Senator Rand Paul gave a much-noticed speech in Berkeley last week, attacking the intelligence agencies for being “drunk with power.”
Of course, this is Berkeley. There were no doubt many people in the audience who were drunk or intoxicated with mind-expanding substances. And among them was Senator Paul — not from the second-hand pot smoke which often floats through the town of Berkeley (where I teach and make my home), but from his celebrity politician status.
Senator Paul is drunk on the publicity of pulling a stunt like speaking in Berkeley as a libertarian Republican. He’s getting a lot of praise for venturing into the lion’s den (as it were). But it took as much bravery for him to come here to complain about the NSA (where many of the city’s dwellers appear to think that the intelligence agencies have been following them around since 1964) as it did for Joe Lieberman to appear at the 2008 Republican National Convention to criticize Democrats as soft on national security.
Paul was clever to raise the single issue on which his extreme libertarian views would find a sympathetic reception from a young crowd who were about anywhere from five to eight years old at the time of the 9/11 attacks and believe they have more to fear from the NSA wiretapping their smartphones (for what possible purpose?) than another terrorist attack. He did not raise other views, such as his opposition to abortion or gay marriage, that would have found him booed off the stage. He could have pressed opposition to Obamacare, on which the interests of the young really do coincide with the Republican party, but he did not because that might not have been popular.
But that’s political maneuvering — what should worry his fans is his lack of seriousness on the whole intelligence issue. To claim that the intelligence agency is spying on Congress, when the real fight is over legislative aides’ access to classified documents in a secure facility, is ludicrous exaggeration. To raise fears of government spying without any serious effort to explain how the government is to successfully use electronic surveillance to stop terrorist attacks is irresponsible. To claim that the United States should withdraw from its commitments and alliances around the world while Russia seizes part of Ukraine and China declares air defense zones over Japanese territory shows an utter inability to think deeply about world affairs and American grand strategy.
So while I’m glad that Senator Rand Paul came to Berkeley, as I would be for any leading Republican politician to plant the flag in the deepest blue spot in the United States, I can only say that the substance of his appearance was a disappointment — but in keeping with the divorced-from-reality atmosphere that pervades this wacky city.