By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
At the risk of spoiling the public burning of Dr. Rand Paul, for his stupid statements about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I am going to suggest that American liberals pause for a moment and remember how they felt about the Patriot Act. We cannot know what is in Paul's heart, but it is possible that his libertarianism flows not from bigotry and prejudice or political opportunism, but from honest conviction.
That same all-American reluctance to have Big Government meddling in our private lives, which fills liberals with passion when they hear about government wiretaps, abandonment of the Miranda rule, phone companies colluding with the feds to eavesdrop on our conversations, or federal agents examining our library records, may be the sentiment that governs Paul. Before we crucify Republican libertarianism, we should give Paul a season, as a candidate, to introduce his views, and have them debated.
We can start the debate today: As he has now admitted, Paul was dead wrong about civil rights. It is not enough to say, as he has, that he would have marched with Martin Luther King on behalf of oppressed black Americans. There needs to be a glimmer of understanding, from a candidate for the United States Senate, that the state governments and police forces in the South at that time were in the control of governors like George Wallace and Orval Faubus, who stood in the schoolhouse doors to defend the region's ugly, immoral legal segregation. Grand jurors and sheriffs and other law enforcement officials participated, not merely in upholding Jim Crow laws, but in the assassination--and subsequent cover ups--of civil rights workers. Heroic presidents of both parties--Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy--recognized this and dispatched federal troops and marshals to guarantee certain basic human rights. There are times when the intrusion of the national government is more than justified, it is morally required, and this was one of them.
Like most political creeds, libertarianism has a certain intoxicating effect. Libertarians are attracted to absolutes and can be drawn, like kittens pulling on a thread, to untenable positions. On the right: no public schools or gun laws. On the left: no restrictions on drug use or abortion.
Yet liberty is a priceless value. And it is undeniably true that human beings in the service of big institutions--whether government or churches or corporations or political causes--are all too willing to sign away the personal rights and liberties of other individuals.
Rand Paul and his dad (Rep. Ron Paul) and the others in the Republican libertarian movement probably would not have me. I believe in such horrors as public schools and mandatory car insurance. And, as much as I revere both the First and the Second Amendments, I need persuading that it's a good idea to sell AK-47s to folks on the terrorist watch list. So I call myself a liberaltarian. And I have spent the last five years, happily chronicling the life of one of the nation's greatest liberals--and libertarians--Clarence Darrow.
I would regret seeing the Pauls, and what they stand for, driven from the public square. Our political discourse is, regretfully, stale. We are a strong enough people to tolerate all ideas, no matter how silly or misguided. I am glad Paul recognizes that he is wrong about the Civil Rights Act. And I hope he stays in the race.