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Monday, January 2, 2012

Ron Paul and the problem of moral accounting

Posted by on Mon, Jan 2, 2012 at 5:00 PM

Twenty years ago, I saw Noam Chomsky speak at UNC-Chapel Hill. After rehearsing his usual litany about U.S. foreign policy crimes, someone in the audience asked what he would do differently if he were president. Chomsky answered that the first thing he'd have to do is arrest himself on charges of war crimes—that the office essentially demands that you be a war criminal.

I've been thinking about this in relation to Ron Paul. Congressman Paul is running neck and neck with Mitt Romney here in Iowa and the Revolution PAC, an independent political action committee that supports Paul's presidential bid, has put out an extraordinary new ad in support of Paul and reflective of his foreign policy views. A longer version is available here. (Spoiler alert: I give the punch line away in the next few sentences).

The commercial, in dramatic and nearly throbbing tones, asks the audience to imagine how outraged Americans would feel if a foreign army—say China's or Russia's—was occupying American soil, sometimes killing civilians and doing so under the shield of almost total immunity from American law. The punch line of the ad is that this is exactly how folks in places like Iraq and Afghanistan have had reason to feel about our occupation. Among presidential aspirants, and not just in this cycle, Paul is unique in American public life in so insistently raising these sorts of issues— of urging Americans to think seriously about the nature of our empire and how the rest of the world is likely to see it.

Several commentators have noted that Paul represents a standing challenge to the moral accounting that partisans on both sides of the political divide routinely engage in. And this is consistent with something I mentioned in my earlier blog post on Paul: that his supporters seem particularly uninterested in partisan labels, though Paul's overall voting record tacks far to the right. On the progressive side of the ledger, Paul's newsletters, including their overtly racist and homophobic content, and his utterly lame attempts to explain their provenance, merit—and rightly so—harsh condemnation. But then shouldnt progressives also harshly condemn presidents who launch predator drone strikes that kill substantial numbers of civilians, and not just when its a Republican president doing the killing?

Part of what's going on is that those who attack Paul for the newsletters (and theres plenty more to dislike about him than those) is that we tend, in American political discourse, to reserve our harshest judgments for the private conduct of public figures. When you act in your capacity as a public figure, we somehow imagine that you are no longer a moral agent with personal responsibility, but instead are a product of the institutions and forces within which you operate.

There is a clear partisan tint to that dynamic. We especially tend to apply such contextualized or structural reasoning to politicians who we generally think of as on our side. This partly explains why having an affair is so much more toxic to a political career than gross acts of violence carried out in the name of the public good, including when tortured legal reasoning is necessary to justify those acts of violence. After all, as Chomsky would have said, mass killing by American presidents is all just part of the job.

Uttering vile, racist sentiments no longer bears any acceptable relation to governing; it's viewed as a strictly "personal" form of behavior. And our political culture seems to be much more comfortable with passing unadorned and full-throated moral judgment related to personal behavior than to public conduct. I have no problem with the beating Paul has taken over the newsletters. He deserves it. But its a denuded form of moral accounting that can so readily ignore the value of human life from the perspective of those who are actual victims of American conduct.

Correction: the original version of this post wrongly stated that Paul's campaign put out the ad discussed here.

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