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Civil liberties for (powerful) individuals

Civil liberties for (powerful) individuals January 9, 2012

If you want to protect individual liberty, then you need to protect civil liberties. Those are not the same thing.

I think Corey Robin shouldn’t allow them to be used interchangeably in this piece, “Ron Paul has two problems: one is his, the other is ours“:

Ron Paul has two problems. One is his and the larger conservative movement of which he is a part. The other is ours — by which I mean a left that is committed to both economic democracy and anti-imperialism.

… Our problem — and again by “our” I mean a left that’s social democratic (or welfare state liberal or economically progressive or whatever the hell you want to call it) and anti-imperial — is that we don’t really have a vigorous national spokesperson for the issues of war and peace, an end to empire, a challenge to Israel, and so forth, that Paul has in fact been articulating. The source of Paul’s positions on these issues are not the same as ours (again more reason not to give him our support). But he is talking about these issues, often in surprisingly blunt and challenging terms. Would that we had someone on our side who could make the case against an American empire, or American supremacy, in such a pungent way.

… In the last week, liberals and progressives have been arguing about these issues; Digby has been especially cogent and worth listening to. The only thing I have to add to that debate is this: both sides are right. Not in a the-truth-lies-somewhere-in-between sort of way. Nor in a can’t-we-all-get-along sort of way. No, both sides are right in the sense that I laid out above: Ron Paul is unacceptable, and it’s unacceptable that we don’t have someone on the left who is raising the issues of imperialism, war and peace, and civil liberties in as visible and forceful a way.

I think Dennis Kucinich is an example of someone of Paul’s stature among liberals and progressives who is “raising the issues of imperialism, war and peace, and civil liberties in as visible and forceful a way.”

The parallels between Paul and Kucinich are extensive — similar congressional histories, similar public perception, similar charisma (positive and negative), similar approach to amplifying their influence through outsider presidential runs. Both have made a similar bargain in their political lives, exchanging short-term effectiveness in the hope of creating a less-compromising long-term change. And that bargain has played out for both in similar ways.

Paul gets a bit more attention because he’s perceived as more out-of-line with his own party on those issues, and thus he’s regarded as more exceptional and notable in a man-bites-dog sense. As an anti-imperial, anti-war, pro-civil liberties Democrat, Kucinich may be out-of-step with the current trajectory and momentum of his party, but it’s not particularly remarkable for a person with his views to be a Democrat nor for a Democrat to have his views.

The biggest difference between the two is that Kucinich really does believe in civil liberties. Ron Paul doesn’t.

He just doesn’t. Ask him. Ron Paul believes in individual liberties — and that is not the same thing at all.

If you believe in civil liberties, then you will believe that things like the Civil Rights Act, DADT repeal, marriage equality, hate-crime protections, Ledbetter, etc., are necessary and vital to ensure than non-majority individuals will experience some measure of the freedoms that the powerful enjoy. If you believe only in individual liberties, then you’ll oppose all such measures as Big Government meddling that restricts individual freedom (including the freedom to discriminate).

If you believe only in individual liberty, you can even find yourself in the absurd position of defending the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision as some kind of principled defense of the freedom of speech. If you believe in civil liberties, then in your view that decision is clearly one that gives free rein to the powerful to exercise their rights against the powerless, and thus you will believe that government action is justified to protect the rights of the powerless from being trampled by the powerful.

The basic distinction is that an advocate of individual liberty mainly perceives of the government as a potential threat to individual liberty, whereas an advocate of civil liberty also sees a vital role for the government in constraining the liberty of the powerful to inhibit the liberty of the powerless. The two perspectives overlap quite a bit — both would agree, for example, that torture and indefinite detention by the government are utterly unacceptable — but they also diverge far too dramatically to be used as interchangeable terms.

So I’ll happily commend Ron Paul for being against imperialism and for opposing torture and indefinite detention, but it’s simply incorrect to regard him as a champion of civil liberties.

In any case, for those interested in this still-unfolding blogfight, below the jump is a Ron Paul Reader — a collection of some recent links on the subject that struck me as insightful or interesting or both.

Angry Bear: “Ron Paul Challenges Liberals — or Maybe Not

What Stollar describes as “contradictions within modern liberalism” boils down to liberalism needing big government to be interventionist, as Atkins demonstrates, but not imperialistic.  But this is a totally coherent position. The problem lies not with progressive liberalism, but with the practical realities of managing a power system — which is what government is — in a way that advances the common good, while holding the drive for imperialistic and domestic domination in check. This is going to be a central practical problem with any governing system or political philosophy — at least for one that takes seriously the idea of advancing the common good. To say it is the problem of liberalism is to ignore human nature, political reality, and the entirety of history.

Harold Pollack: “Ron Paul’s other 1964 (okay 1965) problem

Medicare’s first, often-forgotten achievement was to integrate hospitals throughout the south. … Medicare pried open the doors of hitherto segregated facilities, saving the lives of striking numbers of black infants who would otherwise have died from pneumonia, dehydration, and other readily-treated ailments. That was the human reality of segregation that federal civil rights laws, and the major Great Society programs, sought to address.

Thus one confronts what might be called Ron Paul’s other 1964 problem: His opposition to basic pillars of our modern welfare state, which are so essential to maintaining a humane society. Several of these pillars – Medicare and Medicaid principally among them – were established during 1964 and 1965 by the same people who championed civil rights legislation.

… Libertarians deserve credit for noting abuses of government power and for criticizing oversteps such as the drug war. Of course, there’s nothing distinctively libertarian about these specific concerns, which are standard fare among liberal Democrats. The federal government indeed poses worrisome threats to individual liberty. Libertarians err if they presume that federal power is the only or always the most concerning of these threats. Local governments, corporations, intolerant majorities can pose equally worrisome threats, too. There’s just more to fear in this world than are dreamt of in libertarian philosophy.

There is something else, too. Each of us faces risks that would easily crush any one of us, if we were abandoned to face these risks alone. We need to take care of each other. If you don’t believe that, you don’t belong on the stage in American politics. Credible charges of racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism don’t help. In my book, these charges are almost beside the point.

Jonathan Chait: “How Ron Paul’s Libertarian Principles Support Racism

This is an analysis that makes sense only within the airtight confines of libertarian doctrine. It dissipates with even the slightest whiff of exposure to external reality. The entire premise rests upon ignoring the social power that dominant social groups are able to wield outside of the channels of the state. Yet in the absence of government protection, white males, acting solely through their exercise of freedom of contract and association, have historically proven quite capable of erecting what any sane observer would recognize as actual impediments to the freedom of minorities and women.

The most fevered opponents of civil rights in the fifties and sixties — and, for that matter, the most fervent defenders of slavery a century before — also usually made their case in in process terms rather than racist ones. They stood for the rights of the individual, or the rights of the states, against the federal Goliath. I am sure Paul’s motives derive from ideological fervor rather than a conscious desire to oppress minorities. But the relationship between the abstract principles of his worldview and the ugly racism with which it has so frequently been expressed is hardly coincidental.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The Messenger

We are faced with a candidate who published racism under his name, defended that publication when it was convenient, and blamed it on ghost-writers when it wasn’t, whose take on the Civil War is at home with Lost-Causers, and whose take on the Civil Rights Act is at home with segregationists. Ostensibly this is all coincidence, or if it isn’t, it should be excused because Ron Paul is a lone voice speaking on the important issues that plague our nation.

Michael A. Cohen: “The World According to Ron Paul

Paul uneasily falls into a long-silenced tradition in Republican politics of isolationist thought. While Paul is often quick to note that he is not an economic protectionist (and thus, he claims, not an isolationist) he is, says Christopher Nichols, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively on isolationism, more of a political isolationist. He doesn’t want America to turn its back from the world; he wants rather to end all alliances and international arrangements to which the United States is a participant. Indeed, Paul is even more radical in his views than the Idaho Republican Senator William Borah and Ohio Senator Robert Taft, who were the standard bearers of GOP isolationism in the 1930s and 1940s. According to Nichols, Paul’s foreign policy attitudes are much more influenced by his libertarian absolutism than by the legacy of Borah and Taft.

Michelle Goldberg: “Ron Paul’s Christian Reconstructionist Roots

Paul’s support among the country’s most committed theocrats is deep and longstanding, something that’s poorly understood among those who simply see him as a libertarian. That’s why it wasn’t surprising when the Paul campaign touted the endorsement of Phil Kayser, a Nebraska pastor with an Iowa following who calls for the execution of homosexuals. Nor was it shocking to learn that Mike Heath, Paul’s Iowa state director, is a former board chairman of “Americans for Truth About Homosexuality,” which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group. Should Paul win the Iowa caucuses, it will actually be a triumph for a fundamentalist faction that has until now been considered a fringe even on the Christian right.

To understand Paul’s religious-right support, it’s necessary to wade a bit into the theological weeds. Most American evangelicals are premillennial dispensationalists. They believe that God has a special plan for the nation of Israel, which will play a key role in the end of days and the return of Christ. A smaller segment of evangelicals hews to what’s called reformed or covenant theology, which, as Deace explains, “tends to teach that in this day the church is what Israel was in the Old Testament.” In other words, Christians are the new chosen people. Covenant theologians aren’t necessarily anti-Israel, but they don’t give it any special religious significance.

Covenant theologians, it’s important to stress, aren’t more liberal than mainstream evangelicals. In fact, they’re often much further to the right. While dispensationalists believe that Christ will return imminently and establish a biblical reign on earth, covenant theologians tend to believe its man’s job to create Christ’s kingdom before he comes back. The most radical faction of covenant theology is called Christian Reconstructionism, a movement founded by R. J. Rushdoony that seeks to turn the book of Leviticus into law, imposing the death penalty for gay people, blasphemers, unchaste women, and myriad other sinners.

Mainstream figures in the religious right have typically recoiled from Reconstructionists, even as they’ve incorporated ideas that originated in the movement.

Warren Throckmorton has been very good at tracing Paul’s links and appeal to that far-right theological faction. See:

Adele M. Stan: “Major Ron Paul Supporter Favors Death Penalty for Gays

Video: Ron Paul’s 1998 John Birch Society Documentary on the UN Plot to Take Over the USA” (Via David Weigel)

Evan McMorris-Santoro: “With Mixed Results, Ron Paul Tries to Terrify Small Town Iowa

Bouphonia: “Protect the Queen!

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