Rand Paul's Libertarian La-La Land -- Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

May 25, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online to discuss his recent columns and the latest news. Read his column in which Gene writes: "Rand Paul can't abruptly disavow the extremist views on civil rights that he's been espousing for years and expect us all to just move along. Was he lying then? Is he lying now? Or has the Tea Party movement's newly crowned Mad Hatter changed his mind?"

Hi, everybody, and welcome to our regular encounter group. Lots to talk about, as usual, including what may be a much bigger story than we realize -- the ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. I wish I could be optimistic that BP will manage to shut off the flow tomorrow, but they're trying a procedure they've never done before at this depth and I have to think the odds are long. Admiral Thad Allen says the flow, or the gush, could continue unabated until August. Meanwhile, today's column, for reference, was about Rand Paul. Let's get started.

Mr. Robinson, I've been actively involved in an internet forum that's been debating the merits of the Rand Paul position, and what 's most striking about the comments from Paul's defenders is that to a man, they're abysmally ignorant about the realities of what it was really like in the South of the Jim Crow era. Time and again, I see otherwise intelligent people claim that segregation was nothing but a matter of "individual choice" by private restaurant owners, and that the underlying mores that encompassed an entire society were completely irrelevant. Their idea of the South in the early 1960's was that it was just all one big Chapel Hill, rather than a region where 90% of segregation was enforced not just by law, but by the ever-present threat of violence and intimidation that was always behind those laws. I'm wondering if you've noticed any similar sort of generation gap when it comes to the sort of people who seem determined to reduce civil rights laws into some sort of antiseptic and abstract issue. I often find it very frustrating trying to discuss this issue with people who were simply NOT THERE, and have no idea of the historical realities of the time.

I guess it's a testament to progress that it's hard for those who weren't there to imagine what the South was like. But yes, it's frustrating to hear this stuff debated in the abstract. The phrase "states' rights" had a specific, concrete meaning in those days -- segregation, oppression, denial of basic rights. It wasn't a debating point.

Yesterday, the usual conservative suspects were all over the chats proving that the "Mainstream media" had a liberal bias because they had not made enough of Richard Blumenthal. Never mind that the story broke in the New York Times; was covered non-stop over the weekend; that Blumenthal was a primary candidate in a small state; and that prior to last week 90% of political junkies had never heard of him. The proof of the liberal bias was right there, especially since SNL hadn't come off its summer break to do a special episode on Blumenthal. Now I challenge you to show me that there is not a widespread and horrible "Conservative Protection Program" in the mainstream media: Why are we not getting round the clock updates on the South Carolina Republican gubernatorial front-runner's alleged affair!?! Actually, please don't. As long as it isn't illegal, I could really care less what some unknown candidate (especially in another state) does with her private life.

I agree. It would be soooooo wrong to mention the reports that Nikki Haley, who is Sarah Palin's preferred candidate for governor of South Carolina (and who is married), is accused of having an affair with one of Gov. Mark Sanford's aides. She denies any illicit canoodling. We would never traffic in such scandal.

Back in 2007 the Post carried some small, hidden stories about the cocaine and prostitute fueled orgies that the extraction industries were plying the leadership of MMS and the Interior Department with. Today, we have a catastrophic disaster in the Gulf. Why are we not reading and seeing how the takeover of the Department by industry stooges led directly to the conditions that made this disaster inevitable?

Good question. You detect, maybe, a cause-and-effect relationship here?

Wouldn't Rand Paul favor ending Social Security and Medicare?

Let's ask him. Whenever his handlers let him near a potentially hostile microphone, that is.

Can racial minorities and even fair minded white women and men in this country trust Rand Paul and his brand of pure libertarianism? In a letter to a local Kentucky newspaper in 2002 complaining about the 1968 Fair Housing Act, Paul wrote: "A free society will abide unofficial private discrimination even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin." That wasn't a response to a gotcha question by a TV talk show host but was based on his long-held although perhaps unreasonable belief that a free society should tolerate hate-filled groups excluding people based on race. Wouldn't the U.S. be worse-off today if Paul's libertarianism and governing philosophy were controlling when women and minorities couldn't vote, when segregated public lunch counters, rest rooms and water fountains were allowed and when race could be used to refuse selling real property to someone?

Of course the country would be worse off. And now, Paul complains about how the liberal media keep bringing up moot issues from the distant past -- when he, in 2002, was moved to declare his opposition to a piece of legislation passed more than three decades earlier.

Well, kind of. I disagree with most of his views, but I do have to give him credit for: 1) Actually telling people he's asking to vote for him that even they, not just other people, would have to sacrifice in order to achieve the contradictory goals of lower taxes and a lower deficit. Most politicians just talk about cutting government, cutting waste and avoiding mentioning any sacrifices until they get elected; 2) Showing the logical extension of true libertarianism, including permitting racial and religious discrimination in private businesses. He is also a reminder of just how recently discrimination, including segregation, was accepted in many places, including Virginia. He may win, since most voters in Kentucky will not likely be the victims of discrimination.

Well, kind of. Rand Paul doesn't tell voters, at least not explicitly, that to solve our debt problem his way -- by cutting -- you'd have to radically slash into Social Security, Medicare and defense to make any headway. And yes, he might win, but I wonder how Kentucky voters feel about unemployment benefits (does Paul support them?), mine safetyand regulation  (he dismissed the West Virginia disaster by saying "accidents happen"), and other present-day concerns.

What is your take on the administration's response to BP? Are they afraid to push BP out of the way because then they will own this disaster? Don't they own it already? What about the fierce urgency of now?

I've struggled a bit on this one, and not out of any reluctance to criticize the administration. I've been trying to figure out if the White House has any viable alternative to the way it's tried to handle the Gulf disaster so far. It's clear that the government doesn't have the know-how to plug the leak -- and apparently nobody does. So what can the administration do?

That's been my thinking until now. If the "top kill" operation they're set to attempt tomorrow works, then fine. But I've come to the conclusion that there is indeed more that the administration could be doing. If there is, in fact, no way to stop the oil flow until the relief wells are operational in August, then it seems to me that there has to be some attempt to skim off the oil -- essentially, shrink the oil slick by maybe pumping the oil into tankers. This would require a military-style mobilization of resources, and maybe there's some reason why it wouldn't work. But the slick can't just be allowed to grow.

Enough already!--We have Civil Rights laws and quite enough as it is--plus Obama is President. You Washington Post liberals never fail to harp on this. I really doubt that conservatives AND independents are going to care much about your PC carping on Rand Paul in an attempt to gain political mileage. Let him simply correct his statements and move on--especially in this era of heightened competiveness for jobs and thus heightened sensitivity to any hint of special preference. That may be the underlying message that non-PC obsessed voters will pick up from Rand Paul.

We're not talking about "special preference," we're talking about the legislation that ended Jim Crow segregation. I'm perfectly happy for Paul to "correct his statements." There are quite a few.

As a disabled individual, it appears the mainstream media is giving Paul a pass on his equally "loopy" views on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Why didn't you include a discussion of these views in your piece?

Sorry, I should have. He should have to explain his attacks on the ADA as well.

I liked Ezra Klein's take on Rand Paul: This isn't a kooky person that believes in UFO abductions; this is someone with an extreme viewpoint. The viewpoint is legitimate but extreme and unusual and Rand Paul should be asked a lot of questions as to how that viewpoint would impact his voting as a Senator. Your take?

I agree, but only to a point. Sorry, but I'm not inclined to call a philosophy that would condone racial (or other) discrimination in virtually all walks of life as "legitimate." And while he doesn't believe in UFOs, he does apparently believe in a conspiracy to form a bordereless North American Union that would eliminate U.S. sovereignty (and, I guess, make us all speak Spanish, or maybe French), which is pure paranoid fantasy. So there is at least a modicum of kook in there.

Leaving aside his "libertarian" objections to the Civil Rights Act, is his position really all that different from most Republicans ? I have always thought that the two most popular themes of Republicanism have been the power of the Federal Government and the "liberal activism" of the Supreme Court. They have relentlessly attacked both positions and it is often just assumed that they have philosophical objections. But I have always thought that the real objection is that the Federal Government and the Supreme Court crammed civil rights down their throats and it still gives them indigestion. Even if many would acknowledge that they needed that medicine.

Remember, though, that it was Southern Democrats -- the old Dixiecrats -- who were the main impediment to civil rights legislation. Some Northern Republicans were champions of civil rights. It was only post-1968 that the GOP moved to the "states' rights" position (aside from the Goldwater wing, which was already there) as part of Nixon's Southern Strategy.

I think the argument that Mr paul was trying to present, and not too well, was that, rightly or wrongly, a business owner should have the right to serve WHOEVER he wants. Even if that decision is blatantly racist, homophobic, sexist, or what-have-you. Granted, that decision would ultimately lead to his failure to prosper by limiting his clientel. It is, however, his right to do so. He OWNS the store, the property it sits on, he pays the employees and taxes, and as such he should be provided with an assumption of "entitlement". (a word you love)

In Libertarian La-La Land, this is all true. In the real world, we've already run this experiment. It was the South before Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. Market forces did not end Jim Crow segregation. Lots of brave people who stood up for justice and the three branches of the federal government did.

You've got Rand Paul backwards. Jim Crow itself was government power. Jim Crow was legislation that forced the segregation of blacks from whites. Research shows that people acting in the free market that you apparently believe is prone to racial discrimination were remarkably reluctant to discriminate along racial lines. It was this very reluctance -- this capacity of free markets to make people colorblind -- that obliged racists in the late 19th century to use government to achieve their loathsome goals.* Had Rand Paul's libertarian philosophy been followed more consistently throughout American history, there would have been no need for one government statute (the Civil Rights Act) to upend earlier government statutes (Jim Crow) and the business practices that they facilitated.

This is the kind of theoretical idiocy that drives me up the wall. You're telling me that whites who acted in a racist manner in the Jim Crow era only did so because the government made them? Are you serious? Tell me, were you there? Because I was.

I don't understand how you can keep answering questions about this issue while refusing to comment on the furthering expansion of federal power, using the commerce clause, that has nothing to do with civil rights. The issue here is that the Act changed the meaning of the Constitution, did so without an amendment (unlike the suffrage movements), and therefore did not limit the *federal* government properly. Now there is little to no debate in federal power, even though it is done at the cost of the states and the individual with little to no checks on itself. The amendment process is a powerful tool that protects the people, and liberals hide behind "civil rights" to shield expansion in unrelated areas.

Sounds like what you don't like is the commerce clause, in which the Supreme Court has found justification for legislation you abhor. You could try amending the Constitution to get the commerce clause stricken.

Rand Paul also seems to have to want it both ways when it comes to women't right to choose. He wants the government to have a "hands off" attitude, except that no woman could ever have an abortion, even if that pregnancy was the result of rape or incest or if the woman's life was at risk.

True. Not what I would consider a libertarian point of view, is it?

IMO Obama's response to the BP disaster could never be the correct one. If he didn't let BP lead, the anger on the right would be that BP has the expertise and equipment necessary. The federal government screwed it up. As it is the administration allowed BP to try to fix its mess and they can't. The federal government screwed it up. Lose/Lose.

Ture. The fact is that nobody really seems to know how to seal off a gushing well at such a depth. So politically, there's no way to win. The question, at this point, is how best to limit the environmental damage -- in other words, how best to capture, skim, sop up or otherwise remove as much oil from the waters of the Gulf as possible.

If ignorance is bliss, you've got some happy people writing you today.

Smokin' that Libertarian Wacky Weed.

That's all the time I have for today, folks. Thanks, as always, for tuning in, and I'll see you again next week.

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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