Why Some Political Issues Must Come First

Glenn Greenwald writes:

If you don’t really care about these issues — war, empire, the denial of due process, suffocating secrecy, ongoing killing of foreign civilians, oligarchical manipulation of the Fed and other government policies, militarized foreign policy and police practices, etc. —  then it’s easy to blithely dismiss the need to find some way [that Ron Paul provides] to challenge the bipartisan consensus on those issues.

One final point that should be made: I do not believe that the issues on which I principally focus are objectively The Most Important Ones. There are many issues of vital importance that I write about rarely or almost never: climate change, tax policy, abortion, even the issue which affects me most personally: gay equality. None of us can write about every issue meaningfully. The issues on which I focus are ones where I believe I can contribute expertise, or express views and points not being heard elsewhere. But there are many other issues of genuine importance, and I have no objection to those who, when forced to choose, prioritize those concerns over the ones about which I write most frequently. That is why I wrote — and meant — that “there are all sorts of legitimate reasons for progressives to oppose Ron Paul’s candidacy on the whole” and “it’s perfectly rational and reasonable for progressives to decide that the evils of their candidate [Obama] are outweighed by the evils of the GOP candidate, whether Ron Paul or anyone else.”

As much as I admire this guru of civil liberties, I think he’s wrong here, in practical terms. Some issues must sensibly come first, if others are to be considered at all.

For example: I would be very surprised if—assuming that Paul is not elected and nothing is done about spending and debt—the national-and-international debt house of cards collapses, the dollar is massively devalued, people are struggling to feed and clothe their families, and the worst thing gay Americans have to worry about is whether the state will sanction their marriage.

At least, in the worst-hit, most desperate communities, gays will not only find themselves scrabbling along with everyone else, but potentially defending themselves along with other minorities (including dissidents like myself), who are so often demonized and blamed during difficult times.

Outsiders by nature or circumstance—all those of unusual and outspoken beliefs, lifestyles, and minority identities—will find ourselves on the fringe of whatever new ‘mainstream’ emerges in many communities, which will almost certainly be intolerant. Lynchings and other attacks will occur. It’s worth remembering that the major factor behind lynchings in the South wasn’t an aimless “racism” but resentment over postwar devastation, economic suffering, and occupation that rendered Southern white men powerless and poor and hungry for someone even less powerful to hurt.

Even worse, in such a scenario it becomes rather likely that scared, angry and desperate people will resort to supporting a system or competing systems of abject fascism —especially given the burgeoning police-state precedents which no major candidate but Ron Paul has opposed—and it will almost certainly not be a gay-friendly or minority-friendly fascism but a fundamentalist-friendly one.

Reproductive rights aren’t very often thought about either when governments are hounded by hungry people and desperate to control or placate them. Control will include intrusions into personal life far greater than the bogeyman of potentially having to argue a legal case about abortion at a state level (the specter raised against states’ rights); placation will include pandering to powerful fundamentalist Christian interests who are intolerant of abortion or even birth control.

It will be easier to rule by dividing, and set groups against each other than to solve severe economic problems.

It also makes little sense to debate the greater importance of a positive-rights social issue such as gay marriage over traditional negative-rights civil liberties when the entire principle of open debate is being challenged, along with the right to protest. The time for debates over other issues is once, first, the right to debate is itself secured against imminent threats.

At present, only one presidential candidate in the US race can credibly claim to be devoted to defending the right to speak out against the government, and that is Ron Paul. The freedom of political speech, most especially including the right to attack the powerful, comes first in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights for a reason. Whether you admire all of Paul’s policies and ideas—who can expect this from a politician?—or detest some of them, or whether you like him or hate him personally is all irrelevant compared to that. We can’t even have that conversation without the right to speak out and disagree together.

The remaining Republican field and the sitting president are all, more or less, for criminalizing free speech and setting precedents which will erode this right for the future. For example, effective reporting and dissent from Wikileaks led to open threats by the Obama administration and threats against Julian Assange by openly fascist candidates such as Newt Gingrich, who called him an “enemy combatant”; only Ron Paul defended Wikileaks and Bradley Manning. The Obama administration also believes the president has the right to detain and assassinate citizens on the basis of activities formerly protected under the First Amendment, and to the general agreement of the Republican field save Ron Paul.  Even public discourse on the internet is under attack. The entire social climate since 2001 has increasingly become intolerant of differing opinions, and only one major candidate opposes this direction entirely.

Once precedents are set, it will be irrelevant why the measures were first enacted—for IP or for “terrorism.” They will be used for anything and every case in which the government or connected corporations wish to suppress free speech and open debate, just as anti-terror surveillance measures and other extralegal procedures provided under the Patriot Act were primarily used against suspects in the drug war, not accused terrorists.

This is not a time when we have the luxury of having whatever political priorities we like. We are genuinely under threat of fascist control and economic collapse. First, we must secure a minimal right to dissent and free spaces for debate in public, in print, and online, and for that we—civil or fiscal libertarians, classical liberals or progressive liberals, anarchists, individualists or communitarians, independents, left/right/miscellaneous—must work together. Then we can all worry about debating what we really want.

And yes, a similar rationale of priorities trumping social issues for progressives would also indicate that anarchists, nonvoters, and all those who perhaps sensibly refuse to participate in politics normally would be well-advised to consider that their luxury of non-participation is not guaranteed. Those like myself who object to the system in which we find ourselves coerced would prefer not to sanction it with participation, because we do not agree with its very existence. And yet, it is patently absurd to suggest that a voluntarist or anarchist has no immediate interest at stake between a lone neo-Jeffersonian presidential candidate and a field of police-state fascists presiding over an economy drowning in debt.

Again: first, we must secure a minimal right to dissent, and opportunities to make alternate cases to people who will care about something besides fear-based survival and finding someone to blame.  Then we can argue the abolition of the state. We should also expect this to be far easier with sympathetic Jeffersonians or even semi-libertarians than with authoritarians.

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