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The Contentious Debate on Ron Paul Among Progressives

Ron Paul in Hollis, NH (photo: Gage Skidmore)

There’s something deeply bothersome about the way which Raw Story executive editor Megan Carpentier misquoted Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald in a post published at The Guardian on January 8 that was titled, “Ron Paul’s useful idiots on the left.” What she did was no different than what someone with a news organization like Fox News might do to form the basis for a news story designed to further transform someone into a person that deserves to be hated and ignored.

Carpentier, after listing off a litany of fair reasons why progressives should oppose Paul, wrote:

…There have been calls by progressives, most notably Glenn Greenwald, to ignore all of that and more, and focus instead on Obama’s policy failings to have “an actual debate on issues of America’s imperialism”. He went on to argue that there are no policy priorities more imperative than those – certainly not abortion, immigration rights, LGBT equality, racial justice or any other aspect of the US’s extensive foreign policy. (Greenwald, who is gay, was in the relatively privileged position of being able to travel to Brazil to circumvent Doma.) And so people whose lives, safety, livelihoods and health depend on them should accept that they are trading their concerns for, say, the lives of Muslim children killed by bombs in Afghanistan.

One does not have to speak for Greenwald and defend him. He responded in the comments section:

The paragraph that purports to describe what I wrote is an absolute, 100% pure fabrication – so reckless and false that it is inexcusable.

Not only did I never argue what is attributed to me, but I repeatedly renounced those ideas – I even put those sentences in bold-face print, at the start of my piece, to prevent these sorts of blatant, sloppy fabrications. Is this really too complex a thought for Carpentier to process? Apparently:

Hence: I’m about to discuss the candidacies of Barack Obama and Ron Paul, and no matter how many times I say that I am not “endorsing” or expressing support for anyone’s candidacy, the simple-minded Manicheans and the lying partisan enforcers will claim the opposite. But since it’s always inadvisable to refrain from expressing ideas in deference to the confusion and deceit of the lowest elements, I’m going to proceed to make a couple of important points about both candidacies even knowing in advance how wildly they will be distorted.

He noted he had written, “It’s perfectly rational and reasonable for progressives to decide that the evils of their candidate are outweighed by the evils of the GOP candidate, whether Ron Paul or anyone else.” And also, “There are, as I indicated, all sorts of legitimate reasons for progressives to oppose Ron Paul’s candidacy on the whole.”

Greenwald also addressed the outrageous statement by Carpentier that he is “privileged” because he is “forced to live outside of my own country in order to be with my same-sex spouse” calling it one of the “dumbest claims ever.”

…The reality is that issues of gay equality affect me personally more than any other single issue. Because I’m not Muslim, I’m unlikely to be put in GITMO, or drone-attacked; because I’m not a racial minority, I’m unlikely to be consigned to a cage for decades because of drug possession. If I were judging based purely on self-interest, I would be a single issue voter – simply asking which candidate is best on gay equality…

Now, you might be saying, what does it matter? Why recount this argument? Why not let it remain another clash between two progressives worth forgetting? And, because it involves GOP candidate Ron Paul, this is a waste of time. Paul is anti-reproductive rights, a gay-demonizer, a candidate opposed to public education and Social Security, a favorite congressman of the John Birch Society and someone with links to the Constitution Party, which promotes Christian Reconstructionism. That is all fair. But, that lets progressives condemning whom they call “useful idiots” off the hook.

Carpentier’s premise for her article is rather dubious in the first place.

If you told a liberal in 2008 that progressives ought to give Republican Texas Congressman Ron Paul a chance because he was the most anti-war candidate on the ballot, you would have been laughed out of the room – or, more likely, the bar. But in 2012, some prominent (and white, male) progressives are arguing exactly that. What’s changed? Not Ron Paul, that’s for certain.

No, but then there was a Democratic primary with truly progressive candidates like Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel. There was absolutely no reason why “progressive voices” like Greenwald would have been drawing attention to how Paul brings attention to what they consider to be vital and important issues like war, national security and civil liberties because actual progressives aside from Obama were in the race challenging someone whom progressives now know was simply pretending to be a progressive and is really more of a pragmatic centrist.

This is why Greenwald wrote the posts on Paul. There are no primary challengers to President Obama’s re-election.

For the record, Dr. Cornel West and Ralph Nader, two individuals regarded by Democrats as egotistical pariahs, tried to organize a slate of primary challengers that would run against Obama. Spiritual progressive Rabbi Michael Lerner appeared on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell just over a year ago and made a case for “primarying” Obama:

…The fact of the matter is, is that on one issue after another, where he has shown no backbone, whether it be in regard to escalating a war in Afghanistan, whether it be in regard to abandoning the public option for health care, whether it be in regard to not prosecuting those who ordered torture during the Bush years, whether it is on gays in the military, on issue after issue after issue, has shown no backbone whatsoever.

But as one of the commentators in the introduction to this program said, where does anybody have to go? If all we are going to do is sit on talk shows and complain, that`s not going to have any impact.

If you want to move Obama in anyway, there has to be a serious political alternative and we can`t allow the Republicans to win. The only way to have a serious political alternative is to run a serious campaign in the Democratic primaries…

With no primary challengers (which is likely the result of intimidation from the White House and Democratic Party operatives), progressives face this uncomfortable truth: there is no incentive or reason for President Obama to address numerous issues of war, national security and civil liberties during the 2012 Election, especially if Mitt Romney is going to be the GOP’s nominee.

Debates between Obama and Romney can be expected to avoid issues of indefinite detention, torture and Guantanamo. They can be expected to avoid discussion of American empire and whether the US should have 1000 military bases all over the world. The moderators from establishment media outlets have no reason to ask them about ending the war on drugs or repealing the PATRIOT Act because they mostly agree. There may be some debate on wars in the Middle East and striking Iran but those debates won’t be about the illegality or immorality of the wars. Rather, the discussion will be focused on managerial aspects like how one would do a better job than the other of handling threats properly. There would be no debate over the weak case for continuing to engage in nation building in Afghanistan or lack of evidence to support planning a strike against Iran that would likely devastate Iran and plunge America into another war.

How sad is it that President Barack Obama will not raise these issues during the 2012 Election?

Why is it so difficult for progressives to concede the basic point that Ron Paul’s presence in the race, the fact that he is polling second in many states and has been a part of primetime debates, means many Americans are exposed to talk about war, civil liberties (excluding reproductive rights and marriage equality) and national security and this raises their awareness and understanding of these issues?

Why does this point immediately become construed as anything more than this basic point, one where there should be no argument? Here’s why.

Progressives refuse to concede that Obama is that poor on these issues or that Paul is in fact genuinely antiwar or for individual liberty. Somehow, as Ben Adler of The Nation argues, his views against reproductive rights make the views he expresses on all other civil liberties issues insignificant. And, somehow, that he would in a perfect world abolish the United Nations renders what he has to say about foreign policy inconsequential as well. [Also, progressives widely agree he cannot win so why care about how he is promoting much needed awareness and discussion on key issues?]

Carpentier suggested on Twitter yesterday that Paul isn’t really antiwar because he voted for the Afghanistan War. Progressives are to ignore Paul when he talks about how he didn’t want to be drafted to go off and kill people in Vietnam and they are supposed to pretend he isn’t serious when he wholly condemns what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan because he voted for the Afghanistan War. This is a pretty purist stance to take against Paul, one that if held toward progressive Democrats would disqualify most from having “genuine” or “relevant” antiwar views (except for Rep. Barbara Lee who voted against the Afghanistan War).

Now, author, lawyer and civil libertarian Wendy Kaminer (who is not a heterosexual white male) writes for The Atlantic:

…liberal support for Paul is quite weak, and telling: it reflects the dangerous, anti-libertarian drift of today’s liberals and progressives. With some exceptions, liberals tend to focus on Paul’s alleged bigotry, his newsletters, and his opposition to anti-discrimination laws, while ignoring his lonely support for fundamental liberties.

You don’t have to overlook or make excuses for Paul’s weaknesses on civil rights or his apparent courting of virulent right-wing extremists to appreciate and applaud his support for liberty, where it arguably matters most. After all, Paul poses no threat to racial and religious tolerance, civil rights, or entitlements; he has virtually no chance of becoming president and his own alleged intolerance is, to say the least, unpopular. (It demonstrates the declining respectability of overt bigotry.) But he has an opportunity to organize and perhaps empower voters who oppose the Bush/Obama security state. If only that were a priority, for Democrats and Republicans alike…

Progressives should also stop and consider what it is like for people around the world to have their rights and civil liberties subverted and undermined by American efforts to “police the world” and make it “more safe” through wars and nation-building (all basically a cover for expanding empire to maintain and solidify control as the number one superpower in the world). Paul rejects the idea of waging empire and meddling in other country’s affairs. Given America’s track record under Bush and Obama, America has lost a lot of moral authority. Progressives worry a Paul presidency would mean America was not engaged in diplomatic “peacekeeping” efforts. For much of the world’s population, after reading documents released by WikiLeaks, this might not be that much of a problem. They might be more than happy if America would just focus on America’s national defense at home and stop trying to “help” them “build democracy” and tell them how to “address” human rights issues.

In conclusion, the back-and-forth on Paul exposes how presidential elections are a complete sideshow for the 1% or the powerful lobbies in Washington. The election industrial-complex limits voices and choices. It renders candidates, like Buddy Roemer or Gary Johnson, “unpeople” the moment it looks like they no longer have momentum, the instant they look like they have no chance of winning. They do this immediately to people constantly spouting off views that seemingly threaten the establishment. They will even do it to someone like Paul who has actually gone up in the polls in New Hampshire (see this report from CBS’ “The Early Show”).

Therefore, when progressives write about Paul’s presence in the election, they aren’t writing to help him build support to win primaries. They are writing because they know the confines of elections well and are impressed with how Paul continues to maintain momentum even as he boldly challenges them. And they appreciate how he might animate voters to confront both the GOP nominee and President Obama by questioning them in 2012.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."