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Really, Digby? On Ron Paul and Lesser Evilism

You have to hand it to Digby.  Of all the so-called progressive political pundits attempting to dissuade critical thinkers on the Left from saying something positive about Ron Paul’s positions on war and civil liberties, and from pointing out that on these issues, he’s (arguably) more “progressive” than President Obama, Digby presents (“Making the Choice,” 1/5/12) the most elegantly constructed case.  It beats the shopworn strategy employed by Kevin Drum of attaching the “crazy” label to one’s political opponents, and the tired attempt of Joe Conason to resurrect the specter of Ralph Nader in 2000 for one more go round.

Digby doesn’t insult our intelligence like Gary Weiss, who seems to think we’ve never heard of Ayn Rand and are ignorant of libertarian ideology.  We know what it is; we get it.  Paul’s world view is shaped by the notion that individuals should always and everywhere be allowed to act in their self-interest (unless it’s a woman seeking an abortion) and that collective provision of any good by the federal government is inimical to individual liberty.  We understand that if the libertarian vision was implemented in its purest form, it would result in a social Darwinist nightmare.

Digby frames our electoral dilemma as a choice between “get[ting] on with our impending dystopian nightmare so that we can rebuild from the rubble” or choosing the lesser of two evils (presumably, the Democrats).  To help us in our decision-making, she offers a list of articles on a variety of issues describing the consequences we may expect if the Republicans win the presidency.  Then she brings in a true heavy-weight with bona fide Leftist credentials, Noam Chomsky, to advise us that there is a “narrow difference” between Democrats and Republicans, that “over time, the differences show up in benefits, working conditions, wages the things that really matter to people” (emphasis in original), and that “you’re doing something good if you choose the lesser of two evils.”

Finally, Digby acknowledges the limitations of our political system, tells us she’d change it if she had a magic wand, and concludes “it’s the founders’ world and we just live in it.”

I’ve always admired Digby’s work and generally agree with most of what she has to say.  So to see her, despite the excitement of all the protests and uprisings of the past year, and most especially the emergence of the Occupy movement, remain trapped in a defeatist mindset limited mostly to electoral politics as a vehicle for social change, is truly depressing.

I couldn’t even bring myself to read the articles she linked.  One was entitled The End of the EPA As We Know It. Surely Digby is aware that on Labor Day week-end, the Obama administration asked the EPA to withdraw a plan that would reduce air pollution and potentially prevent 2,200 heart attacks and 23,000 asthma attacks annually in order to “reduce regulatory burdens for businesses in a time of economic uncertainty.”  Joe Romm, of the Center for American Progress described the action on Democracy Now as “worse than what George Bush wanted to do.”

One could make an ahistorical argument that an EPA, however limited, is better than no EPA.  But for how many years should we accept that death by a thousand cuts is the lesser of two evils?  When do we start thinking outside the box of regulatory agencies for achieving our political and social goals?

The most dramatic environmental victory of the year in this country has to be the delay of the Keystone XL pipeline, intended to bring tar sands oil from Canada for refining in the United States,  routed through the Ogallala aquifer and other fragile ecosystems.  The reprieve was brought about not through government regulation, but through direct action and lobbying organized by diverse groups of citizens including environmentalists, Nebraska conservatives, farmers, ranchers, and even a few Tea Partiers.  The pipeline may yet still be built; there is intense pressure by the oil industry to do so.  But for now it has been stopped, and there is time for debate and to organize further resistance.

Another article Digby links to warns that Obamacare “is toast.”  Again, I ask, really??  The health care bill that denied Physicians for a National Health Program and other single payer advocates a say and was written largely by the health care industry?  The one that health insurance insider-turned-whistleblower Wendell Potter said had many provisions the industry liked, and was therefore unlikely to be repealed (despite Republican posturing)?  It’s true that the legislation has some good provisions, such as disallowing exclusions for pre-existing conditions.  But over the long haul it’s a bad bill, forcing us to buy a corporate product with no cap on how much we may be charged for premiums in an industry where costs are rising faster than the rate of inflation.

Yet another of Digby’s linked articles warned that if Republicans win, financial regulation would revert to the bad old pre-Obama days.  Are you kidding me?  Financial regulation from the guy whose largest donor in the last election cycle was Goldman Sachs?  Whose 2012 campaign had by October 2011 already received more Wall Street donations than all GOP candidates combined?  I refer readers to the master, Matt Tiabbi, on matters of financial regulation and the Obama administration.

Digby leaves us with the question of what’s important to us.  In these times I feel we need to do triage.  At this point, for me, three (interlocking) issues loom large:  War, civil liberties, and corporate power.  As we all know by now, on New Year’s Eve, President Obama signed both legislation imposing sanctions on Iran, making it difficult for most countries to buy Iranian oil, and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Iran responded to the sanctions by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz.  The US and Israel, in turn, further escalated tensions by announcing joint military exercises to be conducted in Israel.  It’s hard to believe that the actions and rhetoric of Israel and the US are not intended to provoke a response from Iran that they can use to justify war.

This is just the latest in the Obama administration’s lengthy resumé of military adventurism, which includes, but is certainly not limited to, drone attacks in Pakistan, continued conflict in Afghanistan, and the illegal bombing of Libya.  At what point does morality compel citizens to say, “Enough is enough: The killing must stop”?

I’m currently reading the autobiography of S. Brian Wilson, the Vietnam War veteran and peace activist who was intentionally run over by a US Navy munitions train in 1987 while engaged in an act of civil disobedience against Reagan’s war on the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  Wilson, trained as a lawyer, felt compelled to engage in civil disobedience by the Nuremberg obligation of citizens to uphold international law even if their governments do not. I ask Digby, and all others who insist that we have to work within the two-party system, and that the Democrats are the lesser of two evils, at what point do Americans have an obligation to act on the Nuremberg principles?

The enactment of the latest NDAA codifies and expands the assault on our civil liberties begun with the passage of the Patriot Act following the 9/11 attacks.  It allows for the indefinite detention, without charge or trial, of American citizens suspected of supporting terrorism or “associated” forces.  In a statement responding to the legislation, the ACLU declared that “President Obama will go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law.”  Constitutional lawyer Jonathan Turley observed that, “For civil libertarians, the NDAA is our Mayan moment: 2012 is when the nation embraced authoritarian powers with little more than a pause between rounds of drinks.”

The chilling effect of the NDAA on political protest and direct action remains to be seen.  But the implications are profound and already some in the Occupy movement feel targeted.   Matt Tiabbi also has speculated that it wouldn’t be much of stretch under the new legislation for authorities to identify Tea Partiers or OWSers as “terrorists.”  He notes:

The definitions, then, are, for the authorities, conveniently fungible. They may use indefinite detention against anyone who “substantially supports” terror against the United States, and it looks an awful lot like they have leeway in defining not only what constitutes “substantial” and “support,” but even what “terror” is.

If our ability to mobilize direct action without fear of being named an enemy of the state is compromised by the NDAA, how much harder will it be able to agitate for the policies that are important to progressives?  How dangerous will it become to protest war?  To demand economic justice and to oppose corporate power?  These are not idle questions.  Our greatest gains in social, economic, and political rights have come not through the ballot box but as a result of direct action that, in turn, forced legislation.

It is for these reasons that, if Ron Paul is still in the race in April, I will vote for him in the primary.  I have never voted for a Republican in my life.  But these are extraordinary times and I can think of no better political exercise in this election cycle than a series of debates between Ron Paul and Barack Obama.  Can you imagine President Obama being forced by Ron Paul to defend his imperial wars and expansion and codification of the Bush-era assault on civil liberties?  Or Ron Paul forced by Barack Obama to defend his position on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Social Security, Medicare, and other social programs? It could be truly enlightening and educational and potentially inspire more engagement and activism by citizens grown weary of usual pablum.

Of course, it is highly unlikely that Ron Paul will be the Republican nominee.  If his own competitors are unable to defeat him, the oligarchy will surely take him out.  So it’s hard for me to understand why so many commentators get their panties in a wad when people speak approvingly of Ron Paul’s stance on war and civil liberties.  (And yes, I understand he takes these positions for different reasons than do progressives.)  Unless, as Glenn Greenwald and Matt Stoller suggest, it’s because their own guy, Barack Obama, is indefensible on these issues.

The Occupy movement changed the national conversation on austerity, budget cutting, and economic inequality.  As long as we have Ron Paul in the race, there’s a chance he can do the same on the topics of war and civil liberties.

Related articles:

An Open Letter to President Obama about “Shared Sacrifice”

Thank-you for Not “Serving”

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