A certain kind of American likes to grumble about Berkeley. As likely as not, the whiner has never set foot on the campus, or at least not since the 1970s. The typical whiner thinks the flagship University of California campus is populated by radicals and socialists and hippies. They think the campus is dominated by subversive minorities. They think that students spend all of their time protesting and none of it studying.
If such malcontents had spent any time on the campus recently, they would of course know that it’s populated largely by middle-class and affluent students who have no time for anything other than their studies. After all, many students tell themselves as they shut their eyes to the transformations taking place at their University, they’re paying $15,000 a year for the pleasure of being here, so they have no time for silly causes like social and economic justice.
The only thing crazy about Berkeley these days is the way in which so many students seem to be able to dispense with sleep altogether to pull marathon library sessions while working as research assistants and holding down part-time jobs off campus, while being an active member of a club or fraternity or sorority.
The campus retains its share of, shall we say quirky individuals. Some of them haven’t left since the ‘60s and ‘70s. Others are more recent arrivals. They represent a particular brand of campus crazy. But come this afternoon, they’re all going to be upstaged dramatically as a professional crackpot descends on campus peddling his wares.
I refer, of course, to Senator Rand Paul, the Kentuckyan who is doing the rounds to drum up support for his inevitable 2016 presidential bid. He will be speaking at the Chevron Auditorium at the International House.
Paul is known for his libertarian leanings, and for his almost comical obsession with “Benghazi-gate”, the non-scandal surrounding the neoconservative, neoliberal Hillary Clinton. Paul has marginally more charm than some of his GOP compatriots—Ted Cruz, for example—and can explain kindly, almost gently, why we need to shred our society and abandon the weakest and poorest amongst our number to the vagaries of the holy market. He makes inequality, downward social engineering, and care for the plutocrats sound like a mission from God, or in his case, from the crackpot libertarian Ayn Rand, who may or may not be his namesake.
Paul is the kind of politician who, when he talks about cutting waste, actually means cutting things like food stamps, which are critical to the survival of people kept at the bottom of our economic ladder by the trickle-down economics embraced by the political right. Paul is the kind of politician who is convinced that a balanced budget is an end in itself, and a far more important one than the material well-being of our country’s citizens.
Paul was applauded by critics of our terroristic national security apparatus when he filibustered President Obama’s appointment to head the CIA because he claimed to be worried about the use of drones to murder people without due legal process. It turns out that Paul only cared about the lives of non-combatant U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, not any actual larger legal or moral question. He ended his filibuster abruptly, turning his back on those maimed and abused by American terror in other circumstances, and the families of all of those murdered. Paul has also supported the maintenance of U.S. military forces abroad, a central feature of the militaristic foreign policy of which he pretends to be sceptical.
Paul combines his economic fundamentalism and amoral foreign policy views with increasingly outlandish social views. He believes that even when women are raped they should have no rights to an abortion. He has outlandish views on landmark civil rights legislation which suggest that property rights and racial discrimination are more important than the civil rights of citizens.
Paul summed up his lunacy the night that he was elected to the Senate. Then, he claimed that “There are no rich, there are no poor, there are no middle class [in America]. We are all interconnected in this economy”. Paul’s father, famous for his indictment of U.S. war-making abroad, at least had the guts to ask Americans how they would feel if their country was set upon, blitzed, and occupied by imperialist invaders. Of course, Ron Paul was equally famous for telling a moderator at a GOP debate that society should let an uninsured individual die, because people’s poverty, and the structural inequality against which they vie, is their own fault. It is in this advocacy of social irresponsibility that Rand Paul most emulates his father.
Paul represents a chillingly amoral approach to foreign policy, and a distressingly immoral view of social relations in civil society. When Paul arrives in places like Berkeley, he presents himself as the apostle of a new, revelatory, emancipatory political message, claiming that we must “embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere”. If any of Paul’s ideas do sound novel, it’s likely because we haven’t heard them in rather a long time, since they were rightfully buried during the nineteenth century.
The social and economic ethic that the Senator from Kentucky sells like snake oil is little different from that espoused by Gilded Age plutocrats in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. These people found in ideas like the “free market” and “individual responsibility” some useful platitudes for disguising economic plunder, the accumulation of wealth at the expense of others, and the construction of a grossly uneven playing field in the language of “liberty”.
In Paul’s world, when people fail it is because they make bad economic choices, and not because the system is rigged to allow other people to exploit their weakness. In Paul’s world, inequality is okay, and even virtuous, because it reflects the inscrutable but unassailable wisdom of some divine invisible hand which knows people are worthy of reward. It’s entirely coincidental, of course, that the Virtuous, in Paul’s world, have all given loads of money to those who write the laws to rig the economy in their favour.
In visiting Berkeley and playing up his opposition to the security state, Paul is really playing a longer game. He is trying to take a series of examples of overreach by rogue intelligence agencies—agencies most widely empowered by supposedly “liberty”-loving right-wingers—as an argument for why government can’t be trusted to do anything.
Never mind that the Post Office, schools, fire departments, the police, the people who fight to keep water safe to drink, food safe to eat, and air safe to breathe, all do a pretty decent job provided we give them adequate resources. And never mind that when the economy crashes it’s inevitably the result of the public sphere giving in to private interest and allowing the economy to be run by Paul’s plutocratic backers. Paul and his libertarian colleagues, well aware that they are running on a lie when they contend that government can’t work in people’s interest, have instead embraced the methods of sabotage and have done everything in their power to ensure that governance breaks down and fails people.
Paul is hoping to capitalise on the cynicism of a young generation, and its disenchantment with the political process to convince them to abandon their faith in collective efforts and invest it instead in a predatory class of self-interested affluent interests who don’t care in the slightest for the welfare of the public. Paul is, in other words, preaching a set of values diametrically opposed to those generally associated with a socially-conscious student body at UC Berkeley.
His bad advice doesn’t come free. Paul gets $1,200 in room rentals, a $1,000 honoraria, $500 in airfare, and a $35 box of chocolates. Not a bad haul for someone trying to convince people to act against self-interest and community interest. And who could say ‘no’ to a free trip to California, where the weather’s surely better than either Kentucky or Washington, D.C.?