Rand Paul's Aide: A Dunce on the Confederacy

The most myopic libertarians and the damage they do to the movement

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This week, Alana Goodman, a reporter at the Washington Free Beacon, broke a story about Senator Rand Paul's 39-year-old social-media director, Jack Hunter, who "spent years working as a pro-secessionist radio pundit and neo-Confederate activist" under the name "Southern Avenger." "He has weighed in on issues such as racial pride and Hispanic immigration, and stated his support for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln," Goodman reported. "During public appearances, Hunter often wore a mask on which was printed a Confederate flag."

In a follow-up article, Goodman reported that "controversial radio-pundit-turned-Senate-aide Jack Hunter's work caught the eye of the Paul family years before he was hired as Sen. Rand Paul's (R., Ky.) social media director," and that "it remains unclear whether Rand Paul was familiar with Hunter's inflammatory radio punditry when he hired him." Interviewed by the Free Beacon, "Hunter renounced most of his comments," and his article archive at The American Conservative, which dates back to July 2008, suggests that his thinking changed prior to this controversy. I wish every neo-Confederate would read these lines in his April 1, 2013 column:

The 20-something me would consider the 30-something me a bleeding-heart liberal. Though I still hate political correctness, I no longer find it valuable to attack PC by charging off in the opposite direction, making insensitive remarks that even if right in fact were so wrong in form. I'm not the first political pundit to use excessive hyperbole. I might be one of the few to admit being embarrassed about it. This embarrassment is particularly true concerning my own region, the South, where slavery, segregation, and institutional racism left a heavy mark.

I still detest those on the left and right who exploit racial tension for their own purposes. But I detest even more the inhumanity suffered by African-Americans in our early and later history. T.S. Eliot said, "humankind cannot bear too much reality," and it is impossible for those of us living in the new millennium to comprehend that absolute horror of being treated like chattel by your fellow man, or being terrorized by your neighbors, because of the color of your skin. Books, memorials, and museums will never be able to adequately convey such tragedy, at least not in any manner remotely comparable to the pain of those who lived it.

A bit farther back in his archive at The American Conservative, however, he displays all the cluelessness of nostalgists for the Confederacy, writing, "My entire adult life I have defended the Old South and the Southern cause in America's bloodiest war. Not because I support slavery or racism, but despite it. The positive parallels between what the Confederacy was fighting for in 1861 and what the American colonists fought for in 1776 are many and obvious -- republican democracy, political and economic freedom, national independence, defense of one's homeland."

He has yet to renounce his secessionism.

In an effort to understand his views as fully as possible, I read all his columns from The American Conservative, bearing in mind Daniel McCarthy's claim that "anyone who reads them, while finding plenty to disagree with -- he's an independent thinker -- will not find hate. Naïveté, yes, and a certain obtuseness about minorities that's long been characteristic of the right."

That characterization is accurate. An April 14, 2011, column best captures the maddening way he thinks about secession:

If a liberal like Maddow's primary reason for denouncing nullification or secession is these concepts' popular association with the Old South and slavery, would Maddow have respected the Fugitive Slave Act -- or nullified it? Would the liberal host have agreed with Lincoln that runaway slaves should be returned to their masters? Would Maddow have opposed abolitionists' Northern secession? If she is opposed to nullification and secession in each and every instance -- as her rhetoric heavily implies -- would liberals like Maddow have occasionally found themselves in the strange position of supporting slavery?

What about today, where a de facto nullification remains in effect in California which continues to openly flout federal drug laws? Does Maddow believe residents in that state who are stricken with cancer or glaucoma deserve to be arrested for alleviating their pain with medicinal marijuana? Or does Maddow support nullification? Liberals do not want to be confronted with these uncomfortable philosophical contradictions concerning centralization vs. decentralization -- the debate that raged in 1776, 1861 and still rages today -- because any such intellectual exploration toward this end threatens the very heart of the Left's collectivist historical narrative. For progressives, the ever-increasing power of the federal government represents human liberation and political liberalization--period.

This has been the Left's clarion call from FDR to Barack Obama, and any talk of devolving centralized power -- even in the name of what would typically be considered liberal causes -- is heresy.

Hunter gets one thing right: Secession and nullification aren't inherently wrong. The judges who tried to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act were doing God's work. If the federal government started rounding up all Muslim Americans, and liberal California tried to secede and offer them safe harbor, I'd proudly fly the banner of the Bear Flag Republic. And I believe that state governments are the rightful deciders when it comes to issues like gay marriage, marijuana legalization, and assisted suicide. Want to nullify the War on Drugs by refusing to cooperate with federal efforts to prosecute marijuana? Go for it, Colorado! Cite the Tenth Amendment. I'll back you.

What the author fails to realize is that secession and nullification have bad names because, historically, in practice rather than theory, their use has overwhelmingly led to the subjugation of minorities and diminished liberty; and because, a few Vermonters aside, the maneuvers are almost always paired -- as Hunter pairs them! -- with a myopic Confederate nostalgia that poisons intellectual consideration of the concepts more than any central government-loving liberal.

Centralization is often bad for liberty. Prohibition and the federal government's War on Drugs are examples. But the Union's victory in the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 14th Amendment, and the incorporation doctrine were huge advances for liberty that every American ought to celebrate.

And the form of government favored by Jefferson Davis' Confederacy? I'd like to associate myself with almost every characterization of it made by the Cato Institute's Jason Kuznicki:

Whatever others may say on the subject, I can't understand how anyone might admire the Confederacy and also call themselves a libertarian. Any affinity for the Confederacy marks one very clearly as an enemy of liberty.*

The Confederate Constitution says all that needs to be said on the subject, and it answers all possible arguments to the contrary. Yes, the antebellum U.S. Constitution was clearly quite soft on slavery, and this is not at all to its credit. The best that can be said for it was that it was embarrassed about being quite soft on slavery -- amid all the other liberties it granted and all the other progress it made. Products of committees, do note, can be as schizophrenic as the committees that draft them. Our first attempt at a constitutional order was one such schizophrenic product, and in this respect, the antebellum U.S. Constitution was terrible.

But the Confederate Constitution was vastly worse. What it lacked in schizophrenia, it more than made up for in pure, unadulterated, wholly consistent evil. Consider the following passages:

No law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.

The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.

No slave or other person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the Confederate States, under the laws thereof, escaping or lawfully carried into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such slave belongs, or to whom such service or labor may be due.

The Confederate States may acquire new territory... In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.

It would be a sick joke to stop merely at calling these provisions unlibertarian -- as if all but the exceptionally punctilious members of my little tribe might maybe tolerate them after all.

These provisions are unlibertarian, but they are far worse than that. There is only one legal term that seems quite to do them justice. That term is hostis humani generis: The founders of Confederacy were the enemies of all mankind, as admiralty law holds slave-takers to be. War against slave-takers is always permitted, by anyone, without pretext or need for justification. The practice of slavery is to be crushed, so that mere humanity might live. Anyone who cares about human liberty -- to whatever degree -- ought to despise the Confederacy, ought to mock and desecrate its symbols, and ought never to let Confederate apologists pass unchallenged.

Want to go even deeper in the weeds? See Jonathan Blanks. "Because Confederate-secession defenders will not typically make arguments in favor of chattel slavery, they rely instead on the assumption that secession is an unbounded right and thus a state may leave a country for whatever reason it chooses," he writes. "To accept this premise, one has to bypass moral judgment on the cause of secession, yet affirmatively assign a morality to secession as a matter of preferred political procedure -- in common parlance as 'states' rights.' This turns the assumption of individual rights on its head, if the federalist procedure is to supersede the right of exit of any group or individual within that state, as the Confederacy's slave economy unquestionably did."

Perhaps this critique has already persuaded, or will one day persuade, Hunter to renounce more of his past positions. "In radio, sometimes you're encouraged to be provocative and inflammatory," he told the Free Beacon. "I've been guilty of both, and am embarrassed by some of the comments I made precisely because they do not represent me today. I was embarrassed by some of them even then." It is a discredit to his character that he said things he didn't believe on the radio; just as I do not excuse Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh for spewing false, provocative nonsense for the sake of ego and/or lucre, I don't regard I misrepresented my opinions because I was in a dishonest medium to be any kind of excuse.

I do respect Hunter's renunciations and rethinking, and the increased empathy that preceded this controversy. Within the world of commentary, I am disinclined to shun anyone earnestly seeking redemption from a past of talk-radio hackery -- talk about getting the incentives all wrong.

That doesn't change the fact that Hunter should resign his post immediately, because his continued presence can only undermine the effectiveness of his employer. Paul shouldn't have ever hired him, because even if -- to be overly charitable -- Paul wasn't aware of his objectionable views, or disagreed with all of them but didn't regard them as pertinent to the job, a Senate staffer's role is to help his boss govern, and any fool should've been able to see that having an avowed secessionist and Confederate nostalgist on staff would end in distraction, controversy, and many assuming (whether rightly or wrongly) an antagonism to blacks -- just as many Americans assumed, during the Jeremiah Wright scandal, that Obama harbored antagonism toward America. The political best practice "don't hire extremist former talk-radio hosts who spewed years of nonsense even they won't defend" didn't guide Paul's hiring when Hunter joined. 

Why? Dave Weigel has thoughts. Lots of themOther hypotheses:

  1. Paul sympathizes with Confederate nostalgia and secessionism.
  2. Just as it made sense for Obama to associate himself with Jeremiah Wright to win over a certain sort of liberal Chicago voter, and made sense for him to disassociate himself with Wright to win over Americans generally, Rand Paul is constantly trying, on one hand, to retain the base of his father, and on the other, to increase his appeal to Americans generally. Insofar as he associates with secessionists and Confederate nostalgists, it is calculated, a bone he throws to the fringe of America that is disproportionately likely to bankroll money bombs; but the fringe stuff doesn't reflect his actual beliefs or governing agenda.
  3. He just liked the good things about Jack Hunter, has a higher tolerance than most for fringe beliefs, and a distaste for shunning people just because they have views that are offensive to many.
  4. Paul, like many pols, is strangely blind to the dumbest excesses or mistakes within his own ideology.

My bet would be on No. 2, which is neither the most nor least charitable explanation. But since I'm betting and not asserting, be assured that this is a question Paul will need to address directly. Perhaps not now, or ever, if he just wants to remain in the Senate; but sometime, if he runs for president in 2016.

This whole episode is vexing to me. This week as much as last, I believe that Paul, like Ron Wyden, is one of several indispensable members of his chamber, where one voice can make a significant difference in policy. 

Paul is constantly speaking out against needless American involvement in foreign wars, most recently in Syria; so long as a vote on Iran could conceivably be the difference between a catastrophic war that could "haunt us for generations," as Robert Gates put it, every non-interventionist is indispensable. He favors reforming mandatory minimum sentencing and forcing transparency on the surveillance state, and he's critical of a secretive drone campaign that has killed so many innocents. If Paul left the Senate tomorrow, it is vanishingly unlikely that anyone in Kentucky or anywhere else would start taking these and other stands, many of which speak directly to some of the most illiberal, unjust actions America carries out. In all these fights, Paul faces long odds.

Every association with neo-Confederates, or bit of evidence that he hasn't learned the lessons of his father's poisonous newsletters, doesn't just corrode his standing as a champion of liberty; nor is it just destructive of any presidential ambitions he harbors. It undermines his ability to achieve vital reforms, to avert foreign wars, to protect civil liberties or critique the War on Terror in any way. It strengthens the hands of his opponents on those issues, however illogically.

And for what? What is gained by these associations?

Paul is perhaps thinking, as he's expressed before, that he wants to be judged on his actions in the Senate -- on the votes that he takes and the questions that he raises. He may say that his aide's opinions are irrelevant, given that neither he nor even the aide himself share most of them. He may argue, as I have done, that there is a double-standard in the way that Republicans, especially libertarian-leaning ones, are treated on the issue: that Paul is called a racist based on newsletters written by his father and talk-radio monologues delivered by his aide, while Michael Bloomberg remains unscathed, even as he himself presides over and defends racially profiling and secretly spying on innocent New York-area Muslim Americans, as well as the deeply-racist-in-practice Stop and Frisk. But even granting all of that, every word I've written above stands.

So what should we think about Paul now?

Chris Hayes says that he very much likes some of the positions that Paul has taken, but that "in the final analysis, there are certain things, certain views, that just put you outside of the boundaries that get you listened to on anything. I'd say white supremacy is one of those. And association with people who hold those views, they render you unfit." ** I predict that if Paul makes a cogent point on drone policy, or surveillance policy, or a particularly compelling anti-war argument, Hayes will, in fact, listen to him, and even broadcast his words to others. 

I sure will.

And while there are many differences between the Obama-Wright controversy (which did not at all dissuade me from supporting Obama in 2008) and the current controversy over Hunter's remarks, there is this similarity: Both deal with how we ought to react to indefensible remarks made by someone a prominent politician chose to associate with, even after the remarks.

In that instance, Hayes had this reaction:

Chris Hayes of the Nation posted on April 29, 2008, urging his colleagues to ignore Wright. Hayes directed his message to "particularly those in the ostensible mainstream media" who were members of the list. The Wright controversy, Hayes argued, was not about Wright at all. Instead, "It has everything to do with the attempts of the right to maintain control of the country." Hayes castigated his fellow liberals for criticizing Wright. "All this hand wringing about just how awful and odious Rev. Wright remarks are just keeps the hustle going."

"Our country disappears people. It tortures people. It has the blood of as many as one million Iraqi civilians -- men, women, children, the infirmed -- on its hands. You'll forgive me if I just can't quite dredge up the requisite amount of outrage over Barack Obama's pastor," Hayes wrote. "I'm not saying we should all rush en masse to defend Wright. If you don't think he's worthy of defense, don't defend him! What I'm saying is that there is no earthly reason to use our various platforms to discuss what about Wright we find objectionable."

He later clarified, "My argument was that Wright's views and Obama's relationship to him simply weren't at all predictive of how Obama would govern or fundamentally revealing about the kind of president he would make."

He was certainly right about that.

As a whole, his take has many parallels to today's unapologetic Paul defenders: They say this is a distraction dredged up by neo-cons to maintain control of the Republican Party, that the hand-wringing just keeps the hustle going, and that considering the horrific policies that the U.S. implements and Paul opposes, being outraged about an associate's offensive comments is bizarre.

What do I say?

  • Paul deserves much of the criticism he's getting, including what I've heaped on him above. If he can't see how this undermines his goals he should ask Will Wilkinson to explain it to him.
  • Judging from Paul's time in the Senate, nothing about Hunter's controversial views have been at all predictive of how Paul has governed, and there is no credible case that they ever will be predictive.
  • If you'd never vote for Paul because he employs an aide who said lots of offensive stuff on talk radio but you did vote to reelect George W. Bush or Obama, who've both retained aides at the highest levels who were complicit in torturing other human beings, perhaps you should rethink what it is that you make into a litmus test -- more on that point here

Consider all that a tentative take, pending new facts and further reflection.


* Here's the one line I want to parse: "Any affinity for the Confederacy marks one very clearly as an enemy of liberty." That feels true to me. It would be true, if people were rational creatures. But I've encountered a lot of people whose affinity for the Confederacy is characterized by staggering historical ignorance, stubborn, irrational, myopic tribalism, pathological, selective over-intellectualization, and cognitive dissonance. Their commitments don't make any kind of sense when juxtaposed, which doesn't mean they don't believe them. It's a lot like the college students who have hammer-and-sickle flags on their wall, Che tees on their bodies, and ready defenses of Fidel Castro, but who also champion civil liberties and like capitalism.

Weirdly, they exist.

** Hayes goes on:

Even if you take the most charitable view possible, that, say, you get three white supremacist strikes, Rand Paul is in trouble. Strike one was in 2009 when Rand Paul's Senate campaign spokesperson was forced to resign over a horribly racist comment and historical image of a lynching -- I am not making that up -- posted by a friend on his MySpace wall on Martin Luther King Weekend. It had been allowed to remain for almost two years. Rand Paul then went on the Rachel Maddow show, saying he didn't much like the Civil Rights Act, that was strike two. And now this, the Southern Avenger on the Senator's staff. That's three racist strikes. You're out.

Seriously? Assigning Rand Paul a "white supremacist strike" because he employed a spokesman whose friend posted something offensive on the spokesman's MySpace page? And really, a "white supremacist strike" for taking the position that the Civil Rights Act did a lot of good things, but that he had some principled objections to the private business provision? I've criticized Paul's answer as wrongheaded, but it certainly isn't a white supremacist position.

I wonder how many strikes would result if Hayes applied these same standards to, say, Bill Clinton. Who was it that he cited as his mentor? Ah, yes, a former segregationist. Strike one? We'd do well to reserve white supremacist strikes for people who actually believe in or advocate white supremacy.