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Why defend nipple rings?

by Sean Gabb

The last issue of this Journal contained a letter from Nicholas Dykes, complaining about my editorial policy. He claims that I am ignoring the basics of the libertarian argument, in favour of “articles on ‘deadly sex thrills’ and pages adorned with Kalashnikovs, nipple rings and sado-masochistic chains”; and that “new (and presumably non- libertarian) readers” might “assume Free Life to be the work of weirdos and [bin] it unread”. He suggests an agenda that in his opinion will be more respectable, and more likely to be taken seriously by “the ordinary, sensible people one is presumably trying to influence”.

I know Mr. Dykes well enough to suppose he will be pleased rather than offended that I am replying by Editorial. But I have to say that he is wrong. I understand his impatience at having been so long and plainly on the losing side. But there is no short way out of this. I speak for the majority at Free Life, and for many in the wider movement, in doubting if libertarianism can be sold like a dodgy timeshare – all talk of sun and sea, and nothing of the decidedly odd neighbours. We advance it best in the long term by opening our mouths as wide as possible, as often as possible. We defend the rights of sado-masochists, of autoerotic asphyxiationists, of pornographers, of racists, of holocaust revisionists, of believers in strange religions, of militiamen, and of anyone else we think to be persecuted. The point of this is not to win each case – though it would be nice to win some of them. Nor is it perhaps to make alliances with those we defend. That also would often be nice – but we have to accept that many of these people hate us as much as the public hates them. The point is to make our opinions, by continual repetition, less shocking to those who matter, and thereby to shift the debate in our favour. It is also in the meantime to attract recruits worth having. If instead of this, we try to look respectable, that is what we shall insensibly become. We shall become just another pressure group arguing for the right of middle class people to have their salaries and share options less heavily taxed. That is why classical liberalism declined in the last century. The Liberty and Property Defence League had both connections and unlimited funding, and ended in miserable failure. In part, it failed because “the spirit of the age” was against it. But it failed also because it compromised. It traded success in the long term for current respectability. What had it to say against the criminalisation of homosexual behaviour in 1885? What against the eugenic laws of the 1900s? Nothing. It either joined in the popular chorus or kept quiet. It would have lost some of its funding by following its stated principles to their logical conclusion. But it might have done much to prevent the false association, only now decaying, of social libertarianism with socialism. Every loss of credibility before 1914 might have been compensated by an extended life beyond. Just think how differently the interwar period might have turned out had the young radicals also been free marketeers. According to Mr. Dykes, we should concentrate on the legalising of drugs. It is sliding onto the agenda. Police chiefs and The Daily Telegraph are in favour. It is respectable; and if we push hard, it might happen. Again, not true. In the first place, legalisation is brought hardly an inch closer because a few of the great and good now admit that prohibition has failed. As he said in the last issue of Free Life, there are too many other interests involved, for which prohibition has been very successful. In the second, we have almost no force to add in any grand push. Compared with The Daily Telegraph, we are not presently important. In the third, even if Mr. Dykes is right, and some change really is on the agenda, it might only show that we should push not more but less hard on the issue. The time to cry up legalisation was when the great and good were still immovably opposed to it. Now they are not, perhaps the time has come to cry up something else that still frightens them. I may be wrong; and the pages of Free Life are open for Mr. Dykes to argue this, and to run his campaign against the drug laws. But I will continue giving space to what he calls “trivial” issues. After all, when efforts are being made to ban them, nipple rings are part of our argument.   From Free Life, Issue 24, December 1995.   Dr. Sean Gabb is a writer, broadcaster, lecturer, and general publicist for the libertarian movement in England. He is the Director of the Libertarian Alliance. Dr. Gabb can be reached at sean@libertarian.co.uk.

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