Is Ron Paul’s Principle of “Voluntary Associations” Racist Code?

2. All peaceful, voluntary economic and social associations are permitted; consent is the basis of the social and economic order.

–from The Ten Principles of a Free Society

I mentioned in the first of this series that Tea Party and post-Democrat leftist favorite Ron Paul long ago left a trail of basely racist remarks as he crept to his current place of near-prominence in the national and world debate on issues of war, peace and economics. The article that first detailed Paul’s association with fringe-right ideas is by James Kirchik and it that appeared in The New Republic in January 2008 (quoted after the jump):

Paul’s newsletters have carried different titles over the years–Ron Paul’s Freedom Report, Ron Paul Political Report, The Ron Paul Survival Report–but they generally seem to have been published on a monthly basis since at least 1978. (Paul, an OB-GYN and former U.S. Air Force surgeon, was first elected to Congress in 1976.) During some periods, the newsletters were published by the Foundation for Rational Economics and Education, a nonprofit Paul founded in 1976; at other times, they were published by Ron Paul & Associates, a now-defunct entity in which Paul owned a minority stake, according to his campaign spokesman. The Freedom Report claimed to have over 100,000 readers in 1984. At one point, Ron Paul & Associates also put out a monthly publication called The Ron Paul Investment Letter.

The Freedom Report’s online archives only go back to 1999, but I was curious to see older editions of Paul’s newsletters, in part because of a controversy dating to 1996, when Charles “Lefty” Morris, a Democrat running against Paul for a House seat, released excerpts stating that “opinion polls consistently show only about 5% of blacks have sensible political opinions,” that “if you have ever been robbed by a black teen-aged male, you know how unbelievably fleet-footed they can be,” and that black representative Barbara Jordan is “the archetypical half-educated victimologist” whose “race and sex protect her from criticism.” At the time, Paul’s campaign said that Morris had quoted the newsletter out of context. Later, in 2001, Paul would claim that someone else had written the controversial passages. (Few of the newsletters contain actual bylines.) Caldwell, writing in the Times Magazine last year, said he found Paul’s explanation believable, “since the style diverges widely from his own.”

You need a subscription to read the rest of Kirchik’s piece, but Casey Gane-McCalla of News One posted several revealing scans from Paul’s newsletters on that site in March 2010.  According to Gane-McCalla, “Paul has previously admitted to writing the newsletters and defended the statements in 1996, then blamed them on an unnamed ghostwriter in 2001 and then denied any knowledge of them in 2008. He has given no explanation, for how the racism entered his newsletter.”  Just one sample from Gane-McCalla will give an idea of the seething resentment in these dispatches. The following is from a piece titled “The Coming Race War”:

The first-person reference to voting against the King holiday “time and time again as a Congressman” would seem to put the lie to this display of fear, trembling and loathing in the white suburbs’ having been outsourced to a ghostwriter, though Dave Weigel, for one, has posited Paul’s longtime associate and champion Lew Rockwell as the Texas Congressman’s “Francis Bacon.”

Ok, so… so what? What does Paul’s alleged racism, or at the least, his supposed enabling of a racist ghostwriter under his name, have to do with his principles of a free society? Does being a racist or enabler of racism disqualify one from participating in debates about liberty? Of course not. But it seems fair to judge a participant with Paul’s history in that debate on the basis of his possible racism, to pry loose from his contributions to the debate any ulterior motives at work. Is he offering universal principles toward the freedom of all people? Or is his project secretly–or even subconsciously–the liberation of “his people” and damn all the rest?

I think it’s fair to ask this because the idea of liberty in history has traditionally been pushed forward by, well, liberals. Granted, their principles have often outpaced their hearts, as when the post-revolutionary French Republicans were tested by the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue only to prove them utter failures at accepting their Haitian brothers as equals in la revolution. (I’m indebted to Slavoj Zizek for pointing out this contradiction.) But the liberal tradition is a leftist and universalist tradition. Like water, liberty has sought its own level and found it everywhere in society, melting icy patches of resistance to its extension–to women, to freed slaves, to Catholics and Jews, to gays and lesbians, etc.– one by one.

In the US,  the extension of freedoms and rights to people of color, particularly in the Jim Crow era, was famously met by resistance from businesses, schools, neighborhood associations and other public and private entities owned and managed by people of European (mostly) descent. The racist defense of Jim Crow was rooted, ironically,  in the First Amendment’s protection of freedom to “peaceably assemble,” which has, through several Supreme Court cases, become the basis for “freedom of association” cases.  Racists still cite it (despite its providing the legal ground for prohibitions on economic discrimination on the basis of race, etc.):

When the N.A.A.C.P. urged African Americans in particular not to vacation in South Carolina until the Confederate flag was removed from the Statehouse, the CCC [Council of Conservative Citizens ] encouraged its constituents to take advantage of the absence of African American tourists; it posted a flier pronouncing that “now that the African Americans are boycotting South Carolina over the Confederate Flag, Whites can enjoy a civil liberty that has been denied to them for many years at hotels, restaurants and beaches: the freedom to associate with just one’s own people.”

Do we hear echoes of this exclusionary, rights-restricting (in the sense of restricting rights to one group of persons) reading of “freedom” in Paul’s second principle? The words that ring that bell for me are “voluntary” and “consent,” neither of which is hinted at in the constitution’s assembly clause  in the First Amendment. I think Paul’s intent with this principle is made clear in an exchange with Chris Matthews on Hardball in the wake of his son Rand’s controversial admission to Rachel Maddow that he would have voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to a Talking Points Memo recap of Paul pere’s Hardball exchange (as cited by  Jonathan Chait):

“Yeah,” he [Ron Paul] told Matthews when asked if he would have voted against the act in Congress. “But I wouldn’t vote against getting rid of the Jim Crow laws.”

Ron, like his son, said that his statement about the Civil Rights Act has nothing to do with the law’s intentions — i.e. ending institutionalized discrimination in a wide swath of American life, including in the public accommodations where African Americans were denied service at the height of the Jim Crow era. Paul said he would vote against the law because it imposed unfair rules on what private business owners can and can’t do on their own property. Essentially, they should be free to discriminate if they wish, Paul says, however distasteful that may be.

So for Paul, “distasteful” as it may be for a business owner to exclude someone from his property on the basis of race, it would be more distasteful for a society to insist on inclusion of all people wherever the public may assemble. A free society for Paul is not one in which any member of the public is free to assemble wherever he or she wishes as long as the space is public space. A free society for Paul is one where anyone who owns a business open to the public may discriminate against anyone they do business with, even if the standard they use is an unreasonable one like the color of a stranger’s skin.

I suspect,  as this series continues, we’ll find more race-based friction in the Paulist conception of a society that is free “in principle.”

One thought on “Is Ron Paul’s Principle of “Voluntary Associations” Racist Code?

  1. Pingback: Ron Paul, Lew Rockwell and “Voluntary Association” « Tragic Farce

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