Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Semi-Inside View into the Ron Paul Newsletter Issue

It's challenging to remain a voice of reason and even-handedness in a news cycle that has provoked fierce personal attacks on all sides. The myriad misrepresentations, misinformation, and false accusations surrounding the Ron Paul newsletter controversy are distractions from the real problems facing the country and the world.

I've long been acquainted with Ron Paul, his newsletters, the people who helped produced them, and the intellectual context in which the groundwork was laid for this controversy. For years, I've been good friends with former and current employees of the Congressman, and have a bit of insight into how it all came about.

It's fairly well known that Ron Paul worked closely with the "paleolibertarians," a group of writers and economists associated with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, the preeminent think tank for the Austrian School of Economics. Two Mises Institute personalities, Lew Rockwell and heralded libertarian economist Murray Rothbard (1926-1995), are the most commonly mentioned names in connection with the Ron Paul newsletter controversy. Lew Rockwell was the director of the entity known as Ron Paul & Associates from 1984 to 2001. The Associates business managed his several newsletters and provided copy, content and direction, with Ron Paul as basically the figurehead. Rockwell and Rothbard are frequently being pointed to as the main source of the controversial content of the newsletters, and the reasons for that are fairly clear.

Now, I've long been a fan of Mises Institute scholarship and have attended Mises events, including one in Austria. While I can't say that I have directly had much interaction with Mr. Rockwell, I have met him a number of times, and welcomed him to speaking engagements over the years at the University of Florida, Houston and Atlanta. I always found him to be a complete gentleman and a stand-up, gracious fellow. I also had the great fortune of meeting Murray Rothbard a number of times, and the same goes for him.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rockwell, along with Rothbard, endorsed a political strategy of appealing to the populist right and social conservatives. Recoiling from the libertinism and countercultural lifestyles of some libertarians (and after the defeat of their candidate for Chairman at a Libertarian Party convention), Rockwell and Rothbard decided to start a culture war of their own within the libertarian movement. This was effectively laid out in Rockwell's paleo manifesto in Liberty magazine (PDF) as well as in the Rockwell-Rothbard Report (also PDF), basically the house organ and gossip column of the paleo brain trust. The Paleo strategy included stark denunciations of other libertarians (especially the Libertarian Party, "libertines" and "beltway" libertarians) as well as embracing the likes of Pat Buchanan, Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried, and Tom Fleming (associated with the John Randolph Club, the Rockford Institute and Chronicles magazine).

Many within the libertarian movement were taken aback by the explicit calls for social intolerance. While many of us appreciated the appeal to local tradition and customary social behavior, how could anyone calling themselves a libertarian be actively intolerant - of non-Christians, immigrants, homosexuals, or of rock and roll? I was a young college student at the time. We all knew toleration of behavior we didn't like didn't mean embracing it. Furthermore, many of us identified with things the paleos were reacting against. We also liked Cato and reason; we simply didn't get the antagonism and rejected the intra-libertarian culture war. We saw no reason to be looking backward instead of forward, and a lot of the paleo posturing veered just a little too close to the more authoritarian aspects of communitarianism.

Suffice to say many of us young libertarians objected to the paleo strategy, and we also lamented the insertion of this strategy into the publications of our favorite former Congressman - who, while no libertine - would never himself endorse divisiveness or endlessly harp on hard-right social issues.

Everyone familiar with this now knows that Paul only wrote a small part of the content of his newsletters - mainly on economics and monetary policy. The divisive social issues, particularly the ones invoking the most contention, were written by others. But so goes the newsletter business. You sound the alarm about issues of concern, and build up your base of readers. And different writers supply much of the content - in the case of a publication with a notable name on it, the content is almost always supplied by ghostwriters and sometimes outside authors. I personally do not know if Lew Rockwell, Murray Rothbard, Jean McIver, Burt Blumert, Mark Thornton, Jeffrey Tucker or the ever-colorful Fred Reed authored the most controversial passages, but they, among others, did contribute to the content and production of the newsletters. It would likely be for the good of all if those responsible owned up to it. My only wish is that specific questions be clarified so we can simply move on (of course, it won't be good enough for some, but then again, certain critics will never be satisfied).

The few passages in question are in very poor taste and in some cases stooped regrettably to low levels. They have been discussed in detail elsewhere, but anyone exposed to the broad spectrum of political polemics knows they are hardly the writings of genuine racists or anti-Semites (the latter is the most ridiculous and uninformed accusation of them all). In fact, it's all really rather tame in comparison to other stuff being disseminated as violent crime peaked in the early '90s and also in the aftermath of the L.A. riots. Observing that young black males are "fleet of foot" is clearly stereotyping, but not too far off from stand-up comedian material (Robin Williams, anyone?). Suggesting Al Sharpton should hold a protest at a crack house or welfare office instead of the Statue of Liberty is actually rather funny if somewhat inappropriate. Although the remarks about gays were made during the excesses of ACT-UP and similar groups, off-color comments on gays here are also insensitive, in bad taste and just dumb. You can be reject political correctness, but you can also take it too far. Many of the charges about the newsletters currently floating around are trumped up and baseless, but I do think I'm being charitable when state that this posturing was taken too far and was not very forward-looking.

When I first started noticing the editorial trend in that direction in the pages of the Mises Institute's Free Market newsletter (up to that point, we young libertarians devoured every issue and gave out extra copies on campus) and elsewhere, my conclusion was that it was because those stodgy socially conservative types wrote bigger checks. Much of the more sober writing on this controversy suggests my initial instinct was on the money - that the hard-right posturing was an attempt at tapping into a larger subscriber base.

At the time, we all knew passages of this nature did not come directly from Ron - they issued from the same corners the Rockwell-Rothbard Report did. My own sense was that he had worked with Lew and Murray and their compatriots for a long time, trusted them, and simply allowed them to pursue a strategy they felt would be successful. In the meantime, Ron Paul has disavowed the controversial writings, and has expressed regret for them many times over. Paul even said as much in the New York Times about Messrs. Rockwell and Rothbard: "They enjoyed antagonizing people, to tell you the truth, and trying to split people." Perhaps the Paleos leaned on him to allow them freer reign with his newsletters. Nice folks tend to succumb to more dominant, aggressive people - such is human nature. And that can be forgiven.

Thankfully, the Paleo strategy of corralling the hard-right quietly fell by the wayside as the Mises people parted ways with the protectionists and nativists and war became a major issue. Lew Rockwell has expressed some reflections on his own evolution in attitude. Also see Rockwell's interesting piece here, "My Speech at the Antiwar Rally."

Although the actual schism is long over and done with, many of the questions still remain. But Ron Paul is no George Wallace or Lester Maddox, and it's ridiculous that he's being treated that way for words he did not write. To err in judgment is all too human, but the misjudgment of Ron Paul over this issue is malicious and unfair. His dedication to the cause of liberty will always instruct and inspire us, and his legacy will long outlive this hopefully short-lived brouhaha.

I know what it's like to have your name appear on words you didn't write. Coincidentally, my situation involved some of the same people. In an article I wrote covering a GOP convention for Liberty magazine, the late editor, Bill Bradford, changed specific passages to take personal swipes at Rockwell and Blumert. I'm not entirely sure what his motivation was. This stirred a few hornets and ultimately resulted in a bit of bad blood between the Mises people and the Republican Liberty Caucus. Not unlike Ron Paul's situation, I really had a difficult time getting the word out that I didn't come up with those cheap snipes at Rockwell or Blumert, since the damage had been done (I regret that I only indirectly expressed regret to Burt Blumert for the swipe against him before he passed away). And while I strongly disagreed with the Paleo approach at the time, I'd have never said unkind things about Lew Rockwell personally. I have my issues with some of the excesses and crankiness of a few of the Lew Rockwell Blog writers, but that's for another article.

With a $15 trillion national debt, troops stationed all over the globe, and our personal freedoms and privacy being chipped away at, it's difficult for me to imagine how some people justify their obsession with this issue. It came and went years ago. With Ron Paul leading in Iowa and polling a strong second in New Hampshire, it is not unlikely that the powers that be - those who benefit from the corporate state and looting the American people - have an interest in slinging as much mud at Ron Paul as they can. It's because he speaks against their power, not because they care about un-PC things that were published in an investment letter or political report 20 years ago.

An unintended consequence of those spreading the false impression that Ron Paul somehow holds racial views will undoubtedly create sympathy among those who don't care about the issue. It may even succeed in creating support from those who were the original target audience of those passages (i.e. the paleo "redneck outreach" as it was called). We're talking about Republican primary voters here - not the political junkies or bloggers or other nitpickers and meticulous evaluators of the news. Remember that Rand Paul won the GOP Senate primary in Kentucky and the general election - even after the Civil Rights Act flap stemming from the Rachel Maddow show led to Rand falsely being accused of being a racist, even after stating his support for the intent of the Civil Rights Act and most of its planks -- as well as stating he would not seek its repeal.

It should be noted that Governor Gary Johnson is officially out of the GOP running and intends to seek the LP nomination - I also think he's absolutely great and have met with him and attended several of his events. Best of luck to him.

At the end of the day, Ron Paul remains the best candidate in the GOP race. By far. No one else in the running speaks out against unconstitutional wars, the financial manipulations by the banks and the Fed, the drug war, out-of-control spending and the erosion of our civil liberties.


If anything I've written is factually incorrect, I welcome any civil comments with corrections.

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