The reaction to Ron Paul’s runaway victory in the CPAC presidential poll continues to roll in, and I wouldn’t dwell on it as much as I have except for its significance as indicative of a sea-change on the right and in the country generally. And also, for another reason: because I can’t help but wonder at the paucity of intellectual firepower among Paul’s critics.
From the snide Washington-insiderism of the "cosmotarians" in the ostensibly libertarian movement, to the fact-free hysterics of professional race-baiter Earl Ofari Hutchinson, and the Vyshinsky-like denunciations by Michael "Mushroom Cloud" Gerson, the Bush II speechwriter and Washington Post columnist, one gets a sense that there is no real opposition to Paul’s ideology – only a huge intellectual vacuum lit up by lightning flashes of malice. While the above-mentioned anti-Paulistas come at their target from a variety of ideological positions, what they all have in common is a refusal to engage his actual ideas, and instead focus on some irrelevant detail or incident in order to discredit the man and the movement he spawned.
The "cosmotarians," i.e. Reason magazine editor Matt Welch, his former employee Dave Weigel, and the so-called Orange Line Mafia, came closest with their attacks on Paul’s strategy. The only problem for them is that their thesis – that the Paulian strategy of anticipating and appealing to a burgeoning anti-government protest movement which they fairly described as "right-wing populist" would not only fail miserably but bring libertarianism into fatal disrepute – proved to be absolutely and laughably wrong. Paul is inarguably the single most successful popularizer of libertarian ideas, and today he stands at the head of a movement that extends far beyond the traditional libertarian periphery. The frantic attacks against Paul that are still being launched in the online pages of Reason magazine are boomeranging, with a record number of canceled subscriptions and renewals abjured. An effort that aimed to discredit Paul is, instead, bringing discredit on the perpetrators – and isn’t it refreshing to see that there’s some justice in this world?
Yet the cosmotarians didn’t engage Paul’s ideas, either, but instead tried to deflect them by claiming that his strategy was politically and culturally incorrect, and that it was all an evil plot hatched by Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell to submerge the cool hip libertarian movement into the Neanderthal dregs of the Reactionary Right, where blazers rather than black leather jackets are the uniform of choice.
This sub-political "critique" of Paul and his movement doesn’t really qualify as argument so much as it resembles a form of ideological voguing, or striking a pose. The weird insubstantiality of the whole business was given voice by Paul critic Brink Lindsey, of the Cato Institute, who told The Nation Paul isn’t "the kind of person that’s tapping into those elements of American public opinion that might lead towards a sustainable move in the libertarian direction." He’s not our "kind of person," the cosmotarians caviled – but so what? Nobody cared, and Paul went on to create a libertarian mass movement against crony capitalism and war.
Gerson’s "critique" is equally contentless: like much of what passes for polemics on the right, his column consists mostly of a long list of epithets. For a former presidential speechwriter, he sure is inarticulate, although perhaps the presidential tendency to make pronouncements, rather than arguments – a tendency greatly exacerbated during the Bush years – inevitably crippled his prose style as a columnist. Gerson, once a senior policy advisor at the Heritage Foundation, is the founder of "compassionate conservatism," a doctrine fuzzy in its outlines but clear on its foreign policy prescription of non-compassionate aggression in the Middle East and around the world: anything less is "isolationist."
The Gersonite "critique" of the Paul movement is echoed in a recent piece by one Thomas Qualtere, in the Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson’s much-touted conservative knockoff of the Huffington Post. As an exercise in vapidity, Qualtere’s empty-headed prose certainly fits the Caller‘s red-state sub-literate demographic, starting with the title: "Hawks We Are, And Hawks We Must Remain." Oh really – and why is that? Qualtere writes:
"With CPAC 2010 now fully behind us, conservatism’s rising generation has some choosing to do. Specifically, on the matter of war and national security, will we be the hawks that we were born to be? Now is the time to make a lasting decision, and we better get it right."
"The hawks we were born to be?" It’s hard to know what Qualtere is getting at here – he seems to equate ideas with conditioned reflexes – but, as you’ll see, that’s not too unusual in the case of this author, who is described as "Research Assistant to the President of the Heritage Foundation." His education, we are told, consists of degrees in "Government and Acting" – the perfect dual major for one who has, according to his bio, "spent several years as a GOP operative throughout upstate New York’s Capital Region."
"A few years ago it was thought that social issues would be the barrier that partitioned us into separate camps," avers Qualtere. Yes, the anti-gay speaker at the conference was booed, and so the aging GOP leadership of religious nuts and neocons will have to reconsider that particular bigotry, or else come up with a new angle.. "Instead," continues Qualtere, "it seems to be our dramatically conflicting views over U.S. foreign policy that have drawn a thick, undeniable line in the sand." The clichés come in a veritable torrent: Paul’s "isolationism" is the "10,000 pound elephant in the room, and his victory was a "brief moment of glory." The pundits pointed to the youth as the "culprit," he whines, yet Qualtere undermines his own point by admitting that "only half" of the voters were under 25. True, a "mere 24 percent of CPAC attendees" actually voted, but he fails to mention that this degree of participation is unprecedented.
Oh, but don’t worry, some good can come out of Paul’s victory yet, because, says Qualtere, it "gives young conservatives everywhere a reason (or perhaps an excuse) to ask ourselves, on the topic of foreign policy, the unnecessarily uncomfortable question of where we want to stand and who we want (and don’t want) to stand with us."
So what is the answer to this question that our young author feels uncomfortable about asking, albeit unnecessarily so?
"Our answers should lay in our generational identity.
"We are the 9/11 generation.
"We were born sometime in the ’80s—a period we know better through old films and theme parties than from actual memory, yet we’re still aware that a certain actor-turned-president is responsible for making the decade everything that the ’70s were not: harmonious, optimistic, and thriving."
Oh, but they had better parties during the ’70s, let me assure you, I don’t care how many theme parties you’ve been to. Trust me on that. The eighties "harmonious, optimistic, and thriving"? Well, I won’t quibble over details, but the borderline charm of this level of blissful ignorance is really stretched to the breaking point by the following:
"We grew up through the roaring ’90s—a time of peace and prosperity that neither our parents nor grandparents ever knew. Occurring between the end of the Cold War and the arrival of Y2K, it was truly a holiday from history and we enjoyed every fruit it had to offer. The music was great, the movies were fun, the new cellular telephones were neat and the World Wide Web was even cooler. As much as we remember how easy that era was for us, we also remember how and why it ended."
Yeah, it ended with the election of George W. Bush. During the alleged golden age of the nineties a man named William Jefferson Clinton was president – remember him? Another one of those bothersome details that Qualtere fails to mention. The music, the movies, the "holiday from history," all of it was great – so why isn’t he a Democrat of the Clintonian variety?
Well, you see, it all has to do with being "the 9/11 generation" – which apparently means being the mutant offspring of a mentally deforming event, as Qualtere’s deathless prose makes all too clear:
"It’s been almost a decade since 9/11. Many of us felt our first spark of political passion in the aftermath of the attacks because we saw something (or many things) that we deeply, personally admired in George W. Bush. Whether it was his character, his leadership, or that he was the guy who was going to send our warriors to rain down justice on our new enemies, we lined up behind him. He was not only our president, he was our avenger. We’d heard endless tales of the greatness that was Ronald Reagan, but we never actually knew him. Bush was different."
So this is what the anti-Paul forces in the ostensibly conservative "mainstream" have to offer: the cult of Bush! As my old friend Murray Rothbard used to say: "Are we to be spared nothing?!"
For most of his presidency a clueless front man for Dick Cheney and the neocons, George W. Bush expanded the size, scope, and reach of the US governmental power almost as much as he expanded the deficit, and at a rate that is and was simply astounding.
Qualtere should take a good look at the other CPAC poll results if he wants to discover why the cult of Bush isn’t a good marketing tool for his brand of hooey. Asked "which one of the following comes closest to your core beliefs and ideology?" 80 percent chose "to promote individual freedom by reducing the size and scope of government and its intrusion into the lives of citizens."
These are very unlikely recruits to the Bush cult. It looks to me like "the 9/11 generation" is far from unanimous in its hero worship of Bush II and the policies he promulgated. Indeed, among conservatives of Qualtere’s generation, the Bushian doctrine of permanent war and big government has few adherents, and perhaps the great majority of these neo-Bushians are on the payroll of the Heritage Foundation and allied neocon institutions huddled in the Washington Beltway.
The CPAC poll augurs a new grassroots mood on the American right, one that will provoke more hostility than the supposedly subversive "antigovernment" message of the so-called tea-partiers. The regnant elites, "progressives" as well as neoconservatives, deride it as "isolationist," and invariably link it to other politically incorrect disorders, i.e. ideas that the Washington-New York axis of arrogance considers outside the pale. Yet the proposition that we should quit meddling in the affairs of other nations is increasingly popular, as a recent Pew poll showed: the poll also showed that, on this question, the elites are far removed from the rest of us in their undying attachment to a foreign policy of global intervention. Of the "key opinion-makers" asked, not a single one took the "less meddling" position.
Thus the near-universal panic when Paul won at CPAC. And they are right to be panicked. That’s because the Old Right is back: a mass movement against Power and all its works, especially war. The conservatism of Robert A. Taft, Rep. George H. Bender, and the America First Committee – the biggest antiwar movement in our history – is rising, and not all the second-rate smear artists, third-rate hucksters, and fourth-rate junior neocons in Washington can stop it. That’s because they have nothing to say, no ideas to debate, and no coherent alternative to Paul’s systematic critique of the Welfare-Warfare State.
Certainly Qualtere’s polemic against Paul is remarkably, even frighteningly empty. In examining it, line by line, we find not a single real argument: only histrionics, heroic calls to action, the valorization of the boring and inarticulate Bush, and this:
"Can those who openly profess that Iran should be able to possess nuclear weapons really stand for very long on the same ship as those who squarely reject such as asinine notion? Of course not."
The question, though, is not whether Iran should be able to possess nuclear weapons, but how Qualtere and his neoconservative confreres propose to stop them from possessing the capacity to produce such weapons. After all, even if Iran is telling the truth about its intentions – that they are only interested in the peaceful pursuit of nuclear power – Tehran could easily switch gears, given a certain level of technical competence, and succeed in producing a weapon. Given their continued technical progress, war – by Qualtere’s lights – is inevitable. After all, as he puts it, we must win the "war on terrorism" "no matter what."
The emphasis is Qualtere’s. No matter what – financial insolvency, the degradation of our Constitution, the growth of government beyond any conservative’s worst nightmare. None of that matters, because all "conservatives" of this sort care about is war, war, and more war. Not that they intend to fight this "Good War" themselves. Oh no, certainly not:
"Of course, scores of young conservative are currently doing much more than debating America’s foreign policy behind the comfort of our borders; they’re fighting the wars of which we speak as Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines. But for those of us who’ve chosen a vocation on the home front, our support for them and their mission must be unambiguous and unwavering. It is time for conservatism’s 9/11 generation to fully embrace and defend the role that history has bestowed upon us and wear our hawk feathers more proudly than ever."
Of course, some of the "9/11 generation" will wind up "embracing" their assigned "role" in history more fully than others, as the casualty figures for Obama’s wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan start adding up. Not "those who have chosen a vocation on the home front," however – although, don’t worry, Qualtere is going to be out there cheerleading, just like his hero Bush, the whole time.
If a man is to be judged by his enemies, then Ron Paul is nothing short of a saint. What a sad collection of vacuous losers! Nothing they say or write remotely resembles an argument, never mind a convincing one. As Gertrude Stein said of her home town: "There is no there there."
If this is the best the War Party and its allies can come up with, then we say without exaggeration that they’re just a bunch of paper tigers – and has anybody got a match?
In fighting a vast emptiness, however, we may find we are facing the most formidable enemy of all. How do you fight against an intellectual vacuum? A good question, and one that I’m afraid will have to wait for another day. In the meantime, however, take heart in such victories as come our way – and prepare for battle. Because the movement for liberty and peace is on the move, and the opposition is gathering …
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I just want to take this opportunity to thank all those who contributed to the recent fundraising drive. Without your support, we could not continue our work. It was a little hairy there, for a while: I was afraid the economic downturn had finally claimed us as another victim, but no – because you came through in the end.
This writer will never take that support for granted: every day I remind myself that this kind of loyalty has to be earned. And I hope that I am doing my bit, along with the staff of Antiwar.com, to earn your respect, your trust, and your continuing contribution. Thank you for that.