Thursday, February 28, 2013

I was part of the problem: Why I am a proud and passionate bleeding heart libertarian and libertarian feminist



I think we all go through stages of political identity, and that our friends and experiences make all the difference in how we see the world.

I started out political and conservative. I was what I now recognize to be a pretty standard partisan. And I was angry. When you are a political person, the world is zero-sum. For you to win someone must lose. If you are heavily involved enough the adversarial nature of politics can pervade everything in your life – down to your dearest friendships. I remember lashing out at my best friend because she wouldn’t help me on a campaign. My brain just couldn’t square the circle of her being someone I like and respect and also being someone with whom I disagreed. She wasn’t against me, but she wasn’t with me. In my black and white world, it didn’t compute. I should never have lashed out at her for something so trivial. We were - and are - so close.  But it wasn't enough to protect her from partisanship.

The one good thing about politics is that it is where I met the love of my life. We both had this crazy preoccupation with policy, and he was something called a libertarian. He gave me Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do to read. I devoured it. He started reading Atlas Shrugged. I read his copy when he put it down. I read Anthem, The Fountainhead, We the Living. He attended an IHS seminar. We attended a Fraser Institute student seminar. We attended our very first Liberty Summer Seminar. We were addicted to ideas.

Meanwhile, that same friend was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and told by a doctor that she would never be able to take care of herself. She had to go on social assistance. I am deeply, deeply ashamed to admit it, but I accused her of leeching off of the system. I think I told her she was part of the problem. In those words. I made her ashamed of herself for needing help – and she really did need help. I had become one of those libertarians. I was part of the problem.

I wasn’t done with politics yet, but it was coming. First, we won! We took a man who had quit politics out of principle to head up a small-government pressure group and who wrote his Masters’ thesis against Keynesian stimulus spending, and we made him Prime Minister. But things didn’t get better, and the longer they stayed the same the more I saw the rottenness and futility of politics. So I quit.

I don’t know if it’s because I’d read so much Rand, because I was trapped in the adversarial mindset of politics, or if I was just young with a hefty dose of Type-A personality, but after I was an angry young politico I was an angry young libertarian. People who disagreed with me hated freedom. They were "commies!" They were everywhere I looked!

But I was beginning to soften. I apologized to my friend, who I think had forgiven me already, for treating her like a villain. I told her that if she needed help, she should take it. After all, there was nowhere else to get it. Private charity in mental health has been all but crowded out by government programs.

I have written elsewhere about breaking free from angry-libertarianism, for which I credit Dr. James Buchanan and public choice theory. When this happened, it happened all at once. I felt as though someone had been pressing on my chest, crushing the air out of me, and that their hands had been pulled away and I could finally breathe. Anger is a terrible, debilitating thing to carry and I am grateful every day that I was able to overcome it.

I became understanding of alternative points of view. People weren’t mystifying any more. I didn’t have to square the circles. I took this new perspective on the world and I threw myself into it. I attended seminars and I refined my ideas through blogging. I helped to found The Institute for Liberal Studies, an educational charity that holds seminars on university campuses in Canada to bring a classically liberal perspective to campus, and through this organization I have met brilliant, inspiring people.  

But I overdid it. I got liberty fatigue. I had to take a step back. You see, there was something missing from the liberty movement: its heart. To find it, I had to step away from the books and the blogs and look at real life.  

All this time my friend and I supported one another the way that friends do. She is an inspiring person who has worked harder for what she has than most of us ever will. But in spite of being heavily medicated she would periodically suffer breakdowns or bouts of depression that the medication didn’t seem to help. Being there for her while she worked so hard further softened my outlook on the world.

Like it or not, libertarians, it’s not as simple as “Poor people just need to get a job, they're not my problem.” I found I was in favour of a social safety net in the form of a guaranteed minimum income – taboo for many libertarians. The more I looked at the real world, the more I gravitated toward issues on which the arguments for liberty were grounded in sympathy and dignity, such as the drug war, and away from harder economic topics on which I found the standard libertarian line too abrasive or simply less relevant.

I can’t remember if I stumbled upon it or if someone gave me a heads up that there was this new thing, “bleeding heart libertarianism.”

I looked into it, and I felt a way I hadn’t felt since I first picked up Atlas Shrugged. They were right. They were so right!

They were writing what I already knew: we ought to judge the systems in society on how they take care of the very worst off. The strongest always find a way, but those who need support can be ground down by a bad system. And they are. I’ve seen it. In being sympathetic, in being helpful, in preserving the dignity of the very worst off, government has failed miserably.  But there’s another way, and it’s taking problems away from government and giving them back to people to solve.

Heck, some of them were even on board with the minimum income thing.

Yes, yes, yes. This was it. This was what had been missing.

But there was more.

In January of 2012, my friend mentioned something she had told me years before but just hadn’t sunk in – a story that’s not mine to tell.  She was just rambling, letting thoughts out, but I stopped her. I made her explain again, to be sure I understood.

“Oh my god. You realize that that’s rape, right?”

She actually argued with me, said that couldn’t have been what it was. But I could tell it was sinking in. She started hyperventilating. She started crying. She went to sleep because she didn’t know what else to do. I told her I would learn what kind of help she could get in the meantime. I had to do something. When I started asking around, that same night, another friend confessed to me that she, too, had been raped.

If realizing the world wasn’t filled with evil people was a weight pulled from my chest, this was a bucket of ice water in the face. I didn’t know what to think, only that something was deeply wrong with the way I had been looking at the world. To be honest, I sort of panicked - or maybe I was just angry. My heart was racing. I was shaking.

I admit that I used to be one of those libertarians, the ones who say things like “Well obviously I believe in the OLD kind of feminism, from when women weren’t equal. But we pretty much have equal rights now and the movement has just been taken over by socialists.” Again, I was part of the problem.

My friend had spent ten years not realizing that her rights had been severely violated. On some level she blamed herself. She thought she was just “easy,” that she had put herself into a bad situation and that’s just what happens sometimes. But no. No! There is absolutely no excuse for sexual assault. It is never the fault of someone who has had their rights violated.  Not even partly. Not even on some level. Never.

Her life has changed dramatically since this realization. The debilitating, stigmatizing bipolar diagnosis was made in error – she has had post-traumatic stress syndrome since her rape a decade ago. PTSD, though sometimes so severe it can be mistaken for bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, is something from which a person can recover, and I know she’ll pull through. But the fact remains that she lost almost a third of her life so far to a social environment that supports the idea that rape can be anything other than what it is.

Ten years lost to a societal preconception of women, of how we ought to behave and why we deviate from it, that is not benign.

The fact that “No means no” campaigns seem cheesy instead of intensely  serious, that a woman can spend a decade not realizing that she’s been raped, that you probably know someone who has been the victim of sexual assault even if you don’t realize it. That that people laugh at rape jokes when it’s happened to their friends. These are signs that something is terribly wrong.

Once you realize this, you see it everywhere. It’s amazing and scary that it’s not obvious to everyone. The only reason I can think of to explain why more people don’t, and I didn’t, see it is that we assume that somehow changing the laws has fixed this. But like so many important problems, government can’t solve this, and yet it seemed even libertarians hadn’t seen it! Somebody has to speak up.

But some already were. Through my new bleeding heart connections I found the Association of Libertarian Feminists, and I found that it is growing. It is growing not just because there are more women in the movement, but because so many libertarians are concerned about real-world problems, not just economics and philosophy – important though they may be.

There is real-world discrimination - against women, the LGBQT community, against minorities, against the chronically poor, the mentally ill. Against so many marginalized groups. The fact that government action has been the primary tool for confronting this discrimination has made libertarians hesitant to acknowledge there's a problem at all. But there is. There is. "Corrective" government action has created the mindset that's told us we've already done all we can do to help these people and the remaining failings are their own. Because the government has acted, employing force, libertarians think we've done too much for them. 

Are you a libertarian, and do you believe this? Think about what you're saying. If government has done too much, it implies that it's succeeded in fixing the problem, then gone to far. But the problem was never fixed! Government has failed, again, as it always has and always will, to provide meaningful, compassionate, human solutions to problems that have to come from all of us. The government's "solutions" have dehumanized and institutionalized intensely human problems. This is not acceptable.  

We don't have to agree on the solutions, but we absolutely must acknowledge that there is a problem.

Poverty. Discrimination. War. These real, human problems are, as Magatte Wade said in her keynote address to the International Students for Liberty Conference this month, the low-hanging fruit for people who understand why liberty is so important.

I believe that a presumption of liberty acts as a starting point for solving these and so many problems. I am filled with optimism because I am part of a movement that cares about not just prosperity, but dignity. We have become a more human movement. We are waking up.

I am grateful for all of the experiences and people who helped me find this branch in the fight for freedom. I am fiercely proud to be a part of it.

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