The most controversial and celebrated artist this year is, without a doubt, Miley Cyrus. Miley has quickly and flawlessly altered her image from 2000’s bubblegum sensation to corporate-sponsored rebel. Miley has captivated audiences with what many consider to be shocking performances that embrace hedonism and the mocking of puritan values. While many might consider her performances cheap stunts, they are stunts that undeniably work – getting her attention and altering her image into something new and even radical. But why should libertarians care about Miley Cyrus?
Well, because the mainstream matters and, more importantly, cultural institutions and constructs that persist matter. Libertarians have done an awful nice job in developing theory on how an ideal society ought to operate while completely ignoring ever getting anyone to care about their work that wasn’t already interested. Why the hell should an average individual who has barely a glancing knowledge on issues of politics and philosophy give a damn about libertarian values? The truth is many libertarians are by their nature rationalist iconoclasts. We enjoy non-conformity and bucking the system. We think that the most potent form of attack is a syllogism or perhaps the 25th Anniversary edition of Atlas Shrugged. The libertarian does not see rigor or intellect in much of mainstream culture and, therefore, deems it unnecessary of further analysis. This rejection has led to libertarianism being regarded mostly as a kook theory meant more for loners and introverts.
If libertarians want to make an effective change on society, they need to spend less time in debates over theory and more time injecting their ideas into mainstream culture and supporting the cultural norms which favor liberty and personal freedom. Cultural norms about sex, drugs and all other manner of fun that people don’t want other people to have are only as good as the views of those people themselves. The law is not an ethereal force which one violates necessarily. It is a matter of social recognition. Nobody cares about jaywalking in New York City enough to enforce the law because everybody does it. It would be impossible to try and enforce. Libertarians need to stop trying to argue people out of their cultural inculcations and start promoting the cultural values they care about.
Roderick T. Long and Charles W. Johnson have argued effectively for why libertarians should embrace traditionally leftist values as a matter of cultural thickness. The success of a libertarian society is not simply based upon smashing the state, but smashing all forms of oppression. What good is a stateless society where women are still treated like property? Where your race determines your socioeconomic status? Libertarians need to take non-government forms of oppression seriously, since it is upon such non-governmental oppression that the state gains its power. (See Roderick Long, “Libertarian Feminism: Can This Marriage Be Saved?”)
There are certain forms of oppression which are not simply dependent upon the State apparatus’ existence. Laws are made up of norms which people are willing to recognize and act on. Even prototypically authoritarian political institutions like the military rely more on cultural acceptance, obedience and docility than on the intentions of generals and politicians. What if there were a war and no one showed up? Political institutions give the military a bully pulpit, but no one is being forced into military service. No one puts a gun in your face and demands you support the troops. If tomorrow people stopped acting like every soldier was a hero and every war a great sacrifice for American values, we might begin to see the decline of this evil empire.
Like Johnson and Long, I too see a necessity for thick conceptions of libertarianism. Specifically, I think more libertarians ought to embrace what I call cultural libertinism, by which I mean the expression of an individual’s will to do what she and she alone desires. It means supporting the spontaneous actions of individuals whether they be expressions of our own personal morality or not. When cultural norms are used to stifle innocent personal preferences, libertarians ought to take exception.
Historian Thaddeus Russell has argued at length that the freedom we often take for granted, from women enjoying more independence to the weekend, we have renegades to thank. Renegades are not political figures. They don’t give a shit about the non-aggression principle (NAP) or a stateless society. In some cases, they might be rather unpleasant people you wouldn’t want to be left alone with for too long. They’re certainly not the disciplined folks who would be at the heads of mutual aid societies or coops. They might be those nasty free riders we fear so much. Nevertheless, the very acts we might be disgusted by have given us fuller expression of personal freedom, both politically and culturally.
What the hell does any of this have to do with the antics of Miley Cyrus? Well, I see Miley’s actions, as of late, whether they be embracing her sexuality, being open about her use of MDMA or smoking a joint on stage in front of millions, as not merely acts intended to shock, but as forms of cultural disobedience. Cultural disobedience, like civil disobedience, involves the public display of acts which are culturally frowned upon. When Miley rejected her role as a teenage sensation and began grinding wildly against Robin Thicke with a background of sexualized teddy bears, she was doing more than grabbing attention for her new album, she was stripping away what she saw as this culture’s expectations of her as an “innocent.” Miley is displaying her sexuality as a force for good, as something powerful to be enjoyed at an individual’s discretion.
Recently Miley engaged in another act of cultural disobedience by lighting up a joint on stage during a televised event. Again, we can see this as a cheap publicity stunt. She wouldn’t have done this if corporate lawyers hadn’t approve it already. But this is a sign that norms about drug use are breaking down. The biggest pop sensation of our day is being brazen with her drug use and, as a result, doing her own part in normalizing drugs into our culture. As I’ve argued elsewhere:
“… we will not get to a point where consumption of drugs isn’t severely regulated by society and the State without actual drug users participating in passive civil disobedience. Those who light up joints on their porch or in public parks are not only getting high, they are undermining the social norms that make these laws sustainable. When we endorse conservatives who pay lip service to libertarian policies and try to kick out those we see as deviant, we are endorsing the culture of puritanism. We undermine what should be our true values, we endorse the values that make drug laws possible.”
Consider this merely an extension or application of Agorist thought. Agorism recognizes that a government is only as good as the economy it controls. The libertarian culture warrior recognizes that culture plays a similar foundational role for the laws that are enforced. Drugs became illegal not just because politicians said so, but because of scare campaigns about their effects and the kinds of people that want to use them. Women did not simply wake up to their oppression the day after laws appeared regulating the use of their bodies. It was already accepted by the dominate culture that women needed to be treated in such a way and so it manifested itself into law.
Miley Cyrus is a potent force for good, as are other pop culture figures like her. You don’t have to dig their music or the way these people sell themselves. The fact is libertarians ought to adopt sex-positive and drug-positive attitudes in order to eliminate the oppression which is imposed on sexual minorities, drug users and cultural dissidents. Consider that there are more expressions of your political philosophy than the NAP. When people stand up and declare their freedom in spite of social norms, we ought to point to them as the best representatives of our philosophy. We must support cultural renegades and, especially, mainstream culture that deviates from traditional mores. By promoting libertarian and even libertine values in the mainstream, libertarianism is done a great service. The culture war is real and libertarians need to start taking it more seriously.
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