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Shibboleths and Principles

The establishment of the holiday celebrating the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a symbolic act assimilating King into the national consensus. By its nature, an act of that sort necessitated the neutering of some parts of King’s radicalism – his frank support for some kind of socialism, for one example; for another, his opposition to the war in Vietnam and, more broadly, to the overall thrust of American foreign policy. But it also meant the mainstreaming of some of the other aspects of his radicalism. In his day, total opposition to white supremacy was radical; the demand that the descendants of African slaves be treated as truly equal with the descendants of their masters was radical. Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute was only struck down in 1967; King was assassinated in 1968.

The creation of the King holiday was not a foregone conclusion. It took two tries, in fact, a failed attempt in 1979 and a successful re-try in 1983, when the holiday was signed into law by President Reagan. Public opposition to the law frequently made reference to King’s purported Communist connections. There has never been any good evidence of such connections, but the CPUSA did try to make use of the “race” issue back its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, and it would be unsurprising if longtime veterans of the struggle for civil rights didn’t include people with Communist ties in their backgrounds. If one wishes to give so much credit to opponents of honoring King (and I am not inclined to do so), one might say that they made the shibboleth of anti-Communism the basis of their opposition to the establishment of a new shibboleth of anti-racism.

Representative Ron Paul was one of these opponents. He opposed the formation of a holiday honoring King in 1979 and again in 1983. I don’t presume to know the reason for his opposition. (Though he subsequently decried the holiday as “hate whitey day” and lamented that we now had a holiday honoring a “pro-communist philanderer,” in more recent years he has called King a “hero.”) But I don’t think it’s a stretch to conclude that he understood that the holiday had a symbolic meaning, and that he was opposed to that meaning – that he opposed either soft-pedaling King’s radicalism on, say, the viability of capitalism, or that he opposed the normalizing of King’s radicalism on relations between the races, or both.

Now that he is a substantial figure on the political scene, with a following comprised mostly of people who comfortably accept the symbolism of the King holiday, Paul has, effectively, asserted his comfort with that symbolism as well. But his past views cannot be suppressed, and that history has been used as the basis for an attempt, on the part of some of his opponents, to establish yet another shibboleth: an anti-Paul shibboleth. Paul, meanwhile, will not forthrightly deal with the question, presumably because he has made it a matter of principle not to sever ties with old friends and comrades, however unsavory, and not to denounce anyone who offers him their support.

In some circles, these badges matter a great deal. If your views, or your friends, have the “wrong” intellectual pedigree – if you associated with Communists, or with racists, or what-have-you – then there is no reason to hear from you. And, for those associates and those who more quietly agree with them, the willingness to so associate is the proof that you are truly principled, and not a sell-out.

I don’t think either way of thinking is terribly productive. When matters of great import rise to the fore, you take your allies where you can get them. The United States was allied with the Soviet Union in World War II. If the CPUSA had been of any practical use (which it wasn’t) to the civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s, I can’t imagine they would have disdained their support. But if you actually want to make a difference, at a certain point you make a choice about whether particular allies are actually doing you more harm than good, whether their presence is making you less, not more effective. That’s part of leadership, and a refusal to exercise it isn’t principled; it’s just bad leadership.

Two of the great issues of our time are the unsustainability of our extremely forward defense posture on the one hand and of the financialization of our economy (and political economy) on the other. I think Ron Paul is offering mostly very wrong answers to these questions – but they are the right questions. An anti-Paul shibboleth is a way of saying: we don’t need to listen to this guy’s questions – he’s a crank who consorts with racists if he isn’t a racist himself – when what we need to do is demand more substantive answers of more mainstream leaders about those very questions.

That’s the role of radicals, and Paul is a radical. I am, by temperament, decidedly not a radical person. But I think radicals play a vital part in a political ecosystem, because they are willing to ask questions that the mainstream is not. I don’t want them to take power (and the way Paul is operating suggests to me that he has no real plan for getting to that point). But I want them to exercise the power that they do have – the power to hold power to public account – and to exercise it without fetter.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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