Tuesday, December 20, 2011

smart thoughts from others on Ron Paul

This post by Ta-Nehisi Coates is rather required reading for anyone interested in my previous post.
The Times notes that Ron Paul's racism newsletters are, again, becoming an issue. The standard defense has generally been Paul didn't write the newsletters. I think an honest reckoning with that defense would have someone question the faculties of an adult who would allow a newsletter filled--by Paul's own admission--with bigotry to be published under one's name. Had I spent a decade stewarding an eponymous publication steeped in homophobia and anti-Semitism, I would not expect my friends and colleagues to accept an "I didn't write it"excuse. And I have no (present) designs on the launch codes. It is a peculiar thing when the basic standards of honesty and decency are lowered in direct proportion to the power one seeks to wield. This is especially true of our friends. One has a hard time imagining a President Barack Obama who had done a stint writing for, say, for The Final Call lambasting gays and Jews.

Be that as it may, I think it's extremely important that the discerning consumer understand that the problem isn't merely that Ron Paul claims that the newsletters are a bizarre forgery, but that when initially asked about them Paul actually defended the letters. 
Racism, like all forms of bigotry, is what it claims to oppose--victimology. The bigot is never to blame. Always is he besieged--by gays and their radical agenda, by women and their miniskirts, by fleet-footed blacks. It is an ideology of "not my fault." It is not Ron Paul's fault that people with an NAACP view of the world would twist his words. It is not Ron Paul's fault that his newsletter trafficked in racism. It is not Ron Paul's fault that he allowed people to author that racism in his name. It is anonymous political aids and writers, who now cowardly refuse to own their words. There's always someone else to blame--as long as it isn't Ron Paul, if only because it never was Ron Paul.

This is not a particular tragedy for black people. The kind of racism which Paul trafficked is neither innovative nor original. Even his denials recall the obfuscations of Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens. But some pity should be reserved for the young and disgruntled, for those who dimly perceive that something is wrong in this country, for those who are earnestly appalled by the madness of our criminal justice policy, for those who have watched a steady erosion of our civil liberties, and have seen their concerns met with an appalling silence on the national stage. That their champion should be, virtually by default, a man of mixed motives and selective courage, is sad.
Do read the whole thing, where incriminating Paul quotes abound.

Maybe here is also a good place to link to Tyler Cowen's thoughts on Ron Paul from four years ago. Quite relevant today.
The Ron Paul phenomenon reminds me of the old America First movement, with Misesian 100 percent reserve banking theory on top.  He is making (one version of) libertarianism much more popular by allying it with nationalist and also states’ rights memes.  That includes his stances on immigration, NAFTA, China, devolution of powers, and "The Constitution."  Even when the policy recommendations stay libertarian, I fear that the wrong emotions will have the staying power.  Evaluating a politician is not just about policy positions; for instance personally I am skeptical of most forms of gun control but I worry when a candidate so emphasizes a pro-gun stance.
Many libertarians see the Paul candidacy as their chance to have an impact and they may well be right.  There is also no one else for them to support.  But, raw milk or not, I am not myself tempted to take a stance this year in favor of any of the candidates, Paul included.  Liberty is lacking in the United States but I’d like to see it more closely bundled with reasonableness, moderation, and yes pragmatism; I am looking to advance on all fronts at the same time.  Call me fussy if you wish.
I fear that Ron Paul is so taken with his own ideas that he is unable to see how or when his views might ever be wrong; it is in that sense I consider him insufficiently intellectual.  (Admittedly all the other candidates are too open to whatever is politically popular at the moment.)  Openness also means ability to improvise, which is a critical leadership quality; many of the challenges of the presidency are the surprises, 9/11 being one example of many.
The America Firsters, by the way, were right about many things, but they were very wrong about a few very big things, such as World War II and the civil rights movement.  They also suffered a virtually total eclipse for decades.  I don’t see nationalist and states’ rights memes as a path toward a future with more human liberty.

Monday, December 19, 2011

thoughts on Ron Paul

I have never been a fan of Ron Paul (well, since high school/early college, but that hardly counts, right?), but his increasing viability changes the dynamic somewhat. A new PPP poll puts him in the lead in Iowa. I easily prefer Gary Johnson, who is like Ron Paul, but with actual accomplishments and more enlightened views on immigration and reproductive rights. But, sadly, he never managed to get any traction. Paul has.

Erik Kain has written a few posts endorsing Ron Paul and then defending that endorsement. These are all choice posts, but here are a few highlights, all of which I second.

I have lost faith in Obama. Yes, I think that some things in the healthcare reform legislation and financial legislation do some real good for some people. But I see a very poor trade in electing folks who give you corporate healthcare legislation in exchange for dubious, never-ending war powers.
What it comes down to for me is not spending or taxes or anything like that at all. I want peace. I want to elect whichever candidate is most likely to lead us in a peaceful direction – toward peaceful commerce and a vastly downsized military abroad. I want a candidate who will honestly and frankly assess the abuses of liberty here at home, because without our basic rights intact, how can we trust anything our government does?
For me it is hardly about left vs. right anymore or the various second-tier policy differences Democrats and Republicans may have. Yes, I care about jobs, about taxes, about healthcare and public education. Yes, on many of these issues I’m far to the left of Ron Paul. But I care more about peace.
from the first link.
In a startling break with tradition, Ron Paul took a few quick jabs at his Republican rivals on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno Friday. Asked his opinion of Michele Bachmann, who Paul had clashed with earlier in the week over the question of a nuclear Iran, Paul said Bachmann “hates Muslims” and “wants to go get them.”

Leno asked Paul his opinion of Rick Santorum, asking whether he talked about anything other than gay people. “Gay people and Muslims,” Paul quipped.

I appreciate his belief in live-and-let-live. His clarifications on his belief in state’s rights (which he noted do not actually have rights) was welcome, as were his arguments about the environment (which he said should be governed by property rights which would prevent pollution better than current regulation.)
His notions on marriage and morality are likewise non-interventionist. It is more Christian, I think, than the shrieky attempts by his rivals to push their beliefs on everyone else through the long arm of the law. Morality is built by communities and families and harbored in the human heart. The state cannot enforce it, only nudge us in the right direction by first doing no harm.
from the second link. I absolutely love that Ron Paul just comes out and says Michelle Bachmann hates Muslims. In Kain's third link, he musters some mighty moral clarity and defends his endorsement over the protestations and condemnations of those concerned about the "racist newsletter":
Has Paul espoused any of those views himself? Not that I can tell. Do his preferred policies lead as much killing as the preferred policies of Obama or Romney or any of the other candidates currently swarming about? No, they don’t. Do you think the children we blow to shreds with our aerial drones care if Ron Paul’s associates published a racist newsletter in the 90′s or do you think they care more about being blown to shreds?

Paul obviously should not have allowed things like that to be published under his name and I completely and utterly condemn that newsletter and those behind it. It’s just not as big a deal to me as the aforementioned wars and assassinations under this president.
What’s more important to your idealism – words or bombs? What is more liberal? What is more progressive?
I see it as a matter of life and death. I know you see it as a matter of Your Team vs. The Others. But that’s just not enough for me.
Now, as our President might say, Let me be clear. There really appears to be some nasty stuff in those newsletters. Here is the Weekly Standard:

Though particular articles rarely carried a byline, the vast majority were written in the first person, while the title of the newsletter, in its various iterations, always featured Paul’s name: Ron Paul’s Freedom Report, the Ron Paul Political Report, the Ron Paul Survival Report, and the Ron Paul Investment Letter. What I found was unpleasant.
“Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks,” read a typical article from the June 1992 “Special Issue on Racial Terrorism,” a supplement to the Ron Paul Political Report. Racial apocalypse was the most persistent theme of the newsletters; a 1990 issue warned of “The Coming Race War,” and an article the following year about disturbances in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., was entitled “Animals Take Over the D.C. Zoo.” Paul alleged that Martin Luther King Jr., “the world-class philanderer who beat up his paramours,” had also “seduced underage girls and boys.” The man who would later proclaim King a “hero” attacked Ronald Reagan for signing legislation creating the federal holiday in his name, complaining, “We can thank him for our annual Hate Whitey Day.” 
No conspiracy theory was too outlandish for Paul’s endorsement. One newsletter reported on the heretofore unknown phenomenon of “Needlin’,” in which “gangs of black girls between the ages of 12 and 14” roamed the streets of New York and injected white women with possibly HIV-infected syringes. Another newsletter warned that “the AIDS patient” should not be allowed to eat in restaurants because “AIDS can be transmitted by saliva,” a strange claim for a physician to make.
Does Ron Paul have racist, far-right inclinations? I have no idea. He certainly hasn't employed racist or particularly far-right rhetoric in either of the last two of his presidential campaigns, that I have seen. I find it exceedingly hard to believe that as president he would even try to dismantle civil rights laws, let alone succeed. That really doesn't appear to be where his passions lie. No, what gets him really riled up are military aggression, fiat currency, and the authoritarian power grabs by the Bush and Obama administrations.

While I have a hard time thinking Ron Paul as president would disenfranchise minorities or reinstitute segregation, I am under no delusion that a Paul administration would be at all enlightened. He is a Creationist and is opposed to abortion. With his deeply held belief that all of our economic woes can be laid at the feet of central banking and can be (easily!) explained by Austrian economics (an obscure, heterodox school of economics), he has all the markings of a true believer. While I am happy we could trust him not to bomb Iran under just about any circumstances, I am wary how adamantly convinced he is that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon (I think the evidence is at least mixed). The world is a complex place and I think it is quite dangerous for the world's most powerful person to be a fundamentalist of any kind, and I think this is a fair characterization of Paul's intellectual curiosity and flexibility.

Maybe through some second-order effects (e.g., sparking a violent populist movement because of economic blunders) Paul could cause more damage than a status quo president like Obama or Romney. I doubt it. But luckily for all of us we don't have to worry about that yet. The primary benefit of  nominating Paul as the Republican candidate is the issues that he would bring to the nation's attention. We have already seen this in the Republican primary race. Minus Paul, who on the national stage would be defending civil liberties? Who would be arguing for the reestablishment of the 4th Amendment guarantees of freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures? Who would be arguing for the rights of terrorism suspects to fair and speedy trials by jury? Who would be arguing that perhaps the president of of the US should not have the power to order the assassinations of American citizens (or anyone else, for that matter)? Who would be suggesting that killing foreigners with flying death robots is not the right thing to do?

All civil libertarians already have Ron Paul to thank for bringing these concerns into American dinner conversations. A Paul nomination would only amplify these issues and we would still have a few months to change our minds. The opportunity to bring civil liberties back into the national spotlight should be enough for all sorts of liberals to change their party identification to Republican and vote in their primaries for Paul, even if their ultimate priorities are economic or otherwise. Hold your noses if you must.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cultural imperialism (as it were)

I have become obsessed with the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks. For those unfamiliar, the books tell stories (unrelated, so it's not a proper "series" and it doesn't matter in which order you read them) about a mostly humanoid galactic civilization called the Culture that is pretty well described as a post-scarcity, hedonistic utopia. And really a utopia, not a dystopia; they actually *have* figured everything out and are pretty much all happy. So of course it sounds like a boring setting for stories (where's the conflict?), except that all of the stories deal with the Culture's interactions with other civilizations, usually lower on the technological ladder.

If I have one complaint about the books, it is ideological. Banks is a bit of a technosocialist. Money and exchange are all outdated concepts, and the reason the Culture has so many nice things is because they are 'ruled' by benevolent artificial intelligences, called Minds. I'm a fan of artificial intelligence so I have no problem with that, but the Culture appears to have solved all its problems by brute force figuring by the Minds. There is no appreciation evident in Banks' writing (at least in the five books I've read so far) for any sort of bottom-up, organic processes.

The aspect of the books that I really want to bring up is related, though my complaint doesn't really extend to it. For someone so far to the political left, Banks displays a very Whiggish attitude. As I mentioned above, the conflicts in the book revolve around interactions with less-developed peoples. And these interactions are usually interventions to liberate people from illiberal and inegalitarian regimes.

To be fair, Banks isn't totally unaware of how this comes off, and he often addresses these criticisms of the Culture in the books. He at least pays lip service to the idea that unintended consequences are a threat in these interventions. But the Minds have almost always got their sums right. While it might be more interesting if, every once in a while, the Minds forgot to carry a 1 and the Culture damaged their intended beneficiaries, his world is interesting for coloring a thought experiment. If we ever live in a society that to a large degree has solved all its problems, and really does represent a flourishing way forward for all peoples, then how would our foreign policy change? If the United States, for example, were everything its more ardent admirers like to think it is, then would it be justified in militarily interfering in the internal affairs of other nations on humanitarian grounds, and to spread our spectacularly successful way of life?

To be sure, the assumption is rather hard to swallow. "Suppose we have solved essentially all of our own social problems and have vast wealth to spare, and further that we have a very good track record of nearly bloodless humanitarian intervention and nation building", where "essentially", "vast", "very good", and "nearly" are parameters that can be adjusted for the realism of the thought experiment. For appropriate values, I think interference would be perfectly okay and indeed it would be hard to argue that non-interference would even be ethical. Cultural- or moral-relativistic arguments that other peoples should be able to construct their own societies as they see fit without the interference of arrogant (call them "Western") outsiders would seem to be laughable collectivistic caricature. The thought experiment almost morphs into the Problem of Evil in theism. As far as this atheist has ever seen, there is no satisfactory answer to the trilemma of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and benevolent god so long as evil and suffering exist in the world. Replace "god" with "advanced society" and the only difference is that the advanced society didn't actually create its potential beneficiaries. But that fact doesn't even enter into the moral calculus as far as I am concerned. Fun to think about, anyway. Back to the real world of suffering and limited knowledge ...