Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Lessons of Ron Paul

The last few weeks have been a study in self-reproach, as revelations about Congressman Ron Paul's early newsletters pervade the airwaves and print media. I have never counted myself a Paul supporter, but I confess to being intrigued by his anti-war message and seemingly fearless integrity. I was only vaguely aware of Mr. Paul in 2008, but in this election cycle he had made, for me as for many others, an increasingly larger impression. Facebook has shown me friends and family who are ardent "Paulites." When some of my brightest students asked what I thought of his candidacy, I answered that I found some of his positions interesting but discounted the chances of someone who wanted to eliminate the Federal Reserve. I now feel remiss at having failed to tell them the truth, which is that Mr. Paul is political poison.

My culpability is compounded by the fact that there is no excuse for my ignorance. This information about Paul has been publicly available for years, and is only now being highlighted because he took the lead in polling in Iowa. My students asked particularly about the unfairness of the media's inattention to Paul's campaign, and I should have been able to tell them that such inattention was rather benign, that Paul would not look any better if more light was shown on his candidacy. Instead, I had allowed my own information about Paul to be shaped by the delivery mechanisms of the marketplace. I had been a passive consumer of knowledge that had been pre-packaged for me by newspapers and television producers, rather than going out to satisfy my own curiosity about this man and his past. It was a classic "do as I say and not as I do" scenario, for which I am heartily ashamed.

Paul has taught us all a valuable lesson about the difficult necessity of engaged citizenship. He has also offered us a snapshot of American political culture circa 2011. I do not pretend to know whether Mr. Paul personally holds the vile opinions that he allowed, year after year, to be published in his name. The trajectory of his career, however, demonstrates just how much traction such noxious ideologies still have in our society. The fact that Paul could not reach the political plateau at which he stands now without associating himself with racists and other bigots, and that even now he can not afford to effectively disassociate himself from them, stands testimony to the economic and political clout wielded by purveyors of hatred, intolerance, and paranoia in America today. If Barack Obama's election is a sign of how much social progress we have made as a nation, Ron Paul's candidacy is a sign of how much farther we have yet to go.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Invention of Newt Gingrich

Watching the GOP debate last night, it was frustrating to see Newt Gingrich's opponents stammer and fumble in search of a critique of his latest inflammatory rhetoric. If nothing else, the irony that Newt Gingrich, perhaps the American politician with the greatest gift for self-invention and reinvention, should judge the Palestinian people as "invented," is too rich to miss. It is perhaps too much to expect that a current GOP candidate could formulate an effective response in this context, however. All contenders last night were looking forward toward the general election, thus the polemical impotence of Newt's rivals on this score is an acknowledgment that he had stolen a march on them, finding just the right tone on this issue to score points with constituencies that will matter.

It is hard to know which possibility is worse in this case, that Newt's words were cynical or misguided. As a historian and a former professor, he surely knows that the question of whether (or when, or how) the "Palestinian people" were "invented" is entirely academic. "Palestine" is no more or less an invention than "Israel," arguments over which nation exists more "in essence" are hopelessly semantic. As I watched last night's debate, I waited in vain for someone to ask, "What exactly is your point, Newt? How does the 'inventedness' of the Palestinian people change the facts on the ground?"

The answer, of course, is that it does not. If the West Bank and Gaza were to be annexed by Israel today, it would no longer be a majority-Jewish state. At that point the Palestinian people, through the exercise of their franchise, would be free to invent whatever Palestine they would like, at the expense of Israel's very existence. Arguments over which nation is more organically "real" do not change that fact one iota.  For Israel to remain true to its Zionist principles, a two-state solution must be effected.

No one on the dais last night in Iowa had the courage to call out Newt Gingrich on his bombast, perhaps sensing that the truth was a political loser for the GOP in the long term. President Obama is hurt by the widespread (though erroneous) perception that his support for a two-state solution makes him anti-Israeli. One can only hope, for the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians, that the current Gingrichian moment is not a harbinger of things to come.