Ron Paul and the problem of moral accounting

Posted by Jonathan Weiler on Mon, Jan 2, 2012 at 5:00 PM

Twenty years ago, I saw Noam Chomsky speak at UNC-Chapel Hill. After rehearsing his usual litany about U.S. foreign policy crimes, someone in the audience asked what he would do differently if he were president. Chomsky answered that the first thing he'd have to do is arrest himself on charges of war crimes—that the office essentially demands that you be a war criminal.

I've been thinking about this in relation to Ron Paul. Congressman Paul is running neck and neck with Mitt Romney here in Iowa and the Revolution PAC, an independent political action committee that supports Paul's presidential bid, has put out an extraordinary new ad in support of Paul and reflective of his foreign policy views. A longer version is available here. (Spoiler alert: I give the punch line away in the next few sentences).

The commercial, in dramatic and nearly throbbing tones, asks the audience to imagine how outraged Americans would feel if a foreign army—say China's or Russia's—was occupying American soil, sometimes killing civilians and doing so under the shield of almost total immunity from American law. The punch line of the ad is that this is exactly how folks in places like Iraq and Afghanistan have had reason to feel about our occupation. Among presidential aspirants, and not just in this cycle, Paul is unique in American public life in so insistently raising these sorts of issues— of urging Americans to think seriously about the nature of our empire and how the rest of the world is likely to see it.

Several commentators have noted that Paul represents a standing challenge to the moral accounting that partisans on both sides of the political divide routinely engage in. And this is consistent with something I mentioned in my earlier blog post on Paul: that his supporters seem particularly uninterested in partisan labels, though Paul's overall voting record tacks far to the right. On the progressive side of the ledger, Paul's newsletters, including their overtly racist and homophobic content, and his utterly lame attempts to explain their provenance, merit—and rightly so—harsh condemnation. But then shouldnt progressives also harshly condemn presidents who launch predator drone strikes that kill substantial numbers of civilians, and not just when its a Republican president doing the killing?

Part of what's going on is that those who attack Paul for the newsletters (and theres plenty more to dislike about him than those) is that we tend, in American political discourse, to reserve our harshest judgments for the private conduct of public figures. When you act in your capacity as a public figure, we somehow imagine that you are no longer a moral agent with personal responsibility, but instead are a product of the institutions and forces within which you operate.

There is a clear partisan tint to that dynamic. We especially tend to apply such contextualized or structural reasoning to politicians who we generally think of as on our side. This partly explains why having an affair is so much more toxic to a political career than gross acts of violence carried out in the name of the public good, including when tortured legal reasoning is necessary to justify those acts of violence. After all, as Chomsky would have said, mass killing by American presidents is all just part of the job.

Uttering vile, racist sentiments no longer bears any acceptable relation to governing; it's viewed as a strictly "personal" form of behavior. And our political culture seems to be much more comfortable with passing unadorned and full-throated moral judgment related to personal behavior than to public conduct. I have no problem with the beating Paul has taken over the newsletters. He deserves it. But its a denuded form of moral accounting that can so readily ignore the value of human life from the perspective of those who are actual victims of American conduct.

Correction: the original version of this post wrongly stated that Paul's campaign put out the ad discussed here.

Comments (12)

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James says, "I don't get the whole "He was a bad publisher so he will be a bad president" argument. "

Just to be clear, you think a man who couldn't manage a newsletter should be allowed to manage a nuclear arsenal?

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Posted by Nate on 01/03/2012 at 3:55 PM

Clear Channel Communications which is owned by Bain capitol(Romneys company) shared with Thomas H. Lee Partners. They have 100 Fox Station under Contract..Fox+Bain own 1/2 the Media. Both buyout leverage co.s(combined 100 bill assets) We remember Refco? How about MF Global?
Thomas H. Lee Partners ownes MF global. Remember the hard drives removed from Romneys Governotorial computers?
People better come to understanding that the Dec 14th meeting in New York this year with the Primary dealers JPMorgan, Blackrock ect was when Romney got final approval from the Federal Reserve for the Presidency. Wall Street is going to get a pass on ever being held responsible for it's action, past present or future. Like Greece or Italy and other countrys Bankers now directly run the Govt. There is no Democracy in a Banker run social order. Leverage is what got the world to where it is at, and The Federal Reserve will blow out the dollar to help the Banks all over the World.
And Romney will be saying 'everything is fine' as our ship goes down. Sad thing is his greed and hunger for power will not allow him to see, he is just another Jon S. Corzine, another ex Govenor, 'Ex Banker-Private equity'
who will be taken to the woodshed by the Bankers. Like Obama or Corizone, Romney thinks you can swim the Sharks. America is about to sleep with the fishes

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Posted by Mike Dar on 01/03/2012 at 7:42 AM

Google trends keywords "ron paul,mitt romney,newt gingrich" see for urself Paul rates waaaaay higher, like four times in every state for the past YEAR! No MSM bias or BS polls no presstitute hit-pieces (like this one)... Just raw data that cannot ne refuted! See the r3VOLution in action! We the people have already won! As long as they dont stoop to trying to steal it...

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Posted by Marcus Negron on 01/03/2012 at 3:32 AM

Really good piece, Jon. One of the smartest I've read on Ron Paul.

There are plenty of reasons not to vote for him, including the newsletters, but one can't help but notice that the left has generally been unwilling to rally behind an anti-imperialist, pro-civil liberties candidate (Obama is neither).

When such candidates do step forward, like Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich, they generally get jeered back to the sidelines as distractions from the all-important business of supporting "electable" centrist Democrats.

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Posted by David Fellerath, Indy Culture & Sports Editor on 01/03/2012 at 2:30 AM

Ron Paul's views on civil liberties are of the "even a blind squirrel finds a nut occasionally" variety.

The newsletters are troubling. That he had his name on them for 10 years even more so. But honestly, his backwards environmental policy, his willingness to chuck out the 4th Amendment as it applies to a woman's right to choose an abortion, and his poorly hidden bigotry towards the gay community are here and now and even more concerning.

Ron Paul believes in freedom alright, so long as you're not poor, a woman, a minority, or gay. His bizarre appeal to otherwise socially liberal individuals is a study in delusion.

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Posted by Nate on 01/02/2012 at 8:00 PM

Rhona for Indyweek journalist swap?
Join in the R[̲̅ə̲̅٨̲̅٥̲̅٦̲̅]ution

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Posted by Brent Stewart on 01/02/2012 at 7:55 PM

I don't get the whole "He was a bad publisher so he will be a bad president" argument.

So there are > 10,000 pages written while he was back home running a medical practice and ~ 0.01% of those pages had offensive material in it. He took moral responsibility for being a bad publisher and disavowed the articles.

I don't expect him to release the name of the writers knowing what would happen to the seven or so innocent writers while they perform the witch hunt to find the one that wrote them over two decades ago.

If you want to talk about morality, what about the morals of those that take the oath of office and then completely ignore it? What does that say about morality of the people that let them get away with it? At least there is a record showing that Paul took his oath seriously and is probably one of the few that actually bothered to read the document he took an oath to uphold and protect.

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Posted by James Massa on 01/02/2012 at 7:19 PM

CIA Bin Laden Unit Chief Endorses Rep. Ron Paul!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Supports “founders’ foreign policy wisdom,” notes Revolution PAC.…


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Posted by Ted McElwee on 01/02/2012 at 6:51 PM

You know, the truly delusional act which Ron Paul supporters commit on an hourly basis is not to believe that he had nothing to do with the many newsletters published under his name for a decade, and from which he profited significantly. That's just basic, good old American hucksterism, if you buy it.

No, it takes a truly delusional act of will to believe that a Ron Paul presidency's foreign policy will be any different from any other president.

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Posted by barry on 01/02/2012 at 6:06 PM

So, what are you saying here? It's O.K. to support mass murder of women and children, put millions of black men in cages for drug offenses white counterparts less often pay for, torture enemies, allow execution of American citizens without trial, but if someone writes something else in a newsletter of yours long ago that is raciall biased, ythat is the one without proper morals that we should not overlook?

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Posted by Glenn Carroll on 01/02/2012 at 6:04 PM

Oh Jonathon, your pretensions to act like you know what you are talking about are priceless. Firstly, the commercial is not by Ron Paul or his campaign, it is entirely independent. Secondly, continuing to believe that Ron Paul had anything to do with those newsletters is utterly ridiculous and clearly exemplifies how little serious research you have done into the issue. It is widely known who wrote them, I recommend you bother looking into the matter properly.

All in all this is yet another report from someone who has just skimmed the surface. This is your job man, start doing some bloody work for it.

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Posted by Rhona Paul on 01/02/2012 at 5:49 PM

Bingo! Now that is analysis...

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Posted by Damon Tompkins on 01/02/2012 at 5:22 PM
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