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Does macho-flash language work?

by Bill Winter Thursday, Oct. 02, 2003 at 8:20 AM

Many Libertarians who engage in name-calling or macho-flashing believe that our "absolute truth" is so clear that people should embrace it after hearing our slogans, and so virtuous that anyone who opposes it must be evil or stupid.

Does macho-flash language work?

Bill Winter, Libertarian Party News Editor

Are Republicans and Democrats evil and stupid? Or are they well-meaning people who simply espouse solutions that are, well, wrong?

Those questions were at the root of a recent discussion on the Colorado Freedom Report (, where CFR publisher Ari Armstrong and El Paso County LP Media Director Mike Seebeck debated the kind of rhetoric Libertarians should use to describe our political opponents.

In the exchange, Seebeck suggested that one particular Colorado politician is "an arrogant, illiterate idiot," while a local radio talk show host is a "Republican shill" who lives in a "warped microcosm." And most Americans, he wrote, engage in "zombie-voting" because they are "fat, dumb, and happy."

Such barbed language is necessary for Libertarians to make progress, Seebeck argued, because "gentle persuasion just doesn't work. The only place left to turn is emotion, and the strongest emotion to tap into is anger. We need to stir emotions of the apathetic better than we have, and you don't do that by pussyfooting around."

Armstrong disagreed. Libertarians "should state their reasoned positions with vigor and rhetorical clarity," he wrote, but avoid "mindless name-calling. There is a vast difference between thoughtful critique and angry attacks."

Libertarians are not alone in the use of political bombast, and there are certainly times when it might be appropriate. For example, high-octane rhetoric is a dynamic way to energize the faithful at a convention. And Ann Coulter and James Carvel are proof that vicious insults are effective at generating talk show interviews (and selling lots of books).

But the real question is: Does it work? Can Libertarians convince Americans to vote for our candidates or to join the party by behaving like (pick your generational metaphor) Don Rickles or Triumph the Insult Comic Dog?

Along the same lines, are radical proposals phrased in the most radical way possible -- what communications guru Michael Cloud called the "Libertarian Macho Flash" -- effective at persuading average Americans about the merit of our positions?

The problem Libertarians have in answering that question is that we've become immune to our own in-your-face rhetoric and buzz-phrases. We hardly blink when we hear a Libertarian blithely proclaim, "Taxation is theft," or "Legalize all drugs!"

But do such phrases really work? Does the average American hear it, smack his forehead, and shout, "Son of a gun -- you're right! Taxation is theft! Why didn't I see that before?"

Here's a simple test. I'll give you some examples of other organization's macho flashes, and you tell me if you are persuaded.

* PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk wants to convince us that animals deserve the same rights as humans. So she asserted, "A rat is a pig is a boy is a dog."

* Radical feminist Andrea Dworkin is certain that heterosexuality is bad. So she proclaimed that all sexual intercourse is the "colonization of women's bodies" by men.

* Rabid environmentalist David Graber believes that humans have ruined the planet. So he declared, "We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth."

Now score yourself: Did you vow to stop eating steaks because it's just like eating a human boy? Have you sworn off sex? And did you renounce technology and promise to kill yourself to save the earth from the "plague"?

Some Libertarians will argue that this test isn't fair -- because we're right and these folks are wrong. That may be. But for the average American who is not yet persuaded of the truth of Libertarian views, "Taxation is theft" is no more persuasive than "A rat is a pig is a boy is a dog."

Eric Hoffer, in his classic The True Believer, wrote that people who join new political or social movements frequently claim that the "absolute truth is ... embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth or certitude outside it."

Many Libertarians who engage in name-calling or macho-flashing prove Hoffer's premise. To them, our "absolute truth" is so clear that people should embrace it after hearing our slogans, and so virtuous that anyone who opposes it must be evil or stupid.

The problem with such absolutism is that it is unfair to the voters who have not yet traveled the same path that we have, or who have, in good faith, reached different conclusions about the best way to solve America's problems.

Equally, name-calling and insults may confirm (to us) our own superiority, but do little to persuade others that we are good, levelheaded, compassionate folks who can be trusted with the reins of power.

Libertarianism has always been made up of two intertwined strands: One angrily bemoans how bad things are, and points fingers of blame at those responsible. The other joyfully proclaims the blessings of liberty, and points toward a better future.

So, the next time you are tempted to call a political opponent, say, "an arrogant, illiterate idiot," ask yourself: Do you want to be part of a movement based on anger -- or based on joy? The choice is ours, every time we open our mouths.

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