When I heard Rand Paul’s statement about the civil rights act, I had a sense of deja vu. Not only that I’d heard them before, but that I run into the peculiar conservative phenomenon they represented: wanting have it both ways on an issue when conservative “values” are “repulsive to the mainstream,” and to most people’s sense of decency. It usually happens when they’re caught saying what they mean, and then claim to have been misunderstood, “taken out of context,” or merely speaking in a “hypothetical” sense.
Actually, John, your remark reminded me of an interview I saw years ago when some sweet little old lady was asked about a law prohibiting workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. I guess she wanted to preserve her image as a sweet old lady when she said of the proposed law, "Oh, I'm against discrimination. I just don't think we need a law against it. It's a nice sentiment, but even then I knew the reality was that in the absence of a law there was no way to prevent discrimination, no possible penalty for those who did the discriminating, and no legal remedies or recourse for those who were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation to fight it.
In her mind, that little old lady got to have it both ways by personally opposing discrimination, but at the same time supporting it by supporting a status quo that at best took a "do nothing" approach to anti-gay discrimination that left people no better off. But she got to feel good about herself, and remain a sweet old lady.
And then there’s Rand Paul.
I’m willing to give him some degree of the benefit of the doubt, though. Rand Paul may very well be personally opposed to racial discrimination. Perhaps he would never personally discriminate against anyone on the basis of their race or ethnicity. Perhaps he would even speak up against it, if he witnessed such discrimination personally.
Rand Paul may not personally believe in racial discrimination. But, make no mistake about it, he doesn’t believe anything should be done about. He doesn’t believe it should be prevented, and he doesn’t believe there should be an legal consequences for those who practice it, or any legal recourse for those who experience it.
Black people had been living in the “leave it to the states” nightmare since Reconstruction, during which the war-weary North abandoned black people to the terrible lawlessness of a vengeful South. Civil-rights movement leaders were fighting for the federal government to secure their rights against the arbitrary tyranny of the political powers in the Southern states, which maintained their hold on local government through coercion and violence. That’s why the attempted appropriation of the civil-rights movement by the likes of Glenn Beck is so bizarre — the tyranny the civil-rights movement was the kind of federalist paradise he imagines.
…Paul’s defenders will argue — as conservatives did with Barry Goldwater — that Paul himself is not a racist. Indeed, Paul said he finds racism abhorrent and would not frequent a segregated business. And Paul rather incoherently defended his position as being “the hard part about believing in freedom.” This is a key statement because it rather poignantly expresses the utter selfishness at the heart of Paul’s argument against the Civil Rights Act.
Paul would never face the actual “hard part” of his vision of freedom, because it would never interfere with his own life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness. Rand Paul would not have been turned away from a lunch counter, be refused a home, a job, or denied a loan, or told to sit in the black car of a train because of his skin color, or because of the skin color of his spouse. Paul thinks there is something “hard” about defending the kind of discrimination he would have never, ever faced. Paul’s free-market fundamentalism is being expressed after decades of social transformation that the Civil Rights Act helped create, and so the hell of segregation is but a mere abstraction, difficult to remember and easy to dismiss as belonging only to its time. It’s much easier now to say that “the market would handle it.” But it didn’t, and it wouldn’t.
According to Paul, apparently Americans had more freedom back then.
Has there ever been a golden age of liberty? No, and there never will be. There will always be people who want to live their lives in peace, and there will always be people who want to exploit them or impose their own ideas on others. If we look at the long term--from a past that includes despotism, feudalism, absolutism, fascism, and communism--we're clearly better off. When we look at our own country’s history--contrasting 2010 with 1776 or 1910 or 1950 or whatever--the story is less clear. We suffer under a lot of regulations and restrictions that our ancestors didn't face.
But in 1776 black Americans were held in chattel slavery, and married women had no legal existence except as agents of their husbands. In 1910 and even 1950, blacks still suffered under the legal bonds of Jim Crow--and we all faced confiscatory tax rates throughout the postwar period.
I am particularly struck by libertarians and conservatives who celebrate the freedom of early America, and deplore our decline from those halcyon days, without bothering to mention the existence of slavery. Take R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., longtime editor of the American Spectator. In Policy Review (Summer 1987, not online), he wrote:
Let us flee to a favored utopia. For me that would be the late 18th Century but with air conditioning….With both feet firmly planted on the soil of my American domain, and young American flag fluttering above, tobacco in the field, I would relish the freedom.
I take it Mr. Tyrrell dreams of being a slave-owner. Because as he certainly knows, most of the people in those tobacco fields were slaves.
Chances are Mr. Tyrrell didn’t dream of being a slave owner any more than Dr. Paul dreams of a return of segregation (at least not legal, government-sanctioned segregation). But his ideal of a “free society” would mean very different realities for both of us.
Paul was born in 1963, a year before the civil rights act and six years before I was born. Neither of us have ever lived with the reality of legal racial discrimination. If it hadn’t passed, we both would have lived with it, but in very different ways. It’s unlikely that Paul would be denied service at a restaurant. I, on the other hand, likely would -- depending on where I happened to be. Likewise, with bus lines and bus stations, train travel, bathrooms, water fountains, hotels, etc.
Even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, if Paul and I had both attempted to dine at the Pickrick Cafe, owned by segregationist and Georgia governor Lester Maddox, Paul would have been allowed to dine. I would likely have been chased out with a gun or an axe handle.
In 1944, Maddox, along with his wife, the former Virginia Cox, used $400 they had saved to open up a combination grocery store/restaurant. Building on that success, the couple then bought property on Hemphill Avenue off the Georgia Tech campus to open up the Pickrick Cafeteria.
Maddox made the Pickrick a family affair with his wife and children working side-by-side with him. The restaurant became known for its simple, inexpensive food, including its specialty, skillet-fried chicken. It soon became a thriving business. The restaurant also provided Maddox with his first political forum: the restaurant became well known in Atlanta for large newspaper advertisements that featured cartoon chickens. Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, these restaurant ads began more and more to feature the cartoon chickens commenting on the political questions of the day. However, Maddox’s refusal to adjust to changes following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 manifested itself when he filed a lawsuit to continue his segregationist policies. Maddox said that he would close his restaurant rather than serve black people. An initial group of black demonstrators came to the restaurant but did not enter when Maddox informed them that he had a large number of black employees. In April 1964, more African-Americans attempted to enter the restaurant. Maddox confronted the group, brandishing a handgun. Maddox provides the following account of the events:
Mostly customers, with only a few employees, voluntarily removed the twelve Pickrick Drumsticks (pick handles) from the nail kegs on each side of the large dining room fireplace. They had been forewarned by the arrival of Atlanta’s news media of an impending attempted invasion of our restaurant by the racial demonstrators and once the demonstrators and agitators arrived, the customers and employees pulled the drumsticks from the kegs and went outside to defend against the threatened invasion.
Unable to win his case, he became a martyr to segregationist advocates by selling the restaurant to employees rather than agreeing to serve black customers.
If they could turn back time, and literally take the country back to a time when “Americans used to be free,” would that mean less freedom for those of us who don't fit the old definition of “American”? Why should we even want to test it? It is possible to return to “the good old days” (once we determine when they were) and, as my online debate opponent said “make them good for everybody”?
It's an old argument, but one that conservatives haven't effectively answered - at least not in a way that wouldn't horrify many people. How do you return to the “good old days” and make them good for everybody? Because they weren't. Or is that what actually made them good?
First, there's not much evidence from today's nostalgic conservatives that they would want to. Indeed, the rhetoric and imagery of the tea parties, which have for better or worse become the dominant face and voice of conservatism today, suggests quite the opposite.
…Again, being white, male, Christian, and heterosexual doesn't come with the privileges it used to. That this loss is blamed on minorities comes as no surprise. To blame it, instead, upon the lawmakers whose policies actually helped close those factories, and whose economic policy made the outsourcing of their jobs possible, would cause an even greater crisis of identity. Because, for the most part those two groups - the tea baggers and the lawmakers whose policies got us where we are today, are almost mirror images of each other. And that might just be too much to face up to.
After all, the “freedom” extolled by the writers Boaz and Devilstower reference, was available only to some who fit a certain criteria - white, male, property owners, at minimum - and then at the expense of virtually everyone else. Their enjoyment of those freedoms - merely mere rights and privileges of citizenship -depended on everyone else not having them.
Much of the rest of our history has been, on the part of progressives, a process of correcting that imbalance, and expanding those freedoms to more and more Americans. Thus, if they could turn back time “good old days,” and the way things used to be way back when, it would almost certainly leave most of the rest of us - who don't fit the tea party demographic - much worse off than we are now.
I can’t imagine going about my daily life today wondering where I can get something to eat and where I can’t, where my family can stop for the night while traveling and where we can’t, we I can shop and where I can’t, etc. I can’t imagine having to tell my children why.
My parents were born in the 1930s, grew up during the 1930s and 1940s, and married in the mid-1950s. They knew a world where they hade to face all of the above, and a world where their children would not. Because the world changed.
If Paul and other conservatives had their way, it wouldn’t have. At least, not much or as soon as it did.