A LITTLE STATESMAN WITH A LITTLE MIND
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Maybe I’m being rash. Maybe I’m judging before all the evidence is in. In that score, I’ll plead guilty. But I just can’t stop thinking about the above Emerson quote when reflecting on the landslide winner of the Kentucky GOP primary for the U.S. Senate, Rand Paul.
I assume that most of you by now have watched Paul go one-on-one with the host of the Rachel Maddow show shortly after he won the nomination. If you haven’t watched it yet, go to You-Tube and check it out; it’s must-see TV. Maddow had previously obtained information indicating that Paul opposed national legislation to prevent restaurants and other private businesses from discriminating against people on the basis of race, creed, color or sexual preference, and so she asked Paul about his stance on that issue. In fact, she asked Paul to address that issue perhaps ten different times. His answers were a profile in cowardice. Over and over again, Paul ducked the question. Even when she asked it in simple “yes” or “no” terms, he refused to answer. But what he did say, or at least what he strongly implied, confirmed the fears of Maddow’s viewers – while Paul personally opposes racial discrimination, he similarly opposes laws preventing restaurants, hotels and other private establishments from discriminating, at least as long as those private establishments do not accept public funding.
In that sense, Paul is saying the same thing that people like me say with respect to abortion. It’s a bad thing, but it should be legal. Of course, most Americans take that position. By contrast, only a minority believe that motels should be allowed not to admit Jews, or that restaurants should be allowed to showcase segregated lunch counters.
Clearly, Paul was caught in a trap that was set by his thirst for intellectual consistency. Like his father Ron Paul, the former Presidential candidate and resident of the planet Neptune (at least I’m assuming that’s where he obtained his formative influences), the would-be Senator has a thirst for consistency. He’s a small Government guy. He hates the whole idea of Government. So every time the issue comes up as to whether the Government should get involved in our lives, he’ll put one big fat thumb on that part of the scale that says “Hell No!”
What was amazing in his conversation with Maddow was how much he trivialized the issue of racial segregation in restaurants. For Paul, this was clearly an academic debate about an unimportant matter, and in such matters, that big fat thumb will always carry the day. So when asked to say whether he supports laws to prevent restaurants from keeping out blacks, his position, in essence, is “On this merely “academic” issue, there is really not an important enough state interest to cause me to go against my knee-jerk opposition to Government intervention.” By contrast, when it comes to something as important to Paul’s tea-party supporters as abortion rights, in that case, the thumb gets outweighed by Paul’s political instincts. He favors laws prohibiting abortion.
(If you’re wondering whether Paul’s stance on the lunch-counter matter is motivated by out-and-out racism, the jury is still out on that one, though he would vehemently deny such a charge. His father Ron came under scrutiny in that regard after a series of newsletters came out under his name in the late 80s and early 90s. The newsletters, according to a CNN.com report, “include rants against the Israeli lobby, gays, AIDS victims and Martin Luther King Jr. -- described as a ‘pro-Communist philanderer.’ One newsletter, from June 1992, right after the LA riots, says ‘order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks.’ Another says, ‘The criminals who terrorize our cities -- in riots and on every non-riot day -- are not exclusively young black males, but they largely are. As children, they are trained to hate whites, to believe that white oppression is responsible for all black ills, to 'fight the power,' to steal and loot as much money from the white enemy as possible.’”)
When I watched the Maddow-Paul video, what I found especially stupefying was the way in which he attempted to dance around the questions. For me, libertarians – true libertarians, that is – are fundamentalists who are not altogether unlike religious zealots. They see the world very simply and consistently. And part of their charm is their ability, with little need for advanced preparation, to answer just about any question with a concise statement about why, with very few exceptions, Government interference is a bad thing. Maddow obviously identified one of the zillions of situations in which Paul would let private businesses alone. And yet, curiously, he would not admit what he thought. I’m not used to hearing a fundamentalist be so reticent to speak his peace. It was like watching someone ask an Orthodox Jew if he worships a God, only to hear him dodge the question. It was kind of surreal.
The last time I saw a politician look as uncomfortable as Paul was when Palin was on the hot seat in the fall of ’08. You could tell she wanted to say what she thought, but her handlers were clearly trying to put her “on message,” and the result was like a deer in the headlights. Paul seemed virtually as clueless. Maddow had him talking in circles rather than answering a simple question. And yet he didn’t have the mental agility or the guile to skillfully change the subject. So he let her ask him the same question again … and again … and again … and each time he would respond with some ridiculous semi-coherent dodge that wouldn’t even impress a 9th grade civics teacher. If I didn’t fear this guy might actually get elected, given the state where he is running, I would have laughed my head off.
Ironically, though, Paul’s clumsy two-step has got me thinking about the consistency of my own expressed opinions. After all, as a student, and sometimes writer, of philosophy, I’m also included in the same class of consistency-seeking morons that Emerson was talking about. For years, I’ve lamented the lack of representation in the United States Congress among people who are solidly on the left. I have criticized our two-party political system for making it very difficult for unabashed liberals to get elected, while ensuring that the vast majority of our representatives fall within a relatively narrow spectrum with a moderate-conservative center of gravity. Now, here comes a guy who, in his heart, is clearly an honest-to-God libertarian, but he’s afraid to come out and strut his stuff. If he is elected, he would become the only such hard-core libertarian in the Senate. If I were being consistent, wouldn’t I say that the number of libertarians in this country is high enough that they deserve representation in the U.S. Senate – i.e., someone who can air their philosophy whenever the nation is engrossed in an important debate? And shouldn’t I say that Rand Paul, while not exactly a profile in courage, has at least demonstrated enough of a commitment to the libertarian philosophy that he deserves to be elected to the U.S. Senate?
The main problem with answering that last question in the affirmative is that Paul hardly seems smart enough to do his libertarian philosophy justice. I went to college with guys who could run rings around this guy; they actually taught me what libertarianism really means. For starters, you don’t just suck up to powerful moneyed interests in calling for sharp decreases in Government regulation. Nor is it enough to advocate calls for the complete dismantling of such right-wing nemeses as the Department of Education, which Paul would eliminate in a heartbeat. You also call for the overturning of laws that are the darlings of social conservatives, including laws that prohibit drugs and prostitution. Remember: a libertarian is pro-freedom, not simply anti-Government.
While it’s not something Paul likes to talk much about, he has come out in favor of the legalization of medical marijuana and for the federal government to generally turn over the job of regulating drug use to the states or local areas. But if he were a true libertarian, he would have to say that he opposes, say, even local laws that would prohibit healthy people from smoking marijuana or from spending the night with the working-girl of one’s choice. The problem is, Paul doesn’t seem to have the stones to come right out and say that, any more than he was willing to answer Maddow’s questions.
So upon reflecting on the candidacy of Rand Paul, and given my (lame) philosophical desire to be consistent … here’s what I think about Paul’s candidacy: I sure hope that Kentucky goes blue this year. We should have a true libertarian in the Senate. But we need one with the brains to explain his or her philosophy cogently, and with the guts to say what he thinks, whether it pisses off the left or the right. A libertarian who pussy-foots around is a laughing stock, and that is what Paul has turned into in the face of Rachel Maddow’s questioning. If he can’t handle Maddow, he sure won’t be able to handle Schumer. But someday soon, I hope a powerful orator with Paul’s views, only with more brains and guts, explains to this nation why drugs and prostitution should be legal and why the Government should stop telling restaurants who they can serve. I won’t accuse this person of racism any more than I’ll accuse him (or her) of loving drugs and hookers. I’ll simply listen to his political philosophy. We’re a big enough nation to accommodate an orator like that in our most deliberative body. Just please – don’t let such a person even think about running for the White House.