Monday, July 19, 2010

Who's Afraid of Liberty?: The American Left and Its Fear of Talking About Freedom

It seems that the Democratic Party and the American left in general has a problem with talking about "liberty" and "freedom." Sometimes words like "choice" and "rights" are applied euphemistically to this end, but framing issues from the perspective of individuals struggling for self-determination in their lives has been a theme entirely given over to the right for quite a while now. Issues from reproductive rights to LGBT issues to immigration reform are framed almost solely in terms of "justice" or "equality" when they should all be at least partially framed in terms of "freedom." Meanwhile, those who are unafraid to talk about "liberty" (such as libertarians and a number of conservatives) win the hearts and minds of Americans who value personal freedom, even if the right wing conception of liberty is superficial at best. In order to win over those voters who value the rights of individuals to live their lives as they see fit, the left is going to have to start talking about liberty once again.

   The reasons for the left's liberty deficit seems to be two fold. First of all, the concept of personal freedom is often used as a way for those with power and money to feel little or no guilt about riding roughshod over those without it. Business owners may feel that they are at liberty to treat their employees however they choose and that those employees are then at liberty to work elsewhere if they do not like it. Parents may feel that they are at liberty to raise their children as they see fit even if said children are denied opportunities to grow and learn that would allow them to live normal lives and to benefit as individuals. Someone may feel that he or she has the liberty to cease paying taxes even though by doing so, they would be denying all members of their society the ability to use services that are vital to their well-being. And so on and so forth. The reason that people on the left rightly find these hypothetical claims so unconvincing is that the liberty given up by the business owner, parent, and taxpayer in these scenarios is much less than the liberty gained by the worker, child, and ideally the consumer of government services. A good non-hypothetical example of this is the American with Disabilities Act. While this forces individual business owners to give up a little bit of liberty by requiring them to make their places of business more accessible for the handicapped, the liberty that disabled individuals acquire by being able to travel more freely in a world accessible to them outweighs any collective inconveniences to America's business owners. Sure, all of these issues are issues of "equality" and "justice" but they are also issues about "liberty," just a more complicated sort of liberty than that promoted by those on the right.

   LGBT rights seems to me to be a particularly strange issue to frame in terms of "justice" and "equality" as opposed to "liberty," seeing as for the most part the demands of LGBT people infringe very little, if any, on the rights of others. Perhaps this is just part of a pattern on the left of framing issues in terms of the former and not the latter and it is being repeated even in those cases where it make comparably little sense. Instead of riling up Americans against the savage injustice of putting individual rights to a popular vote and putting the government in charge of who can and cannot make what commitments to one another, the left has meekly spewed mealy mouthed platitudes about "equality."

   However, there is more at work in the left's (and especially the Democratic Party's) fear of talking about freedom than just how the term is often inappropriately used by those on the right as an excuse to ignore social justice and personal liberty for some of those most marginalized by society. It also has to do with the establishment left's own role in perpetuating gross violations of individual rights. The war on drugs, while not a wholly left wing enterprise, has been and continues to be at least a partial one. And the American left has never been completely comfortable with the notion of Americans owning firearms for self-defense. Many violations of individual rights and ultimately of people's freedom have their roots on the left. By embracing terms like "liberty" the American left will have to come to terms with its own continuing betrayal of this ideal.

However, in the final estimation of things the American left and the Democratic Party are going to have to learn how to talk about freedom. From the Declaration of Independence to the "Don't Tread on Me" flag to rock and roll to jazz, America's best traditions have had at their heart an appeal to the American love of freedom. Americans are used to framing issues in terms of freedom and will respond to whatever political party or movement is best able to appeal to this basic human and very American desire. As long as American liberals have trouble articulating what freedom means to them they can expect to lose elections and ultimately to lose ground in the court of public opinion.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sexism, Heterosexism, and What All This Has to Do With Lindsay Lohan

Linsday Lohan has broken a lot of rules: rules about drug use, rules about driving under the influence of intoxicating substances, rules about showing up for court mandated substance abuse classes. And in different ways, she has paid for breaking all of these rules both personally and professionally. But in the world of Hollywood, where substance abuse and running afoul of the law are nothing out of the ordinary, Lohan's main transgression in the eyes of America was perhaps not her all too familiar troubles with alcohol and other drugs. It was her wanton disregard for a prevailing narrative about women, femininity, and sexuality that Lohan has refused to adhere to. It is for this supposed sin, more than any other, which she is currently being made to pay.

When America was introduced to Linsday Lohan, as a precocious child star, she was intended to symbolize wholesome family values in her film choices. In movies like "The Parent Trap," "Herbie: Fully Loaded," and "Freaky Friday" Lohan was the all American girl. She dated Wilmer Valderrama of "That Seventies Show" fame.

Then came Samantha Ronson and the ultimate Hollywood transgression. In 2008, Lohan began publicly dating the butch lite DJ, speaking publicly about their relationship and stating that while she was not a lesbian, she was very much into Ronson and did not want to classify herself sexually.

Now when it comes to today's Hollywood, there are a number of narratives that a female star may embrace when it comes to same sex attraction and relationships. Firstly, there is what I will term the "lesbian option" in which a female celebrity, usually somewhat older in years than many stars and closer to the butch end of the spectrum than the femme one, declares herself to be exclusively homosexual and then proceeds to date exclusively members of her own sex. This is the path forged by Rosie O'Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres, and to a lesser extent, Cynthia Nixon. While this is perhaps received in middle America with a certain amount of requisite bigotry, this is rarely a big shock as the celebrity in question was often assumed to be gay anyway or at the very least not likely to be sexually attractive to normal heterosexual men.

Secondly, there is what I will term the "pseudo-bisexual option." Embraced by everyone from Madonna to Christina Aguilera to Britney Spears to Anna Paquin to Drew Barrymore to Lady Gaga to Megan Fox, this involves a young, popular female celebrity, assumed to be sexually desirable to average heterosexual men, who announces or hints in an ostentatious way about being bisexual. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways from French kissing another sufficiently femme woman on an awards program or by simply declaring to a tabloid that the star in question has always felt herself attracted to both men and women. However, it is never expected that these admissions of desire for women will lead to the celebrity in question having a publicly acknowledged romantic relationship with a member of the same sex as herself. Instead, she is expected to date men exclusively and probably to eventually have a heterosexual marriage with a sufficiently heterosexual man. This allows the star to cash in on the rebellious, sexy mystique associated with female bisexuality without actually accumulating the baggage associated with engaging in same sex relationships or identifying meaningfully with the gay (or especially with the lesbian or bisexual) community. The primacy of heterosexual relationships or relationships with men goes unchallenged. While the star may fantasize about women or occasionally kiss one, she would never really choose one over a man. This is the meme immortalized in Katy Perry's hit song "I Kissed a Girl." The narrative is reassuring for heterosexual men and much of American society because it serves to trivialize female bisexuality and to a lesser extent, lesbianism.

But Linsday Lohan did not adhere to this narrative. She did not come out as "lesbian" or "gay" or "homosexual." She did not muse emptily to Rolling Stone or Cosmopolitan or The Star about how "everyone is really bisexual" or about how she sort of kind of had a crush on a girl one time. She did not stick her tongue down the throat of another female celebrity on national television. She simply had a very public relationship with a woman without ever renouncing either her heterosexuality or her homosexuality. As one of the most sexually desirable women in the country, she willingly chose a relationship with a woman over a relationship with a man without qualification or apology, without even being a lesbian. It is for this transgression that Lindsay Lohan is expected to pay.

Other dynamics are at work in Lohan's reception by the public as well. As a friend of mine so eloquently stated it "It seems to me that when a woman defies the law she is impudent; when a man does it, he is a rebel." While the antics of Robert Downey Jr. or Lil Wayne or Eminem (or even more famously men like Kurt Cobain or Tupac Shakur or James Dean) are romanticized as the behavior of sexy but troubled outsiders at war with a hostile society, Lohan and other women like her are seen as frivolous, selfish, and incompetent. While men like Michael Jackson or Gary Coleman are rightly seen as being exploited by uncaring parents, thus leading at least in part to their adult troubles, Lohan is solely responsible for her myriad personal and professional shortcomings despite the crass and opportunistic way in which her parents have exploited her looks, money, fame, and talents over the years.

Of course, Lindsay Lohan is an adult who is responsible for her own actions, especially when she recklessly risks the live and health of others. Of course driving under the influence of alcohol or any other drug is often a dangerous and poor choice. But the vitriol leveled against Lohan is unique and has its roots in the sexism and heterosexism at the heart of much of society. And we do all of us a disservice when we pretend otherwise.