On Ron Paul, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the Civil War

In case anyone who follows political discussions at all has been totally living under a rock, there’s been an interwebs bru-ha-ha regarding the Ron Paul Question. Specifically, the question of whether liberals/progressives/leftists/etc. should support Ron Paul, or even dare to suggest any of his positions may have merit. Sucked into this vortex of internet cross-chatter have been some of my favorite bloggers/columnists, including Glenn Greenwald, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Robert Wright and Broadsnark (among many others). If nothing else, my RSS feed the last couple weeks has been nicely interwoven together with folks all responding to each other on various points.

Now, out of the folks I listed above, Coates has been the most critical in tackling the issue of whether progressives/leftists should be engaging with the Ron Paul candidacy in any way – mostly, Paul’s anti-war stance – and he comes down pretty definitely on the side of “no”.

Now, I like Coates a lot and I’m not really a fan of Ron Paul, so I’m not inclined to get too bent out of shape for him taking close to the same position that I do: that Ron Paul is damaged goods and whatever value he may have in pushing good anti-war, anti-authoritarian ideas is weighed down by the baggage he brings with him and his creepy Cult of Personality fanbase (note: that last bit is my own characterization of the issue of his rabid fan-base). That said, Coates brings up a couple of issues that I think those of us on the Anarchist Left need to engage in more satisfactorily if we’re ever going to be able to convince good, thoughtful people (like Coates) to consider more radical alternatives to the status quo.

First, I think it’s worth addressing an issue that both Broadsnark and Coates engaged in: Ron Paul’s view of the Civil War and whether it was a war of necessity or if alternatives to fighting it existed. Broadsnark brings up a Howard Zinn quote, suggesting that the Civil War wasn’t the only way to end slavery and Coates pushes back a bit:

I really wish Zinn had pushed through, instead of simply posing questions. I wish he had made a case for Lincoln responding in some other way, after the Confederacy launched a war with the explicit aim of raising an empire that would protect and expand slavery. I really wish he’d taken a hard up the Haitian Revolution, which did not have a bloody “civil” war–but suffered a bloody war, nonetheless. I wish he’d tried to explain why these other places did not have Civil War, instead of retreating to the notion that we somehow just chose it.

I think that’s fair. I know that, for myself, it’s easy to throw out positions (e.g. “We should have found an alternative to the Civil War”), more or less assuming that a whole host of ideas and understandings of the nature of the state, violence and resistance are kind of understood to be dangling after such a declaration. If we’re going to convince people that even deeply held convictions (like, the Civil War was the best way to end slavery) need to be carefully scrutinized, we have to do better. So, in that spirit, here’s an alternative that Dylan Waco suggests (after spending some time making precisely the same criticism of anti-Civil War positioning that Coates makes) to the the North and South going to war to end slavery:

None of this should be read as an endorsement of the “Civil War.” In fact it is my opinion that Northern abolitionists had it right back in the early 1830’s when they seriously considered secession, primarily because it would end their responsibility to adhere to the Fugitive Slave Laws. Such a strategy, combined with an outbreak of slave rebellions in the South, would have saved thousands of lives and kept government reasonably decentralized. As it was we got the worst of both worlds.

So, there’s an alternative proposal to fighting the Civil War. Rooted in actual proposals and actions that were happening at the time and, at least in the author’s opinion, not relying on slavery to slowly die out. Would it have worked? That’s a worthy topic of debate and people much better versed in the history of the Civil War can probably get into the nitty gritty of historic details better than I can, but it seems to me to satisfy the conditions of creating an environment where slavery can be immediately fought and which avoids engaging in actual warfare and satisfies the condition that us anarchists like so much of finding an alternative to the increased concentration of government power.

I think this illustrates another problem the anarchist position has to grapple with, which is that it’s really hard to persuasively argue that alternatives to the way history actually played out might exist, and that difficulty increases proportionally to scale of the alternative being proposed. Not that difficult to suggest it would have been better to order a pepperoni pizza than a sausage pizza if the latter made you sick when you ordered it the other night. Way harder to put forward a definitive argument that the Civil War could have been avoided and slavery could have been promptly ended without engaging in rampant, often tenuous, speculation. I don’t know exactly how to overcome this problem in a way that’s convincing for folks who require detailed alternate-history timelines in order to find anything persuasive, but I do think that it speaks to the need for people to take seriously coherent moral worldviews. Even if we can’t know to a certainty what the result of an attempt to both end slavery and avoid a Civil War would have looked like, we can check what did happen against our moral framework and figure out if it’s something we think is, you know, good or bad.  One should should weigh means at least as highly as ends, is what I’m saying.

Now your answer, obviously, will depend on your answers to whether war can ever be just, how to deal with aggression, whether state violence is legitimate, and an array of other stuff (and I think Coates does engage this framework, and comes up with plenty of coherent and defensible positions – even if they aren’t my positions – which is what makes him such a thoughtful and humane writer). But I think that, in an era of debate where a certain narrow band of Pragmatism and Realism define what are and aren’t considered acceptable policy prescriptions, the only way for anarchists to get their ideas taken seriously is to be sure conversations are grounded in first-order moral principles.

The second thing that struck me, when reading Coates, was his response to a piece Glenn Greenwald wrote about what progressives have to accept if they choose to support Barack Obama:

The equation is unbalanced, but the idea–accepting the flaws of your candidates–is about right. In that spirit, I wish he had not reduced the claim against Paul to “no associations with racist views in a newsletter,” because I think his point still stands.

No matter. I accept the frame, nonetheless. A world without “a defense of reproductive rights for women,” is world that risks the life of my wife. (And my mother. Sorry you gotta buy the book.) For me, it’s that simple.

I think this is another pretty serious issue that the anarchist movement, or any radical anti-establishment movement, needs to honestly contend with. I remember Matt Taibbi getting some flack a while back for saying he could never support Ron Paul – despite his myriad, trenchant criticisms of President Obama – with critics essentially saying “how can you point to Paul’s domestic flaws when people are dying in the Middle East?” Now, to some extent, this seems to be the correct question, right? U.S. military adventurism is one of the defining moral issues of our lifetime, and to consider policies which lead to the deaths of innocent people in the Middle East as somehow secondary to various domestic concerns seems to require an ability to devalue the actual lives of Pakistanis and Iraqis and Afghans (and all the various other people we’re blowing up with predator drones) in favor of supporting the comforts of the middle class of the richest country in the history of human civilization.

But, that’s not really what’s happening when people like Matt Taibbi or Coates say they can’t support Ron Paul, right? For them, it’s a life and death question either way. Coates doesn’t argue that he has to support Obama over Paul because he’s worried that a Ron Paul presidency would weaken the bargaining power of police unions or whatever. For him it’s a question of the life or death of his wife and his mother. Maybe we’re supposed to ask folks to count the bodies of loved ones and weigh that against the bodies piling up that find themselves on the wrong end of the United States’ policy of global hegemony, but that strikes me as a particularly cruel calculation to force people to make.

This is why using Ron Paul as some kind of intellectual exercise to “out” liberals as not being sufficiently anti-war is such a crap way to go about doing things. Maybe this makes me a bad anarchist, but I don’t blame people for making decisions based on what they think will mean the life and death of their loved ones. Instead, if we want to get people to give up on the Democratic Party (and the Republican Party and whatever other party) we should be working to convince people to say a pox on all their houses and give up on this farce of an electoral process that requires you to choose make calculations between dead bodies at home and dead bodies abroad.

And that means we need to, instead, work on getting people excited about how to engage in practical anarchism in their own lives. Convince folks why the state is a poor way to protect the lives of your loved ones and how we can do a better job helping our fellows if given the chance. And we can’t assume it’s obvious. It’ll take a lot of convincing and repeating ourselves over and over again. Because while it may be obvious to us it’s not obvious to thoughtful, intelligent guys like Ta-Nehisi Coates and that means we have to show our work, explain our values, and offer solutions to the life and death struggles people are in every day of their lives. We have to do it all, or else we’re not doing enough.

And by “we” I, of course, mean other people. Because this blog only updates like once every three or four months. *cough*

For more on this subject:

Bloggingheads Debate between Glenn Greenwald & Katha Pollitt. Greenwald and Pollitt go over a lot of what they, and others, have been debating online for a while re: Ron Paul. It’s mostly quite good and informative, although for someone like me it gets painful to see Greenwald continue to make mental contortions trying to justify “lesser of two evils” voting instead of advocating for principled abstentionism, which seems to be a much more coherent conclusion given the rest of his positions. But, hey, nobody’s perfect.

Anarchy in Action by Colin Ward. Hey, back in print! Probably the best guide for what anarchism can mean for daily life. Do I link to this book every time I post here? Maybe.

Stumbling in Blood by buddhadada. This blog’s own buddhadada on morality and war. He’s addressing current U.S. military conduct, but I think there are plenty of takeaways for discussing war and conflict in general.

UPDATE: buddhadada adds a short post of his own responding to this. He starts off by clarifying some ideas I was also trying to get across in this post and takes it from there. Worth a read.

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About FlexFantastic

I'm a professional human.
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