Tag Archives: Akhil Reed Amar

Ron Paul has two problems: one is his, the other is ours.

3 Jan

Ron Paul has two problems.  One is his and the larger conservative movement of which he is a part.  The other is ours—by which I mean a left that is committed to both economic democracy and anti-imperialism.

Ron Paul’s problem is not merely the racist newsletters, the close ties with Lew Rockwell, his views on abortion, or even his stance on the 1964 Civil Rights Act—though these automatically disqualify him from my support.  His real problem is his fundamentalist commitment to federalism, which would make any notion of human progress in this country impossible.

Federalism has a long and problematic history in this country—it lies at the core of the maintenance of slavery and white supremacy; it was consistently invoked as the basis for opposition to the welfare state; it has been, contrary to many of its defenders, one of the cornerstones of some of the most repressive moments in our nation’s history[pdf]—and though liberals used to be clear about its regressive tendencies, they’ve grown soft on it in recent years.  As the liberal Yale constitutional law scholar Akhil Reed Amar put it not so long ago:

Once again, populism and federalism—liberty and localism—work together; We the People conquer government power by dividing it between the two rival governments, state and federal.

As I’ve argued repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere, the path forward for the left lies in the alliance between active social movements on the ground and a strong national state.  There is simply no other way, at least not that I  am aware of, to break the back of the private autocracies that oppress us all.

Even people, no, especially people who focus on Paul’s position on the drug war should think about the perils of his federalism. There are 2 million people in prison in this country. At most 10 percent of them are in federal prisons; the rest are in state and local prisons. If Paul ended the drug war, maybe 1/2 of those in federal prison would be released. Definitely a step, but it has to be weighed against his radical embrace of whatever it is that states and local governments do.

Paul is a distinctively American type of libertarian: one that doesn’t have a critique of the state so much as a critique of the federal government. That’s a very different kettle of fish. I think libertarianism is problematic enough—in that it ignores the whole realm of social domination (or thinks that realm is entirely dependent upon or a function of the existence of the state or thinks that it can be remedied by the persuasive and individual actions of a few good souls)—but a states-rights-based libertarianism is a social disaster.

So that’s his problem.

Our problem—and again by “our” I mean a left that’s social democratic (or welfare state liberal or economically progressive or whatever the hell you want to call it) and anti-imperial—is that we don’t really have a vigorous national spokesperson for the issues of war and peace, an end to empire, a challenge to Israel, and so forth, that Paul has in fact been articulating.  The source of Paul’s positions on these issues are not the same as ours (again more reason not to give him our support).  But he is talking about these issues, often in surprisingly blunt and challenging terms. Would that we had someone on our side who could make the case against an American empire, or American supremacy, in such a pungent way.

This, it’s clear, is why people like Glenn Greenwald say that Paul’s voice needs to be heard.  Not, Greenwald makes clear, because he supports Paul, but because it is a terrible comment—a shanda for the left—that we don’t have anyone on our side of comparable visibility launching an attack on American imperialism and warfare. (Recalling what I said in the context of the death of Christopher Hitchens, I suspect this has something to do with our normalization and acceptance of war as a way of life.) In other words, we need to listen to Paul, not because he’s worthy of our support, and certainly not because the reasons that underlie his positions on foreign policy are ours, but because he reveals what’s not being said, or not being said enough, on our side.

There is a long history in this country of the left not paying too much attention to the ways in which our leaders do things that set the stage for worse things to come.  J. Edgar Hoover got a tremendous amount of traction under FDR and the New Deal because he was perceived to be a spit-and-polish, professional crime fighter.  So trusted and hailed was he by liberals and progressives—when he worked for their leaders—that it was none other than Arthur Schlesinger, in The Vital Center (1949), who urged Americans to put their trust in Hoover rather than in the Red hunters of the far right:

All Americans must bear in mind J. Edgar Hoover’s warning that counter-espionage is no field for amateurs. We need the best professional counterespionage agency we can get to protect our national security.

In 1950, William Keller reports in his essential The Liberals and J. Edgar Hoover, while Truman was still president, Hubert Humphrey took to the floor of the Senate to declare:

If the FBI does not have enough trained manpower to do this job, then, for goodness sake, let us give the FBI the necessary funds for recruiting the manpower it needs….This is a job that must be done by experts.

Yet, as Ellen Schrecker rightly argued in Many Are the Crimes, her definitive account of McCarthyism:

Had observers known in the 1950s what they have learned since the 1970s, when the Freedom of Information Act opened the Bureau’s files, “McCarthyism” would probably be called “Hooverism.” For the FBI was the bureaucratic heart of the McCarthy era.

In the last week, liberals and progressives have been arguing about these issues; Digby has been especially cogent and worth listening to. The only thing I have to add to that debate is this: both sides are right. Not in a the-truth-lies-somewhere-in-between sort of way. Nor in a can’t-we-all-get-along sort of way.  No, both sides are right in the sense that I laid out above: Ron Paul is unacceptable, and it’s unacceptable that we don’t have someone on the left who is raising the issues of imperialism, war and peace, and civil liberties in as visible and forceful a way.

The Occupy Crackdowns: Why Naomi Wolf Got It Wrong

27 Nov

On Friday, Naomi Wolf made the attention-grabbing accusation in the Guardian that federal officials were involved in, indeed ordered, the violent crackdowns against Occupy Wall Street protesters that we’ve been seeing across the country these past few weeks.

Congressional overseers, with the blessing of the White House, told the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] to authorise mayors to order their police forces – pumped up with millions of dollars of hardware and training from the DHS – to make war on peaceful citizens.

The next day, Joshua Holland debunked Wolf’s claims on Alternet.

I don’t have anything to add to Holland’s excellent critique. Wolf gets her facts wrong, and he shows it.

To my mind, though, the problem is bigger than that:  The reason Wolf gets her facts wrong is that she’s got her theory wrong. And though many were quick to jump off her conspiracy bandwagon once Holland pointed out its flaws, I suspect that one of the reasons they were so quick to jump on it in the first place is that they subscribe to her theory.

Like many critics of state coercion in America, Wolf seems to assume that political repression requires or entails national coordination and centralized direction from the feds. But as I argued in this piece in the Boston Review in 2005, and in a much longer piece in the Missouri Law Review [pdf], that notion gets it wrong.

From the battles over abolition to the labor wars at the turn of the last century to the Red Squads of the twentieth-century police departments to the struggles over Jim Crow, state repression in America has often been decentralized, displaying that very same can-do spirit of local initiative that has been celebrated by everyone from Alexis de Tocqueville to Robert Putnam. Though Tocqueville and Putnam were talking of course about things like creating churches and buildings roads, the fact is: if the locals can build a church or a road on their own, they can also get rid of dissenters on their own, too, no?

Even where there has been coordination and direction from above, as in the epic cases of the Red Scare, McCarthyism, COINTELPRO, or now the War on Terror, what’s been most striking is how local police and officials have managed to manipulate that federal involvement to their own ends. As I wrote in the Boston Review:

What history demonstrates is that police officers often use their powers, with or without federal prompting, as instruments of larger political purpose. The danger of cooperation between federal agencies and local police is not that the former will conscript the latter into repressive programs the latter would not otherwise pursue, but that it allows the police to apply the legitimizing gloss of national security to their own pet projects of repression. During the McCarthy era, for example, southern politicians and law-enforcement officers used the language of anti-communism to outlaw the NAACP and to arrest and indict civil-rights leaders for sedition. In the Denver case already mentioned, the police used the rubric of domestic security to keep track of not only the groups cited above but also a local organization working against police brutality in the city. This past summer, during the Republican Party convention in New York City, the NYPD preemptively arrested more than 1,500 protesters—some of them obstreperous, virtually all of them nonviolent—as well as innocent bystanders. How did the mayor justify the arrest and prolonged detainment of these individuals? By drawing parallels, according to The New York Times, “between verbally abusive demonstrators and the Sept. 11 terrorists.”

… if all politics is local in the United States, as Tip O’Neill reminded us, it stands to reason that a good deal of the political repression is as well.

It’s not surprising that faced with the crackdown of OWS protests, Wolf would immediately turn to a theory of national, centralized repression. It’s part of our national DNA, on the left and the right, to assume that tyranny works that way. We’ve inherited a theory that holds, in the words of the Yale constitutional law scholar Akhil Reed Amar, that “liberty and localism work together.” Nothing, as Holland so ably if inadvertently demonstrates in his demolition of Wolf, could be further from the truth.

Update (11/29, 11 am)

This post has been getting a lot of attention, both support and push-back. There’s much interesting discussion in the comments thread here (see below).  It’s gotten warm endorsements from Lawyers, Guns, and Money and The Economist, which ran two blog posts, one of them from Will Wilkinson, with whom we’ve tangled and talked before. The Guardian did a round-up of responses to the Wolf piece, and included it there.  3 Quarks Daily picked it up.  And Al Jazeera English ran a longer version of it.  And if you’re on Twitter, there’s a lot of back and forth there as well.

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