by Glenn Greenwald
Monday November 12, 2007
(updated below – Update II – Update III – Update IV – Update V – Update VI)
I’m not trying to be Ron Paul’s advocate but, still, outright distortions and smears are distortions and smears. In an otherwise informative and legitimate (and widely-cited) post today about Paul’s record in Congress, Dave Neiwert claims:
Even though he claims to be a “libertarian”, he opposes people’s freedom to burn or destroy their own copies of the design of the U.S. flag.
He then links to two bills which Paul introduced in Congress which would, in essence, amend the Constitution in order to allow prohibitions on flag burning. But Neiwert’s claim here is, in one respect, completely misleading and, in another respect, outright false (in both cases, I assume the error is unintentional). Unlike Hillary Clinton — the Democratic Party front-runner who, “along with Sen. Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican, introduced a bill that would make flag burning illegal” — Ron Paul was and is vehemently against any and all laws to criminalize flag burning, including the constitutional amendment he introduced. He introduced that amendment solely to make a point — one he makes frequently — that the legislation being offered to criminalize flag burning was plainly unconstitutional, and that the only legitimate way to ban flag burning was to amend the First Amendment.
Indeed, he only introduced those flag-burning amendments in order to dare his colleagues who wanted to pass a law banning flag burning to do it that way — i.e., the constitutional way. When introducing his amendments, he delivered an eloquent and impassioned speech on the floor of the House explaining why he considered anti-flag-burning measures to be “very unnecessary and very dangerous.” And he urged his colleagues to vote against them, including the ones he introduced:
As for my viewpoint, I see the amendment as very unnecessary and very dangerous. I want to make a few points along those lines. It has been inferred too often by those who promote this amendment that those who oppose it are less patriotic, and I think that is unfair. . . .
It has also been said that if one does not support this amendment to the flag that they are disloyal to the military, and that cannot possibly be true. I have served 5 years in the military, and I do not feel less respectful of the military because I have a different interpretation on how we should handle the flag. But nevertheless, I think what we are doing here is very serious business because it deals with more than just the flag.
First off, I think what we are trying to achieve through an amendment to the Constitution is to impose values on people — that is, teach people patriotism with our definition of what patriotism is. But we cannot force values on people; we cannot say there will be a law that a person will do such and such because it is disrespectful if they do not, and therefore, we are going to make sure that people have these values that we want to teach.
Values in a free society are accepted voluntarily, not through coercion, and certainly not by law, because the law implies that there are guns, and that means the federal government and others will have to enforce these laws.
Rep. Paul did exactly the same thing with the invasion of Iraq, which he opposed. He argued (accurately) that the only constitutional method for Congress to authorize the President to invade another country was to declare war on that country. The Constitution does not allow the Congress to “authorize” military force without a war declaration. Rep. Paul thus introduced a Declaration of War in the House on the ground that such a Declaration was constitutionally required to invade Iraq — and he then proceeded to vote against the AUMF (because, unlike Hillary Clinton, he actually opposed the invasion). Thus, saying that Paul wants to outlaw flag burning (as Neiwert’s post does) — or that he supported the war in Iraq — is just false. * * * * *
This raises a broader point. It has become fashionable among certain commentators to hurl insults at Ron Paul such as “huge weirdo,” “fruitcake,” and the like. Interestingly, the same thing was done to another anti-war medical doctor/politician, Howard Dean, back in 2003, as Charles Krauthammer infamously pronounced with regard to Dean that “it’s time to check on thorazine supplies.” Krauthammer subsequently said that “[i]t looks as if Al Gore has gone off his lithium again.”
For a long time now, I’ve heard a lot of people ask: “where are the principled conservatives?” — meaning those on the Right who are willing to oppose the constitutional transgressions and abuses of the Bush administration without regard to party loyalty. A “principled conservative” isn’t someone who agrees with liberals on most issues; that would make them a “principled liberal.” A “principled conservative” is someone who aggressively objects to the radicalism of the neocons and the Bush/Cheney assault on our constitution and embraces a conservative political ideology. That’s what Ron Paul is, and it’s hardly a surprise that he holds many views anathema to most liberals. That hardly makes him a “fruitcake.”
Hillary Clinton supported the invasion of a sovereign country that had not attacked us and could not attack us — as did some of the commentators now aggressively questioning Ron Paul’s mental health or, at least, his “seriousness.” She supported the occupation of that country for years — until it became politically unpalatable. That war has killed hundreds of thousands of people at least and wreaked untold havoc on our country. Are those who supported that war extremist, or big weirdos, or fruitcakes?
Or how about her recent support for Joe Lieberman’s Iran warmongering amendment, or her desire to criminalize flag burning, or her vow to strongly consider an attack on Iran if they obtain nuclear weapons? Is all of that sane, normal, and serious?
And I read every day that corporations and their lobbyists are the bane of our country, responsible for most of its ills. What does it say about her that her campaign is fueled in large part by support from exactly those factions? Are she and all of her supporters nonetheless squarely within the realm of the sane and normal? And none of this is to say anything of the Giulianis and Podhoretzs and Romneys and Krauthammers and Kristols with ideas so extreme and dangerous, yet still deemed “serious.”
That isn’t to say that nobody can ever be deemed extremist or even crazy. But I’ve heard Ron Paul speak many times now. There are a lot of views he espouses that I don’t share. But he is a medical doctor and it shows; whatever else is true about him, he advocates his policies in a rational, substantive, and coherent way — at least as thoughtful and critical as any other political figure on the national scene, if not more so. As the anti-Paul New York Sun noted today, Paul has been downright prescient for a long time in warning about the severe devaluation of the dollar.
And — as the above-cited efforts to compel Congress to actually adhere to the Constitution demonstrate — few people have been as vigorous in defense of Constitutional principles as those principles have been mangled and trampled upon by this administration while most of our establishment stood by meekly. That’s just true.
Paul’s efforts in that regard may be “odd” in the sense that virtually nobody else seemed to care all that much about systematic unconstitutional actions, but that hardly makes him a “weirdo.” Sometimes — as the debate over the Iraq War should have demonstrated once and for all — the actual “fruitcake” positions are the ones that are held by the people who are welcome in our most respectable institutions and magazines, both conservative and liberal.
* * * * * *
This whole concept of singling out and labelling as “weirdos” and “fruitcakes” political figures because they espouse views that are held only by a small number of people is nothing more than an attempt to discredit someone without having to do the work to engage their arguments. It’s actually a tactic right out of the seventh grade cafeteria. It’s just a slothful mechanism for enforcing norms.
Under the right circumstances, enforcement of norms might have some utility. Where things are going relatively well, and the country has a healthy political dialogue, perhaps there isn’t much of a need to expand the scope of ideas that we consider “normal.” Having all the people whose views fit comfortably in the mainstream stigmatize as “fruitcakes” all those whose views are outside of the mainstream might, under those happy circumstances, bear little cost.
But our country isn’t doing all that well right now. Our political dialogue isn’t really vibrant or healthy. It seems rather self-evident that it is preferable to enlarge the scope of ideas that we consider and to expand the debates that we engage. The “norms” that have prevailed over the last six years have led the country quite astray and are in need of fundamental re-examination, at the very least. That a political figure (or pundit) clings loyally to prevailing norms isn’t exactly evidence of their worth, let alone their mental health. The contrary proposition might actually be more plausible.
There is something disorienting about watching the same people who cheered much of this on, or who will enthusiastically support for President a candidate who enabled and cheered much of it on, trying to constrict debate by labeling as “weirdos” and “fruitcakes” those who have most aggressively opposed it all. As the debates of 2002 should have proved rather conclusively, the arguments that are deemed to be the province of the weirdos and losers may actually be the ideas that are right. They at least deserve an honest airing, especially in a presidential campaign with as much at stake as this one.
* * * * * *
For anyone with any questions about what this post means and, more importantly, what it does not mean, please see here (Update II).
UPDATE: Bruce Fein is an example of a conservative who — by virtue of his outspoken opposition to Bush lawbreaking — has generated substantial respect among Bush critics, including many liberals. Yet Fein hasn’t changed his views at all. He is, for instance, emphatically pro-life, and rather recently urged that “President George W. Bush should pack the United States Supreme Court with philosophical clones of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas and defeated nominee Judge Robert H. Bork.” Fein is still a hard-core conservative, but a principled one. At least in that regard, I would compare Fein to Paul.
On another note, I wrote in my prior post concerning Paul that I found the efforts (by Neiwert and others) to smear him by linking him to some of his extremist and hate-mongering supporters to be unfair (for reasons I explained here). Neiwert responded and compiled what he thinks is the best evidence to justify this linkage here.
For reasons I’ll detail at another time, I found virtually all of that to be unpersuasive, relying almost entirely on lame guilt-by-association arguments that could sink most if not all candidates (the only arguably disturbing evidence in this regard is this 1996 Houston Chronicle article, which Neiwert didn’t mention, and the pro-Paul response is here). Everyone can review the evidence — all of which is quite old and very little of which relies on any of Paul’s own statements — and make up their own minds.
UPDATE II: Interesting, and otherwise passed on without comment (h/t selise):
UPDATE III: For a sense of how consistently Paul applies his principles regarding the proper role of the federal government, consider his emphatic opposition to a Congressional Gold Medal to be awarded to Ronald and Nancy Reagan, on the ground that “appropriating $30,000 of taxpayer money is neither constitutional nor, in the spirit of Ronald Reagan’s notion of the proper, limited role for the federal government” (on the other hand, his recent vote in favor of the Congressional resolution to condemn MoveOn.org, which he’d presumably justify on the ground that it is non-binding, certainly seems in tension with his underlying view of federal power). There is certainly ample ground to dispute Paul’s view of the proper, constitutional role of the federal versus the state government in various matters. That is probably a worthwhile debate to have. But the claim that Paul’s federalism is just an unprincipled ruse to promote some sort of neo-Nazi or racist agenda is plainly belied by such acts, and is exactly the type of dishonest smear designed to discredit his views without bothering to do the work to engage and refute them.
UPDATE IV: The aforementioned Bruce Fein is legal counsel to the Ron Paul campaign. Liberal pro-choice feminist Naomi Wolf recently sang Paul’s praises, hailing him as “the outsider Republican presidential candidate who has long upheld these [constitutional] values and who was an early voice warning of the grave danger to all of us of these abuses.”
Have Bruce Fein and Naomi Wolf been concealing a neo-Nazi agenda which they are finally able to express through the Ron Paul campaign, or are they simply impressed by the obvious convictions and intense (though rare) passion he brings to issues which they seem to think are of vital importance — restoration of our constitutional framework and the rule of law, along with principled opposition to America’s imperialistic and militarized role in the world?
UPDATE V: There are many hysterical reactions to this post around, attributing to me all sorts of things I didn’t say. But this comment at Orcinus — explaining part of the appeal of some of Ron Paul’s positions while disagreeing with much of what I wrote — is quite insightful, though I don’t concur with all of it.
UPDATE VI: On all of these topics, HTML Mencken adds some important insights.
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