The Proud Ignorance of Rand Paul

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I saw this over at Gawker, and thought that Rand Paul might come off better if I saw the whole video. I think the whole video made it worse. What's most troubling about this interview is not that Paul opposes a portion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it's that it's clear Paul hasn't thought much about his position. Lacking a rigorous intellectual framework for his opposition, Paul is wobbly on defense. So what you see, in the main, is Paul trying to change the subject--at one point, I think he actually asks (rhetorically), "Am I a bad person?" 


But Paul never settles down and to make the argument. Rachel Maddow repeatedly raises lunch counters, and it would have really pleased me if Paul had just made the case for private sector discrimination. Frankly, I can see the outlines of the argument and am not totally unsympathetic to it. Indeed, I think there's a beautiful justice that's visited upon the random politician who, to this very day, is routinely exposed as belonging to a white country club. There's a kind of social sanction in that embarrassment that I don't think the law can bring. (That said, I trust the people who were actually there more than my own abstract theorizing.)

But what about red-lining? Does Paul know anything about blockbusting? Does he think banks should be able to have a policy of not lending to black businesses? Does he think real-estate agents should be able to discriminate? Does he think private homeowner groups should be able to band together and keep out blacks? Jews? Gays? Latinos?

I think there's this sense that it's OK to be ignorant about the Civil Rights Act because it's a "black issue." I'm not a lawyer, but my sense is that for a senator to be ignorant of the Civil Rights Act, is not simply to be ignorant of a "black issue," but to be ignorant of one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed. This isn't like not knowing the days of Kwanzaa, this is like not knowing what caused the Civil War. It's just embarrassing--except Paul is too ignorant to be embarrassed.

I'm sure Paul's defenders will dismiss this interview as a lefty hit-job. But Maddow gave him every opportunity to correct the record, or defend it, and Paul answered with a series of feints and dodges. Not once did he stand up and throw a real punch. You're left wondering how he came to his position and what, precisely, is really at work here. I chose ignorance because it gives him as much credit as intelligently possible. Anything more, in 2010, in the United States Senate, is disgraceful.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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