It’s not often that a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in Kentucky becomes a national political figure, but Rand Paul has been in the news a lot lately. First, it was for his surprising and convincing (and surprisingly convincing) win in the Republican primary for a Kentucky Senate seat two weeks ago, and then it was for his controversial statements about the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Basically, what Paul said about the Civil Rights Act, first on NPR and then on The Rachel Maddow Show, was that he did not support the Act’s regulation of private business, even though he stands behind the spirit of the bill and supports all the provisions of it that desegregate public institutions and repeal Jim Crow laws. Basically, there are 10 Titles of the Civil Rights Act, and Paul said he didn’t support Title II.
Now, I don’t agree with Paul’s view at all, but it’s not surprising or offensive to me. In fact, it’s perfectly consistent with Paul’s libertarian beliefs: Libertarians do not want the federal government to interfere with private business, and federally mandated desegregation of private businesses constitutes a regulation. Even though I disagree, I initially admired Paul’s intellectual consistency—unfortunately since the media hubbub about his comments, Paul has backed away from that intellectual fidelity. It’s also important to note that Paul did not say he wanted to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or even that he would have voted against the whole Act had he been in Congress at the time—he only said he had legitimate problems with one aspect of the law.
There really shouldn’t be anything offensive about Paul’s libertarian beliefs. Being against federally mandated desegregation doesn’t make you OK with segregation any more than being against federally banned abortions makes you in favor of abortion—if you don’t think something is within the government’s domain, then it’s not the within government’s domain. You can be ethically against something and still not want it federally banned.*
*This issue actually bears similarity something that came up in Rand Paul’s father’s run for President in 2008. Ron Paul is, oddly, AGAINST the Civil War. This isn’t because he is pro-slavery; he just believes there were better ways of ending it. Similarly, his son believes that segregation (or other unethical business practices) would ideally be ended privately or locally.
Once again, I don’t in any way agree with Paul, but I don’t find him offensive or politically noxious. What I DO find offensive and politically noxious are the attempts by Rachel Maddow and others to make this the defining aspect of Rand Paul’s beliefs.
Here’s the most important thing about the Civil Rights Act of 1964: It was passed in 1964! Nobody is talking about repealing it. It is not a political issue anymore. Maddow spent the entirety of her 20-minute interview with Paul discussing a piece of legislation that was passed almost half a century ago. I wonder if her next question was about U Thant, or the Warren Commission, or what he thought of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.
This is slightly disingenuous: Obviously someone’s opinions on past legislation are indicative of how he will vote on future legislation. And if I thought that the questions were only being asked to frame a current political issue, then I wouldn’t really mind. But that’s obviously not what was going on. Maddow’s entire approach indicated that she was trying to paint Paul as someone who is against laws that everyone accepts as morally necessary. She repeatedly mentioned “Woolworth’s lunch counters,” which brings to mind some very famous images, but she never once mentioned how any of it related to a current political issue—Woolworth’s doesn’t even exist anymore.
At one point, she asked Paul what he would do if a store in Kentucky decided to only serve white people, or only serve straight people. This is pretty naïve: First of all, that would be illegal since the Civil Rights Act did pass (46 years ago!), so Paul wouldn’t have to do shit. Second of all, is that really the most important issue facing Kentuckians right now? There are two massively unpopular wars going on, unemployment refuses to go down, and there are still oodles of oil pouring into the Gulf Coast, but apparently the most important aspect of a Senator’s beliefs is an outdated thought experiment.
Paul’s interview has been very poorly received, and not just for what he said, but for how he handled himself. He seemed to come off as indecisive. The reason why he comes off this way, though, is because he was treating Maddow’s questions as an abstract thought experiment—which they really are. If the questions are only being asked to ascertain future voting habits, then all that is really relevant is what he keeps repeating: that he is against discrimination and for property rights. But Maddow wasn’t asking the questions as thought experiments or investigations of Paul’s libertarian philosophy (which he hasn’t exactly been shy about); she was acting as if the issue is still pressing, trying to force him into a “yes or no” answer and refusing to engage him on the issue’s nuances.
Now, either Maddow is inordinately concerned with the fate of Woolworth’s lunch counters, or she was simply trying to trap Paul in some kind “I’m for segregation” statement. This is why intelligent people are so often alienated from politics. Complicated issues like property rights and government regulation get boiled down to a question like “Do you support the Civil Rights Act, yes or no?”—which is somehow both substantively irrelevant and politically crucial.
At the end of the interview, she told Paul “I think that’s going to be the focus nationally on your campaign.” Well, of course it is, Ms. Maddow: You just spent the entirety of your interview on it. But I suppose it’s too much to ask for the national political discussion to be about the complexities of a relevant issue like health care or federal bailout money or Afghanistan or Iraq—it’s much easier to ask questions we know the answer to.