Friday, December 30, 2011

Why Ron Paul's Racist Newsletters Matter

Luis Suarez is a soccer player from Uruguay who stars for Liverpool FC in England’s Premier League. Suarez made sports headlines two weeks ago when he was suspended  for 8 games for racially abusing a black opponent, Patrice Evra, who plays for Liverpool’s heated rival, Manchester United. Some of the details of the exchange are in dispute but what seems clear is that Suarez, speaking in Spanish, called Evra a “negrito.” In response to the suspension, Suarez and other Liverpool supporters have come forward with a variety of defenses, ranging from the familiar: Suarez has black friends and teammates, is of mixed race ancestry himself and personally treats everyone with respect, etc. - to the more novel and nuanced: the Spanish term “negrito” is not necessarily disparaging, it can even be affectionate. (The more interesting aspect of the incident is the one-sided nature of the suspension. Evra, who is a French national, was reported to have provoked the incident when he called Suarez a “dirty South American.” Evra received no punishment).

But Luis Suarez is not a racist. And it’s not just his friends and teammates who say so. Patrice Evra, the player he insulted, says so. Even the FA, the league issuing the suspension says so. This begs the question:  Why is Luis Suarez receiving such a harsh suspension if nobody thinks he’s a racist? The answer is that the personal views of the player are beside the point.  It’s the behavior – the calling out of a person’s skin color and disparaging him on that basis - that will not be tolerated. If the penalty seems excessive, consider the history. Only a few decades ago, black players were routinely greeted in English stadiums with bananas and grunting noises from fans. Similar displays still take place in soccer stadiums in Eastern Europe and, on occasion, in Spain. And while an 8 game suspension might seem severe (by comparison, recklessly breaking an opponent’s leg merits only a 3 game suspension), at least the message is clear: It’s not sufficient to say that a person, in his heart, is not a racist. Words are actions. Words matter. And if athletes are to be held accountable for their words, what about public figures who seek the highest office in the land?

Which brings us to Ron Paul.

Paul, the libertarian Texan who is seeking the Republican nomination for President, has drawn fire for a variety of outrageous statements made in the Ron Paul Political Report, a newsletter published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Unlike the utterance of “negrito” there is no context in which these newsletters could NOT be considered racist or otherwise crudely offensive. For example, the newsletter reported that the order was restored after the LA riots “when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks." It declared that black protesters should gather "at a food stamp bureau or a crack house" rather than the Statue of Liberty. It suggested that AIDS sufferers "enjoy the attention and pity that comes with being sick"and it questioned whether the 1993 World Trade Center bombing "was a setup by the Israeli Mossad." The statements range from outright bigotry to crackpot paranoia and there’s plenty more.

These outrageous statements came to light in the 2008 campaign but the media mostly ignored the issue – probably because few took Ron Paul very seriously as a candidate. For his part, Paul didn’t take the matter very seriously either. He said he didn’t personally write any of those statements and that he disavowed them. His explanation?

"When I was out of Congress and practicing medicine full-time, a newsletter was published under my name that I did not edit. Several writers contributed to the product," Paul said. "For over a decade, I have publicly taken moral responsibility for not paying closer attention to what went out under my name."

Taken moral responsibility? How?

Questions are again being asked now that Paul is a real contender in the upcoming Iowa caucuses. Last week, Paul was confronted about the content of the newsletters on CNN. “These things are pretty incendiary,” the interviewer noted.

“Because of people like you,” Paul said.

Is that Paul’s idea of taking moral responsibility? When he was pressed to further explain his role in publishing such offensive comments, he tore off his microphone and walked off the set.

Got that? It’s the media’s fault that people are talking about the disgusting things that were published by Ron Paul in his newsletter. Sorry. Ron Paul might be an admirable guy and an intriguing political figure with interesting views, but no other candidate would be allowed to get away with such irresponsible drivel. So why should Paul?

But Ron Paul is not a racist. This is what his very enthusiastic supporters insist. He’s a man of integrity and a true patriot. They point out how uncharacteristic those statements are in comparison to everything else Paul has ever said about race. They tell us that he used to give free medical care to poor blacks in his Texas district. They say that Rosa Parks was one his heroes. They insist that his policies – like ending the “war on drugs” - are good for blacks. And, most incredibly, they tell us that Ron Paul can’t be a racist because true libertarians only see individuals, not ethnicity or group identity. (Evidently, nobody explained this to the non-libertarian writers of Paul’s own newsletter).

All of this misses the point. The belief that Ron Paul is fair and decent guy whose libertarian policies are good for minorities doesn’t change the fact that he has, in no way taken any serious responsibility for the outrageous things that he published.

And there’s massive denial here on the part of Paul’s supporters. It’s understandable that they resent the timing of these questions. This is politics. Of course they would prefer to talk instead about what they like about Paul or complain about taxes, the military-industrial complex or Paul's favorite bugaboo, the Federal Reserve. But they’re kidding themselves if they think this is just some minor baggage or some tenuous guilt-by-association. It’s not as if some random bigot just happened to throw together some racist tirades and independently publish them under Paul’s name. Paul was the president of the company that published the newsletter. The newsletter helped generate millions of dollars for him in fundraising. This isn’t a story that’s being “rehashed.” It has barely been scratched. Paul has a lot of explaining to do.

For instance: When did he first become aware that he was publishing such disgusting comments? Who wrote them? (Paul says he doesn’t know and that it is the editor’s responsibility, not the publisher’s. OK then, who was his editor?) Are the editors still affiliated with Paul’s campaign? How much money did Paul make from these publications? Why did it take so long for Paul to condemn the racist comments? If Paul didn’t know who wrote his own newsletter, why did he make no effort to find out when he learned of the remarks?

Paul has answered none of this.

Andrew Sullivan is a center-right political commentator who had offered a qualified endorsement of Ron Paul but is now thinking twice:

"a man who could win the Iowa caucuses and is now third in national polls has to have a plausible answer for this. It's what happens when you hit the big leagues. Obama did it with Jeremiah Wright, openly grappling with the past toxic association, owning it, explaining it. Paul has not had the wherewithal or presence of mind to do that. Indeed, he has not even named the association, the first step to disowning it. And unlike Obama with Wright, Paul got money from these newsletters."

I’ve always been a bit suspicious of Ron Paul’s populist appeal – his extreme libertarianism suggests a dystopian fantasy, the gold standard he advocates is nuts and the non-interventionism he preaches sounds more like head-in-the-sand isolationism – but still, I used to find much to admire about the guy. Paleo-curmudgeon tendencies notwithstanding, he’s not the kind of guy you’d ever expect to be taking a payment under the table and that is something that ought to matter. And it’s never a fair thing to judge a candidate by the excesses of his nuttiest supporters, but that’s not quite what’s happening here.  It’s not as if Paul is being called to answer for comments made by a random associate or a drinking buddy from his youth. Paul is responsible for his own publications. If all he was guilty of was negligent supervision, that would be serious enough to raise questions about the competency of a man seeking the highest office in our nation.

For Time's Joe Klein, the issue is crystal clear:  “The newsletters went out under his name. They are replete with hateful filth. They disqualify him from the presidency. The idea that someone else wrote them and Paul didn’t read them is utter nonsense–even if true, it would be a devastating commentary on Paul’s executive abilities.”

But it’s not just the aspect of negligent oversight. The Ron Paul Revolution promises to end “politics as usual.” But in Ron Paul’s own political life, the 12-term congressman has shown himself to be sufficiently opportunistic to exploit racial division and incendiary bigotry as long as nobody was asking questions… and as long as the checks were rolling in. There’s an arrogant refusal to be held accountable.

All partisans are susceptible to blindness. If we like a candidate, we tend to excuse a certain amount of ugliness and baggage if we think their election will ultimately bring a positive result. That’s especially true of Paul who, even more than Barack Obama in 2008, is regarded by his fervent supporters as a political savior. As libertarian and Paul supporter, Conor Friedersdorf, noted in a bit of eloquent hand-wringing  in The Atlantic, “figuring out what flaws to accept in a candidate is a brutal calculus.” As citizens and voters, we must all engage in this sort of calculus but we should at least do so with our eyes wide open. If you believe America is going down the tubes and if you truly think Ron Paul can fix what is ailing us, you just might conclude that some offensive newsletters written 15 years ago aren’t very important.

But for me, the newsletters, and Paul’s rather embarrassing response to them, are a fair illustration of why Ron Paul is not a good candidate to fix much of anything.