Thursday, January 24, 2008

It depends on what the meaning of ism is

Anyone who declares him- or herself to have libertarian sympathies is usually hit with one of two knee jerk responses: the first, and most common, is that by virtue of wanting to dramatically shrink the size and influence of the welfare state, you must have no sympathy for the poor, minorities and disadvantaged among us. The second is some variation of: "Without a giant federal bureaucracy, anything is permitted." Or, to paraphrase libertarian Dave Barry, laissez faire is just a slippery slope to dog marriage.

So, it was with considerable dismay that I read the latest troubling revelations concerning presidential candidate Ron Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican. Earlier on this site, while indicating some differences I have with Paul, I generally noted that the popularity of his campaign was a welcome sign that libertarian ideas were taking a foothold in this country.

The other day, I was alerted to a very well-done (albeit troubling) article in Reason magazine that detailed a slew of bigoted rhetoric that appeared in Paul's newsletters during the 80's and 90's. And this isn't just "crying racism," as in the recent flap between Clinton and Obama over the legacy of Martin Luther King. This is vile stuff, including claims that King "seduced underage girls and boys," that black protesters should gather "at a food stamp bureau or a crack house" rather than the Statue of Liberty, and that AIDs sufferers "enjoy the attention and pity that comes with being sick."

Even worse than the substance is the notion that the bashing of gays and blacks was part of a conscious political strategy among confidantes of Paul to form a coalition with people holding "older conservative values." One essay outlining the strategy called it -- and I'm not making this up -- "Outreach to Rednecks."

This is wrong on so many levels that it's hard to know where to start. In addition to the obvious bigotry and bile inherent in such comments, there's the fact that they feed into people's worst misconceptions about libertarians, namely that we're a bunch of wingnuts who don't care about the poor and whose opposition to state interference is really just nothing more than a thinly-veiled racism. Finally, if you agree that the two-party system has been compromised by relentless pandering (elements of the Republican Party being beholden to Christian mullahs, for instance, or the obeisance of many Democrats to the teacher's unions), libertarians lose moral authority when they make such naked political comprises to achieve power.

Paul has distanced himself from the controversy, calling it "old news" and saying that discussion of the newsletters' content were "hysterical smears aimed at political enemies."

I'm sorry, that doesn't cut it. Reason put it best:

Ron Paul may not be a racist, but he became complicit in a strategy of pandering to racists -- and taking "moral responsibility" for that now means more than just uttering the phrase. It means openly grappling with his own past -- acknowledging who said what, and why. Otherwise he risks damaging not only his own reputation, but that of the philosophy to which he has committed his life.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Ominous Parallels

I am not a big fan of the architecture of the Washington Mall. There are exceptions, of course. I love the stark, cold beauty of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial and the spare elegance of the Jefferson, offset by the tidal basin, so lovely in the Spring when the cherry blossoms bloom. But for the most part, it feels wrong. First of all, it's busy. There are now memorials popping up every year -- after the World War II Memorial, I stopped keeping track -- and they all seem to have been thought up by a committee of political hacks: a little bit of this and a little bit of that, thrown together in an attempt to please the most people while causing the least amount of offense (A cynic might say that's the definition of democracy.)But beyond that, there's an overwhelming Roman triumphalism to the place -- all these huge slabs of marble and giant, outsize statues and pagan symbols that would not have seemed out of place when Julius Caesar returned home from crossing Rubicon more than 2,000 years ago.

The architecture of a nation's capital should say something about its guiding spirit. And at a time when we are slogging through a hugely unpopular war far from home and are regularly accused of wanting to police the world, the buildings around town do little to dispel the notion that we're a giant, hungry Empire.

I was thinking about this when I was driving to Virginia one night and was once again struck by the latest addition to our skyline: The U.S. Air Force Memorial. I mean no offense to our brave men and women in uniform, who deserve our undying gratitude, but this memorial is more than tacky. It's downright scary, especially at night. Unlike the Roman-inspired architecture elsewhere on the mall, this piece is raw, almost bestial. To me, it resembles nothing less than a bony, grasping claw reaching out into the heavens. I was trying to remember what it made me think of, and then it hit me: The Dark Tower, Barad Dur, also known as the home of Sauron, the namesake of the Lord of the Rings.

I don't think these pictures do justice to just how creepy this image is at night -- the memorial, I mean. So, I went online, which I do when I need to confirm that I am not, in fact, crazy, and found the following testimonial. And I quote:

i was driving by washington yesterday night, and this was my first time seeing the memorial live, it scared the hell out of me, it is soo huge and i had my 2 yrs son that when he looked at of the window he started crying...but seriously is it just me or it scares others, it looked to me as a monster claws rising from the earth, something like that.

There you have it. This memorial makes little kids cry. I ask you: Is that the spirit that made America beautiful?