Friday, April 10, 2015

So now Rand Paul’s a crazed anti-Semite too..

This one comes from The Daily Beast, a generally conservative leaning site, published right in the wake of the February vaccines firestorm. It's not a news piece, so it doesn't quite count as media bias, but it still warranted rebuttal. Once again, I’ll go line by line, with the original author’s words in purple italics and my own words in regular font.

Is Rand Paul the World’s Most Gullible Man?
By Sam Kleiner

Underpinning Paul’s worldview is the notion that somewhere there is always a wizard behind a curtain controlling our lives.

Wearing gray slacks and a white t-shirt, Rand Paul took a seat in the Capitol physician’s office last week to get a Hepatitis A booster. This wasn’t just about his physical health. He was there with a reporter to do damage control over his earlier remarks on vaccines. Paul had said on national TV that he was aware of “many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” The comment was a disaster for Paul and opened up serious questions about the viability of his candidacy. 

Pause. Let’s imagine for a moment that Rand Paul truly did believe vaccines caused autism. He doesn't, but let's pretend. This would make him ignorant, willfully or otherwise, to a huge amount of science. But why would it make his candidacy for president not viable? No 2016 presidential candidate has publicly supported mandatory vaccination at any level, so his position is the same as that of his competitors. Even if one of his competitors did, it would almost certainly be at the state level (national legislation requiring all citizens to inject themselves with something would be unprecedented and perhaps unconstitutional) so the president would not have a role in that anyway. When the federal government is as large as it is, no president can be an expert - or even baseline knowledgeable - on all of the things it meddles with, much less all of the things the state governments do, or, in this case, all of the things those states do not do. Presidential campaigns should examine the candidates for their policy positions on the issues they would have to deal with as president, not grill them on polarizing but unrelated matters like the scientific effectiveness of vaccines.

But while he likely will weather this storm, the episode does shed light on the conspiracy theories that have defined Rand Paul’s worldview and his rise to political power. Time and again, in one incident after another, Paul has shown that his worldview is colored if not controlled outright by the idea that America’s very existence is constantly threatened by shadowy conspiracies both foreign and domestic. It is hardly surprising that someone who embraces such radical ideas would also adopt the conspiratorial anti-vaccine position.

You’re right, it would be hardly surprising for someone who embraces radical conspiracy theories to also adopt conspiratorial anti-vaccine positions, which is why it’s a good thing Rand Paul supports neither.

A distrust of the scientific validity of vaccinations is part of a broader conspiratorial worldview. “Almost by definition, conspiracy theories are irrefutable; rejections by scientific authorities just become part of the conspiracy,” notes science journalist Chris Mooney, and “analyses of anti-vaccine views, undertaken by analyzing their expression on the web or on YouTube in particular, have found them to be highly conspiratorial in nature.” A study by psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky, a specialist in conspiracy theories, noted that, “People who tend toward conspiratorial thinking are three times more likely to reject vaccinations.” The “vaccines cause autism” story is typically framed as a conspiracy in which, as journalist Laura Helmuth characterized it, “government epidemiologists and other scientists, conspiring with the vaccine industry, have covered up data and lied about vaccine ingredients to hide this fact. Journalists are dupes of this powerful cabal that is intentionally poisoning children.”

Rand Paul’s embrace of vaccination skepticism is a reminder, just when he’s trying to enter the presidential race, of his tawdry background growing up with and propagating an array of conspiracy theories.

Again, it bears repeating that Rand Paul has NOT embraced vaccine skepticism. The entire premise which the author uses as a launching pad for the rest of his accusations is faulty from the start.

Though he avoids talking about it now, Paul has repeatedly railed against the Bilderberg Group’s quest for world government, a conspiracy to create a North American Union that would replace the dollar with the Amero currency, and a United Nations effort to take away Americans’ guns. Today he is trying, as the New York Times framed it, to move away from his father’s shadow and towards the political center. Paul may not talk about these conspiracies today, but his vaccine comments remind us just how central conspiracy theories are to his worldview.

Firstly, the fact that he avoids "talking about it now" suggests he has matured past some of these beliefs, or maybe that he only halfheartedly held them previously, but was just using them as politically expedient talking points to rally up a certain segment of his libertarian base. In either case, talking about other things today indicates that such theories are not "central" to his worldview at all, but rather peripheral and separable from a worldview that prioritizes other issues. At no point does the author engage with any of the issues Rand Paul actually cares about today, from criminal justice reform to NSA spying to foreign policy to drones to drug policy, perhaps because if he did he would find his audience overwhelmingly agrees with Paul on the real substance of his message. Knocking down straw men is much easier than beating libertarians in an actual debate.

Secondly, some of these aren't even conspiracy theories: they are out-in-the-open proposals that some people proudly advocate. Is it really so far fetched that the UN might advocate restrictive arms control treaties, regulating the import, export and manufacture of weapons, and be cheered on by gun control advocates here at home? Or that decades from now, if the Euro prevails, the advantages of a common market with unified currency may appeal to the brand of North Americans that already envies certain aspects of European societies? There is, after all, already an African Union, a European Union, and a Union of South American States. There are even good arguments for these proposals, which I've debated myself here in college. The author is making it out like this is akin to Area 51 or doubting the moon landings.

For Rand Paul, a belief in conspiracy theories dates back to his time at Baylor University where he worked with his father, Ron, to found the Young Conservatives of Texas, a group that sought to split from William F. Buckley’s more moderate Young Americans for Freedom. Paul was a leader in the chapter at Baylor. After bringing in his father as an adviser, the father-son duo worked to propagate conspiracy theories. As Ryan Lizza chronicled for The New Yorker, they screened “The Incredible Bread Machine,” a film centered on how IRS agents would hunt down Americans. The speakers they invited to campus included Johnny Stewart, who helped pioneer the conspiracy theory that the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations were running the country, and Kitty Werthmann, a conspiracy theorist infamous for comparing Obama to Hitler.

Inviting speakers to campus is not the same as agreeing with everything they say. This is true even of commencement speakers, much less tiny clubs trying to get attention and start a campus dialogue. I imagine there were plenty of radical leftist speakers on college campuses back in the 70's and 80's as well, perhaps even some attended by our current president. After all, this was before the left became convinced that the mere existence of ideas one disagrees with often triggers post traumatic stress disorder...

Rand grew up inheriting much of his father’s conspiratorial worldview, in which secret cabals run out of the East Coast were seeking to destroy the country. Rand Paul came of age when his father was writing mind-bogglingly cosnpiratorial newsletters that warned about the Trilateral Commission. When asked whether he even read the newsletters, Rand has literally turned his back on reporters. 

In his own rise to political power in Kentucky, Paul fully embraced conspiracies. The first strand in Paul’s conspiratorial thinking focuses on secretive cabals, such as the Bilderberg Group, that were disloyally selling America over to a world government for their own profit.

During his 2010 run for the Senate, Paul warned Kentuckians about such conspiracies. “[The Bilderberg Group] want[s] to make it out like they just want to help humanity and world government would be good for humanity,” he said. “Well guess what—world government’s good for their pocketbook. They’re very wealthy and they use government to make more money for themselves, and that’s where you expose them.” During the campaign, he said, “We should expose people who are, you know, promoting this globalist agenda for personal gain and for financial gain at the expense of the rest of our country and at the expense of our republic.”

Lately, Paul has tried to distance himself from these conspiracy theories. “Build a Burger would be a great name for a fast food chain,” the head of Rand PAC replied when asked about the comments.

This isn't distancing himself from his old beliefs so much as lessening the emphasis on the Bilderberg group in particular. Animosity towards that particular group of individuals was not the primary sentiment underlying these quotes, even back in 2010. Whether they are members of the Bilderberg group or not, progressives would seem to agree with Rand that wealthy businessmen using the state to make more money for themselves is a major problem. Whether it's associated with the Bilderberg group or not, there is absolutely a push to strengthen international institutions with powers formerly reserved to national governments. Daniel Deudney, my Global Security Politics professor here at Hopkins, makes an animated case for this process to my face every Monday and Wednesday from 1:30 - 2:20 PM. He's no kook, either: he's brilliant, and his arguments are very well respected in his field. Neither crony capitalism nor the prospect of some degree of world governance are the crackpot fables this author alleges. In this context, skepticism about the motives of one powerful group in particular is just speculation on Rand's part, not the heart of his message.

Paul’s argument about the Bilderberg Group can be best understood as part of a populist tradition that seeks to capitalize on anger about economic stagnation in the heartland by blaming secret conspiracies on the East Coast. Though he didn’t specify who “they” are in his tirade against the “very wealthy” who are using world government for their own profit, he didn’t need to, because he was playing into a trope that voters could easily understand. “There was something about the Populist imagination that loved the secret plot and the conspiratorial meeting,” historian Richard Hofstadter noted in his canonical Age of Reform. “There was in fact a widespread Populist idea that all American history since the Civil War could be understood as a sustained conspiracy of the international monetary power,” he continued.

Though Paul never specified the Jews as the “they,” in the Bilderberg Group conspiracy, that implication is barely beneath the surface. The Anti-Defamation League has pointed out the conspiracy gained traction in the anti-Semitic newsletter The Spotlight, and was consistent with a depiction of Jews as secretly running the country. Paul’s depiction of a disloyal group taking advantage of the rest of the country fits with traditional anti-Semitic ideas about Jews being a fifth column intent on making profits without any loyalty to nation.

This is the part of the article where I went from mildly peeved to downright angry. The other common variant of this "argument," if you care to grace it with that title, is that anyone who wants smaller government is racist, because some of the people who have historically wanted smaller government were Confederate slave owners. I don't really think such allegations rise to level of logic as to require rebuttal. A few paragraphs ago, the author ridiculed one of the speakers Rand Paul's dad invited to college for comparing Obama to Hitler; now, he argues Paul shares elements of Hitler's ideology. His evidence? Rand Paul dislikes vaccines and cronyism, half of which isn't even true. Da fuq?

There is another movement in recent years which also proposes a worldview in which the country is run by a disloyal group of rich people taking advantage of the rest of the country due to personal greed. It's called the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Something tells me that if I were to submit a paper to a Yale Law publication arguing that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are unqualified to be president - and, indeed, the most gullible people in the world - for their loose affiliation with this vaguely populist agenda, it would not be well received.

Hofstadter noted that “populist anti-Semitism was entirely verbal. It was a mode of expression, a rhetorical style, not a tactic or a program,” and this is a perfect example of what he meant. Without mentioning Jews, Paul was depicting a disloyal moneyed East Coast elite that threatened his heartland constituent—that these elites were “the Jews” was implicit. Unfortunately for Rand, his father made a more explicit anti-Semitic reference when he said the “Rockefeller Trilateralists” were pushing world government. The kernel of the idea is unmistakably the same for father and son, and in a dangerous populist tradition, both Ron and Rand Paul vowed to stand up for the real Americans against this disloyal—and implicitly Jewish—elite.

This is only implicit if you're already convinced that Rand Paul is maliciously hiding his true beliefs from the public. Similarly, critically mentioning the last name of a Jewish person only counts as "explicit" anti-Semitism if you're already convinced that everyone is out to get the Jews. That the author himself is so thoroughly and inexplicably convinced of these things, with so little evidence to support them, is a more glaring indication of conspiratorial thinking than anything in the previous paragraph.

The second strand in Rand Paul’s conspiratorial thinking focused on the threat from world government, such as the United Nations or the North American Union, that was intent on taking over America.

Paul was intent on giving credence to fears about world government. “Some of the fears of world government are legitimate,” he said in an interview during his run for the Senate. “When you hear about the ‘Amero,’ a new North American money,” he said, “you might say that those people are just conspiracy theorists. But if you said the same thing about the euro 30 years ago they would have said, ‘Oh, you’re crazy, we’ll never get rid of the pound and those currencies, and lo and behold we have a euro currency. So some of the fears of world government are legitimate.”

While aware that these ideas could make him sound like a conspiracy theorist, Paul was undeterred. Speaking in 2008 on behalf of his father’s presidential campaign, he told supporters as he warned of the looming NAFTA superhighway: “So, it’s a real thing, and, when you talk about it, the thing you just have to be aware of is that, if you talk about it like it’s a conspiracy, they’ll paint you as a nut.”

Apparently, he was prescient, because that's clearly what this article aims to do. There is nothing conspiratorial about a belief that some people propose moving towards a single world government. That's just undeniably true. Google it if you don't believe me: you will find intelligent academics arguing for that quite explicitly. You will also find a larger number of academics arguing for partial centralization of some state powers into an international body, whether it's nuclear weapons control or environmental protection or what have you. On the flip side, there are people who fear and oppose these proposals, for understandable, non-crazy reasons. Accordingly, when Rand Paul said that this was a "real thing," seven years ago, and that "some of the fears...are legitimate" five years ago, he did not mean that global totalitarianism was nigh. He meant only that this was a real debate which future politicians would need to address.

For Paul, being depicted as a conspiracy theorist merely meant that you were speaking truths that others found to be taboo. He sees himself as a truth-teller unlike the politicians “that evolve to the top of the Republican and the Democratic Party [who] end up being the people who don’t believe in anything … and they get pushed around by the New World Order types.” Who precisely these “New World Order types” are, he doesn’t say. The conspiracy functions best when the conspirators are not identified.

This fear of world government led Paul deep into the territory of worrying about black helicopters. In opposition to the U.N. Small Arms Treaty, Paul sent out an email laced with caps lock in 2011 saying that it was a “massive, GLOBAL gun control scheme” that was “designed to register, ban and CONFISCATE firearms owned by private citizens like YOU.” This was in line with his 2010 campaign’s “Sovereignty” platform, in which he warned that America must not be “subservient” to “foreign bodies” such as the U.N. and pledged to conduct a foreign policy “without funding or joining international organizations. The US Government must answer only to the Constitution and the citizens protected by it.” The conspiracy was completely fabricated. But, as Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent observed, Paul was happy to let his “approach to a problem [gun violence] that continues to claim American lives be dictated by a group that is happy to traffic in strains of paranoia that rival U.N. black helicopter fantasies.”

If politicians were disqualified for public office in the 21st century for having their campaigns send out sensationalist emails laced with caps lock which drum of partisan fears in order to exaggerate the importance of donating NOW, every politician I know of would be disqualified. There isn't actually a cabal of Wall Street CEO's scheming to pilfer retirement money from disabled homeless gay veteran seniors either, but you probably wouldn't know that from reading Liz Warren's funding solicitations. Like many political campaigns, Paul's emails (which he almost certainly doesn't write) use a bit of "truthiness" by splicing together actual facts (the UN Small Arms Treaty was being considered, gun control advocates did support it, and some of those same advocates also independently want to register, ban, and/or confiscate certain types of guns) through careful wording and deceptive insinuation. This is nothing new or unique to his brand of politics.

Indeed, Paul has flirted with the idea that Americans may need to turn their guns on the government. Talking about a time when money becomes worthless because of the Federal Reserve conspiracy, Paul was hopeful, because the odds that people will “give up their gold [is] about as likely as they will be to give up their guns anymore and I think that’s the one good thing we have going on in America—there’s a lot of still independent spirit in the countryside.”

Unwillingness to give one's guns to the government is not equivalent to turning one's guns on the government. Nor is celebrating resistance to authority, which is yet another thing the left does too. And if the government were to ever try to confiscate firearms without first amending the constitution, people would be justified in resisting. To many people, "independent spirit in the countryside" is a patriotic sentiment worth celebrating. You don't have to agree, but when over half the country feels the same way he does on gun control, it doesn't qualify as a conspiracy theory.

While Paul stopped short in that comment of advocating violence against the U.S. government, he has fear-mongered about a time when “we will have an army of armed EPA agents—thousands of them,” who will come after Americans and he propagated Alex Jones’s lie that the National Weather Service was stockpiling hollow-tip bullets. Paul wanted the anti-government survivalists on the fringe to embrace him and he made his case clear without having to say in explicit terms that citizens should be prepared for a day when they turn their guns on their government.

Though Paul has toned down his conspiracy theorizing, he has continually taken the advice of those with fringe political beliefs during his rise to power. Paul said he learned about the Bilderberg Group from Alex Jones, one of Paul’s influential backers in the 2010 Senate race during which Paul was a frequent guest on Jones’s radio-show. Jones is a noted 9/11 truther and has been a major defender of both Ron and Rand Paul.

This is actually fair. Alex Jones is a nut job, and Rand Paul should be embarrassed by any prior association with him. Point taken.

In 2010, Paul’s own spokesman, Christopher Hightower, was forced to resign after it came to light that he maintained a blog suggesting that American foreign policy was responsible for 9/11. In 2013, Rand Paul’s foreign policy adviser, Jack Hunter, resigned in the wake of revelations that he maintained a neo-Confederate blog in which he claimed the North had committed “genocide” against the Confederacy.

Repeatedly, Paul has severed his ties to these individuals once their fringe views become widely publicized. But with each new revelation about a Paul’s intimate’s crackpot theories, it becomes increasingly hard to accept his repeated claims that he was unaware of their extremist beliefs.

This is the same guilt by association nonsense that Republicans used against Obama in 2008. Remember Bill Ayers? Remember Reverend Jeremiah Wright? If they don't render Obama ineligible for the presidency, neither does a guy blogging about blowback (which, let's be clear, actually exists).

To fully understand Paul’s asinine vaccine comments, we have to understand the conspiratorial nature of his worldview. This isn’t a one-off issue for Paul. Growing up under the tutelage of his father, Paul has embraced and espoused a conspiratorial worldview where “official” truths are to be doubted in favor of explanations based on secretive plots. Paul’s rise to power was based on the populist tradition of “weaving a vast fabric of social explanation out of nothing but skeins of evil plots,” in Hofstadter’s words.

Such views have always existed at the political fringe, but they become dangerous when they come close to finding a home in the Oval Office. And of course Paul doesn’t want us prying into his deep, disturbing history of embracing conspiracy theories just when he’s trying to mainstream his views for the presidency. Because if we did get a good look at the nonsense he’s been preaching for years, we might then realize just how unqualified he is to be president.

Sam Kleiner is a fellow at the Yale Law Information Society Project.

In closing, there used to be a kernel of truth to all this. For most of Rand Paul's life, libertarianism was relegated the political fringe. Fringe ideologies draw some strange bedfellows, and fledgling movements in transition from the fringe to the center lack the luxury of being picky about their followers. The tin foil hat crowd was a sizable portion of Ron Paul's acquaintances, and who knows: maybe some of their goofy ideas did rub off on his son for a time. It's fair to call him cynical. Enemies might call it paranoia, friends might call it a healthy skepticism: form your own opinion.

The point is, he's over it now, and so is the movement he represents. Conspiracy theories are not a central or even secondary component of the libertarian platform in the year 2015. To pretend otherwise is to argue in bad faith, and to deliberately mislead one's audience out of malice or laziness. For decades, both major parties have been able to dodge the important philosophical questions libertarianism presents by chortling about the loony, queer sort of people who found it attractive. Now that libertarianism includes many people society deems pretty normal, its enemies cannot rely on mainstream marginalization and are forced to actually engage with its ideas. This is a good thing, even if you're not libertarian yourself, because it advances the public dialogue and highlights important ideological trade-offs. But it's also frustrating for people who find ad-hominem attacks much easier to formulate than rebuttals to well-reasoned individual liberty arguments.

Articles like these amount to crossly stamping one's foot in denial of this development. Sam Kleiner, and at least some people over at The Daily Beast, are nostalgically reminiscing of the good old days when ideas they disagreed with could be dismissed not on their merits, but on the character of the people who held them. We can't cut spending, or decriminalize marijuana, or end mandatory minimum sentencing, or establish rules around drones or the NSA that respect due process rights, or have a less violent foreign policy, or any of these other things Rand Paul proposes because that guy's CRAZY, remember? They use quotes from at least 5-7 years ago in a transparent attempt to turn back the tide on the libertarian moment, which they now fret is becoming a libertarian era. Accusations of racism are thrown in for good measure just to complete the character smear.

To reasonable independents, this falls on deaf ears. "He used to kinda halfheartedly believe this!" is not a convincing critique of the campaign platform Rand Paul actually advocates today. More importantly, Rand Paul is just one dude, who's only partially libertarian in the first place, and who will be succeeded by a new generation of libertarians who lack any such ties to conspiracy theorism. Within a few election cycles, there will be no more mud left to sling at us. I advise you find some real arguments before that time.

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