In light of the recent articles that have addressed the lack of women in the liberty movement, I wanted to offer one alternative opinion on the question of why libertarianism doesn’t resonate more with women. But, this is not a problem that exclusively cuts along gender lines. This same question could be asked about people of color, or members of the LGBT community. In fact, it really could be reworded as why is libertarianism predominantly a boy’s club for white, middle-class-and-above men? This, despite the fact that liberty’s value and benefit is universal to all, and despite the salience of the philosophy of liberty to those specific underrepresented groups in our movement. Many libertarians would simply dismiss this as problem stemming from the lack of widespread economic understanding in society. While this is true to a certain extent, one cannot both actively desire to spread the philosophy of liberty while simultaneously creating a false ceiling to the number of people that can understand it. If libertarians rely on the strength of economics alone to convince others of freedom, we are doing ourselves a disservice, and our movement will continue to cater to a narrow demographic.
In her book The Female Complaint, feminist scholar Lauren Berlant wrote about the “intimate public” of womanhood, or the ever-present consciousness that exists in society that all women can relate to one another across class and racial divisions because of shared experiences of being a woman. Berlant further stated that in the West, this women’s intimate public has grown to value sentimentality. This trope manifests itself in many forms, such as the underlying premise of TV shows like The View, the success of Oprah’s Book Club, and the popularity of books like Fifty Shades of Grey and plays like The Vagina Monologues. However, this sentimental urge in the women’s intimate public is rarely translated into any decidedly political action, a condition which Berlant lamented. But this was not always the case.
Berlant holds Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an example of sentimentality directly intervening into the political sphere, that had “become the sign of a novel that can work to change the course of history.” Abolitionism, the great libertarian project, had plenty of fiery, vituperative polemics, such as Garrison and Spooner, and the philosophical arguments against the natural right of one human to own another had a long tradition in America dating back to the eighteenth century. But in Stowe’s opinion, what abolitionism absolutely needed to do in order to capture widespread public support was to humanize the abstract slave. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 was the catalyst that put Stowe into direct action through her writing. She did not appeal to natural law or the economic value of free labor to make her antislavery case, but instead wrote for the sentimental, and by drawing upon human emotions she gave flesh and blood to the face of human oppression. The most memorable scene of Stowe’s novel features Eliza’s escape into freedom by hurling herself and her baby onto the ice of the Ohio River, and proceeding in this manor with bloody feet until she reached the north banks, eluding her would-be captors. By making the struggle for liberty synonymous with a mother’s natural inclinations to protect her child against such incredible odds, the abolitionist message of Uncle Tom’s Cabin galvanized an entire new audience and awakened their political consciousness to the injustice and horror of slavery.
Stowe’s novel was also unique because of the format in which it was presented. Originally written as a series of articles for an antislavery newspaper, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852 as a novel in the genre of domestic fiction, a very melodramatic, but highly popular literary form that flourished in the mid nineteenth century. These novels were primarily marketed to women and were crucial in shaping the mindset of the woman’s intimate public around shared sentiments. This would be the equivalent of the Twilight book series being undercut by a very radical political message, but one so radical that it actually would succeed in changing the minds of its readers and lead to very real social and political change. Stowe deliberately chose this vehicle for her story, which Berlant regarded as an example “of what the collaboration of capitalism and aesthetics might do to change the course of history…” (Incidentally, I have written on this blog in the past about other examples of the collaboration of capitalism and aesthetics as evidenced in the career of Claudio Monteverdi and jazz culture).
Of course, Stowe’s novel isn’t the only example of popular culture being a bridge for reaching wider audiences with a pro-liberty message. Austrian scholar and literature professor Paul Cantor’s new book The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV examines the underlying ideas of liberty as they exist in the collective mind and are presented to audiences through popular TV shows and film. Perhaps this book can serve as an example to libertarians of one way to connect the dots between pop culture’s liberal instincts and the expressed philosophy of liberty. And despite our esteemed blog manager having argued against “libertarian pop culture” in the past, I am decidedly convinced that a lack of engagement with popular culture and aesthetics puts the libertarian movement at a disadvantage overall in reaching a wide audience with our ideas.
In a word, libertarians need empathy. We need to make compelling intellectual and aesthetic arguments for liberty. Our rhetoric for liberty needs to be rational enough to convince the head, yet piercing enough to arrest the heart. Our classical liberal ancestors cared equally for ideas of social and economic justice, and they were able to craft rhetoric that led to liberalism sweeping the world in the nineteenth century. Libertarians today cannot ignore sentiment and still expect to see our movement grow more diverse in all aspects. The human desire for freedom is not merely abstract, but a lived reality for many people in this world who daily suffer under political and social oppression and coercion. Their stories are real and their struggle urgent. If libertarians can’t, or won’t tell these stories, then who will?