Give me liberty, but keep the Libertarians

Betty BeanBlount, Knox Scene

Once upon a time when Knoxville was still a two-newspaper town, the Knoxville Journal sent me to Nashville to cover state government. I was expected to produce a couple of stories a day but wasn’t given much guidance as to how to proceed. I arrived at the Legislative Plaza lost in the high weeds.


Then I ran into Carl Koella, whom I’d met during the previous summer campaign season. I didn’t love his politics, but found him smart, engaging and an endless source of interesting yarns. We had a cup of coffee and the next day I reported that he was fixing to introduce a bill to buy a desert island and turn it into a maximum-security prison for career offenders. This was, of course, preposterous, but I was pretty excited to get the scoop until I learned that every rookie reporter who’d come to Nashville for the last decade had written about this bill of Koella’s, which was more Fantasy Island than Devil’s Island.

Oh, well. I still liked Carl, who was considered the most right-wing member of the legislature. He was a Republican, but preferred to call himself a Libertarian, a label I’d previously connected primarily to certain disciples of Ayn Rand I’d known in college – mostly born-on-third-base frat boys who considered her books about objectivism and enlightened self-interest affirmations of their own innate superiority. They bored me half to death, something I never said about the senator from Blount County.

My most enduring memory of Carl was an event I witnessed in his office late one Thursday after legislative business had ended. He hosted a weekly poker game in his inner sanctum at that time, and I’d stopped by to ask him a question before I hit the road for Knoxville. The air was thick with cigar smoke and whiskey fumes. He came out to the reception room to talk to me, but our conversation was interrupted by a delegation of Blount County preachers bent on haranguing him about abortion. Their timing was as bad as their manners, and Carl wasted no time informing them that abortion was a matter between a woman and her maker – not women and their lawmakers – before he showed them the door.

That was a story I didn’t write, much as I wanted to, and I remember walking down the long hall and thinking that maybe Libertarians weren’t just concerned with laissez-faire economics – maybe they wanted the government to butt out of everybody’s personal lives, too.

That was 30 years before I got to know my next Libertarian, a TV wrestling star who was running for county mayor. I was one of the few who’d never heard of his alter ego, Kane, but Glenn Jacobs made a favorable impression on me. He was soft-spoken and much smarter than I expected a guy who wore a rubber mask and smashed people over the heads with folding chairs would be. I was further impressed that he visited local schools and talked to kids about being kind.

What’s not to like?

Well, I did have some misgivings when he bragged that he’d been personally endorsed by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, the highest-placed Libertarian in public office, then, as now.

Rand Paul and Glenn Jacobs

This was years before we anticipated a pandemic, which was when I came to know Paul as a sawed-off bully who’d gone swimming in the Senate pool after he’d tested positive for Covid. His lack of concern for the health of his colleagues was a whole new take on the virtue of selfishness. The PR photo of big old Jacobs and little bitty Paul is kind of a hoot, although I doubt it was intentionally funny.

The appropriation of the word liberty is another unfunny thing. Libertarians like Paul and Jacobs approve of it when it works to their benefit. They love the Second and 10th Amendments, but don’t have any First Amendment willies when it comes to censorship or theocracy. Mask mandates during a pandemic are affronts to their pursuit of happiness; vaccinations a massive assault on their personal liberty. Teachers and front-line healthcare workers don’t have any rights at all.

I am clearly in the minority here: Jacobs appears set to walk into a second term as county mayor on his way to a run at the governor’s office. More immediately, he’s going to be donning mask, wig and tights and heading for Mississippi to throw down some choke slams, untroubled by the notion that we are all entitled to enjoy the blessings of liberty, regardless of gender or political bent.

In the interest of accuracy, perhaps they’d consider changing their movement’s name to something that evokes their leader’s philosophy. Jacobites? Nah. Too Catholic. Jacobeans? Too anarchist and, well, French. It’s hard to think of a label they’d consent to wear. Maybe we should just call them Authoritarians.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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