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.