Jack Hunter, an important advisor to Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), has recently been accused of racism for his exploits as “The Southern Avenger” between 1999 and 2012. Although I would not say we are close, I know Jack personally and would like to mount a defense of his character. Jack made his bones in Charleston, South Carolina. I grew up across the majestic Cooper River in Mount Pleasant, and if home is a place, the Lowcountry is mine. I want to say upfront that I have never found any indication that Jack Hunter is or ever was a racist or bigot, in person or otherwise. A dispassionate examination of his beliefs and associations bears that out.
Jack once explained his political philosophy to me over dinner, and it is fairly straightforward. Jack Hunter wants his family and those he cares for to be able to take care of each other, to live free of intrusive government that distorts the economy and craves quixotic misadventures overseas.
This led to Jack’s interest in secessionism, a theory of popular sovereignty tracing to the Lockeian principles underlying the Declaration of Independence. The neo-secessionist circles he moved in were preoccupied by dry questions of political order, not lurid delusions of racial superiority. Any connection between secessionism today and race or enslavement is a non-sequitur. It is like asking an Anglophile if he has broken a Scot on the wheel lately. (Though Scotland is currently considering secession, funnily enough.) Neo-secessionism seeks to increase societal freedom, not reinstate segregation.
In this light, Abraham Lincoln may be viewed as hostile to states’ rights. Without commenting on their merit, one may note that Lincoln’s actions beyond the authority of the Constitution, e.g. the suspension of habeas corpus, are a matter of historical record.
I cannot defend the indefensible. In 2004 and 2005 Jack toasted John Wilkes Booth. He also joked that Lincoln would fall hard for Adolf Hitler. I am honestly unsure how serious these sentiments were. But reveling in the death of Lincoln and referencing Hitler is stupid and categorically inexcusable.
And yet, it does not make him a racist. The two are simply unrelated. Jack abhors Lincoln’s abuses of power, not that he freed the slaves. Jack celebrates abolition and the civil rights movement like any other reasonable person. I absolutely, unequivocally lack any cause to think otherwise.
Do his politically incorrect discussions of Spanish-speaking immigrants, diversity, and American cultural identity raise red flags? Obviously. They did for me years ago, but his rhetoric softened over time, his perspective changed. And our personal acquaintance put to rest any of my lingering reservations.
Some of my most distinct childhood memories are listening to the radio in my mom’s car after school. My favorite station was “96 Wave” FM because it had a fantastic character who drawled wickedly funny commentaries: The Southern Avenger! Mom and I could not really figure out his schedule, so we did not hear him very often, in fairness. But it was not nearly as frequently as I wanted. He was incisive, not merely outrageous.
As a College of Charleston undergraduate, I listened to Jack’s commentaries many mornings on 1250 AM WTMA “The Big Talker.” By then he was more political, more polished. Eventually, the Southern Avenger’s signature Confederate flag wrestling mask came off. Jack had figured out what he believed. He had a face to show the world. Jack recently pointed out that secession is “sort of a dead letter.” It certainly is for him.
Unfortunately, discussions of race in the South tend to be presumptuous or agenda-driven. The topic is obviously sensitive, and Charleston is especially conscientious. The Civil War started in its harbor, with the bombardment of Fort Sumter. The Ordinance of Secession was signed downtown -- I used to walk by the plaque marking the site all the time.
Charleston is very historical, more so than Washington, in my measured opinion. We are conscious of our history, celebrating the good while somberly acknowledging the bad. Dodging Sherman’s march to the sea preserved much historical architecture. This beauty is a mixed blessing, a looming reminder of a terrible legacy. Charleston’s legendary ironwork includes vicious spikes set around genteel homes’ windows to stymie escaped slaves. The antebellum Southern elite was terrified of a slave revolt, pluff mud bluebloods included.
Between 40 and 60 percent of the slaves who entered this continent did so through Charleston. That barbarism helped make it the richest city in early colonial America. Charleston has always been cosmopolitan, but is enjoying a renaissance. It was the 2012 Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice for top destination in the world. Not Paris, not Rome: Charleston. My move to D.C. meant trading one the best restaurant scenes in the country for…one of the most expensive.
But divisions remain, some racial. The “right side of the tracks” on the Charleston peninsula is south of Spring Street. Anything “slightly north of Broad” or better and you are living in high cotton. I overheard that particular anachronism in the poolside conversation of suburban housewives. Such is the Lowcountry. It has a complicated, bittersweet relationship with its past.
A city striving for global stature, a community catering to visitors cannot and does not tolerate intolerance, particularly if it can be tied directly to the worst stereotypes about it, and the ugliest realities. Lowcountry residents look down on racism like most Americans. Charleston’s history makes them understandably defensive, all the more ardent in condemning prejudice. If a pro wrestling-obsessed, classic rock-loving, Confederate flag mask-wearing character called “The Southern Avenger” said something racist on local radio, he would go down in flames.
Instead, the boy from Hanahan has the ear of a leading American statesman. Jack Hunter is not a knuckle-dragging bigot. He is a smart, sophisticated, self-educated individual. Rand Paul’s name may be on the dustjacket, but Jack supplied the intellectual firepower and clear prose of The Tea Party Goes to Washington.
This leaves the matter of the flag on the mask. To most people who claim them, including black South Carolina college student Byron Thomas, the stars and bars represent regional identity and principled individualism, not coded bigotry. I had to live in the South a long time to understand that, though I am totally neutral about the flag. The point is that intolerance is dismissing unfamiliar perspectives offhand. Jack Hunter’s banner is not on the mask he wore. It is the Gadsden flag -- also from Charleston -- a rattlesnake that defends itself after fair warning, a simple message: Don’t tread on me.
His is an inclusive philosophy, one that celebrates and ferociously defends the dignity and liberty of all individuals. Jack plays bass in a band called Dante’s Camaro that covers Cher songs. He is affable, open minded, and dedicated to freedom. Smoking joints, hanging out with Marxist professors, and dabbling in cocaine did not prevent a man named Barack Hussein Obama from becoming president. Wondering whether the South should be its own country does not make Jack Hunter a racist.
The most damning thing about Jack is that he has become a Washington insider. That turns out to be rather boring. It is also rather banal, and indeed, politics is a very shallow game. Being a political operative made him a target, and if that is a sin, Jack Hunter has far less to repent for than most of his critics.