The Pastimes of Shooting the Messenger and/or Diverting Attention Never Get Old, Do They?

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March 31, 2008

'Yet those new supporters, many of whom are first encountering libertarian ideas through the Ron Paul Revolution, deserve a far more frank explanation than the campaign has as yet provided of how their candidate's name ended up atop so many ugly words. Ron Paul may not be a racist, but he became complicit in a strategy of pandering to racists ' and taking "moral responsibility" for that now means more than just uttering the phrase. It means openly grappling with his own past ' acknowledging who said what, and why. Otherwise he risks damaging not only his own reputation, but that of the philosophy to which he has committed his life.'

~ 'Who Wrote Ron Paul's Newsletters?' by Julian Sanchez and David Weigel, from Reason On-Line

'The art of politics, under democracy, is simply the art of ringing it. Two branches reveal themselves. There is the art of the demagogue, and there is the art of what may be called, by a shot-gun marriage of Latin and Greek, the demaslave. They are complementary, and both of them are degrading to their practitioners. The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots. The demaslave is one who listens to what these idiots have to say and then pretends that he believes it himself.' ~ H.L. Mencken, from 'Notes on Democracy'

Ah, politics. The more things change, the more they remain the same. I knew there were reasons why I stopped voting and/or caring about national politics a while back, and now I remember what they were. I've ridiculed those involved in the mysticism that surrounds politics, and will very likely continue to do so. Hell, I'm not even a voter! I've heard voting described as the 'suggestion box for slaves' or 'two foxes and a sheep deciding on dinner,' and while I love a catchy line as much as the next guy, the simple fact of the matter is this: The people vying for control of the guns of the state don't give a large rat turd about what I think. Always trying to be fair, they don't care about your thoughts either! They never did. They never will. Welcome to my world.

Still, the pageantry of politics is illustrative occasionally. I spent just a little time recently, mulling over one bit of recent hysteria ' the 'discovery' of supposedly racist-sounding prose in some old Ron Paul newsletters from a few years back, and with it, the possible implication that the Ludwig von Mises Institute (LvMI) and (LRC), among various other libertarian websites, are bastions of racist activity. Imagine my shock with finding this out, when I've had several columns published there that were, shall we say, rather critical of racism generally and libertarian racism specifically. How did those articles get through? For as long as I've been reading the libertarian blogesphere, and thoroughly enjoying the content, I guess my racist-dar must have been malfunctioning.

And then, before I could really settle my thoughts, it comes to light that Barack Obama's minister thinks that Amerika's government might have some 'splainin to do about all the people they've killed. The nerve! Clearly Reverend Jeremiah Wright wants the terrorists to win! If Obama really wants to occupy the big chair at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue , he must make sure no one would place him in the category of 'scary black man.' Any black man with the stones to say, openly and honestly, that the U.S. government has no moral standing to teach any other state about democracy is clearly pretty scary. (From my standpoint, Wright is also right on point, but my readers probably already know that.)

Sarcasm aside, let us tackle some of these issue head-on. I'll take the Ron Paul newsletters first, since they came out first. Then I'll look at the Wright fiasco. I think it is instructive to examine both from the same standpoint. That standpoint is this: Fighting over the guns of the state is a game for fools. As the old saying goes, when you wrestle with a pig, you cannot win. You just get dirty and the pig likes it.

Is Ron Paul A Racist or Do I Even Care?

Allow me to come out of the closet regarding a few of my own views regarding racism within the ranks of radical libertarianism, although I seriously doubt that these will come as any real surprise, particularly for anyone who has read either of the pieces I mentioned above: 'Tell Me Again, Why Are You a Libertarian?' or 'Say, Can I Borrow Those Moccasins?' To wit:

  • ' I think there is occasionally a little bit too much South-will-rise-again-ism expressed in ostensibly libertarian columns, wherever they might be published. My feelings about this fact? Whatever. I'm willing to bet not everyone who reads STR, LRC, JBS, etc. hangs on every word I write either. (Yes, this is a shock to us all.) Newsflash: Liberty generally allows for anyone with an opinion to express it.
  • ' I think there is occasionally an air of racial superiority in some ostensible libertarians I've met, read, or 'spoken to' online. I still don't care. See previous newsflash. More importantly though, let me mention that I'm originally from the South, North Carolina , to be exact. Having now lived in the North for a quite a while, I've noticed that Northerners are sometimes a little taken aback by any expression that might be construed as overtly racist. Me, I sort of appreciate it. When I was growing up and my friends and I heard an older white guy say something along the lines of, 'I don't like Negroes' ' only with a more, shall we say, colloquial pronoun ' we knew that his house probably wasn't a good place to stop during Halloween, and moved on, giving it and him, no further thought. For example, I can assure you that the e-mail addresses from racist responses I've gotten to my pieces are not stored in my address book. (Hey, I'm just sayin'!)
  • ' I think the time a market anarchist spends promoting a political candidate might be better spent otherwise. However, I have no idea what strategic moves are best for moving our society closer to general and widespread market anarchism. I also know it's not my job to decide for anyone else. By way of full disclosure, let me also say that back when I was a disgruntled liberal, I voted for Ross Perot, twice, so clearly, I'm capable of a mistake or two. (I'm out of therapy now, thankyouverymuch.)
  • ' I think Abraham Lincoln was a racist, white supremacist, psychotic asshole who didn't give a rat's ass about slavery or black people. Any credit he gets for freeing the slaves is truly misplaced, misapplied, or frankly, stupid. That I'm not the only black person who feels this way, while comforting in some regard, does not affect my opinion. ( Lincoln was, however, apparently one helluva politician. Is that a compliment?)
  • ' I think NFL quarterbacks get both too much blame and too much credit, and that Donavan McNabb might whine a little too much. (Wait, that's for another essay!)

OK, so those last two admissions were a little off-topic, but they've been on my mind recently. Consider them gifts.

Is Jeremiah Wright Right About America and If So, Who Cares?

There have been many great pieces that place Reverend Wright's comments in context, particularly as they relate to the libertarian view of the actions of the U.S. government. I won't belabor those points here. Frankly, my reaction when I heard the snippets of Wright's sermons on 'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' was one of disbelief. I could not believe anyone was upset. As I listened to each video clip in succession, I found myself thinking, "OK, so when is he going to lie?' I wondered if I was the only person listening to that broadcast who found much, if not all of what is being called, "inflammatory" from Wright's sermons to be, well, largely factual.

For example:

  • ' Wright said that the U.S. was "the world's number one killer" particularly with respect to our support of terrorist nations when it suits the goals of the government. (That's a big 10-4, good buddy.)
  • ' Wright said, "We've got more black men in prison than there are in college. Racism is alive and well. Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run." (That's another unvarnished truth.)
  • ' Wright said, "We are deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns, and the training of professional killers . . . . We bombed Cambodia , Iraq , and Nicaragua , killing women and children while trying to get public opinion turned against Castro and Ghadhafi . . . . We put [Nelson] Mandela in prison and supported apartheid the whole 27 years he was there. We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God." (While one could debate with the use of 'importing' with respect to drugs, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that drugs get into the United States generally ' and into the inner city eventually ' via boats and planes. Not many folks in the inner city have either! Given that agents of the state supposedly control all access to the U.S. via boats and planes . . . well, you can see where this is going.)
  • ' Wright said, "We supported Zionism shamelessly while ignoring the Palestinians and branding anybody who spoke out against it as being anti-Semitic . . . . We care nothing about human life if the end justifies the means . . . ." (Quoting ESPN's Stuart Scott, 'Boohah!' One could find a similar sentiment regarding our respect for human life in many, if not all, of my writings here and elsewhere.)

I admit though, that I nearly swallowed my tongue when Jonathan Alter, an analyst on Olbermann's show, said Wright appeared to be hysterical at points. The U.S. government kills people all over the globe, arguably on the behalf of its citizens, all while playing it off like it's 'par for the course' and when somebody calls them on it, it's "hysterical"? What a load of industrial-strength B.S. (Half a million children died in Iraq just from the sanctions. Do you reckon that might piss off a few folks?)

What the Debate(s) Should Be About

It strikes me as unfortunate that the debate over the historical contents of Ron Paul's newsletters is actually just a chance for competing factions within the broad banner of libertarianism to snipe at each other. Make no mistake: that is absolutely all that situation entailed. The larger political landscape (read: statists) got to watch and enjoy, kinda like watching a debate on Faux News ' lots of heat, but not much light.

If further strikes me as educational that the awesome power of the state is so revered by those who wish to claim it that even those who are supposedly on the same side ' like Obama and Clinton ' would stop at nothing to have it, even if it means they have to mortally wound each other. Talk about wrestling with pigs.

Has Ron Paul, as per the statements of Sanchez and Weigel, 'become complicit in a strategy of pandering to racists'? I'm not convinced. Frankly, I really haven't the faintest clue how anyone can actually become complicit regarding to whom their ideas might appeal and for what reasons. Is a candidate for office to be blamed if someone with views to which he might not otherwise subscribe decides to support his candidacy? I rather doubt it.

Does Barack Obama have to 'clean up' his association with Jeremiah Wright? Apparently he does, but only if he's interested in getting elected. Is that a good reason? Well, not from where I sit. The obvious bottom line is this: Obama is presenting himself as a Negro the white people don't have to fear. While that may actually be politically expedient, would anyone really interested in truth and freedom embrace such logic? Not so much.

As a practical matter, it strikes me as duplicitous, if expected, for Obama to have to distance himself from the words of his minister, particularly when white evangelicals such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have said almost exactly the same kind of thing. That is, unless different rules apply to different candidates. For example, McCain hasn't had to distance himself from his spiritual advisor, who said " America was founded to rid the world of Islam" or words to that effect. Bush hasn't had to distance himself from white preachers who have said "9/11 was caused by the wrath of God" or words to that effect. You see the pattern.

Glenn Greenwald, in a great piece on Salon, may have said it best:

"The Republican Party long ago adopted as a central strategy aligning itself with, and granting great influence to, the most radical, "America-hating" white evangelical Christian ministers in the country. They're given a complete pass on that because political orthodoxy mandates that white evangelical Christian ministers are inherently worthy of respect, no matter how extreme and noxious are their views. That orthodoxy stands in stark contrast to the universally enraged reaction to a few selected snippets from the angry rantings of a black Christian Minister. What accounts for that glaring disparity?"

Indeed. My suspicion: race accounts for that disparity. Yet Obama has to elevate the discussion? I beg to differ. There's been too much B.S. passed off as truth already. The truth of the matter is this: Obama has to prove that he hasn't forgotten his 'place' lest the white folks interested in proving that racism is dead in Amerika might decide that it's a little more alive than they thought and/or hoped.

Let us be clear, I've never really been that much of a Ron Paul supporter, per se. Nor have I been that much of an Obama supporter. The reasons for these stances are identical. (And maybe that's why it puzzled me so much for libertarians to be fighting amongst themselves about Paul.) I don't want a 'leader of the free world' who looks like me, sounds like me, thinks like me, or reads the books I read. I want no leader, and I want a truly free world. In other words: no state.

Still, something about the piece from Sanchez and Weigel didn't resonate fully with me, even outside the paradigm of anarchism. It is strangely ironic for the amount of attention Jeremiah Wright is receiving to have at its root, the same pathology. I think Brian Doherty hits much closer to the mark, in a relatively recent Reason Hit & Run posting. As he so eloquently states, the epigram often attributed to Voltaire expresses the true notion of 'freedom of speech' and liberty with:

'I disagree with what this man has said, but I defend to the death his right to say it.'

Doherty goes on:

As ugly and embracing of intolerance as such an epigram may seem in practice, perhaps there are reasons, reasons vital to the flourishing of an interesting, varied, free world of expression, that those summing up the spirit of Enlightenment tolerance did not choose to express the appropriate attitude toward things said with which he disagreed'even strongly and passionately disagreed'like this: 'I disagree with what this man has said, and I consider him evil for saying it; furthermore, I consider him having said it the most significant thing about him, and that it overshadows any other accomplishment or statement he has ever made. I fervently wish to have him driven from polite society, and consider that anyone who does not enthusiastically join me in so driving him to themselves be evil, or at least incredibly idiotic and not to be trusted'but don't worry, I don't think he should be arrested for saying it.'

This paragraph is the clincher:

It may be that the more famous saying indeed embodies the spirit of a lovable, valuable, rich world of discourse; and that the second one perhaps embodies a less open, free, and dynamic, and thus less valuable and interesting, world of discourse.

What Doherty is asking ' and what I find the most interesting and instructive regarding both these issues ' is this: What kind of discourse do we want to have? We can be open or we can be politically correct but we are unlikely to be both. It occasionally appears that few in Amerika ' including Democrats, Republicans, and many others ' have heard of Voltaire.

Are there other points of view? Certainly. Wendy McElroy, another libertarian columnist, makes a vital point in a piece that she did not write, but quotes:

I will state my main thesis again. It is lethal and destructive for any libertarian to be associated with bigotry and racism. Not only is it destructive to the cause of liberty but I would assert that it is morally wrong and contemptible . . . . Libertarians need to take back their movement from the racists and the bigots and let them know they are not welcome. Maybe the bad publicity associate[d] with the Paul debacle will do that but I won't hold my breath.

Since I believe that libertarianism ' or whatever designation one chooses to use ' is about individualism, I'm not even sure that I have a movement. Isn't the terminology 'movement' collectivist in origin and application? As I mentioned previously, given the responses I've gotten after certain columns, I'm pretty certain that many racists and bigots don't like everything I say. If I've given the movement away, these people must not know about it. Anyway, guilt by association does not an accurate impression make.


There is yet another take-home message, I think, again from both these debacles. People don't take kindly to anyone threatening to take away their toys. The White House specifically, but big-time politics generally, are really fun toys!

As I've heard it best said, U.S. politics can be accurately described as: Two guys who look very much alike, fighting over a really fun, one-player video game, trying to decide who gets to play first. Despite the fact that a couple of the current contestants don't fit the old paradigm ' that is, they look very different from historical contestants ' it still seems to me that we've got a good case of same crap, different day.

My position, for quite some time now, has been this: Getting involved in the cesspool of national politics tends to get everyone who tries a little dirty. Both of these situations are illustrative in that regard. It appears now that the back-splash of partisan politics and the strange bedfellows it brings will have to be scraped off the fenders of radical libertarianism. Well, pass the spatula and let's get to it.

As for the Obama-Wright dust-up, it simply shows what should have been apparent from the start. Lao Tsu said it best: 'Only fools seek power; and the greatest fools seek it through force.' Whether you apply force through guns or via brow beating and playing the race card, it is indicative of your true character and your motives.

Such is any interaction with the coercive state.

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Wilton D. Alston's picture
Columns on STR: 14

Wilt Alston writes from Upstate, NY.  When he's not training for a marathon, or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.