The Freedom To Oppress: Why Ron Paul's Old Racist Newsletters Matter
Let's face it -- Ron Paul's lame denials about his repulsively racist and homophobic newsletters of the '80s and '90s on CNN should permanently lay to rest everyone's favorite myth about the man, i.e., that he's a "straight shooter" and an "honest man". No he's not. He's a liar.
Anyone who can make millions of dollars for years off a notorious newsletter with their name on it and then later look into a camera and claim with a straight face: "I didn't write them. I didn't read them at the time. I disavow them. That's it" -- that man is a liar, pure and simple. Especially when you can find videos as recent as the above 1995 interview on C-SPAN in which he clearly embraces the content of those newsletters.
That alone should tell us everything we need to know about the man. The facts: Ron Paul had a significant role in determining the editorial direction of his newsletters, which were edited and largely written by Lew Rockwell and a staff under his direction. And yes, those newsletters were ugly, racist, homophobic, and bizarre excursions in right-wing extremism, extraordinarily popular with militiamen and other far-right "Patriots". But then, that would be because Paul built his political career in pandering to such extremists.
Conor Friedersdorf, who is inclined to libertarianism and thus has a soft spot for Paul, has a thoughtful and nuanced take on the matter, but he also makes excuses for the inexcusable:
Do I think that Paul wrote the offending newsletters? I do not. Their style and racially bigoted philosophy is so starkly different from anything he has publicly espoused during his long career in public life -- and he is so forthright and uncensored in his pronouncements, even when they depart from mainstream or politically correct opinion -- that I'd wager substantially against his authorship if Las Vegas took such bets.
That's probably a safe bet, but it's beside the point: whether or not Paul did the actual writing, the newsletters were produced at Paul's behest and written deliberately in a way to make it sound as if it were Paul himself addressing the readers. More to the point, we also know that he had a significant role in the editorial decisions, and was responsible for the newsletters' larger thrust which -- from my reading of them at the time, picked up at various militia meeting tables in the 1990s -- was largely about "New World Order" conspiracy theories, as well as various other themes tailored to the far-right militia audience: Eliminating the IRS and the Fed, returning to the gold standard, and the usual fearmongering about minorities, crime, and immigration.
And all you have to do is examine Paul's record in Congress to realize that his newsletters reflected his actual politics at the time, since (by way of example), at the time he was viciously attacking the MLK holiday on his newsletter's pages, he was simultaneously opposing it on the floor of the House. Likewise, the newsletters' extremist content was similar in nature to the bills he proposed -- for example, his newsletters' paranoid theorizing about the United Nations and the "New World Order" was reflected in his actual attempts to withdraw the United States from the United Nations.
This same paranoid worldview came up not merely in the newsletters, but in Paul's other publications, such as his 1988 tract World Money, World Banking, and World Government: A Special Report from the Ron Paul Investment Letter". The first two pages of this tract give you the flavor:
Paul has never repudiated his conspiracy-mongering ways. After all, he continues to appear on Alex Jones' "Conspiracy Planet" radio show and expound on the evils of the New World Order. This is all of a piece with Ron Paul's longtime embrace of right-wing extremism, of which the racist elements are only a component.
Indeed, these kinds of things are going to keep cropping up. Now Paul is denying having written a fundraising letter warning of "race war" that was sent out with his signature on it.
These revelations are significant beyond the merely tawdry and embarrassing aspects they present. Because they also tell us a great deal about the kind of president a man like Ron Paul would be.
Friedersrdorf, to his great credit, acknowledges this, but nonetheless concludes:
Should Paul continue to perform well in the polls, or even win the Iowa caucuses, national media attention is going to focus intensely on his newsletters as never before, and it won't represent a double-standard: published racism under any candidate's name would rightly attract press attention! Paul ought to stop acting aggrieved. He is not a victim here. Voters ought to do their best to understand the controversy, gauge Paul's character, and render judgment about his likely behavior were he elected to the presidency, relative to his competitors.
The racist newsletters should in fact be part of the calculus.
So should the uncomfortable fact that bygone complicity in racist newsletters doesn't necessarily make Paul the candidate most complicit in human depravity (sad as that is), or tell us whose policies, which candidate, would do the most to square American government with the highest ideals of our polity. Support for Paul is grounded for many in the judgment that he is that candidate. That his policies, the ones he would champion in general election debates and pursue if elected, are the most moral on offer among the GOP contenders. I remain sympathetic to that argument.
Well then, let us consider whether or not Paul's policies would be moral ones. And we know, as he has expressed over many years on many occasions, what the outline of his policies would look like: eliminating the income tax, dismantling the IRS, dismantling the Fed, returning to the gold standard, and radically gutting the federal government and its power, notably including its power to enforce civil-rights laws and to protect minorities. It was only recently, after all, that Paul reaffirmed that he would have voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
That agenda, as it happens, matches up with the agenda that has long been promoted by the most racist elements in American politics of the past two generations and more -- the Posse Comitatus, the Aryan Nations, the Klan -- as well as by a variety of extremists with deep roots in far-right anti-Semitism, such as the John Birch Society (with whom Paul has enjoyed a long association).
And while they may employ vicious racism and bizarre extremism in their rhetoric supporting this agenda -- something largely absent from Paul's -- their reasons for pursuing an agenda identical to Paul's supposed "freedom" agenda have to do with the way they define "freedom" -- that is, as the freedom to oppress other people.
The roots of this lie in the Civil War, which was fought on one side by people who were willing to take up arms to defend their freedom to enslave other people. They clothed it in the language of "states' rights," but in the end the right in question was essentially the right to deprive other people of their rights. It should go without saying, at least in this day and age, that the very concept is not only laughably illogical but profoundly immoral as well -- not to mention fundamentally anti-democratic.
The whole panoply of subsequent court rulings (think Plessy v. Ferguson) and legislative miscreancies that created and supported the system of Jim Crow in the South and the Sundown Town phenomenon in the rest of the country, as well as the many failures of Congress to enact anti-lynching legislation -- the roots of institutionalized racism, as it were -- were likewise couched in the language of preserving "freedom" and "states rights". The America that Ron Paul's long-enunciated agenda would return us to, as it happens, would closely resemble the America of 1900. If Americans really understood what America looked like then, they would realize that this would not be a good thing at all.
As Bruce Bartlett sagely observed when the same issue arose regarding Ron Paul's son, Rand:
As we know from history, the free market did not lead to a breakdown of segregation. Indeed, it got much worse, not just because it was enforced by law but because it was mandated by self-reinforcing societal pressure. Any store owner in the South who chose to serve blacks would certainly have lost far more business among whites than he gained. There is no reason to believe that this system wouldn't have perpetuated itself absent outside pressure for change.
In short, the libertarian philosophy of Rand Paul and the Supreme Court of the 1880s and 1890s gave us almost 100 years of segregation, white supremacy, lynchings, chain gangs, the KKK, and discrimination of African Americans for no other reason except their skin color. The gains made by the former slaves in the years after the Civil War were completely reversed once the Supreme Court effectively prevented the federal government from protecting them. Thus we have a perfect test of the libertarian philosophy and an indisputable conclusion: it didn't work. Freedom did not lead to a decline in racism; it only got worse.
The handwringing over whether Paul is a racist or not really is beside the point. Labels really become inconsequential when the real issue is how their politics would play out on the ground if they achieved power. And in the end, there is a reason racists support Ron Paul's agenda: It would be a dream come true, a return to the days when the freedom to oppress others was protected by the American legal system.
To the extent that Paul's agenda really reflects a libertarian agenda, then this same problem reflects on the great shortcoming of libertarianism as a political philosophy. Friedersdorf objects to this strenuously, but he does not provide us with an adequate explanation for what amounts to a monstrous blind spot in libertarianism -- namely, their apparent belief that the only element of American political life capable of depriving Americans of their rights is the government, while pretending away the long and ugly history of Americans being deprived of their rights (including the simple right to live) not by the government, but by their fellow Americans.
What is utterly missing from libertarianism -- and particularly the libertarianism of Ron Paul -- is a recognition that their love of freedom is easily perverted into the freedom to deprive other people of their freedoms. When confronted with it, they simply try to shrug it off as a problem that freedom itself will eventually overcome -- when history, of course, has proven them wrong time and time again.
As we observed back then:
Ron Paul and Rand Paul both like to present radical ideas in reasonable clothing. But the consequences of their ideas have outcomes that we have seen proven in our own history as toxic and destructive to our democratic ideals. Their ideas were long ago discredited, and simply fluffing them up in new language will not make their real-life consequences any less horrific.
There is, after all, a simple reason the Pauls attract racists to their campaigns: Their ideologies would make racist discrimination legal again. You can call it a matter of deep intellectual consistency if you like. I call it selling cheap rationalizations for real evil in the world.