A provocative peek at authoritarianism lurking in Libertarian homes
Given at the US Libertarian Party National Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, on 5th July, 2002
[WOMAN IN A TALIBAN-STYLE BURQA ENTERS FROM DOOR ON THE LEFT OF THE PODIUM]
Introducer (Sue) says:
When you see a woman in a burqa like this, how does that make you feel? What does it represent?
In Afghanistan under the Taliban, women were forced to wear costumes like this, and if they were caught deviating even slightly from this prescribed costume, they were severely beaten.
As you know, this situation changed with the removal of the Taliban regime. Now, women in Afghanistan have a choice of whether to wear this or not.
[THEN I (THE WOMAN IN THE BURQA) START SPEAKING AND SUE SITS DOWN.]
On balance, I'd rather not have to wear a burqa. Whilst it might have some advantages when you've suffered a complete catastrophe at the hairdresser's, it's a severe nuisance in situations like this.
[I TAKE IT OFF.]
It's amazing I'm still upright. Wearing a burqa does terrible things to your vision and makes you feel incredibly unsteady and off-balance – a bit like when you've had one too many... bottles of vodka.
Don't try this at home. Especially not crossing busy roads.
Really, how on earth did the Taliban expect women to give lectures dressed like that. Oh, they didn't. Right.
As you may have gathered, fellow libertarians, I am Sarah Fitz-Claridge, a free – well, free-ish – Westerner from England. A genuine burqa-wearing woman would probably not have been free to address you in the first place.
I almost missed my flight here actually, so I nearly couldn't address you anyway. But the way I see it is if you don't miss a couple of flights a year, you're wasting too much time in airports.
Anyway, I made it here, and I want to talk about some issues raised by this burqa, and burqas generally, and oppression generally – about certain unspoken statist assumptions and authoritarian positions that can very easily creep into even the most anarchistic or anti-government of world views – and here I don't mean socialist anarchists – I'm referring to us – Libertarians and anarcho-capitalists.
I told a Libertarian friend, Joe, that I was considering wearing the burqa for my whole journey here. Going through US customs and immigration is guaranteed to be exciting – if you have a taste for danger and masochistic tendencies. I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen.
Would they simply ask me to remove it for the purposes of identification? Would they suspect me of hiding an M16 or a pair of nail clippers under it and not let me in? Would I be strip searched by a tall, dark, handsome, heavily armed man in military uniform?
Joe said it would be more likely to be a woman like my Gym teacher at school, who would be donning the rubber gloves. [I DON RUBBER GLOVES] Perhaps even an Islamic woman. So instead I decided to test out the burqa walking down Oxford Street in London's West End.
Joe advised against it, fearing that I might attract the sort of attention that would leave me paralysed from the neck down – if I was lucky.
“Joe, how can you say that? British people just don't do that sort of thing,” I said, shocked by his slur on English culture.
“No, but foreigners do!” said Joe.
So I decided to play it safe and walk in Oxford town centre instead.
When I told Michel, a Belgian libertarian friend of mine, about this plan, his surprising response was, “But you can't do that! It's illegal to wear a mask on the street! The police need to be able to identify you!”
In Belgium, you do. Really! Not in England, of course. I told Michel of a case I'd heard about in which the upshot was that police officers may ask a person to remove a mask for the purposes of identification. The person can then put it back on again. Michel simply didn't believe it.
I always knew Belgians had a cruel streak. What are you supposed to do in Belgium if you have a face like a high speed car accident? You could scare small children.
But to get back to my point, in Belgium, I would not be free to amuse myself by walking down the street in a burqa. Of course, in some countries, you're not allowed to show your face in the street – if you're a woman. Go to Iran or Taliban-era Afghanistan: cover your face, or else. Go to Belgium: don't cover your face, or else. How incredibly arbitrary and irrational government regulations are.
A while back, my Libertarian friend Joe persuaded me to watch a television documentary about women's lives under the Taliban. Perhaps some of you saw it? Women talked harrowingly and emotionally about their blighted lives, their total lack of freedom, their anguish. The documentary also showed floggings and public executions of burqa-clad women – it was truly sickening.
So – as Sue said – When you think of the burqa in Afghanistan under the Taliban, what does it represent, to you? To me, it's the ultimate symbol of oppression, the ultimate attempt to deny personhood. And it's also the ultimate evidence that tyrants fear freedom.
Wouldn't it have been fun if, just as one of those women on the film was about to be executed, she suddenly pulled out an AK-47 and mowed down the lot of them? [MOWING-DOWN NOISE AND ACTION]
Joe was particularly incensed by the Taliban requirement on women to wear burqas. He's all for women having the freedom to wear as much or as little as they like. Preferably the latter.
Which reminds me of the time I was sunbathing topless in a secluded back garden in Canada... and I received a visit from a very serious policeman. Apparently a neighbour two doors down had complained – she must have used a very high ladder or a system of mirrors to see me.
Ever ready to deal with dangerous criminals, the policeman had raced over as fast as he could to check out the allegation of this Very Serious Offence.
Oh yes, it's not only the Taliban that get hot under the collar about women not wearing the regulation attire.
But to be fair, soon after that incident, my deviant behaviour became legal in Ontario. And now women there can walk down the street topless (except for soliciting purposes) without fear of attracting unwanted attention from policemen – well, unwanted legal attention anyway.
But it's not just governments doing this sort of thing. Joe, who believes in freedom of attire for adults, thinks nothing of imposing fascistic clothing rules on his teenagers.
He and his daughter got into a terrible argument the other day because he forbade her from wearing clothes showing her midriff.
“But Dad, it's in fashion,” said his daughter.
“Well then you'll just have to be out of fashion,” he replied.
“Whereas your clothes will never go out of fashion; they'll just look dreadful year after year,” came the cutting reply.
Well she had a point: this is the man who wears clothes he finds at charity shops – in the pile they've put out in the trash.
He isn't just like this in regard to clothes. He also does things like requiring his children to finish their homework before they can watch TV, and making them eat everything on their plate. (I notice that he doesn't make me eat everything on my plate.)
Joe's children say that Joe has an authoritarian attitude – and I agree with them. He denies it on the grounds that it's his house, his television, his money that buys the clothes and food, and so on.
He's using his Libertarian property rights ideas to justify his authority, and tyranny, over his children. But he can't have it both ways. Libertarians reject the idea that morality in general should be enforced by law. Therefore it's wrong for any libertarian to argue that just because libertarian law doesn't make a thing illegal, it must be morally right. Or to put that another way, given that Libertarians argue that one has a right to be mean, it follows that not everything one has a right to do is right.
The other day Joe and I were having a damn-right session on the subject of the latest gun control legislation.
“Outrageous!” fumed Joe.
“Damn-right!” I replied. “If you outlaw guns, then only outlaws can have guns!”
“Damn-right!” agreed Joe. “People should be able to buy a gun without this humiliating bureaucracy of showing ID and proving you deserve one.”
“Yes, that reminds me of a story another Libertarian told me the other day. I wonder what you'll say to this, Joe!” I said.
“This friend of mine asked her local Libertarian Party candidate about guns. He said that he supports the right to keep and bear arms. To which my friend replied, ‘I'm 17. Should I believe you?‘ The candidate apparently replied that he supports the right of her parents to let her keep and bear arms if they want to.”
“Well I have to agree with him,” said Joe.
“But you think that people should be able to buy guns without showing any ID. Hmmm...”
Joe believes wholeheartedly in the right to defend oneself against violence – but thinks nothing of using violence on his children. And he expects gun shop owners to help him enforce his orders. Whatever happened to the non-aggression principle?
He said that when his son needs to ‘learn a lesson’, he confines the boy to his bedroom, makes him wait there to think about his alleged errors, then goes and belts him.
I think that Joe needs to ‘learn a lesson’ about civilised child rearing, so when we next meet I'm going to offer him the same ‘help’. [I MAKE A DRAMATIC BELTING ACTION]
On the other hand, I suspect that this buttocks theory of learning may be epistemologically questionable in some ways. Do you think I could make Joe a better person this way? [I SHRUG] Might be a case of a lot of pain and no gain.
Do you think it's right to belt people? If somebody were to send me to my room to give me a good belting against my will, of course I'd forgive him – then I'd like to take him kindly and lovingly by the hand, lead him somewhere quiet, and shoot him.
I hasten to add that when I subtitled this a provocative peek at authoritarianism lurking in Libertarian homes, I didn't mean to imply any criticism of the consensual sexual games you play with your next-door neighbour. A bit of authority in the bedroom may well get the heart racing – especially when your husband arrives home unexpectedly.
“Whatever are you doing handcuffed naked to the bed post? And is that a burqa on the bedroom floor? I'll put it in the closet, shall I?”
“Noooooo! Not there!”
Now, fellow libertarians: what do you think of the fact that although women in Afghanistan are now free to leave their burqas in the closet, most are still wearing them? In one of our many arguments, my friend Joe ended up asserting that these women are acting out of their own free choice.
So – their lives were blighted before, and now – they're behaving the same way, crying the same tears, feeling just as distressed as before, but, Joe says, their lives are no longer blighted; they're no longer oppressed. The fact that their husbands and fathers force them to wear the burqas, or they're compelled by their religion to wear them, means nothing. That's not oppression, is it? That's freedom! Religious freedom.
Joe is a strong believer in religious freedom. But the concept of freedom of religion arose at a time when nobody had ever thought of the idea that women or children might have rights. Freedom of religion meant the freedom of family units (fathers in particular) not to have their religion imposed by someone else. But freedom of religion in that sense actually means lack of freedom of religion for most of the individuals concerned.
And to this day, some Libertarians, including Joe, defend the right of Amish parents to beat their children, for example. (Incidentally, I don't know if you have seen the reports of the recent Mennonite corporal punishment case, but whatever I think of those parents' ‘discipline’ of their children (with implements), the children's rights were clearly violated by the child protection people removing them from their parents' home against their will. Joe, on the other hand, thinks the children's wishes irrelevant.)
When I asked whether Joe also upholds the right of Islamic men to force their wives to wear burqas, he didn't say ‘no’.
The prevailing idea that marriage is a contract, and the Libertarian respect for freedom of contract, sometimes combine to form a poisonous mixture. Joe's position is that a wife can sue a husband who beats her, “unless,” he said, “when they married, the contract said implicitly or explicitly that he could beat her. If they are adults and they've gone into this marriage contract with their eyes open, then they have made their bed and they must lie in it.”
If they are adults. Gosh! Is freedom of contract for adults only now? Hell, why not make it for men only? Or white men only? But forget that for a moment. The fact is: some contracts are morally wrong. And indeed the idea that some contracts are wrong is a fundamental libertarian principle. It's just that 50% of the time, libertarians like Joe wish to deny it. The other 50% of the time, they want to rely on it. (They want to deny it when they're trying to justify immoral contracts.)
Joe seemed to be saying that he'll agree with any sort of tyranny, provided that the victim has entered into a contract. So I asked him what he thinks about the traditional Hindu custom of wife burning.
When a woman entered a traditional Hindu marriage, it was part of the deal that when her husband died, she'd throw herself on his funeral pyre (or be thrown, if she refused). That's if she made it that far. Her husband could burn her to death in a number of other circumstances too, such as if the dowry was not paid, or if there was a dispute about the dowry, or (I think) if no son was produced within an acceptable time, or if the husband suspected her of committing adultery. Incidentally, this is still going on even now.
Again, Joe's answer was that if a woman has knowingly entered into such a marriage contract, there is nothing for anyone to complain about. “After all,” he said, “People can choose to commit suicide, or to engage in a dangerous activity risking their lives, and they can enter into contracts that they will regret bitterly.”
In the early nineteenth century, when India was a British colony, a new incoming governor was once shocked to find out about wife burning, so he banned it. The entire Hindu community was outraged and hurt. The previous governor had always respected their local customs. He had believed in freedom of religion, and in minimal government and the non-intervention principle – rather like Star Trek's Prime Directive – which a friend of mine calls the ‘Crime Directive’, because it seems to entail nothing but evil, and siding with evil.
Anyway, the Hindus sent the new governor a polite but anguished deputation. They said that they'd never done him any harm. Didn't he realise that he was initiating an attack on something that was very deep in their culture and that they were not harming anyone else, and all they wanted was to be left alone. They appealed to the Governor to respect the customs of their country, as they respected his. “But in my country, we have a custom too,” the governor replied. “When a man sets fire to his wife, we hang him.”
In making their case to the Governor, the Hindus were relying on what seems to be a Libertarian principle – the non-aggression or non-intervention principle – to justify appalling oppression.
“Joe,” I said, “Isn't it inconsistent to argue, on the one hand, against government tyranny, only to uphold tyranny in the private sphere?”
“Being a libertarian doesn't mean rejecting all authority, Sarah. It means rejecting state authority,” said Joe.
“Yeah right, and being a libertarian doesn't mean rejecting all murder does it? It means rejecting state murder. Libertarians don't oppose all theft, only taxation. Don't you see, Joe, that this very distinction you're trying to draw here, between state authority and other authority, is just a relic of your former, statist views?”
The whole point of libertarianism is that it simply doesn't recognise the legitimacy of such a distinction. Murder is murder. Theft is theft. And authority is precisely as irrational and immoral whether it's being claimed by a person in uniform or out of it: by a policeman – or a parent or a husband; by a state school teacher or a private school one.
The truth is that state oppression and the father's, husband's, society's, and religious oppression aren't readily separable, either in theory or in practice. In fact they're all aspects of the same thing. They're all forms of oppression that blight the lives of those affected. It's completely artificial to draw a distinction between Taliban or other government oppression on the one hand, and fathers' or husbands' oppression on the other.
“From the point of view of the woman,” I concluded, “that's a completely arbitrary distinction. Whether it's the state or you, the husband, compelling her to wear a burqa, it's still oppression.”
[I START DONNING BLACK TURBAN AND LONG BLACK BUSHY BEARD]
Imagine a Taliban man whose job used to be to go out, wearing the trademark black turban and regulation beard of course, beating improperly clad women. Including his own daughter on one occasion. Luckily for her, he didn't recognise her, so she only got one beating.
[I TAKE OFF BLACK TURBAN AND PUT ON WHITE ONE]
Now fast forward to the day the Taliban are overthrown – and on the very next day he beats his daughter again – for the same reason as before: for failing to wear what he considers the appropriate attire. All that has changed is the colour of his turban. But to Libertarians like my friend Joe, the colour of the turban makes all the difference!
Joe's position in effect supports the right of tyrannical men like that one to make their daughters and wives wear burqas.
Now before you all worry that I might be suggesting that any of the men in this audience are the kind of tyrants who would make their wives wear burqas, let me stress that I'm sure none of you would ever make your women wear a burqa. It's more likely to be a short skirt or a low-cut dress.
But to be serious for a moment, as I said before when referring to the Mennonite child protection case, I must stress that I am absolutely not advocating that law enforcement (either state or private) should intervene in cases where the woman or child agrees to the beating at the time of the beating. I may feel sick upon reading that one of the Mennonite children said that he welcomes the beatings because it helps him become more obedient, but I think the law should not have added insult to injury by dragging the terrified children from their parents and forcing them against their will into foster homes.
Now I want to turn to the issue of single parents getting handouts. In some places, such as, I'm told, the black population of inner city Los Angeles, this is a significant social problem.
(I've just got back from LA. It's the only thing to do if you find yourself there. Just joking. I'm sure there's nothing wrong with LA. [STAGE MUTTER] Nothing that a rise in sea level wouldn't cure.)
(Actually, I had not been to LA at the time I gave this speech. I just like that joke!)
The significant social problem I refer to is this:
Black teenage girls get pregnant, the fathers are not around, and the resulting children grow up in poverty. The life that they lead then leads them into not being good for anything, and getting pregnant as teenagers.
Joe thinks that this whole problem is caused by state intervention, and therefore that it can be cured by the state, by enacting some laws that single parents now will no longer get handouts, for example. But this is only partly true. Merely removing the government won't solve the problem.
Joe's attitude to the single parents is an authoritarian one. He's saying: You have only yourselves to blame. Go and do so-and-so – which is actually impossible, because they don't have the knowledge to do that. And I don't care that you're suffering, because if only you'd get a grip and get a job, you'd be fine.
It's true that government action makes it all worse, just like the Taliban actions made the oppression of Afghan women worse, but removing the Taliban only removed ten per cent of the problem. The remaining 90% of the problem is still there.
What has happened in Afghanistan is a little object lesson: we had here a government-imposed tyranny in regard to burqas. Overnight, that situation changed. Overnight, 10% of Afghan women were liberated. That's it.
To liberate the rest will require political and cultural evolution, and that can't happen by fiat. Not all problems are caused by government, and not all problems can be solved by government.
If you're ever tempted to think that once something's legal, there's freedom of choice about it, and therefore it can't be a matter of moral concern, remember the burqa. Remember what you're siding with. You're siding with one of the vilest forms of authority on the planet, and making excuses for it.