Newsletter controversy still hanging around Ron Paul

Much has been made in recent days about the newsletters that were written in Ron Paul’s name some 20 years ago. A few of us here have weighed in on the controversy, and you’ve no doubt seen it on other blogs; some believing Paul’s explantion of the events, others using it as yet another opportunity to criticize him.

As I recently noted, I plan on voting for Ron Paul in the March 6th primary in my home state of Georgia. However, I also made mention of some issues I have with him, though I only mentioned his love of earmarks. Another point that was in the back of my mind when I wrote that post was the newsletters.

Personally, I don’t believe Paul wrote the newsletters. Did he know about their content? I think that is debatable. Do I believe that Paul is a racist or anti-gay? Absolutely not. As he has so frequently said, though he is borrowing from Ayn Rand, to be a racist is to view people as groups, not individuals; and that is anathema to the libertarian viewpoint. Paul also voted to get rid of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which prevented gays from serving openly in the military.

Nevertheless, this controversy has again caused somewhat of a headache for libertarians since the man who is largely carrying our mantle is being cast as a racist — or, at the very least, someone who associates with them. Steve Horwitz explains the dilemma:

By the mid-80s though, conservatism was hot, thanks to Reagan, and the internal strife of the movement pitted Murray Rothbard against the Koch Brothers, with the accusation by Rothbard that the liberal libertarians were undermining the movement’s ability to appeal to a broader audience thanks to their supposed libertinism.  Murray wanted the hippies out.  The irony here was that it was the Koch controlled parts that were (largely) the source of the left-deviation that pissed Rothbard off.  Today, of course, the sin of the Kochs is that they’re too conservative.  (Ever get the feeling that if the Kochs said the sky was blue….anyway, I digress.)

This led to the paleolibertarian strategy by the end of the decade after Rothbard broke with the Kochs and helped Lew Rockwell found the Mises Institute (originally located on Capitol Hill – right smack inside the hated beltway, it’s worth noting).  The paleo strategy, as laid out here by Rockwell, was clearly designed to create a libertarian-conservative fusion exactly along the lines Jacob lays out in his post.  It was about appealing to the worst instincts of working/middle class conservative whites by creating the only anti-left fusion possible with the demise of socialism:  one built on cultural issues.  With everyone broadly agreeing that the market had won, how could you hold together a coalition that opposed the left?  Oppose them on the culture.  If you read Rockwell’s manifesto through those eyes, you can see the “logic” of the strategy.  And it doesn’t take a PhD in Rhetoric to see how that strategy would lead to the racism and other ugliness of newsletters at the center of this week’s debates.

The paleo strategy was a horrific mistake, both strategically and theoretically, though it apparently made some folks (such as Rockwell and Paul) pretty rich selling newsletters predicting the collapse of Western civilization at the hands of the blacks, gays, and multiculturalists.  The explicit strategy was abandoned by around the turn of the century, but not after a lot of bad stuff had been written in all kinds of places.  There was way more than the Ron Paul newsletters.  There was the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, which was another major place publishing these sorts of views.  They could also be found in a whole bunch of Mises Institute publications of that era.  It was the latter that led me to ask to be taken off the Institute’s mailing list in the early 1990s, calling them “a fascist fist in a libertarian glove.”  I have never regretted that decision or that language.  What the media has in their hands is only the tip of the iceberg of the really unsavory garbage that the paleo turn produced back then.

Through it all though, Ron Paul was a constant.  He kept plugging away, first at the center of the paleo strategy as evidenced by the newsletters.  To be clear, I am quite certain he did not write them.  There is little doubt that they were written by Rockwell and Rothbard.  People I know who were on the inside at the time confirm it and the style matches pretty well to those two and does not match to Ron Paul.  Paul knows who wrote them too, but he’s protecting his long-time friend and advisor, unfortunately.  And even more sadly, Rockwell doesn’t have the guts to confess and end this whole megillah.  So although I don’t think Ron Paul is a racist, like Archie Bunker, he was willing to, metaphorically, toast a marshmallow on the cross others were burning.

Even after the paleo strategy was abandoned, Ron was still there walking the line between “mainstream” libertarianism and the winking appeal to the hard right courted by the paleo strategy.  Paul’s continued contact with the fringe groups of Truthers, racists, and the paranoid right are well documented.  Even in 2008, he refused to return a campaign contribution of $500 from the white supremacist group Stormfront.  You can still go to their site and see their love for Ron Paul in this campaign and you can find a picture of Ron with the owner of Stormfront’s website. Even if Ron had never intentionally courted them, isn’t it a huge problem that they think he is a good candidate?  Doesn’t that say something really bad about the way Ron Paul is communicating his message?  Doesn’t it suggest that years of the paleo strategy of courting folks like that actually resonated with the worst of the right?  Paul also maintained his connection with the Mises Institute, which has itself had numerous connections with all kinds of unsavory folks: more racists, anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers, the whole nine yards.  Much of this stuff was ably documented in 2007 and 2008 by the Right Watch blog.  Hit that link for more.

Those of us who watched all of this happen over two decades knew it would come back to haunt us and so it has, unfortunately just as Ron Paul and libertarianism are on the cusp of something really amazing.  And that only goes to show what a mistake the paleo strategy was:  imagine if the newsletters were not an issue and Paul were to win Iowa.  Yeah, he might get ignored, but he would not be the easy media target he is now, nor would all of libertarianism pay a potential price.  The legions of young people supporting Paul did not come in via the paleo strategy; they came because libertarianism in general is on the rise in all kinds of venues (and yes, the Mises Institute’s post-paleo influence is important here, but it’s hardly the only institution that matters).  These young people, for the most part, are surprised by all of this dirty laundry.  That, in my view, is the real tragedy:  I think libertarianism could have got to this point just as fast, maybe faster, without the toxic baggage of the paleo strategy.

So why deal with this now, when libertarianism is so hot?  Because those newsletters are not what libertarianism is and the sooner and louder we make that clear, the better.  There are too many young people who don’t understand all of this and who we need to help see the alternative liberal vision of libertarianism – and to understand that “liberal libertarianism” is radical, principled, and humane and not “beltway selling out.”  To do that, we need to confront the past and explicitly reject it.  That doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting Ron Paul in electoral politics, but it does mean that we cannot pretend the past doesn’t exist and it means that Paul and the others involved need to do the right thing and take explicit responsibility for what they said two decades ago.  That has not happened yet.  Then we need a complete and utter rejection of the paleo world-view and we need to create a movement that will simply not be attractive to racists, homophobes, anti-Semites etc., by emphasizing, as we have done at this blog, libertarianism’s liberal roots.

What we need right now is Rothbard’s vision of a free society as sketched in For a New Liberty, but we need it defended better.  More carefully.  More richly.  More empirically.  More humanely. More progressively.  More tolerantly. With better scholarship.  And we have to do it in a way that’s immune to the charge that libertarians don’t care about making the world a better place, especially for the least well off and those historically victimized by the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation, or anything else that’s irrelevant to their moral status as human actors.

Part of this is the lack of understanding of Politics 101. While the Paul campaign has improved over significant from 2008, the newsletter controversy is still being handled poorly. And the lack of a decent response to the story shows that they aren’t trying to make a serious effort outside of Iowa and New Hampshire (polls in other early states seem to reflect that).

Another problem with the newsletter controversy is that it’s “inside baseball” in the libertarian movement. We can all name who we think the author of the newsletters was, and most people are going to say, “Who?” and point to the fact that Ron Paul’s name appears on them. One of the first rules you learn in politics is that with the public perception is often reality, whether it’s fair or not.

My vote for Ron Paul will be based on what I’ve known of the man in the public view for the last several years, including his consistency on the issues and his belief in capitalism. The newsletters are an unfortunate part of his past. They certainly don’t reflect my views or the views of most of his supporters.

This primary is based, for me at least, on ideas. Who is going to promote limited government and the Constitution? We’ve seen time and time again that the other candidates aren’t willing to do that. They want to carve exceptions anytime some sort of crisis arises. Paul has been steady, and I can appreciate that.


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