Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Wolf before the Fox

There's a cute bit in Reason today trying to draw moral equivalence between McCain's friendship with G. Gordon Liddy and Obama's friendship with Bill Ayers. From one point of view, touche! From another - come on...

I suppose there's no denying that Liddy is a political criminal in exactly the way that Ayers was. Ayers planted bombs hoping to kill servicemen, Liddy was a co-conspirator at Watergate who also cooked up a plot to kidnap anti-war activists protesting the 1972 Republican convention and dump them in Mexico. Put differently, Ayres was a terrorist, and Liddy was a jackboot. So from that point of view, "which is worse" really comes down to whether you're more afraid of terrorists or government abuse of power. And that's an interesting sort of question for a Libertarian, really. I would go so far as to say that it's largely what separates left-libertarians from the classical liberals. I guess for left-libertarians, the government jackboot (Liddy) is the scarier bogeyman, and so they will find Obama's friendship with Ayers more forgiveable. For classical liberals like me, I should think it's Ayers who's the bigger bogeyman - because he's an anarchist hoping to start a revolution, and those of us who are more conservative would rather not throw the baby out with the bathwater in a half-baked uprising.

Of course, on the question of effectiveness there's no denying that Liddy is scarier. The Weather Underground probably wouldn't have been able to achieve its goals, whereas Liddy nearly got away with his. And that's ignoring his questionable practices as a drug warrior for a DA's office in New York, where he first achieved notoriety for aggressively pursuing Timothy Leary. Equally true, however, is that the Weather Underground is a bit scarier for we the little guys. Liddy was really only ruining political careers, where the Weather Underground was hoping to kill people, eventually on a larger scale.

So it's a tough question, I admit. But I'm gonna say that I find it easier to forgive friendship with Liddy than I do with Ayers all the same - and that on the grounds that Liddy is at least a patriot. Alright, before anyone starts speaking Rhetoric and saying that "patriots don't piss on the Constitution," I would just like to point out that any number of people with sterling patriotic bona fides have tried to subvert the Constitution. To make the point in terms both sides can understand, I give you an example each of a Democrat and a Republican. The Republican would be the current president of the nation, whose administration has been pushing for all kinds of illegal surveillance powers and has almost certainly abused the ones it did acquire. The Democrat would be FDR, who tried to illegally expand the size of the Supreme Court when it handed down rulings he didn't like. Neither President Bush's nor President Roosevelt's patriotism are typically questioned - not even by their opponents - and yet both were largely unburdened by constitutional considerations. And before anyone else starts speaking Rhetoric and saying that the Weather Underground was patriotic from their own point of view - go ahead and stuff it. The Weather Underground was trying to overthrow the government and replace it with some unspecified brand of revolutionary Marxism. That's not "patriotism" by any workable definition.

Liddy's lack of respect for the rule of law is no worse, philosophically, than Ayers'. And unlike Ayers, Liddy served his time in prison for what he did. Both are publicly unreprentant. And both, let's be fair, are people that presidential candidates shouldn't be associating with. I'm not defending McCain's association with Liddy. Indeed, I'm not defending McCain at all. I would rather have McCain as president than Obama, but neither is fit for the job, and so I'm not going to be voting for either of them in November. One could, I suppose, make the case that Ayers' particular brand of political criminality might have cost some innocents their lives, whereas Liddy was only ruining political careers. But I think at that point we're playing with too many "what-ifs." Liddy had the potential to do real damage to the Constitutional order - if he'd been found not guilty of the charges against him. But he wasn't, and so he (ironically) ended up affirming that order. As did the Weather Underground, in their way. Most of the charges against them had to be dropped because the FBI had overstepped its bounds during the investigations, and they went free.

There is a quality of grasping at straws about the Reason piece.

And Liddy's penchant for extreme solutions has not abated. In 1994, after the disastrous federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, [Liddy] gave some advice to his [radio show] listeners: "Now if the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms comes to disarm you and they are bearing arms, resist them with arms. Go for a head shot; they're going to be wearing bulletproof vests. ... Kill the sons of bitches."

Well, yeah - that's a position any Libertarian should be able to defend, actually. If the police storm into your home on an illegal raid without saying who they even are, much less producing a warrant to justify their presence, you ABSOLUTELY fuckin' shoot them! That's what the Second Amendment is largely for. I find it really ironic that someone writing a column equating Liddy's Watergate breakin with the Weather Underground's terrorism on the grounds that "Liddy was in the thick of the biggest political scandal in American history - and one of the greatest threats to the rule of law" fails to see the Waco raid for what it was - a completely unjustified and unconstitutional federal abuse of authority. Liddy, defending that statement, puts it best when he says:

I was talking about a situation in which law enforced agents comes smashing into a house, doesn't say who they are, and their guns are out, they're shooting, and they're in the wrong place. This has happened time and time again. The ATF has gone in and gotten the wrong guy in the wrong place. The law is that if somebody is shooting at you, using deadly force, the mere fact that they are a law enforcement officer, if they are in the wrong, does not mean you are obliged to allow yourself to be killed so your kinfolk can have a wrongful death action.


Chapman continues:

If that wasn't enough to inflame any nut cases, he mentioned labeling targets "Bill" and "Hillary" when he practiced shooting.

Oh, the HORROR! After all the stuff that Ayers has said about Bush, it's supposed to be shocking that people like Liddy shoot at pinups of the Clintons for kicks? Wow, McCain must really be a scum to associate with someone who engages in totally routine political humor!

Liddy's a colorful character. But if you want to derail someone's presidential campaign because someone he associates with puts pictures of his political opponents on his dartboard, you're really being a bit puritain about things.

I'm on record saying that Obama's association with Ayers doesn't bother me too much. You might say I dislike it, but it's not a dealbreaker, and I wouldn't favor McCain bringing it up unless Obama started slinging mud at McCain about past associations. So it's a bit ironic that Chapman ends his column thus:

McCain thinks Obama should apologize for associating with a criminal extremist. To which Obama might reply: After you.

Well, yes, he might. But he's sort of already blown that gasket by responding in a Q&A session that his association with Ayers shouldn't matter because he was 8 when the bombings happened. Yeah, and McCain was in a POW camp being tortured when Watergate went down, so I 'spose he's off the hook too, by that logic.

How does McCain explain his howling hypocrisy on the subject? He doesn't. I made repeated inquiries to his campaign aides, which they refused to acknowledge, much less answer. On this topic, the pilot of the Straight Talk Express would rather stay parked in the garage.

Oh, Chapman, you hard-hitting journalist you! Look at the big man talkin' truth to power! McCain is hypocritical on this, I suppose, but not "howlingly" so. Because the issue in question wasn't really one of Obama's national security creds, but one of his patriotism, and maybe a followup question about just how far left this self-styled "unifier" actually is. There have been reasons to doubt his word on both counts, and Ayers, as an unpatriotic marxist, is a major one of those reasons. Liddy would be relevant to the question of whether McCain intends to be bound by Contitutional restrictions on his executive power - a question that hasn't really been asked yet, but to which I think we know the answer. And that is that McCain will not be too bothered by Constitutional restrictions on executive power if they get in the way of "fighting terror." McCain himself wouldn't put it in exactly those terms, of course, but he's running on a national security platform, and his voting record on war powers in the Seante is a matter of public record. So yes, it's hypocritical of McCain to associate with a convicted political criminal if that's really what he objects to about Obama's association with Ayers. But that isn't exactly a fair characterization of what McCain's objection to Ayers is. McCain objects to Ayers because he's an enemy of the United States, and associating with him betrays leftist sympathies in Obama that are in stark contrast to the image he's presented to the public. Nothing about associating with Liddy contradicts anything McCain wants the public to think about him. In fact, it makes perfect sense - and from that point of view it isn't hypocritical at all.

I'm not sure what questioning McCain about his appearances on Liddy's talk show is supposed to achieve. It's going to reveal ... what, exactly? That McCain is exactly who he says he is? That national security is a hugely important issue to him, and that he favors a strong executive branch? That he might go so far as to overstep his powers if he thought it was necessary to defend the nation? Done!

I agree that we need to be wary - very wary - of McCain's heavy-handed approach to the War on Terror. Everything about McCain's war powers voting record scares me. I'm just saying that dredging up an association with Liddy for McCain doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know, whereas dredging up an assocation between Obama and Ayers at least suggests that the face Obama presents to the public isn't too close to the real guy wearing it. We don't need Liddy to know where McCain stands on the relevant issues. We need Ayers - and anything, really - to tell us where Obama stands on any issues at all. And where associating with Liddy is at least patriotic, in a sense, associating with Ayers just plain isn't.

In Malcom X's terms -

The shrewd capitalists, the shrewd imperialists, knew that the only way people would run towards the fox (Johnson) would be if you showed them the wolf (Goldwater). So they created a ghastly alternative. And at that moment Johnson had troops invading the Congo and South Vietnam.

McCain is the wolf - the devil we know - and Obama is the fox - the devil we don't. If it comes down to a McCain/Obama election, I suppose you could say it all depends on where you fall on "wolf/fox" questions. Malcolm X's advice on that was to vote "none of the above." Which is exactly what I'll be doing. But for my part, I like wolves better than foxes. If you're going to be bad for the country, I'd at least like to have an idea what's in store so I can plan ahead.

This is hyperbole, anyway. McCain is better than Obama period. Dragging up Liddy just demonstrates why that is on so many levels. If McCain and Obama are both evils, McCain is definitely the lesser. In exactly the same way that, while it's better not to be friends with Liddy or Ayers at all, if you have to choose one to have over for drinks in your living room, it's no contest: Liddy.


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