December 19, 2011
So the story of Ron Paul's alleged racism is once more making the rounds. First surfacing in 2008 as a result of James Kirchick's reporting in The New Republic, its most recent iteration is an article by Jonathan Chait, a wretched corporatist Democrat whose motivation in rehashing Kirchick's story was probably concern that Paul's positions on the wars, drug policy and the like would embarrass Chait's beloved commander in chief (Chait has recently written on how liberals are afraid of power, a phobia that his unrelenting sycophancy seems geared towards proving he does not possess). Though the charges are old, their re-emergence is nonetheless a salutary development, as Paul's star has risen in recent months with the eruption of class anger against Wall St and the perpetual implosion of the Republican primary field. Given this (undeserved) street cred, it's useful for people to be reminded of Paul's entanglements with racism and other odious discourses. The gist of the story is that Paul published a series of newsletters in the 1980s and 1990s (which ended up providing much of the seed money with which he launched his political career) that contained a whole host of rather nasty bits on pretty much every oppressed group in American society. Chait gives us a small sample:
This "Special Issue on Racial Terrorism" was hardly the first time one of Paul's publications had raised these topics. As early as December 1989, a section of his Investment Letter, titled "What To Expect for the 1990s," predicted that "Racial Violence Will Fill Our Cities" because "mostly black welfare recipients will feel justified in stealing from mostly white 'haves.'" Two months later, a newsletter warned of "The Coming Race War," and, in November 1990, an item advised readers, "If you live in a major city, and can leave, do so. If not, but you can have a rural retreat, for investment and refuge, buy it." In June 1991, an entry on racial disturbances in Washington, DC's Adams Morgan neighborhood was titled, "Animals Take Over the D.C. Zoo." "This is only the first skirmish in the race war of the 1990s," the newsletter predicted. In an October 1992 item about urban crime, the newsletter's author–presumably Paul–wrote, "I've urged everyone in my family to know how to use a gun in self defense. For the animals are coming." That same year, a newsletter described the aftermath of a basketball game in which "blacks poured into the streets of Chicago in celebration. How to celebrate? How else? They broke the windows of stores to loot." The newsletter inveighed against liberals who "want to keep white America from taking action against black crime and welfare," adding, "Jury verdicts, basketball games, and even music are enough to set off black rage, it seems."
Such views on race also inflected the newsletters' commentary on foreign affairs. South Africa's transition to multiracial democracy was portrayed as a "destruction of civilization" that was "the most tragic [to] ever occur on that continent, at least below the Sahara"; and, in March 1994, a month before Nelson Mandela was elected president, one item warned of an impending "South African Holocaust." …
The newsletters were particularly obsessed with AIDS, "a politically protected disease thanks to payola and the influence of the homosexual lobby," and used it as a rhetorical club to beat gay people in general. In 1990, one newsletter approvingly quoted "a well-known Libertarian editor" as saying, "The ACT-UP slogan, on stickers plastered all over Manhattan, is 'Silence = Death.' But shouldn't it be 'Sodomy = Death'?" Readers were warned to avoid blood transfusions because gays were trying to "poison the blood supply." "Am I the only one sick of hearing about the 'rights' of AIDS carriers?" a newsletter asked in 1990. That same year, citing a Christian-right fringe publication, an item suggested that "the AIDS patient" should not be allowed to eat in restaurants and that "AIDS can be transmitted by saliva," which is false.
Going over the material here again, I found myself wondering how Paul's supporters attempted to defend such rank filth. This lead me to Julian Sanchez & Dave Weigel's article, 'Who Wrote Ron Paul's Newsletters?' Weigel is a libertarian writer, but someone I nonetheless respect as he has, in the past, shown himself to be perfectly willing to confront racism in conservative ranks. He continues that work in this piece, which treats the newsletters as the abomination that they are, but also reveals that the question of their authorship is not straightforward. Paul maintains he has no idea who wrote the offending pieces, and has repudiated the sentiments contained therein. The smart money appears to be on one Llewellyn Rockwell, Jr, a mainstay on the libertarian right in the US for forty years and a longtime associate of Paul's. As Sanchez and Weigel point out, this doesn't exactly exonerate the candidate. Even if Paul himself is not a racist, he was undeniably willing to profit off of the vilest sort of racial obloquy. However, they also contend that even if Paul has failed to come clean about his past, his current conduct, such as his willingness to call out the racism of the war on drugs, evince a clear repudiation of any association with racism. To me, this is less than convincing. I am not the least bit interested in what Paul believes in his heart of hearts. His political conduct reveals that he is more than willing to draw on the language of white supremacy when he thinks it will benefit his cause, and equally willing to discard it when he believes it will not. The best one can say of Paul after reading Sanchez and Weigel's reporting is that he is a consummate opportunist.
What interested me most about their piece, however, was not their evaluation of Paul, but rather the peek they afford into the racial politics of American liberatarianism. Lew Rockwell, it turns out, is no minor crank. He is the founder and chairman of the board of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a think tank that aspires to be a sort of organizing center for right-wing libertarians and the most important institution for disseminating the ideas of Austrian economics. Reading some of Rockwell's publications, the likelihood that he was responsible for penning the words quoted above appears high. Rockwell has a habit of publishing openly white supremacist material, such as this gem from Samuel Francis:
In the first place, the natural differentiation of the races in intellectual capacities implies that of the two major races in the United States today, only one possesses the inherent capacity to create and sustain the level of civilization that has historically characterized its homelands in Europe and America [note: this is level of civilization of which Francis is so proud]….And secondly, the recognition of racial realities implies that most of the efforts now deployed to combat racism…are misplaced, based on a profound misconception of racial capacities…Those policies and laws are the fruit of a discredited egalitarian mythology that animates the federal leviathan's perpetual war against civil society and debilitates white resistance to the gathering storm of racial revolution that the enemies, white and non-white, of the white race and its civilization now openly preach and prepare. (Qtd. in Jean Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment, 173)
This appeared in the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, a publication Rockwell edited with Murray Rothbard. Rothbard is the single most important figure, after von Mises and Hayek themselves, in the strains of libertarian thought that claim adherence to Austrian principles , and is the subject of breathless adulation by his followers (the account linked to reminds me of nothing so much as the old Stalinist mythology of Lenin, in which young Ilyich, upon hearing of his brother's execution for populist terrorism, exclaimed 'No, we will not follow that road. That is not the road to take,' and, presto! Bolshevism was born). As would befit a man with such a reputation for individualism and creativity, Rothbard didn't merely publish the racist views of others: he penned a number himself. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rothbard and Rockwell devised a political strategy for American libertarians that hoped to inflame class and racial resentments among white Americans in the hopes of turning them against the welfare state, the Federal Reserve, and all the other bogeymen of the libertarian imagination. The fruits of this strategy are not pretty. Take, for example, Rothbard's manifesto for this orientation, the 1992 essay 'Right-Wing Populism.' In it, he laments the 'massive scare campaign' mounted against David Duke, the former klansman and inveterate racist who briefly rose to prominence in Republican politics in Louisiana.
For Rothbard, Duke's ascendency confirmed the potential of a libertarian politics fused with racial resentment: 'It is fascinating that there was nothing in Duke's current program or campaign that could not also be embraced by paleoconservatives or paleo-libertarians; lower taxes, dismantling the bureaucracy, slashing the welfare system, attacking affirmative action and racial set-asides, calling for equal rights for all Americans, including whites: what's wrong with any of that?' (The notion that one must call for equal rights for whites, of course, implies that whites are currently oppressed, a proposition at the core of contemporary white supremacist discourse.) Rothbard proposed that libertarians embark on a two-pronged strategy. First, 'build up a cadre of our own libertarians, minimal-government opinion-moulders, based on correct ideas', and second, 'tap the masses directly, to short-circuit the dominant media and intellectual elites, to rouse the masses of people against the elites that are looting them, and confusing them, and oppressing them, both socially and economically.' This distinction between an esoteric and exoteric knowledge is, of course, a familiar one in conservative intellectual history. In Rothbard's case, the libertarian intelligentsia, imbued with the all-powerful understanding of Ludwig von Mises Thought, will use their correct ideas to shape society, while the roused masses will perform the work of tearing down the existing statist institutions. For Rothbard, the arousal of the masses is best accomplished through appeals to racism. Libertarians should remind the masses that 'The reality of the current system is that it constitutes an unholy alliance of "corporate liberal" Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle and working classes in America.'
He goes on to propose a list of eight programmatic demands for the new populist libertarianism, which includes items such as 'Slash Welfare. Get rid of underclass rule by abolishing the welfare system, or, short of abolition, severely cutting and restricting it.' ; 'Abolish Racial or Group Privileges. Abolish affirmative action, set aside racial quotas, etc., and point out that the root of such quotas is the entire "civil rights" structure, which tramples on the property rights of every American.' ;
'Take Back the Streets: Crush Criminals. And by this I mean, of course, not "white collar criminals" or "inside traders" but violent street criminals – robbers, muggers, rapists, murderers. Cops must be unleashed, and allowed to administer instant punishment, subject of course to liability when they are in error.' ; and 'Take Back the Streets: Get Rid of the Bums. Again: unleash the cops to clear the streets of bums and vagrants. Where will they go? Who cares? Hopefully, they will disappear, that is, move from the ranks of the petted and cosseted bum class to the ranks of the productive members of society.' As Rothbard's fascoid rhetoric about the police reveals, he is more than happy to compromise on aspects of supposed libertarian principle to accomplish the goal of rousing the masses against the dusky statist parasites. Appeals to tradition similarly trump libertarian theory, as Rothbard indicates a willingness to compromise on 'such vexed problems as pornography, prostitution, or abortion. Here, pro-legalization and pro-choice libertarians should be willing to compromise on a decentralist stance; that is, to end the tyranny of the federal courts, and to leave these problems up to states and better yet, localities and neighborhoods, that is, to "community standards."' Of course, as Corey Robin has argued, such private and local forms of authority have historically been the most important sources of authoritarianism in the US.
'Right-Wing Populism' was far from Rothbard's only venture into race-baiting. In the sickeningly titled 'Their Malcolm…and Mine,' Rothbard expostulates on Malcolm X and the legacy of Black nationalism. Engaging in the venerable white supremacist tradition of complaining about the injustice of a holiday for Dr. King, Rothbard raises the spectre of a holiday for Malcolm and cries out in anguish, 'Isn't "Dr." King for Heaven's sake, enough?' Later, he exalts Malcolm at King's expense, writing 'he was not a fraudulent intellectual with a rococo Black Baptist minister style, like "Dr." King.' The Tea Party's obsession with the credentials of a certain prominent African American is, it appears, not a new phenomenon on the American right. But even worse than Rothbard's contempt for King is his praise for Malcolm: 'He carried himself with great pride and dignity; his speaking style was incisive and sparkled with intelligence and sardonic wit. In short, his attraction for blacks was and is that he acted white. It is a ridiculous liberal cliché that blacks are just like whites but with a different skin color; but in Malcolm's case, regardless of his formal ideology, it really seemed to be true.' Rarely have more offensive words been offered as approbation.
Most peculiarly, Rothbard, who was himself Jewish, appears to have been something of an anti-semite. His own self-description of himself was as 'a pro-Christian Jew who thinks that everything good in Western Civilization is traceable to Christianity' (paging Anders Breivik). His defence of Holocaust denier Pat Buchanan contains the unpleasant assertion that 'Rosenthal's [one of Buchanan's Jewish foes] proboscis tells him that Pat is an anti-Semite.' An essay of his on Origins of the Welfare State in America evinces a disconcerting interest in the Jewishness of many of the players in the story. An associate of Rothbard's, who wrote a piece entitled 'Why must Christians routinely grovel and apologize for crimes against Jews which they never committed?', recounted that 'It is not Christian anti-semitism, but, as Murray Rothbard used to note, Jewish goy-bashing which has become the characteristic act of tastelessness in our time.'
Rothbard's apparent anti-semitism has provoked the expected response from his acolytes: He's Jewish! This is hardly a serious defense. Anyone who believes that Jews cannot be anti-semites is obviously unacquainted with the writings of Gilad Atzmon. More generally, Rothbard and his supporters have argued that it is impossible for him to be a racist, since racism is a 'collectivist' ideology, and Rothbard was a principled individualist. This is roughly on the same level as a misogynist arguing it is impossible for him to hate women, because his mother was one. Rothbard was undeniably willing to spread racist ideology to further his political ends, at the very least. Moreover, even if we accept the questionable assertion that libertarianism and racism are logically incompatible, there are a multitude of ways the two can still co-exist. Rothbard could simply be an inconsistent libertarian. Or, he could fail to recognize his own beliefs as racist. Regardless of its insufficiency, however, this defense at least has the virtue of raising the issue of the relation of political theory to racist canons of knowledge. For as profoundly as the ideology of white supremacy appears to have suffused the American libertarian movement, I would at least be willing to grant that there is no necessary logical connection between libertarianism and racism.
Why, then, have the two had the relationship they have? One answer is suggested by Rothbard's own writings. In his review of that infamous tome of racist pseudo-science, The Bell Curve, Rothbard raves about how the book has scientifically established the 'almost self-evident fact that individuals, ethnic groups, and races differ among themselves in intelligence and in many other traits, and that intelligence, as well as less controversial traits of temperament, are in large part hereditary.' For Rothbard, this is a development to be celebrated. Why?
Two reasons we have already mentioned; to celebrate the victory of freedom of inquiry and of truth for its own sake; and a bullet through the heart of the egalitarian-socialist project. But there is a third reason as well: as a powerful defense of the results of the free market. If and when we as populists and libertarians abolish the welfare state in all of its aspects, and property rights and the free market shall be triumphant once more, many individuals and groups will predictably not like the end result. In that case, those ethnic and other groups who might be concentrated in lower-income or less prestigious occupations, guided by their socialistic mentors, will predictably raise the cry that free-market capitalism is evil and "discriminatory" and that therefore collectivism is needed to redress the balance. In that case, the intelligence argument will become useful to defend the market economy and the free society from ignorant or self-serving attacks. In short; racialist science is properly not an act of aggression or a cover for oppression of one group over another, but, on the contrary, an operation in defense of private property against assaults by aggressors.
'An operation in defense of private property.' I doubt that racialist science has ever received such an honest description from one of its partisans. Here, it seems to me, lies the crux of the affinity between libertarianism and racism. By arguing so strenuously that markets are the most efficient and most just form of social organization, libertarians tend to be unwilling to attribute the continued racial stratification of American society to the operation of markets. With this explanation unavailable, others must be found. Now obviously a belief in Black inferiority is not the only other option here. Some libertarians argue that, ironically, it is anti-poverty programs themselves that perpetuate racial stratification, as they eliminate the incentives to work hard, save, etc, and thus hurt the very people they were implemented to help. But even this genteel version of the argument has inbuilt tendencies towards racist scapegoating, as this sort of talk inevitably seems to descend into descriptions of a 'culture of poverty' and other ugly tropes. What begins as a structural explanation slides all too easily into an argument about the deficiencies of racial minorities themselves. As Rothbard's example shows, however, some strains of libertarian thought embrace racism full stop, arguing that racial stratification is simply the expression of the genetic superiority of the white race. The market simply articulates what is written in our genes. Thus, while considered as abstract propositions, there may be no necessary relationship between libertarian thought and racism, in the historical conditions in which both exist, there does exist an elective affinity between the two.
At the same time, Rothbard's writings also evince a deep libidinal investment in white supremacy. His fantasies about police violence being unleashed on vagrants and muggers reveal a real sadism, a desire to see non-white bodies broken. This emotional connection to the politics of white supremacy is connected with, but not reducible to, the elective affinity described above. Here, Corey Robin's recent writing about conservatism seems relevant. Robin argues that conservatism is always a defense of threatened hierarchies. It is 'a meditation on–and theoretical rendition of–the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.' For Robin, this is the unifying thread linking family values, the free market, imperialism, and racism. Clearly not every strand of conservatism embraces all of these causes, but what links all of them are a defense of a certain hierarchy – be it in the workplace, in the family, or between nations. Libertarianism fits in here as a defense of the subordination of employers to bosses, but also more generally as an endorsement of a hierarchical society. Libertarian polemics narrate a heroic tale of productive entrepreneurial ubermenschen and their parasitic antagonists. In these stories, those at the top of society deserve everything that has come to them, as do those on the bottom. Hierarchy is valorized a moral good. This gesture is generalized from economic life to life in general in Rothbard's beloved essay 'Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature.' Here, in the course of arguing that Leftist egalitarianism is morally abhorrent, Rothbard slips into a long excursus on the inferiority of women, arguing that the universality of women's oppression is itself the greatest proof of male superiority. The emotional attachment to hierarchy in libertarian polemic, though it may originally center on the workplace, seems easily extendable to other forms of hierarchy as well.
Ron Paul's newsletters are thus not an aberration in the political tradition with which he is affiliated. American libertarian thought has some deep entanglements with racism, a fact which is unsurprising when one considers the origins of many of the movement's favorite tropes in the defense of the slavocracy. Even if some strains are less enamored with white supremacy than the American Austrians (reason magazine seems quite committed to racial egalitarianism, while the CATO Institute tends instead to promote the sort of historical revisionism that counterposes Martin Luther King and the 'good' civil rights movement against the 'bad' movement for things like affirmative action), the veneration for the market that is always at the heart of libertarian thought contains real affinities with the tradition of white supremacy. Taking a long view of American history, it does not seem too much to say they were made for each other.