You Say You Want a Revolution?

May 14, 2008

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You Say You Want a Revolution?

Under Consideration: Ron Paul, The Revolution: A Manifesto, Grand Central Publishing (2008), 173 pages. 

John Quincy Adams, whose wise counsel about America going “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy” is naturally quoted in Ron Paul’s post-campaign manifesto, The Revolution, also provided what may, on some (distant, we may hope) day, be the epitaph on Representative Paul’s congressional career:  “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

Ron Paul votes alone and has done so for almost 10 terms now. Most men, faced with such vocational isolation, would have given in to despair or booze or golf long ago. Paul’s irrepressibility is a marvel. Yet how stunned he must have been when in late 2007, midway through what appeared to be a quixotic campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, running as that curious thing, an antiwar Republican, he attracted SRO crowds and shattered records for internet fund-raising. The solitary man had tossed his message in a bottle out onto a wave, and back came tens of thousands of replies.

Votes? Well, that was another story, though he showed well in several caucus states in the libertarian West, and he has a following in the rural Northeast and upper Midwest, too.

Young people especially responded to Paul’s brand of plainspoken, no-bullshit libertarianism. He has that “educating for liberty” style that I associate with the 1950s-‘60s-era Foundation for Economic Education and its monthly The Freeman, upon which many a young libertarian cut his eyeteeth reading gentle homilies about the harmonies of free exchange and the impossibility of socialist planning. Those go-go-Goldwater kids devouring The Freeman grew up to form the core of the Reagan doctrinaires. Well, no one ever said they had good judgement. It’s hard to stay sharp when you’ve OD’d on Leonard Read.

Goldwater to Reagan to Paul: one generation got old, one generation got sold, and now Ron Paul has given his volunteers of America this “long-term manifesto based on ideas, and perhaps some short-term marching orders.”

The Revolution is what the blurbists used to call a runaway bestseller. It is simply impossible to imagine another also-ran achieving such success in his campaign’s afterglow. (The Pensees of Joe Biden?)

Paul had long been a fixture of the hard-money libertarian right, but the response to his message seems to have extended his vision.  He (and the uncredited aides who I assume helped him write the book) describes those who rallied to his banner as “Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Greens, constitutionalists, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, antiwar activists, homeschoolers, religious conservatives, freethinkers.” (Why, one wonders, omit Libertarians?) Despite their differences, “these folks typically found, to their surprise, that they rather liked each other.”

Of course. Why shouldn’t a homeschooling organic-farming family be welcome in—be exemplars of—a coalition for peace and liberty?

Paul writes hopefully of a left-right alliance that bypasses the grifters and grafters who have clawed their way into positions as supposititious “leaders” always ready to sell out for thirty pieces of foundation silver.  “Liberals at the grass roots ... have been deeply alienated by the various betrayals by which a movement they once supported has made its peace with the establishment,” he asserts.  Where are the courageous McGoverns and McCarthys of today’s liberal Democracy who will stand with Ron Paul against “undeclared wars without end, more and more police-state measures, and a Constitution that may as well not exist”? He invokes the shade of the late Idaho Democrat Frank Church on the dangers of government surveillance, and Church, whatever his flaws, was a pro-gun Westerner who saw himself as in some sense an heir of the great populist Sen. William Borah. Compare Senator Church with current Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, whom Paul quotes as remarking, “Some people in this chamber love the Constitution more than they love the safety of this nation. We should all send President Bush a letter thanking him for protecting us.”
    
What a dipshit.
    
Any candidate who wanders from the imperial reservation eventually bumps into the invisible fence of American political discourse. As Paul writes, “Dissenters who tell their fellow citizens what is really going on are subject to smear campaigns that, like clockwork, are aimed at the political heretic. Truth is treason in the empire of lies.”

Paul, it must admitted, gave the “smearbund” an opening via what appears to be the only significant lapse in judgement in his career: his (probably absentee) editorship of a newsletter in which stupid and/or offensive racial jokes occasionally appeared in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Paul is fallible. He made a mistake. But the gravity of this error pales in comparison to supporting the obscene Iraq War, as did every one of his opponents for the Republican nomination.
    
(Paul makes no reference to the newsletters in The Revolution, though he does say that racism is “a disorder of the heart” and “a particularly odious form of collectivism whereby individuals are treated not on their merits but on the basis of group identity.”)

The Revolution is an able libertarian primer based on Paul’s credo that “individuals have a right to life and liberty and that physical aggression should be used only defensively.” The programmatic expression thereof, according to Paul, is “liberty, self-government, the Constitution, and a noninterventionist foreign policy.” He makes no effort to camouflage the radicalism of his views: The draft is “totalitarian.” The federal drug war has “dangerous and undesirable domestic consequences” and should be called off. Given his druthers, the cabinet would be shrunk to the triad of the departments of State, Defense, and Justice. All other governmental functions would be returned to the states and the people. 

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In the section on economics, he invokes the laissez-faire pantheon: Bastiat, Hayek, Mises, Nozick, Chodorov, Friedman. He outlines a voluntaristic alternative to the dole, scorning “the soul-killing logic of the welfare state: somebody else is doing it for me. I don’t need to give of myself, since a few scribbles on a tax form fulfill my responsibility toward my fellow man.” He also discourses at length on the monetary question, a subject on which I am so abysmally ignorant that I could pass for a Fox News anchor.
    
He’s just “following the Constitution,” Ron Paul says in his aw-shucks manner—which is “the one option Americans are never permitted to hear.”

Indeed, the barrenness of American political discussion was thrown into relief by Paul’s presence in the debates. He would speak in the lost language of constitutionalism, and the McCains and Giulianis would look at him as though he had just announced that he was from Uranus. The snickers, the rolling of eyes—one almost expected a Cuckoo’s Nest-ian orderly to walk onto the stage and wrap Congressman Paul in a straitjacket. None of his opponents would have protested. The price of freedom, as Gore Vidal says, is eternal discretion.

The narrowness of a political realm whose limits are demarcated by Arthur Schlesinger’s ghost and Bill Bennett’s ghostwriter galls Paul. “For heaven’s sake,” he asks, “what kind of debate is it in which all sides agree that America needs troops in 130 countries?”

Paul quotes George Washington—“Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?”—as well as Jefferson’s inaugural address commending to his countrymen, “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

He denies that this advice is obsolete, for “the principles enshrined in the Constitution do not change.” No foreign aid, no interference in the affairs of other nations, no conscription, no entangling alliances, trade and cultural exchanges with all nations, a drastically reduced defense budget that is actually applied to the defense of our country: this is the Paulian foreign policy.

He praises Senator Robert A. Taft, the digging up of whose body is a capital crime in the capital. He calls himself a Taft Republican, which is a cousin-german to a Grover Cleveland Democrat—both endangered species in an age overrun by the Limbaugh-O’Reilly “conservatives” who have pullulated like triffids.

Paul refuses to give up on his party, and as a lifelong Democrat who am I to criticize him for that? He emphasizes his conservative lineage, quoting Russell Kirk, Felix Morley, Robert Nisbet, and Richard Weaver, and noting that the “most significant traditional conservatives in the postwar period were all wary of militarism to one degree or another.”

Alas, the “conservative movement,” once a hodgepodge containing men of learning and character like Kirk and Nisbet as well as the gaggle of (“ex”) Trotskyists and Stalinists out to slay the god that failed (and slay the American republic, too), “now tolerates and even encourages anti-intellectualism and jingoism that would have embarrassed earlier generations of conservative thinkers.” What can be done with such a movement other than pitching a last shovelful of dirt over the corpse, mumbling a few prayers, and walking into the sunlight?

As for the word “isolationist,” which I’ve always thought had a nice pacific ring to it, Rep. Paul gives taxonomic reversal the old college try. He tags the unilateral bullies of the Bush administration “isolationists” and avers, “I favor the very opposite of isolation: diplomacy, free trade, and freedom of travel.” And ‘tis true that the “isolationist” Paul was the only GOP presidential hopeful to support lifting sanctions against Cuba.
He fires off this nice line: “Mine is an ‘isolationist’ position only to those who believe that the world’s peoples can interact with each other only through their governments, or only through the intermediary of a supranational bureaucracy.”
There isn’t much in this book about the campaign. Paul may have inspired a nascent revolution but he is hardly a presence in The Revolution. He doesn’t tell stories from the trail; he doesn’t crack jokes.  The most memorable personal tale he tells is of watching in horror as a medical resident at the University of Pittsburgh in the mid-‘60s, when a six-month-old aborted fetus was dumped “in a bucket in the corner of the room. The baby tried to breathe, and tried to cry, and everyone in the room pretended the baby wasn’t there.”

Paul is a pro-life federalist. That is, he is a constitutionalist who would return the question of the legality of abortion and drugs and gay marriage and other vexatious social issues to the states. Federalism is the plank on which a left-right anti-imperialist alliance could balance. Will it work? I’ll get back to you after California legalizes dope and Louisiana bans abortion.

When, in the run up to Iraq War II, Representative Paul proposed that the Congress at least observe Article I, Section 8 and make a formal declaration of war, House International Relations Committee chairman Henry Hyde (R-IL) responded, “There are things in the Constitution that have been overtaken by events, by time. Declaration of war is one of them. There are things no longer relevant to a modern society. We are saying to the president, use your judgment. [What you have proposed is] inappropriate, anachronistic; it isn’t done any more.”

Hyde was laureled; Paul is libeled. He must feel sometimes like Charlton Heston being mocked and snorted over by the smug simians in “Planet of the Apes.”
    
His capacity for remaining undiscouraged is extraordinary. Talk about audacious hope: Ron Paul thinks the republic is salvageable. “We have not had a foreign policy that is proper to a republic for many, many years, and it is long past time that we reestablished one,” he says. Amen, brother.     

What a shame this man will not be elected president.

Bill Kauffman’s Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism  has just been released by Holt/Metropolitan.

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