Rand Paul: Not Aristotle

There’s something about being a willfully marginal player in the political sphere that induces whininess. Or at least that’s the conclusion I can’t help but come to after reading the libertarian-ish Conor Friedersdorf’s epic lament over the media’s treatment of Rand Paul.

I’m tempted to take it apart, piece-by-piece; but I’m also aware of that whole Nietzsche thing about staring into the abyss. So rather than picking out the many, many places where Friedersdorf makes claims that are either highly questionable or laughably wrong, I’ll try to zoom out and focus on what he seems so incapable or unwilling to address.

Friedersdorf’s upset because: folks are acting as if Rand Paul said he didn’t believe in democracy, when all Rand Paul said was “I’m not a firm believer in democracy.” (How dare people, right?) So, in Paul’s defense, Friedersdorf writes:

If a scholar of political thought said of ancient Athens, “I’m not a firm believer in democracy — it required slavery, war, or both, to subsidize the lower classes while they carried out their civic duties,” no one would think that a strange formulation — it is perfectly coherent to talk about democracy in places that didn’t extend the franchise universally, given how the term has been used and understood for two thousand years of political history.

Even in the article, we have no idea what sentences Paul spoke immediately before or after that. Suffice it to say that if anyone else in the United States said, of federal intervention in the Jim Crow South, “They did the right thing overruling decisions made locally in Alabama and Mississippi, even though it was anti-democratic,” no one would blink, let alone criticize the speaker.

Well, here’s the thing: Rand Paul is many things, but he is not “a scholar of political thought.” And he’s certainly not the senator from Athens. What he is, though, is a man who still can’t give a straight answer as to whether or not he finds the Civil Rights Acts constitutional, though he’s proved happy to brandish Jim Crow as a kind of shield against further inquiry.

Even on its own terms, the Jim Crow example falters. If you listen to Friedersdorf or Paul, you’d almost think that majoritarian democracy is what led to Jim Crow. One imagines it as if, after the Civil War, there was a big meeting in every city, town, and holler of the South, and there was a show of hands. Jim Crow: yea or nay?

But, of course, that’s far from the truth. Jim Crow wasn’t a product of a democratic process — of the kinds of democratic processes we think of as our own in the United States. Those institutional channels were the ones that passed the laws that broke Jim Crow. The American apartheid, on the other hand, was the product of terroristic violence, white supremacy, and Northern indifference; of the kind of evil Rand Paul’s father’s newsletters trafficked in.

There are other cringeworthy moments — like when Friedersdorf refers to Paul’s self-immolation on Maddow as an example of the “nuances” of the senator’s thinking — but the superficial and ideologically convenient understanding of what the Civil Rights Act meant, that’s the real problem with Paul and Friedersdorf’s thinking.

And as to Friedersdorf’s suggestion that Ayn Rand has nothing to do with Paul’s anti-democratic streak? You know the one, “don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining?” That.

[x-posted @ Balloon Juice]

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50 thoughts on “Rand Paul: Not Aristotle

  1. Wasn’t it the Supreme Court that broke Jim Crow first?

    Also, would you argue that democracy, pure democracy that represents everyone and allows for un-coerced voting, doesn’t have a tendency to, and/or never actually does persecute minorities, or disenfranchise marginal groups?

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      • Still–it was an undemocratic body that fixed undemocratic processes. And democratic ones do often lead to undemocratic persecution–see the drug war.

        So you don’t believe that his point is ridiculous–only that as stated and as he could possibly conceive of it, it is?

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        • (hands up) Oh, you’re preaching to the choir on this one. My point is a mere factoid of a particularly pedantic nature.

          There might be a synthesis here. Consider what J@m3z points out below, [Democracy’s] primary advantage is that it prevents control by an unaccountable few, which almost always results in the pursuit of bad ends..

          But why do these things always seem to happen when one decent politician stands up and does something? Because, and here you’re right, it was exceedingly undemocratic, but only in the sense that the Decent Politician knows you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

          Popular support for Jim Crow was dead and stinking. My guess is Jim Crow probably died some time during WW2 when all those black troops soldiered so well. At the Battle of the Bulge, the call went out for replacements from the segregated battalions, which to that point had been doing nothing but unloading ships and driving trucks. At the time, many of those black troops said “Hell no, you didn’t want us in line units when you were doing so well — now that the shit has hit the fan, now you want us? ” But many of those segregated troops did go forward and their actions made an impression on lots of servicemen at the time.

          The nation was tired of maintaining the fiction of Separate but Equal. Truman knew it, Ike knew it, even the bigots of the time were sick of it. They might not have liked the way it ended and that fishbone is still stuck in their craws. And racism is still a problem on all sides. Until we can deny stupid people the right to vote, (and Aristotle would have strongly approved ) we’re going to need some wiser people at the top to keep the ball rolling. And it won’t look very democratic when it happens.

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      • Come on, Blaise is right about how it began, and let’s not forget that Ike sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock. It’s not until 1964–16 years after Truman desegregated the armed services, 8 years after Brown, and following a decade of civil rights protesting and activism in which southern blacks forced the hands of the white leaders of their community that the democratic process finally managed to churn out a meaningful Civil Rights Act.

        And as much as Jim Crow involved violence, it also involved white majorities happily voting to take away the political participation rights of black minorities.

        That doesn’t make Paul right, and I’m not arguing for him. But you’re wildly overstating the role of democracy as a force for good in this issue. It was a force for bad as long as those who wanted segregation could control its reigns, and became a force for good only when enough of the country woke up to the reality of the evil.

        Democracy is merely a method, not one that necessarily pursues good ends. It’s primary advantage is that it prevents control by an unaccountable few, which almost always results in the pursuit of bad ends. It gives the pursuit of good ends a fighting chance, no more.

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        • Democracy is merely a method, not one that necessarily pursues good ends.

          I think the best way to say it is that democracy is the best way we’ve come up with of giving the population what they want.

          The problem is, sometimes the population are complete idiots.

          Which is why we have a few constitutional failsafes to make sure it doesn’t get too far out of whack, although ultimately the population itself must change. (Otherwise they’d end up changing the constitution.)

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            • Churchill is the most overrated politician in history. He maintained power through a coterie of grifters and parasites: his control of the patronage system was legendary. Those Churchill could not defeat he co-opted. That old Canadian wag, Beverly Baxter, once said of Lord Beaverbrook, one such co-opted politician:

              “Beaverbrook is so pleased to be in the government that he is like the town tart who finally married the Mayor.”

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              • I’m not going into Churchill worship, he was absolutely ineffective in peacetime for one thing and in a democracy, politicians should be able to be effective in multiple situtions. I just think the quote is witty.

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                • So true, Lee. I would only wish for everyone who thumps the pulpit and sings praises to Democracy would read the Federalist (and the Anti-Federalist) Papers. In those documents, they would see what lies under the rubric of Democracy. I’ve read them all so many times — it’s rather like the Bible with me, I go back and see new truths every time I read them. The sheer improbability of so many wise men in one room is a miracle if ever there was one.

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  2. Good essay, Elias!

    I don’t know what to make of Friedersdorf’s politics or writing. He can be very good at writing about social liberty and against the conservative Culture war. His essays against the race-baiting and sexism of Talk Radio are good.

    And he comes out swinging for Rand Paul because he sees Paul as some kind of Great Libertarian Hope and loses the critical edge he has when talking about Rush and other right-wing media types. Can’t he see that having a politician be skeptical about the Civil Rights Act is worse than whatever Rush says? Apparently the answer is no.

    If I understand Conor’s biography correctly from his writings, he grew up in a Republican household/family in Orange County that was in the upper-middle class* but not necessarily super-wealthy. He seems to have trouble completely distancing himself from the Republican Party and his GOP roots.

    *Disclaimer: This would seem to be the opposite of my raising. I grew up in a New York upper-middle class suburb and in a congressional district that is as Democratic as Orange County is Republican. My hometown district (NY-5) is a combination of middle-class Queens (largely Asian and African-American) and some of the tonier inner-ring suburbs of Nassau County (which can be disproportionally Jewish). Often this makes me like an alien observer to typically Republican areas like OC.

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      • Not so obvious….

        Here Friedersdorf lists Paul’s accomplishments in the Senate:

        “Three years later, it is beyond dispute: Paul is a leading opponent of civil-liberties abrogations, executive-power excesses, and militarism. Safe to say, after last week’s filibuster, that his stands on those issues are the most visible and consequential that he has taken in the Senate. Even prior to that 13-hour spectacle, Paul mounted high-profile, sometimes lonely efforts to reform the Patriot Act; formally end the president’s authorization to wage war in Iraq; reform drug laws; prevent indefinite detention; extend Fourth Amendment protections to electronic communications; require warrants for drone surveillance; reform overzealous TSA screening procedures; and stop an anti-piracy bill that would have onerously infringed on free expression online. ”

        I see a lot of hope there. The national security stuff is clearly going the other way, despite Paul’s “lonely efforts.” Reform drug laws? Great idea. What has the Senator from Kentucky done that the voters of Washington and Colorado have not?

        I see a sympathetic guy (Friedersdorf) giving Paul a lot of credit where it’s not really due. That may not rise to the level of believing the guy is “some kind of Great Libertarian Hope,” but he’s certainly eager to pump up a Senator from Kentucky who’s been in Congress for only three years and hasn’t moved the needle hardly at all.

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        • Not everyone’s an Al Franken.
          But I’m not certain Rand ought to be classified as anything other than a demagogue.

          I have to give the Sen. from SA credit for actually getting together a bill with a chance of passing…

          Do we have any such legislative work from the Paul?

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          • Even a blind pig will find an acorn from time to time. Nobody but those damned old crazy Tea Partiers have made any efforts to attack the PATRIOT Act. The lack of conviction exhibited by even the most serious Democrats on this subject is truly disgusting. We must give credit where it’s due — and none goes to the Democratic Party nor yet to the GOP.

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            • George W Bush signed the Patriot Act on October 26, 2001. The first Tea Party rally was in April of 2009, primarily as a protest against Obama’s economic policies. If they also said an unkind word about the Patriot Act in their 4 year slide into irrelevance, the phrase “too little, too late” might apply.

              But if you want to give them credit, I’m sure they’ll gladly take it.

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  3. My problem with both Pauls is that they seem to speak for many things I believe in; but their views are so different, I cannot ever reconcile the differences. I think my right to control my body is Libertarian; but we disagree profoundly on that when it comes to my reproductive rights.

    So the Pauls both end up striking me as myths; what I see is not real; they use the same words but they have different meanings. The real meaning hides behind the curtain like the real Wizard, we discuss the all-powerful face on the curtain in our public discourse. But we seem to discuss all policy/politic that way, now. We need more Totos.

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    • they seem to speak for many things I believe in; but their views are so different, I cannot ever reconcile the differences.

      Three people could agree on a particular policy – end DOMA, for example – yet end up making political war against each other. {Warning: cherry-picked stereotypes follow!} Liberals tend to think DOMA ought to be repealed because it codifies, at the federal level, a violation of gay people’s rights. Conservatives tend to think that DOMA violates the constitution since only States ought to have the right to legally define marriage. Libertarians tend to think DOMA is wrong,wrong,wrong since government shouldn’t have the power to define what people do with in their private lives. And so it goes round and round, from policy to policy.

      And that’s the most favorable account of people’s disagreements I can think of.

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  4. Of the all the people in political writing who you could spend your time going after, I’d say Conor’s a poor choice. On more and more issues (immigration, anti-imperialism, poverty) he’s sounding more like an out-and-out leftist than a libertarian these days. Not simply in the positions he holds, but in the arguments he makes for them; I know those arguments well, because some of them are the same as mine. (I was thrilled when he made a post pointing out that if you want to save lives, fund things that save lives like programs to fight malaria, rather than advocating for ‘humanitarian’ wars; the former will unquestionably get you more lives saved per dollar. It’s the argument I’ve been making ever since the Iraq War became so much as a possibility, and it’s not an argument that flows from a libertarian perspective because libertarianism tends to be opposed to foreign aid.) If he wants to hold out hope that there are a couple people in the American political spectrum that oppose wars of aggression and the security state, and he believes those people are worth supporting because of that regardless of any other flaws, I get where he’s coming from and I’ve little problem with him doing so; he’s just more optimistic than me.

    If you want to jump on Rand Paul for his comments (which you haven’t contextualized either), jump away, but it seems like a misdirection of effort to focus on attacking one of the few, and one of the better, writers on civil libertarian issues today.

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    • Saving lives is a dumb idea. Everyone’s gonna die sometime or another. At this point in our world history, we might be better aided by killing a bunch of people, anyway.
      (Not to say that fixing malaria isn’t a net good — it’s a huge resource sink, because people just get sick and don’t have the decency to die ;-) )

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