Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

So that was what all the fuss was about: Rand Paul and the Health Bill ruckus

In Domestic Politics on May 21, 2010 at 10:55 am

I have been more detached from the news cycle than usual, and I get a little behind these days, but the interview on Rachel Maddow’s show with Rand Paul is a first class media event. There is so much in this episode, but the thing that stands out to me is the reaction from  John Kyl that I came across in the New York Times.

“I hope he can separate the theoretical and the interesting and the hypothetical questions that college students debate until 2 a.m. from the actual votes we have to cast based on real legislation here,” said Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican.

This is, in a sense, more important a revelation than are Paul’s comments because they have more to reveal. If you have been paying attention, as Ms. Maddow obviously has, you would know that Paul has to oppose the Civil Rights act of 1964, precisely because it was such a radical document from a Libertarian perspective. You might as well ask him if he would support limiting freedom of speech (his freedom of association fixation is drawn from that same First Amendment) for people with whom he disagrees. This is a freedom über alles philosophy and he is the real deal.

What makes the Rand Paul victory important for ideological clarification is that grappling with a prominent Paulite will help you to disaggregate the two major constituencies that opposed that landmark bill of 1964 and who are in some sense still with us today: you have the traditional southern racists like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace and the constitutional fundamentalists like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. These two sets of actors may all seem like racists to us in the twenty-first century, but only because we have the hindsight benefit of having spent most of our lives in the relative calm in race relations that the Civil Rights bill brought us and all of the placidity of vision that can come with that.

The two groups were really quite different. The first constituency was comprised of what any reasonable person might call racists–the blood in the face types. The second was comprised of people with ideas that feel pretty racist today, but are probably better described as ethnically biased but economically validated. You see, the constitutional fundamentalists are merely cultural snobs, because on the whole they do not justify their views with a biological theory of racial disparities in ability (although read the Bell Curve to get a sense of how I might be wrong about that). They agree with Max Weber, that the cultural mix in Christian Europe (he argued that it had an “elective affinity” with industrial opportunities) was a big part of what gave birth to modern science and the industrial revolution. This second faction  therefore thinks that European cultural values, and specifically English patterns of liberal state restraint made America “great.” You don’t have to belong in the big house of a plantation to argue this effectively either, as we can see in today’s column by David Brooks.

This brings us back to John Kyl. He as much as admits that he liked to debate this stuff in college late at night with friends, and that he probably believes that the Civil Rights act is a bad piece of legislation, even though he thinks that it is political suicide to make that argument in the Senate.  If Kyl believes that, then lots of other Americans do as well, and Rand Paul becomes an important signal for us politically. What he signals is not the return of biological racism, but cultural race coding. The latter has never really left us, but I think we are starting to see it take on a legitimacy that it could never have had before Obama became president.

I continue to write about this stuff, because I think we are getting ready to fight the last war in race relations, and in that replay, liberals have a lot to lose. The best example of this for me is the strange reaction to the Health Care bill passed this spring. Were you ever with me in wondering, what the heck that was all about? I mean, we have a health care crisis spread out over such a long time horizion that the BP oil spill seems short in comparison. The Democrats all run on a health care reform plank. The guy with the most modest and Republican sounding plan wins the White House, and he begins to implement the change in a timely and modest way early into his first year. Why all the fuss? I think we see the revenge of a hidden memory of that moment when the Civil Rights Act passed. It was then that the principle of the freedom of association was put into a kind of balance with the principle of having the social right to enjoy the access to one’s society as a full and dignified member of it.  In the thrall of that repressed memory, people treated the Health bill as if it were a kind of minority rights measure like those the Johnson administration. This is the only explanation I can concoct to make sense of the wacky reactions we saw in reaction to that Republican insurance bill.

We therefore have a resolution to the following contradiction: The Tea Party opposition has everything to do with race; the Tea Party is not a racist opposition. The Civil Rights Act brought to maturity a new kind of human right and that new kind of right remains hotly contested to this day. Our liberal economic philosophy is embedded in a specific cultural outlook and the Civil Rights Act is rightly understood to exist in a kind of tension with that culture.

What was a profoundly positive moment for this country in the 1960s, sick as it was with the traumatic residues of the system of slavery, seems to be remembered as the very opposite by a large portion of the electorate. True, one can argue that a better method of achieving racial justice would have been to focus more on insuring that all children are able to grow up in communities not scarred by the still lingering savage inequalities in educational opportunities that Jonathan Kozol described long ago than by tinkering with social outcomes once people are fully grown, but that would have required an entirely new kind of tax system and seemed more radical at the time. The creation of the new crime of discrimination was the approach taken, and that has made all the difference.

One thing is clear; it is hard to imagine Barack Obama as we know him without the Civil Rights Act of 1964, not because he needed it as an individual, but because we needed it as a group. Ironically, it is now the symbol of Obama’s success that is surfacing opposition to that act. Although there is the temptation to deploy the kind of moral denigration of the other (calling them racists) that will render the Tea Partiers ineffectual if angry and plotting revenge, I think it is better to see this moment as a gift Obama has given us. We now have our chance to take the next steps toward making the world safe from the bully culture of ethno-racial supremacy, whatever its form. The road to that future runs through, not around, the Tea Party and its response the Civil Rights Act, like it or not.

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