued, unabated implementation beggars belief.  There are countless thousands of stories just like this one.  And watching minority families be torn apart by the Drug War is the reason why some folks on the political Left are willing to bite the bullet on Paul’s newsletters and focus on the silver lining of a Paul presidency, as compared to an Obama presidency which has not only adopted the policies of his neo-conservative predecessors, but in some cases has also escalated them.  No one in a position of political power seems to be on the other side of this issue, and people are getting frustrated. The fact remains that the Drug War is doing more damage to Black and Hispanic communities across America than Ron Paul’s racist, vile, deplorable newsletters ever could.

Meanwhile, Muslim and Arab citizens are not holding up much better in the post-9/11 security state:

Hebshi, an Ohio resident who identifies as half-Jewish and half-Arab, wrote on her blog that she was sitting with two Indian men from Detroit when the flight was first diverted to a different part of the tarmac, then boarded by armed personnel. She and the two men were subsequently “pushed off the plane” and detained. Hebshi wrote that she asked, “What’s going on?” but did not get an answer.

She wrote:

They put me in the back of the car. It’s a plastic seat, for all you out there who have never been tossed into the back of a police car. It’s hard, it’s hot, and it’s humiliating. The Indian man who had sat next to me on the plane was already in the backseat. I turned to him, shocked, and asked him if he knew what was going on. I asked him if he knew the other man that had been in our row, and he said he had just met him. I said, it’s because of what we look like. They’re doing this because of what we look like. And I couldn’t believe that I was being arrested and taken away.

When the Patriot Act was passed after 9/11 and Arabs and Arab-looking people were being harassed all over the country, my Saudi Arabian dad became nervous. A bit of a conspiracy theorist at heart, he knew the government was watching him and at any time could come and take him away. It was happening all over. Men were being taken on suspicion of terrorist activities and held and questioned–sometimes abused–for long periods of time. Our country had a civil rights issue on its hands. And, in the name of patriotism we lost a lot of our liberty, especially those who look like me.

The list goes on and on and on.  And the Obama administration is not doing anything to stop it.

Not a word of this means the newsletters don’t matter.  Of course they matter.  Even some libertarians, who are otherwise politically homeless in America’s 2-party system, are abandoning him.  

But at the end of the day, my choice is not between a race-baiting profiteer, his Conservative cohorts, and a pragmatic Democrat incumbent.  My choice is between Republican candidates who don’t support my ideal policies in both word and practice, a Democratic incumbent who supports my ideal policies in word but not in practice, and a crazy old man who is obsessed with sound money and State’s Rights, but who nonetheless is the only candidate in the field that seems like he actually gives enough of a damn about these policies to oppose them in in both word and practice.  

There are a ton of obvious and valid objections to Ron Paul’s candidacy.  I’ve already pointed out some of them. And insomuch as ending the War on Drugs and the post-9/11 security state might help minority citizens, it doesn’t change the fact that some of Ron Paul’s other policy preference are harmful to minorities.  To wit, I recently commented on a post by Ari Kohen in which I pointed out that Ron Paul’s zealous (and fundamentally un-libertarian) brand of strict Federalism would allow States the freedom to implement policies that are harmful to vulnerable citizens, including minorities, gays, women, and immigrants.  These policies include bans on same-sex marriage, restrictions on abortion, and Alabama-style immigration laws.  Knowing that this is the case gives me significant pause, and certainly punctuates any support for Ron Paul that I might otherwise have.

But there is also a real question about whether Ron Paul would actually be able accomplish these things over the edicts of Congress.  For example: it seems absurd to suggest that any Congress, even one dominated by a Republican majority, would repeal the Civil Rights Act.  And if Libertarians are right about the influence of elite corporate financial interests in government, it also seems doubtful that he’d be able to “end the Fed.”  It seems much more likely that he will simply put the Fed under greater scrutiny, which I don’t think is a bad thing with respect to any government institution, much less the Central Bank.

Despite all this, what keeps me from walking away from Ron Paul is the fact that he is still the only “serious” presidential candidate out there who is willing to shamelessly rail against what I consider to be the most damaging policies in America.  And that fact alone means that I can’t simply write him off.  It is worth pointing out that more than once Paul has worked with Progressives in congress to advance policies that liberals support, and given the fact that today’s Democratic party is, generally speaking, a spineless coven populated with sheepskin conservatives and self-enriching reputation mongers, I see no one else with the courage of their convictions on either side of the presidential race.  That doesn’t mean I would vote for Ron Paul if he made it out of the primaries.  It does mean that I haven’t yet written him off if he does.

I have no doubt that many people will end this piece unconvinced that Paul has any virtues worth voting for.  Ta-Nehisi Coates, whom I cited above, recently joked that the phrase "I’m against the Drug War" is the new "I have a Black friend."  I think Coates’ framing is wrong.  Ron Paul’s newsletters are awful.  But ask yourself how Patricia Spottedcrow feels about mandatory drug sentences, and alternatively, how she feels about Ron Paul’s racist ramblings from his newsletters.  Undoubtedly she thinks Paul’s newsletters are offensive.  But Paul was not changing any minds by playing to the racial bias of his audience.  Meanwhile, if Paul was successful in leading a national reform effort in our nation’s drug laws, Spottedcrow might be back home with her children instead of serving a 12-year prison sentence.  It remains the case that no other presidential candidate in either party is changing their mind on the War on Drugs or the War on Terror.  And despite his obvious flaws and past offensive behavior, it’s hard to turn away from the only person who seems like they give a damn.

At the end of the day, I consider voting for Ron Paul to end the War on Drugs and the War on Terror to be the equivalent of dropping the nuke on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively.  The fallout from his presidency could be terrible.  But after what I have seen this country put through in the name of these Wars: systematic oppression, countless lives needlessly lost, countless families shattered, countless lives destroyed and civil liberties trampled, I can no longer say with certainty that I’m unwilling to press the button on Paul’s candidacy.  I can at least be sure that Paul’s wildest fantasies would be mitigated by the Supreme Court and the Legislature.  And given what’s at stake, that might be the best option available.

  1. metamorphoseandbodhi said: Ugh. Your support for Ron Paul makes me rabid because you’re missing the point of why he’s such an asshat. To me the phrase “I’m against the Drug War” is the new “I have a Black friend.” is extremely correct.
  2. stellabluesbeads said: well said. I threw up in my mouth a little when i realized i shared serious core beliefs with a …a ..a repugnant, er “republican” a few years back. I I do believe Ron Paul hurts himself with soundbytes, taken out of context of the whole.
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