Ron Paul and the liberty of bullies

Ron Paul’s libertarian ideal is a far cry for the idea of ‘freedom for all’.

Ron Paul said he would vote against the Civil Rights Act if it were introduced today [GALLO/GETTY]

San Pedro, California – On January 12, a great blow was struck against freedom, if you subscribe to the philosophy of Ron Paul. The Ohio Civil Rights Commission voted 4-0 to uphold its earlier finding that a Cincinnati landlord, Jamie Hein, had discriminated against a ten-year-old biracial girl by posting a “White Only” sign in June 2011, aimed at keeping her out of a swimming pool. According to Paul’s worldview, this was a grave and terrible blow to the white landlord’s liberty. 

The girl’s white father, however, sees things a bit differently.

“My initial reaction to seeing the sign was of shock, disgust and outrage,” the girl’s father, Michael Gunn, said in brief comments the day the final decision was announced. The family quickly moved away, in order to protect their daughter from exposure to such humiliating bigotry – but they also filed the lawsuit.

According to Ron Paul’s view of “liberty”, they were right to move, but wrong to sue. Both Ron Paul and his son, Rand, oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Act, because it outlaws private acts of discrimination. This is an “infringement of liberty”, they argue. And they’re right: just like laws against murder, it infringes the liberty of bullies. And that’s precisely what justice is: the triumph of right over might.

The same logic also applies to the Civil War. It resulted in the abolition of slavery – infringing the liberty of hundreds of thousands of slaveholders. And Ron Paul thinks that was wrong, too.

In June 2004, the House of Representatives voted to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Paul was a lone voice in opposition. On the House floor, he said:

I rise to explain my objection to H.Res. 676. I certainly join my colleagues in urging Americans to celebrate the progress this country has made in race relations. However, contrary to the claims of the supporters of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the sponsors of H.Res. 676, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not improve race relations or enhance freedom. Instead, the forced integration dictated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty.

One is tempted to ask, how, exactly, Ron Paul thinks we made such progress, if not in large measure because of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and other similar legislations? But that would only distract attention from the truly odious and absurd central claim that the act diminished individual liberty. Who, but a die-hard racist, thinks that way? Only one who thinks of die-hard racists’ “rights” first, and the rights of everyone else a distant second, if at all.

Just to take one commonplace example, at the time of the Freedom Rides, preceding the Civil Rights Act by a few years, when the national consensus was still asleep to the evils of racism, any form of interstate travel for black people – at least in the South, where most lived – was an ordeal not simply bereft of freedom, but filled with potential danger.

The interstate bus service, desegregated by Federal Court ruling, but segregated in fact – reinforced by mob violence – was the well-chosen target of the Freedom Riders. The wretched truth of this situation was exposed forever by brave young students, white and black, who took their lives in their hands to change the course of history. 

But this target was only the weak link in the chains that shackled black people’s freedom to travel. Private car trips were anything but a freedom-filled alternative. Blacks travelling cross-country by car – whether crossing state lines or not – faced denial of individual liberty at every turn: segregated gas stations with segregated water fountains and segregated restrooms (if they were lucky), segregated restaurants with segregated restrooms (if they were lucky), segregated motels with segregated water fountains and segregated restrooms (if they were lucky). And God help any black family travelling thus, if some emergency should arise. They would be lucky, indeed, to reach their destination unharmed. A mere flat tyre could put life and limb at risk. But thank God that white bigots, white bullies were free.

Because in Ron Paul’s eyes, things looked exactly the opposite: Each of these experiences of black humiliation, subjugation and unfreedom was actually a triumph of individual white property-owning freedom. And the 1964 Civil Rights Act swept all that precious freedom away. All that liberty for bullies, gone in a single “tyrannical” stroke of the pen.

Liberty destroyed

The last time Paul ran for president, he appeared on Meet The Press in December 2007, and Tim Russert asked him point blank: “You would vote against the Civil Rights Act if, if it was today?” Paul’s response: “If it were written the same way, where the federal government’s taken over property – has nothing to do with race relations.” 

The Civil Rights Act in Paul’s mind has nothing to do with race relations, because it’s got nothing to do with the Civil Rights Act in the real world. And the same is true of slavery and Civil War as well, which Russert went on to ask about next:

MR. RUSSERT: I was intrigued by your comments about Abe Lincoln. “According to Paul, Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery.”

REP. PAUL: Absolutely. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn’t have gone, gone to war. He did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic. I mean, it was the – that iron, iron fist…

Here, Ron Paul is echoing the ideology of neo-Confederates, who consider Lincoln, The Great Emancipator, and founding father of the Republican Party, to be one of history’s greatest tyrants. You’d never know it from Paul, but it was the South that fired the first shots, long before Lincoln even thought of freeing the slaves. The interview continued:

MR. RUSSERT: We’d still have slavery.

REP. PAUL: Oh, come on, Tim. Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. And the way I’m advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You, you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years? I mean, the hatred and all that existed. So every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war. I mean, that doesn’t sound too radical to me. That sounds like a pretty reasonable approach.

Ron Paul might think that a slaveholder bailout was “a pretty reasonable approach”. Others, such as myself, might think that paying freed slaves three or more generations of back wages was an even more reasonable approach. But none of that matters so far as actual history is concerned. Slavery was not “phased out” in Haiti – it was destroyed by an incredibly bloody slave revolt – the sort of thing that Paul elsewhere claims has never once occurred in human history. 

In the British Empire, slavery was relatively peripheral, limited to far-off colonies. A single foot-step onto British soil meant instant freedom for any slave. Thus, politically, slavery never had the stranglehold on power it once enjoyed in the United States. From the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 onward, the British Navy helped suppress the international slave trade, capturing thousands of slave ships and freeing hundreds of thousands of slaves in the decades that followed. 

Finally, a bloody slave revolt in Jamaica in 1831 brought matters to a head, resulting in the general abolition of slavery in the British Empire two years later. Yes, slaveholders were compensated for their freed slaves – more than 40,000 separate awards, representing roughly one per cent of the US slave population in 1860.

The £20 million fund was 40 per cent of the British government’s total annual expenditure at the time. Thus, a similar scheme in the US – whose slavs were valued at US $75bn in 1860 – would have taken generations to pay off. Even if Southern slaveholders had been willing to take such a deal – which they most certainly weren’t – it’s difficult to imagine that such a prolonged slaveholder bailout would have gone anywhere near as smoothly as Ron Paul off-handedly imagines it would have. Still other countries – such as Brazil – ended slavery only after the US Civil War had shown conclusively that slavery was doomed, through civil war, if necessary.

Thus, Paul’s benign world-historical generalisation has no relationship at all to the actual history of the bloody and protracted struggle to rid the world of legal slavery. But Paul’s grasp of US history is no better. Historically, Lincoln did not initiate the Civil War, the South did. Nor was the North originally fighting to abolish slavery – its aim was simply to preserve the Union against Southern secession.

Indeed, Southern states began to secede, and form themselves into the Confederacy, even before Lincoln took office. Lincoln was elected on November 6, 1860, and was to be inaugurated almost exactly four months later, but the Southern states were not about to wait around for that.

South Carolina seceded in December 1860, with six other states following shortly afterward. The Confederacy was formed in February 1861, the month before Lincoln’s inauguration, on March 4, 1861. The act of secession was rejected by outgoing President Buchanan, who still officially held office, as well as by Lincoln as incoming president.

In his inaugural address, Lincoln used a statement he had made repeatedly before:

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

And he went on to describe the limited nature of the political differences involved:

One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.

After pleading extensively for peace and the preservation of the nation, Lincoln went on to conclude:

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.

And that is exactly what happened, with the attack on Fort Sumter. The war was not begun by Lincoln, or the North, to end slavery. It was begun by the South because they were determined, not just to preserve it, but to expand it.

Three weeks after Lincoln’s inauguration, Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens made the South’s fundamental commitment to slavery abundantly clear, delivering the “Cornerstone Speech”, in Savannah, Georgia, contrasting the Confederacy with the United States and declaring:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.

Another five weeks after that, on April 12, 1861, the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter began, the first hostilities of the Civil War. Because the South attacked first, the war naturally became known throughout the South as “The War of Northern Aggression”.

Long before Adolf Hitler, the Big Lie was a habit among bullies. Four more states joined the Confederacy after the attack on Fort Sumter. The war was on, and the only thing Lincoln could have done to stop it was to unconditionally surrender. Virtually, everything Ron Paul says about race in the US is wrong. 

He is right about the drug war, like a stopped clock is right twice each day. But because the “states’ rights” holds priority for him, his crusade against the drug war would leave state drug laws unaffected, and 90 per cent of drug war prisoners still in prison. Funny, how that works out.

Past lies still live on

Still, some could argue that Paul’s benighted views on race are all a dead letter. His views may be totally wrong, but they’re also totally irrelevant, except for the occasional oddity such as Jamie Hein, they might say. But that would be a grave mistake. For one thing, Hein is just the tip of the iceberg. Cases like that may be rare, but race-based hate crimes are not.

According to the latest FBI report: “In 2010, 1,949 law enforcement agencies reported 6,628 hate crime incidents involving 7,699 offences.” Almost 50 per cent of hate crimes are motivated by racial bias, and another 20 per cent each are motivated by religion and sexual orientation. Almost 70 per cent of racial bias and hate crimes are anti-black.

But even hate crimes are only the tip of the iceberg. As Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind, pointed out on his blog last October, “a great deal of political repression happens in civil society, outside the state. More specifically, in the workplace”.

Robin then took up the example of McCarthyism, the most prominent examples of which all involved the state. Yet, fewer than 200 people ever went to jail for their political beliefs during this time, compared with 10-15,000 people who were fired, and a vastly larger number of workers who were investigated or subjected to surveillance – “One to two out of every five,” according to Robin.

This is indicative of two things: First, that private-sector repression is routinely much more far-reaching than government repression (exactly the opposite of what libertarians believe) for the very simple reason that constitutional and statutory rights limit potential government repression far more than they limit private sector repression.

Second, that the chilling shadow of suspicion casts a dramatically wider net, so that overt cases of repressive action only represent a tiny fraction of the overall repression, intimidation and fear that workers experience. The liberty of bullies goes a long, long way in trampling the freedom of others in the workplace.

But even this is only part of the story. There is plenty of repression outside the workplace, or not specifically tied to it, as well as plenty of repression that it is not specifically political in nature. Sexual harassment encompasses a great deal of this. So too, does bullying among children and teens, with plenty of overlap between the two.

Millions of decent-hearted conservatives are as appalled and revolted by bullying and sexual harassment as their liberal counterparts are. This is particularly true of parents concerned about children’s welfare. But the story is strikingly different when we look at conservatives as a politically mobilised force – whether they be libertarian conservatives, religious conservatives or whatever. And so we saw an avalanche of denials that sexual harassment even exists when Herman Cain faced multiple accusations a few months ago.

Likewise, conservatives have repeatedly fought against anti-bullying protection for gay and lesbian teens, fighting over and over and over again to protect the “liberty” of bullies as if it were the highest value in the US – just like Ron Paul thinks it is.

Trying to steal King’s soul

Perhaps, the most damnable lie that Ron Paul tells about race in the US is his claim that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks are amongst his greatest heroes. Of course, there’s not an ounce of truth in either claim. For one thing, he voted against honouring either of them – twice against making King’s birthday a holiday, and once against honouring Rosa Parks with the Congressional Gold Medal. For another – as already illustrated above – he stands opposed to everything they represent. 

In his now-disowned newsletters, King was denounced as a “world-class philanderer who beat up his paramours” and who “seduced underage girls and boys”. Surely, if King truly were such a hero to him, Ron Paul would be hopping mad that King had been portrayed like that, apparently in his own name. He would have moved heaven and earth to get to the bottom of it, find out who was responsible, and denounce them publicly by name. But, of course, unsurprisingly, Paul has done nothing of the sort.

Even more than that, Paul tries his best to kidnap their prestige ala Patty Hearst, to use them for his own perverted purposes. For example, in a January 10, 2008 CNN interview, responding to questions about his newsletters, Paul said:

I’m not a racist. As a matter of fact, Rosa Parks is one of my heroes, Martin Luther King is a hero – because they practiced the libertarian principle of civil disobedience, non-violence.

He said almost exactly the same thing during the ABC presidential debate last month, responding to similar questions:

You ought to ask me what my relationship is for racial relationships. And one of my heroes is Martin Luther King because he practiced the libertarian principle of peaceful resistance and peaceful civil disobedience, as did Rosa Parks.

But what in the world is his basis for claiming “peaceful resistance and peaceful civil disobedience” as libertarian principles? Of course, they are not principles, per se. They are political practices born out of philosophical traditions – traditions with a well-known left-wing orientation.

William F Buckley, the leading libertarian intellectual of the time, adamantly opposed the civil rights movement in the 1950s, when those practices were first employed. In sharp contrast, both King and Parks had well-known leftist ties, for which they were smeared at the time. No one on the right ever claimed either of them, until they had been transformed into seemingly apolitical figures, more than a generation later.

What’s more, Paul has even invoked King’s name to defend the armed criminal resistance of a conspiracy-obsessed militia couple – Edward and Elaine Brown – who were involved in the “noble cause” of refusing to pay their income tax and engaging in an armed standoff with federal officers. That’s hardly an ennobling association for Martin Luther King, hardly an example of peaceful civil disobedience. It’s much more like bullying, in fact, which is just the sort of confused association that typifies how Ron Paul jumbles the moral universe as he staggers around in it, trying to lay claim to King as a personal hero.

Lastly, let us remember, that King, like Jesus, was not concerned with the bullies of the world, he was concerned with “the least of these”. To understand what this means, just consider how he died, for it was deeply in keeping with how he lived.

When King was assassinated, he was in Memphis to support a public employee’s strike – a strike by municipal sanitation workers, who under Paul’s libertarian philosophy would have no right to even organise. And he was there taking time out from his larger project of organising the multi-racial Poor People’s March, a concerted attempt to vastly increase federal assistance to the poor – yet another activity that Paul would have bitterly opposed as not just wrong-headed, but unconstitutional.

To the sanitation workers in Memphis, King said:

All labour has dignity. You are … reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. We know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?

But as far as Paul’s libertarian philosophy is concerned, the Memphis sanitation workers were receiving a market wage and that was all they were entitled to. If their children starved, that was just too bad. Any attempt they made outside the marketplace to try to raise themselves up from poverty was an act of bullying on their part. That’s just the way the world looks when the liberty of bullies is the highest value that you know.

King, however, knew that all the libertarian talk about free markets was just so much rubbish: “We all too often have socialism for the rich,” he once said, “and rugged free market capitalism for the poor.”

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.