Some of you might have missed Glenn Greenwald’s essay on Progressives and Ron Paul over the holiday weekend. If so, you should go read it now. It’s one the best pieces I’ve seen from Glenn, and he’s written a lot of great pieces.
Here’s the gist. Ron Paul makes progressives uncomfortable, because he stands unequivocally for a lot of the things progressives are supposed to stand for: an end to American militarism abroad, and end to the destructive war on drugs, and end to torture and the surveillance state, an end to the crony capitalism and the bailout of Wall Street, and so on down the list. Worse, he forces progressives to recognize the massive shortcomings of “their own” president, Barrack Obama, on these and many other core progressive issues.
He has slaughtered civilians — Muslim children by the dozens — not once or twice, but continuously in numerous nations withdrones, cluster bombs and other forms of attack. He has sought to overturn a global ban on cluster bombs. He has institutionalized the power of Presidents — in secret and with no checks — to target American citizens for assassination-by-CIA, far from any battlefield. He has wagedan unprecedented war against whistleblowers, the protection of which was once a liberal shibboleth. He rendered permanently irrelevant the War Powers Resolution, a crown jewel in the list of post-Vietnam liberal accomplishments, and thus enshrined the power of Presidents to wage war even in the face of a Congressional vote against it. His obsession with secrecy is so extreme that it has become darkly laughable in its manifestations, and he even worked to amend the Freedom of Information Act (another crown jewel of liberal legislative successes) when compliance became inconvenient.
He has entrenched for a generation the once-reviled, once-radical Bush/Cheney Terrorism powers of indefinite detention, military commissions, and the state secret privilege as a weapon to immunize political leaders from the rule of law. He has shielded Bush era criminals from every last form of accountability. He has vigorously prosecuted the cruel and supremely racist War on Drugs, including those parts he vowed during the campaign to relinquish — a war which devastates minority communities and encages and converts into felons huge numbers of minority youth for no good reason. He has empowered thieving bankers through the Wall Street bailout, Fed secrecy, efforts to shield mortgage defrauders from prosecution, and the appointment of an endless roster of former Goldman, Sachs executives and lobbyists. He’s brought the nation to a full-on Cold War and a covert hot war with Iran, on the brink of far greater hostilities. He has made the U.S. as subservient as ever to the destructive agenda of the right-wing Israeli government. His support for some of the Arab world’s most repressive regimes is as strong as ever.
Chronicles of wrongdoing like this put the Ron Paul Newsletters in perspective. I agree with just about everything that Jacob Levy and Steve Horwitz had to say about those letters. They were vile, and Ron Paul is morally responsible both for allowing them to be published under his name, and for his continuing evasiveness regarding them.
That said, I think that there is an important lesson to bear in mind here about the way we react to different kinds of immorality. The bigotry expressed in Paul’s newsletters strikes us as immoral in a particularly salient way. Public expression of such bigotry is, thankfully, a relatively rare occurrence in society today. And most of us have been socialized from an early age – appropriately so! – to be aware of such bigotry and to respond strongly against it. So when we do see it, it stands out, and we take notice.
Now contrast that with the way we react to the abuse of police authority involved in the drug war, the inevitable killing and mutilation of civilians involved in dropping bombs on faraway lands, and all the other evils described by Greenwald above. That such actions are, in fact, evil is I take it something that the libertarian readers of this blog will find uncontroversial. But here’s the thing. Even though we believe that they are evil, they still don’t jump out at us in the way that Paul’s bigotry does. They’re just not as salient. And there are two main reasons for this.
The first is that these activities are, for better or for worse, seen as pretty much normal now. We know they happen, and we’ve known they happen for a long time. But precisely because they’re normal we tend not to think about them very much. When we see new instances of these activities, we’re not surprised, and so we don’t pay much attention. And as a result, we don’t spend much time thinking about it.
There’s a second reason these immoralities don’t register with us. Most of the time, for most of us, their effects are unseen and far away. Most of the readers of this blog don’t live in neighborhoods where people’s doors are being knocked down in drug raids. We don’t know anyone whose life has been destroyed by a drone attack. And we don’t even really have to see the effects of those drug raids or drone attacks because they’re not widely reported in the media – partly, I suppose, because they’re so normal as to be not newsworthy.
So even if we as libertarians believe that these activities are immoral, indeed even if we think that they are more immoral than the bigotry of Paul’s newsletters, it is psychologically difficult for us to take proper account of this fact. When something isn’t naturally salient to us we have to work to remind ourselves of it. We have to read Glenn Greenwald or Radley Balko to remind ourselves that the actions our government takes in prosecuting the War on Terror or the War on Drugs are not normal, and that they have real, horrible effects on people with names and stories like our own.
We’ve been critical of Paul on this blog. And it’s easy for Paul supporters to focus on that criticism and assume that we don’t support his candidacy. And maybe some of us here don’t. But for me, anyway, that’s not the point. I think it’s important to call Paul out on the newsletters because I believe the most important thing about Paul’s candidacy is the ideas that he stands for, and I want to make sure that the idea of liberty that I believe in is clearly distinguished in the public eye from the racist and paranoid filth Paul allowed to be published under his name.
But it pays to remember that in many, many other ways, Paul’s conscience is far cleaner than those of the other candidates. The jingoism and cold-bloodedness that most of them have expressed not just in their words but in their actions as elected officials might not shock us as much the racist rhetoric of Paul’s newsletters. But the fact that it doesn’t shock us tells us more about the sorry state of the world we live in and the way we’ve psychologically adapted to that world, than it does about the grave nature and severity of the immorality those actions constitute.