Libertarians Join Lysistrata Project

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Libertarians Join Lysistrata Project

by Ari Armstrong, March 5, 2003

"Do not underestimate the power of freeborn women."

That line from the Lysistrata play echoed in cities around the world March 3 as 1,004 theater groups acted out against the possible U.S. war in Iraq. In Boulder, the reading was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The main upper hall was packed, as was the downstairs seating (via video link), so the event's organizers began turning people away at the door.

The Lysistrata Project explains, "Lysistrata, a comedy by Greek dramatist Aristophanes (c. 447 - c. 385 b.c.e.), tells the story of a group of women from opposing states who unite to end the Peloponnesian War." They do this by locking the men out of the treasury -- and denying them sex until they agree to peace.

Brian Schwartz with CU Campus Libertarians and John Thrasher and Molly House with OMF raised about $300 at the event for Antiwar.com. (Thrasher previously reviewed a talk by Antiwar.com's Justin Raimondo.)

Several versions of the play are linked at the Project's web site; I suppose the one selected in Boulder was the "short and sweet version of the piece that was really funny." I'll leave it to the readers to guess which AC/DC song was played as part of the background music. The only specialized props were red, white, and blue phallic symbols; a depiction of the female anatomy; and costumes. The troupe seemed to have a great deal of fun with it.

Mostly the play was a comedy, in the modern sense of the term. The number of sexual innuendoes surpassed anything found on primetime TV. But there were plenty of poignant moments, such as when several women lamented giving up sons and husbands to be killed in war.


As portrayed in Boulder, Lysistrata leads the women of Greece in a pledge to abstain from sex until the men agree to peace.

And even the sex has political significance. Lysistrata does not lead a band of postmodernist-feminist man-haters. Instead, these women embrace their sexuality and suffer in abstinence nearly as much as the men do. While the women reference the abuse some of them suffer at the hands of men, they also seize a political platform and practice disobedience through force. (They're more like prototypical iFeminists.)

The same day as the reading, the Rocky Mountain News reprinted an AP article by Christopher Bodeen detailing the abuse of Afghan women. One woman left her abusive husband and remarried; for that she got six years in prison while her new husband got five. Another woman is shown peering from a prison cell with her seven-month-old infant. Women who are forcibly raped then suffer further at the hands of an obscenely unjust judicial system. "Do not underestimate the power of freeborn women." Unfortunately, many women in fundamentalist Islamic countries are born almost as slaves. I shed a few tears as I watched the reading about self-empowered women and compared their story with the one I'd read hours earlier.

Lysistrata was uproariously funny as well as educational. But was it effective? That is, did it actually reduce the chances of war? Maybe a little. The Project earned quite a lot of press, but somehow I doubt anybody in Bush's administration attended a reading.

* * * * *

Justin Raimondo, Thomas Knapp, and Keith Preston recently made the libertarian case against war. In fact, the authors go so far as to argue the libertarian movement (and the Libertarian Party) should walk the hawks to the door.

Libertarian critics of the war do a convincing job explaining why Iraq is not an imminent threat to the U.S., why war will further destabilize the Middle East and encourage more violence, and why war will threaten civil and economic liberties here at home. As I argue in a recent article and follow up, war is justified only if Iraq can be proven to be an imminent threat to America. I do not think the case for war has been made; indeed, the case for war is incoherent and unsubstantiated. I agree with Raimondo that libertarians should become leaders in the peace movement.

Raimondo, though, puts a bit too much emphasis on the historical drivers of war. He sees the war movement driven by a desire to expand American empire. But most people who favor war are not so motivated; Raimondo's critique addresses only one tiny intellectual circle that supports the war. Most people (including most libertarians) who support the war do so on the grounds that it is necessary for America's security. Thus, Raimondo's history is fascinating, but it isn't that relevant to the beliefs of most people.

Similarly, Preston conflates pro-war libertarians with all sorts of other beliefs hostile to libertarian theory. I'm sure his analysis is true of some people, but, again, not most. I'm not sure why Raimondo and Preston think they need to attribute sinister motives to the advocates of war. True, some advocates of war are badly motivated, just as some opponents of war are. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, though, the real debate is whether Iraq threatens America and whether a war can reduce that threat.

Also, Preston overstates his case when he (seems to) suggests liberation is never an appropriate policy goal. Even in an anarcho-capitalist society, groups would be free to organize to help out oppressed people in other lands. Similarly, if some guy is beating the shit out of his girlfriend next door, I'm going to intervene to protect her rights. Part of what makes a libertarian a libertarian is that we don't reify the state. For instance, we do not grant special rights to "the state" that individuals don't have. Yet Raimondo and Preston sometimes do reify the state. They treat foreign policy as if it's necessarily bound to the state. Preston confuses anti-interventionism with anti-statism.

I'm much more comfortable with Knapp's position that pro-war libertarians may be considered "honestly mistaken." For one thing, it's a lot closer to the truth. For another, it just isn't very effective to heap condemnation on one's intellectual opponents. If anything, the pro-war factions are emboldened by the seeming dogmatism of the peace advocates. The argument, "War advocates are imperialists and/or closet socialists," besides being generally wrong, is also mostly irrelevant. While Rothbard, Rand, and many other libertarians have been prone to infighting and schisms, I fail to see the point in making the debate over war into some kind of purity test.

I totally agree with Raimondo and Knapp that libertarianism is described by certain beliefs. No person who advocates drug prohibition or victim disarmament is a libertarian, as those positions strike at the heart of what it means to be a libertarian. But is a libertarian defined as somebody who's "antiwar?" No. Indeed, libertarians regularly argue defensive wars are one of the few legitimate functions of government. The question, then, becomes an empirical one: is war with Iraq necessary for the nation's defense? The answer is no, but it's important to answer the right question.

The March 3 Denver Post also ran a front-page story from the Washington Post about the arrest of al Qaeda operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Raimondo complains about "George W. Bush's perpetual 'war on terrorism'," but let's not forget about the important short-term, narrowly-defined action against the specific perpetrators of terrorism! In arresting Mohammed, the CIA was acting within libertarian principles.

Raimondo's vision of a libertarian-led peace movement can only be fulfilled by libertarians who make relevant arguments that are as practical as they are principled. As Raimondo recognizes, most opponents of the war are not ideologues but main-stream, pragmatic Americans. Now, I'm no fan of pragmatism, but I'm a huge fan of Rand's notion that "the moral is the practical." That is, if something really is right, it should be fairly easy to demonstrate that it also yields the best results. It is this ethical wedding that allows libertarians to articulate principles while appealing to American common sense.

It is the broader concept of synthesis that concerns Chris Matthew Sciabarra in his trilogy on libertarian dialectics. "Make love not war" is the theme of Lysistrata. It is also metaphor for the ethical integration of principles and practicality. It should be the goal of reasonable libertarians within their movement, as well as the means to find common cause with decent people of other persuasions. Lysistrata shows shunning is sometimes quite effective, but only if the reasons for it are clear and the eventual goal is reconciliation.

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