It's been a while since I watched MSNBC for more than a couple of minutes at a time. I got tired of the obvious partisan bias, as bad in its disregard for objectivity as that of FOX News, some time ago. But on a channel surf this evening I learned that Rachel Maddow was going to have Rand Paul, the Republican nominee for Senator from Kentucky and new idol of the Tea Parties, as the lead guest on her program. The approximately 20-minute segment was riveting and infuriating because Maddow had no questions whatsoever about the Republican party, the Tea Party, the Paul family, or the issues of the 2010 campaign season. Instead, she spent the entire segment arguing with Young Dr. Paul about the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Democrats had probably decided some time before yesterday's primary that they were going to tag Paul as a racist or soft on racism. Their case is based on Paul's reservation about one provision in the 1964 legislation, the one any libertarian would object to. While he approves of measures ending "institutional" (i.e. public or state) discrimination, he can't endorse the idea of banning private business owners from practising discrimination. He stressed repeatedly tonight that he deplores discrimination, but as far as he's concerned a government ban on discrimination amounts to government ownership of businesses. There is no freedom, he wants to say, unless we allow some freedom for "abhorrent" ideas and abhorrent practices. He also tried out an analogy that left Maddow unimpressed: if we grant the government the power to force private businesses to serve everyone, it'd have the same power to force restaurants, for instance, to admit customers with guns regardless of the owners' safety concerns.
In other words, Paul doesn't buy the idea that a business owner, as the proprietor of a "public accommodation," has a public obligation to serve whoever walks in, or at least an obligation not to refuse service automatically to certain people. He thinks that, however foolish or abhorrent the policy may be, a shopkeeper has as much right not to serve a black man as he does not to serve someone who walks in barefoot or shirtless. I think Paul's sincere in disapproving of racial discrimination on principle, but he thinks that society would suffer some harm from banning the practice that outweighs whatever benefit would result, and on that point I disagree. Society benefits not at all from perpetuating the idea that any demographic group is inferior to others or unfit to do business with, and I think a government can do more to purge that poison from national consciousness without sending us down some slippery slope to Stalinist collectivism. This is one issue where the interests of the consumer should come first.
I'd join Paul, however, in wondering what this "abstract" issue has to do with the 2010 Senatorial campaign. Maddow, however, doesn't see this as an abstract discussion. She sees a clear and present danger of a re-establishment of segregation, though she didn't make clear exactly how a Sen. Paul might make this happen. I think she's sincere in her anxiety, but I also think that her sincerity fits in conveniently with a Democratic game plan to equate the Tea Parties, if not all opposition to President Obama's right, with bigotry. Readers may agree or disagree with that equation, but they should ask what it has to do with the economy or foreign policy. Just calling the opposition racist (even when it's true) evades the real debates that we need to have on the future of the country. So while it was interesting to see a Republican and liberal argue civilly on a news network, it ended up wasting our time.