Tuesday, January 3, 2012
January 3, 2012: Ron Paul and Race
[This week I’ll be highlighting some of the benefits of an American Studies methodology. This is the second in that series.]
How an American Studies approach can deepen and strengthen our analyses of one of the most controversial current debates.
Perhaps no story is dominating more American headlines at the start of this new year than Ron Paul’s surge to the top of the Iowa Republican Caucus, and so perhaps no current debate rages more heatedly than the arguments about whether and to what extent the extremist, often bigoted newsletters that were published for decades under Paul’s name (and from the sales of which Paul has made millions of dollars over that time) can and should be used to critique Paul directly. As with any political debate, there’s no question that one’s own perspective and starting point will have a lot to do with where one comes down on these questions, although it seems clear to me that even in the best-case interpretation Paul allowed his name to be associated with, and the profited from, revolting sentiments and ideas (or was unaware that those things were happening, which isn’t necessarily better).
An American Studies approach and analysis is not the same as—if never entirely distinct from—a political argument, however, and in this case such an approach would allow us to link Paul’s newsletters and history significantly to other prominent late 20th century trends and narratives. When it comes to race in America, some of the most complex but meaningful trends could be described as the unforeseen aftermath of Civil Rights, and more exactly of where and how white supremacist communities and ideas have persisted after that era and its changes. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been monitoring and responding to such communities since its 1971 founding, and its pages on still active KKK groups and more recent offshoots like Stormfront are relevant not only to a general sense of these American trends, but also very specifically to the question of Paul’s newsletters and supporters: both KKK leader David Duke and Stormfront founder Don Black have recently, publicly stated that they subscribed to Paul’s newsletters and are endorsing him for president.
Even more nationally central over the last few decades, of course, have been our debates over multiculturalism and its alternatives—in my second book I define the “culture wars” as driven first and foremost by the competing multicultural and traditional historical narratives—and an American Studies approach could likewise link the Paul issues to those debates. Because while Ayn Rand critiqued racism and white/Southern racists in her 1963 essay “Racism”, the libertarian movement that has followed her philosophies has often focused instead on critiquing movements such as multiculturalism or policies such as affirmative action as themselves racist (particularly toward now disadvantaged white Americans), as illustrated by an Ayn Rand Institute-sponsored essay entitled “Diversity and Multiculturalism: The New Racism.” The last few years’ many, mostly (to my mind) manufactured controversies over anti-white racism—from the New Black Panther Party to Glenn Beck’s description of Obama as a racist who hates white people, the tempest over Sonia Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” remark to the destruction of Shirley Sherrod’s career over a seemingly racist (when viewed out of context) quote—can and must be contextualized through such libertarian attempts to changes narratives of racism; and so must Paul’s newsletters’ use of racist language and arguments be linked to those broader trends.
None of that, again, means that an American Studies argument will definitively result in an anti-Paul position; political judgments and choices are complex and individual in any case. But such judgments and choices are stronger when they’re informed by the kinds of historical and cultural narratives and understandings that an American Studies approach can help provide. More tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?1/3 Memory Day nominee: Lucretia Coffin Mott, one of the 19th century’s most influential and prolific social activists and reformers, one of the very few Americans who can be describe as leading both the abolitionist and the suffragist movements, and by all accounts a speaker of tremendous talent, passion, and eloquence.