The week before last, at the International Students For Liberty Conference (ISFLC), Ron Paul once again misgendered and deadnamed whistleblower and hero, to libertarians everywhere, Chelsea Manning in a speech. Though his words otherwise sounded supportive, they indicate someone who at best hasn’t paid attention to any news pertaining to her. More likely, he and the people he surrounds himself with disrespect not only Manning, but trans identities everywhere. As soon as he said this, some people in the audience, including some people from the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS) shouted back to correct him. In return, rabid Ron Paul supporters have responded with insults and threats. This needs to stop.
But this isn’t about Ron Paul or about any particular celebrity. It’s about our tendency as a movement to treat some people as irreplaceable because of what they have done at some point in the past. It’s about libertarian movement celebrity worship or celebritarianism. It’s not only counter-productive, but goes against libertarian principles. Once you get over the intellectual-property based thinking our society adheres to where an idea belongs to someone, you can understand that continuing where someone left off isn’t that person’s prerogative.
Ron Paul got famous making tirades against endless wars and The Fed on widely televised Republican primary debates. Libertarianism, even if it was his odd brand thereof, made its way into our living rooms and his name to dinner table conversations. But other people hold similar views as him on these issues without his numerous problems, including the infamous racist newsletters which he won’t fully repudiate and his association with Gary North, a Christian reconstructionist who supports the stoning of adulterers.
A common retort to any criticisms of him is that he’s already famous among the general public and whoever you offer as an alternative isn’t. This may technically be true, but it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy. We must forget the capitalist mythology of the superman who rises to great heights entirely on his own strength. He got where he is by the help of people around him. That includes many hard-core conservatives, which is why he finds himself unable to say things that would upset that camp. But he also got a lot of help from the liberty movement and continues to be given a platform. Again, this needs to stop.
Innocent Mistakes Aren’t
It’s important to remember that Ron Paul’s use of name and pronoun for Chelsea Manning didn’t appear in an off-the-cuff remark during a discussion or Q&A, which would make ignorance a little more plausible. It was in a speech, which no doubt has been gone over by himself and his aides. And it doesn’t matter what his intentions are, only their effects. This is a point that libertarians have no problem making when addressing the apparently well-meaning actions of state actors — a disconnect Bobby, an ISFLC attendee, has noted:
The defense of Ron Paul by appeal to lack of malicious intent — “he’s old and doesn’t know better” — is perhaps the most pathetic instance of special pleading I’ve ever come across. I’ve been hurt my entire life by people who apparently mean no harm. Libertarians of all people should immediately recognize how morally bankrupt this argument is, given their constant insistence that the good intentions of central planners do not mitigate the harm they cause, nor does it weaken our condemnation of their callous actions.
It is also implausible to suggest that it’s an accident. Ron Paul is unwilling to upset his hard-core supporters, which includes people with frighteningly backwards beliefs on various social issues. It speaks volumes about not only his priorities but that of any venue, any promoter and, dare I say, any movement that gives him a platform. Ron Paul can’t truly comment on the racist newsletters because the conditions that created them, the people he surrounds himself, remain largely unchanged. No wonder his speech writer saw it fit to write about Manning from the perspective of someone who’s been living in a cave for the past several years. Bobby then continues:
If he cannot gender Manning correctly — an admitted hero and public figure — how could we expect him to have good ideas for resolving the pandemic of violence facing trans women of color? His refusal to disavow the racist newsletters published in his name speaks volumes. Whether you agree with him on the Fed, war, borders, whatever — this man is an enemy of trans liberation and an enemy of black liberation and struggles for racial justice. He has no business in a movement for liberty, much less speaking as a figurehead. This is not extremism. This is a wake-up call.
If our movement can’t keep people with terrible views out of it, we have no business asking out loud why women, why gays, why trans people, why people of color, why genderqueer people don’t want to be a part of it. And if our movement manages to be successful anyway, then it will become every bit as evil as the status quo it seeks to change.
Dealing With True Monsters
Most of the people who have achieved fame in our movement aren’t terrible people, but it’s helpful to consider how we respond when they are a true monster. One of the co-founders of C4SS, Brad Spangler, has admitted to child rape. Some people responded disturbingly supportive of him. Most people did not, but that there were people who defended him speaks volumes of the power of celebrity. This incident brought with it some other questions — what to do with his works and what are we doing wrong as a movement to have let the monster who walked among us remain among us, despite some clear warning signs.
After internal wrestling on finer points, C4SS decided to archive his writings, keeping them available for public consumption but also dissociating them from the main website. This I think was the right call, and it illustrates that someone can, at least in extreme situations, be dissociated with even if they did valuable things in the past, like found the organization in question or write prolifically. It also shows that ideas have an integrity of their own and can survive and evolve even if they were worked on at one point by poisonous individuals.
The other truly important question it raised was how to prevent giving cover to such individuals in the future. William Gillis explored this question in his article:
We’re always going on about how non-state approaches to fucked up dynamics can be so much more effective — and ultimately they can be — yet this is precisely the kind of situation where we should easily be able to demonstrate that, and instead we’ve come up empty.
This isn’t movement inside baseball. If our movement is successful, the shape post-state societies takes will be greatly influenced by it. If we can’t deal with poisonous individuals now, then we can’t truly assert that stateless societies will be able to do it. Restricting the flow of information by protecting beloved celebrities can distort the market much the same way bad legislation can, as Gillis continues:
Markets work through the brilliantly self-organizing decentralized conveyance and evaluation of information. Insofar as we suppress that among ourselves — insofar as we declare that we know better than our compatriots what information is pertinent to their decisions and what they can be trusted to evaluate rationally — we suppress signals and leech dynamism from the market. We in effect reproduce some of the irrationality of state capitalism.
How we respond to bad people in a movement tells much about our ability to build a better future. And it shouldn’t have to come to arguably the most heinous of crimes. Like Gillis stated, child rape is particularly evil, but part of “a spectrum of predatory and dehumanizing perspectives and behaviors deeply connected to misogyny” and thus must be struck at the root if it is to be dealt with. We should feel free to criticize early and criticize often. If we feel afraid to attack someone for less overtly violent awfulness, we need to loudly ask “why?”
Anarchism as Praxis
Central to celebritarianism is the idea that ideas are precious and that some people have really good ideas. But if you already understand how Microsoft’s profits, for example, are largely rents off of spurious intellectual property rights, then you should have a good nose for why celebritarians’ ideas are not precious or at least don’t belong to them. Each person who contributes to our political philosophy does so on the shoulders of giants — no! — on the shoulders of a mound of others of equal stature. Markets work this way, societies work this way. If I’m wrong on this, then we need to throw in the towel and accept technocratic welfare statism as the best society our species is capable of.
It doesn’t take deep understanding of economics, sociology or philosophy to understand the basics of how the state operates. It certainly helps, but the problem hasn’t been lack of knowledge all this time — it has been bias and ideology. Practicing anarchism must not be seen as a highly technical skill that only a smaller number of economists are qualified to do. For it to work, it must be something we can all practice to some degree. We do need experts to discover things and teach, but experts must not monopolize the podium and must not be worshiped. After all, any critic of power structures is familiar with how experts have their own biases as a class.
In a freed market, there would be space for specialization and, of course, some people will be more interested in social sciences than others. That is fine. But being an advocate for liberty shouldn’t be an elite club, a gentleman’s club (it’s no accident that celebritarians are disproportionately straight, white and male, maybe dropping one of those things from time to time). The resources to enter that field should be accessible and translated into multiple languages. We must shift from looking at ideas as the job of pampered heroes to seeing it as an endeavor too important not to crowdsource.