Thursday, January 05, 2012

Ivory tower crusaders

According to Ron Paul, "Libertarians are incapable of being racist, because racism is a collectivist idea, you see people in groups."

That remark reminds me of Pat Buchanan's response to charges of anti-Semitism: "I am as aware as any other Christian that our Savior was Jewish, His mother was Jewish, the Apostles were Jewish, the first martyrs were Jewish.... So no true Christian, in my judgment, can be an anti-Semite."

Not only do these statements both demonstrate the No True Scotsman fallacy, they raise some intriguing points about how the concept of prejudice is commonly misunderstood.

Let's start with the claim that a true Christian cannot be an anti-Semite. Somehow I doubt that assertion would much impress the Jewish victims of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the numerous expulsions and pogroms and massacres committed in the name of Christ throughout the centuries. Presumably, Buchanan would respond that none of those attackers were "true" Christians. (I'm being charitable here, because I know there's a distinct possibility that he would defend the Crusades, as some on the right have.) It's a seductive argument because you can't possibly disprove it. Anytime a Christian assaults a Jew, you can either deny that person is a "true Christian" or deny that what that person did was anti-Semitic. It's one of those airtight defenses lawyers love.

It also shows a poor understanding of the historical roots of anti-Semitism. The simple fact is that most of the themes of modern-day anti-Semitism first emerged in a medieval Christian context. This happened not in spite of the fact that Christianity began as a rival Jewish sect, but in many ways because of it. Medieval Christians saw the continued existence of Judaism as an insult to their own faith which was supposed to have supplanted it. In theory this was a religious rather than racial prejudice, with the goal of converting Jews rather than killing them. And when it took on a racial character, as in 15th-century Spain, pointing out the Jewishness of the early Christians would probably not have swayed the persecutors.

Buchanan seems to be implicitly defining anti-Semitism as "the doctrine of hating all Jews who ever walked the face of the earth"--which is not how medieval Christians, even the Spanish, ever framed the issue--and then suggesting that this doctrine is logically incompatible with the theological claims of Christianity. And so it is--but only very mildly. The fact that his religion is founded upon worship of a long-deceased Jewish man does not automatically imply acceptance of the vast majority of Jews. History makes this all too clear. Centuries of persecution and bigotry can't be swept aside by one tiny, possible logical inconsistency.

That brings us to Ron Paul and his argument that libertarians can't be racist because racism is a form of collectivism, the opposite of libertarianism. If that's the case, then it's a funny coincidence how closely many of his policy views match those of the people he calls collectivist. As Stormfront founder Don Black said after endorsing his 2008 presidential bid, "We know that he's not a white nationalist...but on the issues, there's only one choice." What issues? Black mentions the Iraq War and immigration, but maybe there's just a few other things Paul has said that might appeal to white nationalists--say, his long-standing opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He insists he takes this position not because he harbors any animosity toward blacks (or "the blacks," as he phrases it in the earlier clip) but merely because he values freedom.
When you invade and violate the Constitution, you attack the personal liberties of the citizens of California and Maine, as well as the liberties of the people of South Carolina and Virginia. You cannot create new rights for one group by taking them away from another.

I am deeply concerned over the efforts of opposing groups to smear our effort with the false trappings of race hatred. We are interested solely in protecting the rights of states to manage their own internal affairs, which is a fundamental guarantee of the Constitution.
Actually, those aren't the words of Ron Paul. They're the words of Strom Thurmond during his 1948 segregationist campaign. (The first paragraph is from The Washington Post, Oct. 12, 1948, the second from The Baltimore Sun, Jul. 20, 1948--both obtained from my library's archive.) But if you read what Paul has actually said on the subject, you'll find that the above quote wouldn't sound at all out of place.

Of course Thurmond also once said, "there's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches." Admittedly it's hard to imagine a remark like that escaping Paul's lips (though not so hard to imagine it appearing in a newsletter under his name). And Paul does talk favorably, as Thurmond would not have, about creating a "color-blind society."

But Paul's argument about collectivism is doubly flawed, first because it conflates a philosophy of government with a philosophy of human differences (a person can, with perfect consistency, believe that blacks and whites should be treated equally under the law while also believing whites will naturally come out on top), second because it's exactly the sort of rationalization that white supremacists have used for centuries to justify keeping racist institutions alive. They also talked about states' rights; they also depicted civil-rights legislation as an assault on freedom; they also claimed their preferred policies would benefit blacks; and they also repudiated certain manifestations of bigotry. (Thurmond, for example, opposed the poll tax and distanced himself from the racist, anti-Semitic preacher Gerald L. K. Smith.) Even if Paul's motives are entirely honorable, rooted only in his fealty to federalist principles and not to prejudice, it doesn't change the fact that racism has a long history of coming cloaked in such principles.

Paul and Buchanan both think they can refute charges of bigotry simply by identifying themselves with a favored belief system and defining that belief system in logical opposition to the charges. Their use of this defense reveals a cartoonish understanding of bigotry, and the philosophical basis on which they reject that bigotry is hopelessly feeble. They are men living in ivory towers, too attached to the elegant simplicity of their logic to appreciate its real-world implications.