a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Annals of Truthiness: the Jack Conway ad, its Rand Paul subject

Posted by Thomas Nephew on October 19th, 2010

truthiness (n.) – the alleged emotional or “gut” level truth of a statement or proposition, rather than its actual, verifiable truth.*

Conway ad text (corroborating links added):

“Why was Rand Paul a member of a secret society that called the holy Bible “a hoax,”
that was banned for mocking Christianity and Christ? Why did Rand Paul once tie
a woman up, tell her to bow down before a false idol, and say his god was “Aqua
Why does Rand Paul now want to end all federal faith-based initiatives
and even end the deduction for religious charities
? Why are there so many questions
about Rand Paul?”

The political ad of the year so far appears to be this one, to the right, run by the Democratic Kentucky Senate candidate Jack Conway in his contest with Republican-slash-Tea Party-slash-libertarian Rand Paul.

While any ad short of enthusiastic Paul-adulation would likely be met with outrage on the right, this one has caused some jaws to drop even on the left side of the political commentariat, and has been fiercely condemned.  See, e.g., Jonathan Chait, who calls it the “ugliest, most illiberal political ad of the year” and — not to be outdone –Jason Zengerle, who goes with “The Most Despicable Ad of the Year“:

First, no candidate over the age of, say, 30 should be held politically accountable for anything he or she did in college—short of gross academic misconduct or committing a felony. Second, and more importantly, a politician’s religious faith should simply be off-limits. If it’s disgusting when conservatives question Barack Obama’s Christianity, then it’s disgusting when Jack Conway questions Rand Paul’s.

…an opinion perhaps all the more credible for coming from the reporter who actually broke the bizarre, disturbing “Aqua Buddha” story last summer. On the other side, Theda Skocpol — sociologist and academic by day, unsuspected political firebrand  by night — rejoins:

People are acting as if it is some kind of political sin to point out to ordinary Kentucky voters the kind of stuff about Paul’s extremist libertarian views that everyone in the punditry already knows. This does not amount to saying that Christian belief is a “requirement for public office” as one site huffs. It is a matter of letting regular voters who themselves care deeply about Christian belief know that Paul is basically playing them. No different really than letting folks who care about Social Security and Medicare know that Paul is playing them. (link added)

Now, Conway’s ad actually gives me the first few reasons I’ve had to favor Paul — I think faith-based initiatives mix church and state far too much, and I think that churches shouldn’t be tax exempt, given that they engage in political activity one way or the other.

But like Rand Paul, I’m not from Kentucky —  and unlike him I’d hesitate to put myself forward as a candidate for one of its Senate seats.  Put me down on Conway’s and Skocpol’s side — it’s completely fair game for Conway to place this ad.

Bluegrass Values
Rand Paul’s purist-libertarian ideology is a a foreign transplant in Kentucky — and most other places, for that matter.  I’d personally pick other Kentucky-clueless stuff of Paul’s, such as not knowing what Harlan County is famous for.  But this fits the “really from KY?” theme well too — the more so since ‘out of touch with heartland values’ is such a frequent GOP refrain.

Rand Paul ad text (corroborating links added):
“As the bluegrass reaches up to the morning sun, our Kentucky values sustain us.
As the winds of change blow, we need a strong voice for our way of life. Rand
Paul lives our values. A career doctor and a grassroots activist, he’ll take on
those in Washington who spend too much, destroying our liberty. As surely as the
sun will rise, Rand Paul will fight every day for Kentucky.”

And Paul himself seems to know the depth and quality of his connection to Kentucky is an issue, when he opens up the “trust” and “Kentucky values” sweepstakes with ads like the one to the right and others.  If I’m his native Kentuckian opponent, and I watch the ad to the right, and I read about Rand Paul’s Baylor U. years, I’d start by grinding my teeth and I’d end with an ad pretty much like the one Conway approved.

As for the substance of the criticisms: the “youthful indiscretion” defense only goes so far.  First and foremost, tying up a woman, driving off with her, and starting to make her do stuff — any stuff whatsoever — is seriously sick behavior, and I personally don’t think there ought to be a statute of limitations for it.  The victim may consider it the better part of valor to laugh it off as a prank now, but her original statement rings truer: “the whole thing was kind of sadistic.”

Even setting aside the “Aqua Buddha” incident — which I do not — the rest of Rand Paul’s Baylor U. era has a significance of its own — one that Zengerle completely missed in his GQ account breaking the “Aqua Buddha” story.

Just as I would never run for a statewide Kentucky political office, so I would never, ever in a million years attend the Baylor University of the 1970s — at least not as it’s described in Zengerle’s: a fundamentalist Baptist university, a place where just being a member of a satirical group like Rand’s “NoZe” merited automatic expulsion.

But rather than find another university, Rand Paul did attend Baylor.  And rather than leave it, he mocked its values in disguise.  The reason, it seems fair to assume, is right there in Zengerle’s article: Baylor has “… a long history of educating the children of prominent Texas conservative politicos. As the son of Houston-area Congressman Ron Paul, young Rand—or Randy, as he was known back then—appeared to be following in that tradition.”

Economic libertarianism, whatever its merits, simply isn’t about shared community values.  So those like Rand Paul who espouse it in its purest, most unadulterated form sometimes feel they need to take special care to camouflage themselves — as devout Baptists at Baylor, as grassroots activists in Kentucky — to pass themselves off within those communities.  It’s particularly, brilliantly “truthy” of Paul to try to forge a Kentucky libertarian connection with lines like “if you’re not from around here, it’s none of your business” — while accepting oodles of campaign cash from out of state, and while thus defending out of state coal companies.

Rand Paul’s political ambitions once required a Baylor connection, even as his true beliefs should have ruled it out.  Paul’s political ambitions now require conveying “Bluegrass Values” truthiness, when the real truth — Ayn Randian callousness towards labor, towards the environment, towards civil rights, towards anything hinting of something beyond the almighty dollar — would be political poison.

What’s interesting to me is that people appear to be outraged, or profess to be, about an ad that’s completely true.  Every claim — especially the most explosive one — is verified.  Therefore, it’s the implication that, taken together, these are potentially career-killers for a Senate candidate in Kentucky that outrages the ad’s critics.  It’s not any lack of truth in the ad that bothers them, it’s the perceived truthiness that curls their lips.

Unlike Zengerle and Chait, I think the point of the ad isn’t whether Rand Paul is Christian or not, it’s whether he’s mainly pretending to be one while snickering behind his hand about the rubes — the ones who went to school with him or the ones who want to vote for him.

In a representative democracy, for a native Kentuckian to tell a Texas chameleon ex-pat “you’re not from around here, are you,” and “you kind of think you’re above us, don’t you” is a valid point to make, and that’s what the ad does.  It’s pretty rich for Rand Paul to cry foul when someone tells the truth about him.  It’s idiotic — but useful to Mr. Paul — when liberals like Zengerle and Chait join in.

* The word “truthiness” is of course due to Stephen Colbert; see this 2005 clip from The Colbert Report for its first use.

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