Why Rand Paul Quoted Poem About Sexually Frustrated Dude During Howard U Speech: A Theory

Rand Paul, the Republican junior senator from Kentucky, is one quirky, if audacious, guy. During his speech yesterday at Howard University, perhaps the best-known and most celebrated of the nation's historically black colleges and universities, Paul offered comments that were, by turns, condescending, earnest and jaw-droppingly dishonest. But one of his oratorical choices was most confounding: his use of the T.S. Eliot poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

Even if intended as a tacit paean to National Poetry Month, which I kind of doubt, Paul's selection of a poem which, as I mentioned in my report on the speech ("Rand Paul Explains Black History to Black People"), is generally read as the lament of a sexually frustrated middle-aged man, is a head-scratcher -- until you read the whole poem, and not just the parts that he quoted.

What is obvious in the way that Paul employed the poem is that he was trying to say something about his beliefs regarding the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which he got himself into trouble over when, in 2010, he explained to the Louisville Courier-Journal his opposition to the section of the law that pertains to privately-owned establishments. The law mandates that establishments that offer "a public accommodation" (such as restaurants, stores and gas stations) not bar or offer lesser accommodations to anyone on the basis of race or other attributes.

Because of his belief that property rights trump nearly all other rights, Paul said that he objected to forcing people to serve those they wish to exclude, even though he contended that such discrimination is "a bad business decision."

As he ran for U.S. Senate in 2010, Rand Paul made an embarrassing appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show, during which he tried to explain himself. Although it apparently didn't hurt him with the good voters of Kentucky, Paul likely has visions of that piece of video coming back to haunt him in the 2016 presidential election, for which he appears to be positioning himself. (He's already told Politico that he's considering a run at the nation's top job.)

Here's Rand (mis)quoting Eliot:

My wife, Kelley, asked me last week: "Do you ever have doubts about trying to advance a message for an entire country?"

The truth is, sometimes. When I do have doubts, I think of a line from T.S. Eliot: “Then how should I presume* [sic]/ To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?/ And how should I presume?"

When I think of how political enemies often twist and distort my positions I think again of Eliot's words: "When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall/ how should I presume?" And here I am today at Howard, a historically black college; here I am, a guy who once presumed to discuss a section of the Civil Rights Act. That didn't always go so well for me. Some have said that I'm either brave or crazy to be here today.

Eliot's poem is often represented as the internal dialogue of a man who has something momentous to say to, or ask of, a woman -- something that fills him with fear.

In his quotation, apparently meant to be an oblique explanation for his appearance at Howard, Paul omits the lines that immediately precede those he shares with his audience. Here's the complete stanza:

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
 And how should I presume?
What Paul seems to be saying to his audience is that he feels misunderstood, having been fixed "in a formulated phrase" -- alas, one of his own formulation, which went exactly like this (from a video of the Louisville paper's editorial board meeting with Paul during his 2010 Senate campaign):
EDITOR KEITH RUNYON: Would you have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
RAND PAUL: I like the Civil Rights Act in that it ended discrimination in all public domains, and I'm all in favor of that.
PAUL: (LAUGHS) You had to ask me the "but". I don't like the idea of telling private businessowners -- I abhor racism; I think it's a bad business decision to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant -- but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I think there should be absolutely no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding. And that's what most of the Civil Rights Act was about, to my mind. 
RUNYON: And then it was extended by most localities to include local [unintelligible]. Would you include local--?
PAUL: Well, on a local basis, it might be a little bit different. But the thing is, I would speak out in favor of it. I mean, I look at, like, the speech of Martin Luther King and I tell you, I become emotional watching the speeches of Martin Luther King. I loved him because he was a great transformative figure, but he was a believer. What I don't like about most of politics is that almost none of them are believers. And he was a true believer. And he fought governmental injustice, and those governmental rules and laws that forbid people from riding the bus or sitting in certain parts of the bus or drinking water from public fountains -- all of that should have ended, and I think that it's a great occurance that it did.
RUNYON: But under your philosophy, it would be O.K. for Dr. King not to be served at the counter of Woolworth's. 
PAUL: I would not go to that Woolworth's, and I would stand up in my community and say that it's abhorrent, but the hard part -- and this is the hard part about believing in freedom -- if you believe in the First Amendment, for example, most good defenders of the First Amendment will believe an abhorrent group standing up and saying awful things -- and we're here at the bastion of newspaperdom so I'm sure you understand that people can say bad things. It's the same thing with other behaviors. In a free society, we will tolerate boorish people who have abhorrent behavior, but if we're civilized people, we publicly criticize that and don't belong to those groups or associate with those people. 
RUNYON: But it's different with race because, certainly for 100 years, discrimination based on race was codified under federal law. 
PAUL: Exactly. It's institutionalized, and that's why we had to end all of the institutional racism, and I'm in favor, completely, of that.
So here's the formulation in which Paul finds himself fixed: He believes that institutions that receive federal public funding should not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, but people voting on a local level can apparently discriminate on that basis in certain, unspecified, conditions involving the use of local funds. (Which is quite interesting, given Paul's vote prohibiting the District of Columbia from using its local-level tax revenues to fund abortions for poor women who want them.) But if you own, say, the only department store in a city, or a taxi cab service, or a lunch counter, you should be free to turn away anyone you care to on the basis of their skin.
Let us now return to the T.S. Eliot poem Paul quoted:

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

"I've never wavered in my support for civil rights or the Civil Rights Act," Rand Paul told the students of Howard University.

Ninety-nine revisions yet to go.


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