Its soundtrack was the sort of vaguely Asian flute-and-harp music you’d expect a person who wasn’t Asian might play to convey, somehow, Asian-ness. The video posted by YouTube user “NHLiberty4Paul” targeted Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman shortly after New Year’s Day, insisting the former U.S. ambassador to China was quite literally a Manchurian Candidate because he speaks fluent Chinese and has adopted a Chinese girl. While it provoked an angry rebuke from Huntsman, the video provoked quite a different response from the candidate it allegedly sought to promote, Texas Congressman Ron Paul:
“I couldn’t even hear it, haven’t looked at it, but people do that, and they do it in all campaigns.”
Yes, that is a poor excuse for an excuse. Paul offered a similar explanation during the most recent controversy over his bigoted newsletters: deny, but don’t discredit. Chalk it up to human nature. Thing is, for him, this is less about politics than it is a way of life.
Even if Paul’s White House hopes are doomed, his candidacy – despite the gaffes and his personal history – continues to hold an odd appeal for disaffected voters on the Left. However, this is not just about the personal freedom Paul proclaims he defends so staunchly (provided you’re not seeking an abortion, or a gay couple hoping to get married). It’s about the freedom that his devil-may-care, hands-off libertarianism ends up denying to others.
Yes, there is an inherent faith in citizens to do the right thing, and make society better. That sounds appealing, superficially. Where the philosophy fails, and Paul fails in promoting it, is in being accountable for that change. Frankly, that exposes its greatest flaw, as it pertains to African-American voters. We come from a different tradition, whereby liberty has been hard-fought by necessity. As such, libertarianism is inherently incompatible with the struggle we’ve fought, and are still fighting. It is an impediment to progress.
How is it possible that a political philosophy that values individual liberty and property rights above all somehow restricts our rights? You can see how, reflected in Paul’s dodge on his supporter’s video. He is all for Constitutional rights, but is completely hands-off when it comes to human nature. The inherent lack of accountability, both inherent in philosophy and displayed in the candidate, would alone make for a problematic President. But for African-American voters, the problems magnify.
Take his consistent opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act (and those of his son, U.S. Senator Rand Paul). The elder Paul told MSNBC in May that we didn’t need such a law, even one that eradicated Jim Crow laws, because “you don't understand that there would be zero signs up today saying something like that, and if they did, they'd be an idiot and they'd go out of business.” That remarkable assumption made me wonder at the time that Ron Paul may have the most faith in human nature of anyone in recorded history.
Libertarianism’s defense of individual rights is not all 'hurrah-for-freedom, rah-rah, sis-boom-bah'. It comes with real consequences, paid by those whose everyday lives depend upon whether or not some Paleolithic social attitudes change, and quickly they do. Libertarians seem ready to scrap all progress because it didn’t arrive in the manner that they preferred.
Paul isn’t accountable for the social change that we’ve needed over the years because he doesn’t need to be. It doesn’t affect him. We’ve seen how little an African American life can be worth left to America’s own devices. Just about the last thing we need is a President that is content to let our fortunes depend so much upon human nature – particularly that of the privileged.
Jamil Smith is a producer and blog editor for MSNBC's new weekend show hosted by Melissa Harris-Perry, premiering in February. Follow him on Twitter: @jamilsmith