American politics continue their plunge into ritual farce. Last week we had the spectacle of progressives rallying to the right-wing Elena Kagan, largely on the grounds that it’s improper of dirty minded Republicans, not to mention Glenn Greenwald, to suggest that sexual identity might be a relevant element in assessing a candidate for the US Supreme Court. In other words, 41 years after Stonewall, long live the closet!
Now we have the uproar over Rand Paul, the libertarian Tea Bagger who just won the Republican primary in Kentucky. His grilling by Rachel Maddow of MSNBC on his lack of commitment to every Title of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is being cast as a political encounter as momentous as that between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan in the Monkey Trial. Turn on the radio and you’ll hear howls about Rand on every liberal and leftist frequency. Because Paul had deprecated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), on Democracy Now! on Friday morning Amy Goodman even fished some spavined old nag from that dismal body to join her in execration of the Slouching Beast that is Rand. David Corn herded him into the 9/11 nutball corral, because Paul had gone on the Alex Jones Show (though he’s never endorsed 9/11 conspiracies). By the same token he’s a liberal for having gone on the Maddow Show.
That Maddow-Paul set-to on MSNBC was tragic-comic. As CounterPunch co-editor Jeffrey St Clair remarked, “Maddow and Paul agree on probably 90% of the BIG issues confronting us, from ending the drug and Afghan war, to ending bail outs and aid to Israel. But because of their own peculiar prejudices, his doctrinaire libertarian, hers PC progressive, neither of them can talk about anything other than a non-issue such as the Civil Rights Act of 19 — SIXTY-FOUR. It's like a Dadaist play.”
Start with Rand. Like many libertarians he is never happier than in dashing back through the corridors of history to distant, sometimes obscure champions in the fight for liberty, as construed by libertarians. On the night of the MSNC face-off it was William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832. When Paul rolled out his name in response to one of her early questions about his posture on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Maddow blinked in astonishment as though he was mustering to his side the shade of the Venerable Bede. If she’d asked him about his posture on the rights of juries to nullify, to act according to the dictates of conscience and to set the law aside, he’d probably have brought up Edward Bushell and the landmark case against William Penn and William Mead in 1670.
Libertarians are like that. On some big and important things they’re admirable and staunch. Many of them, on some big and important things, are rancid. Half of Rand Paul’s positions are disgusting, like his end-of-week defense of BP. Other libertarians decry him from being evasive on O’Reilly’s Show about opposing war with Iran. Libertarians in the dust and heat of the political arena have no grasp of scale or priority. At heart many of them are nutty, martyrs to their truths, like fourth-century Christian schismatics. Ardent to refute charges that they favor the untrammeled sway of the market, the rejection of all federal intrusion, they dash to Von Mises and kindred heroes with all the childish enthusiasm of Gabriel Betteredge invoking Robinson Crusoe in The Moonstone. They have no sense of timing. Rand Paul, after five minutes of jabbing from Maddow, could have easily swerved the conversation towards issues more congenial to the MSNBC audience than his theoretical take on the Civil Rights Act. He could have denounced the farce of financial “reform,” of Bush’s and Obama’s wars, of constitutional abuses. These are all libertarian positions. But no. He couldn’t stop himself shoving his foot in his mouth. He seems dumb.
It’s the easiest thing in the world for a grandstanding liberal to push a libertarian into a corner. Then they’ll get praise for their unflinching courage, like Morris Dees’ Southern Poverty Law Center putting another “hate group” in the Index and waiting for the contributions to roll in.
Here’s Maddow, brandishing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as though this is the only matter worth considering in the forthcoming race between Rand Paul and the Democrat, an awful neo-liberal prosecutor, Kentucky’s current attorney general, Jack ‘I'm a Tough Son-of-a-Bitch’ Conway. Between Conway and Paul, which one in the US Senate would more likely be a wild card — which is the best we can hope for these days — likely to filibuster against a bankers’ bailout, against reaffirmation of the Patriot Act, against suppression of the CIA’s full torture history? Paul, one would have to bet, and these are the votes that count, where one uncompromising stand by an outsider can make a difference, unlike the gyrations and last-ditch sell-outs of Blowhard Bernie Sanders, no doubt a hero to Maddow and Goodman. Liberals love grandstanding about what are, in practice, distractions. You think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is going to come up for review in the US Senate?
If Rand Paul hadn’t been so preoccupied with winding up for what he plainly thought was his knock-out punch, concerning Maddow’s posture on the right to bear arms in every restaurant in America from Joe’s Diner to Le Cirque, he could have turned the tables easily enough, just by saying that this ritual flourishing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act doesn’t have too much to do with what has happened to blacks since that glorious day, from an appalling school system, to blighted housing, constricted employment possibilities, shriveled share of the national income and most recently the greatest transfer in US history of money and assets from African Americans to rich white people by the mortgage speculators, given free rein by Democrats and Republicans.
The truth this year is that liberalism is in awful crisis, symbolized by BP’s broken oil pipe spouting maybe 70,000 barrels a day into the Gulf of Mexico, not on Rand Paul’s say-so but on that of Obama and Interior Secretary Salazar. Obama to Salazar: helluva a job, Kenny! (As a evidence of Rand Paul’s utter insanity he says Obama is being too tough on BP.)
Forty-six years after the Civil Rights Act, with its noble liberal principles one can smell not just the nuttiness and often straight-up racism of the Teabaggers but the un-nutty, methodical corruption of liberalism in 50,000 concrete instances, most of them well known to ordinary Americans.
America’s Fastest Growing Cult:
In our latest newsletter, read Kevin Alexander Gray on the folks who REALLY think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a big mistake. Kevin, who set fire to a confederate flag on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds a few years back, has written a marvelous piece about the comeback of the Confederacy, memorialized in parks, graveyards, front yard flags, gubernatorial tributes, “confederate history months” and a hundred other ways of saying that in the Civil War the wrong side won.
“The perfect moral compass of a climber and a lickspittle” — that’s how Norman Finkelstein describes her in our latest newsletter, looking back on how Elena Kagan covered for Alan Dershowitz during the plagiarism face off. How did she seem at Princeton? Fellow-class member Fritz Neal remembers. Also, Carl Ginsburg on how Wall Street is making billions, betting on national collapse.
(Alexander Cockburn can be reached at email@example.com.)