Selling libertarianism

TW: racism, heterosexism, cissexism, sexism, classism, police brutality, appropriation

This past Veteran’s Day, the American Civil Liberties Union did something strange. They paid Macklemore to appear in an advertisement for ACLU membership – a $35 dollar card that, according to their newest representative, is a literal ticket to certain political freedoms.

There’s a number of ways of understanding this video, but let’s start with what’s happening on the surface – a musician is promoting an organization that will protect people from disenfranchisement and state policies that don’t effect him, as if they do. Following the awkwardly staged I-was-just-finishing-a-track introduction, Macklemore explains that “being beaten with a club, pepper-sprayed, and tased for expressing my political views would really slow [him] down”. He then name checks marriage being reformed to be more inclusive of queer people and regulations on cisgender women’s sexuality.

The ad is fundamentally an extension of Macklemore’s primary means of self-presenting himself – as someone who either directly experiences the difficulties a perceived audience faces or who at least deeply understands those issues. It then builds up from that an ACLU membership as a solution to those problems. The slip of paper the ACLU mails you in return for your support “lets [his] gay friends marry the hell out of each other” and apparently tells cis women “it’s your vagina”. Except, of course, if you live in one of the parts of the US where state governments have seen fit to limit those and other rights.

The liberties listed as needing to be shored up in this ad are presented as negative – freedoms from intrusive government policies – and yet, no level of government is mentioned at all. The distance that Macklemore has between him and these various issues does seem to matter here, because at least in how he’s presenting the issue, the mere act of support for these liberties is what matters. It seems that what he believes (and what he wants this ad to convince others of) is that the act of supporting the ACLU resolves inequalities and oppressive attitudes inevitably. This ad is very much a political assertion on his part that, in a word, simply identifying as an ally or advocate means something, contrary to all evidence otherwise.

Macklemore and Le1f
(On the left, Macklemore, a straight and White rapper. On the right, Le1f, a queer Black rapper who has alleged that Macklemore plagiarized his work, from here.)

Admittedly, the ACLU does sometimes spend money and time on issues pertaining to queer liberation and reproductive freedoms, but those are part of a larger pie. It also works with events like Stop Watching Us, tinged as they are with islamophobic implications, and defends free speech rights to an honestly implausible degree at times. That long history of supporting and financing racist speech is perhaps alluded to by Macklemore’s concern that he might face repercussions for his “political activism”. His other primary means of presenting himself to the public is of course as part of the gaining trend of White musicians who speak in code about people of color being materialistic. Even when showing himself as an ally, however, he often implies that heterosexist rhetoric is a fundamentally Black phenomenon.

The initial concerns he displays in the video about being subjected to brutality, presumably by the police or “community safety volunteers” seems tone deaf in light of the events of the past year. A few months ago George Zimmerman was acquitted for the death of Trayvon Martin and just within this week the grisly murder of a young Black woman faced speculation about whether her murderer would even be charged with a crime. For Black people in particular (and people of color generally), you don’t have to be saying or doing something “political” to face extreme violence, you can just be walking home from the store or knocking on a door asking for help after an accident. Before it ends, the video includes Macklemore asserting his right to call the president, the US’s first one of color, a dick if he wanted to (which he quickly says he doesn’t).

In a nutshell, it seems vital to ask what freedoms the ACLU and Macklemore thought they were promoting here. It seems that what they think of as promoting certain queer and feminist causes is tied up in self-aggrandizing attitudes in almost total isolation from the lived experience of dealing with heterosexism and sexism (to say nothing of the cissexist way that trans* people are excluded from the conversation). What they seem to think of as promoting freedom of speech and freedom from surveillance inevitably tracks back to tacit acceptance of racism and the quintessential embodiment of it among “liberals” – a sort of self-important ignorance of what their complaints sound like to communities that are targeted at the drop of a hat.

Their concerns are also decidedly libertarian – in that they’re exclusively about freedom from (usually) state intervention in daily life. There aren’t constitutional guarantees to the freedom to work without facing discrimination, for marginalized communities to be given additional assistance, or for economic redistribution to be political policy at all, and the ACLU and Macklemore’s framing here highlights that almost reflexively anti-state libertarian attitude that won’t serve many benighted groups very well.

This is not political activism which draws on the wants and needs of groups dealing with oppressive attitudes and actions by the larger society. This is an advertisement through and through which is working to sell you membership in an organization which potentially is designed to advance your rights in a way that won’t actually benefit you.

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3 thoughts on “Selling libertarianism

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the read!

    Among other reasons, you chastise the ACLU for not mentioning that black people and “trans” people are uniquely impacted by prejudice that rises to the level of violence (both state sanctioned violence and violence committed by private actors). If I understand your argument correctly, by failing to address indignities black people experience this commercial endorses racism and for not addressing the indignities experienced by “trans” people this commercial is “cissexist.” These comments raise a few questions:

    1) Is there something about the context of this commercial that necessitates addressing those issues, or is it universally required to address indignities experienced by specific groups whenever cruelties are broadly addressed?
    2) If, for either of the reasons above, you conclude that addressing the indignities experienced by specific groups is required, then do you think there is an effective way of conveying all of the information you demand in a commercial that lasts less than a minute?

    Optional question (you have probably addressed this already by answering the first two questions): To some degree aren’t you making an argument from silence? And, if so, what grounds do you have for assuming their motives. Just because they didn’t mention something doesn’t mean that they themselves are prejudiced, or does it?

    It is your prerogative to dislike the product that the ACLU is marketing as well as the allegedly disingenuous motives behind Macklemore’s advocacy. There may be a legitimate reason to condemn either the ACLU or Macklemore irrespective of this commercial. But it seems to me like your are expecting far too much out of a 52 second commercial. Groups using commercial communications to advance the visibility of their organization must use marketing effectively or they are simply wasting resources that could be better used elsewhere. In this respect the goal of the ACLU commercial is not dissimilar from the goal of a shampoo commercial. To this you can persuasively respond that certain things should not be commodified, such as the cause of civil rights broadly speaking or the rights of queer people more specifically. For what its worth I would be hesitant to say there is nothing to be gained through commodification. It certainly does not follow apriori that if something of ethical import is commodified the distributional results (in terms of rights) will be deplorable, just as it doesn’t follow apriori that private property ownership will lead to the most efficient result (see: tragedy of the anti-commons).

    Y’rs,
    Anonymous Reader

  2. There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’m going to break this up into sections.

    -The American Civil Liberties Union is concerned, ostensibly, with the civil rights and liberties of US citizens. To see them take part in the common marketing technique of ignoring trans* people and people of color is unfortunate in and of itself. In light of that fact that people of color and trans* people are uniquely targeted with imprisonment for actions (or inaction) where cisgender and White people would not, that absence is sorely missed. That said, you’re right that there’s no reason that a particularly advertisement must acknowledge the existence of those groups, which is why I never stated that it was obligatory for the ACLU to mention the unique need those groups have of their services. But that those issues are overlooked when a wide variety of other concerns are individually spoken about is conspicuous and speaks to the way certain issues (namely same-gender marriage rights and sexual freedom for cisgender women) are seen as marketable and acceptable in a way others aren’t (say, the safety of people of color and transgender people’s right to be recognized by their actual gender). That separation of causes into those groups in this ad reflects or at least tacitly accepts racist and cissexist values. I did not posit the ACLU as an innately cissexist organization because of what they did in this one video and when discussing the organizations issues with race I already pointed to multiple past actions that inform that description (but I still didn’t label them as “racist” so much as discuss them as contributing to racism).

    -The point I consistently hammered home above was that the ACLU chose to operate the way it does, both in terms of what political advocacy it does and simply that it advertises itself (and if so, how). The entire concept of civil liberties (which, again, are built into the ACLU’s name) is that they are contingent only on citizenship. The ACLU has long sold membership in return for their services being available to anyone in the country without relying on presenting its services as being contingent on membership (which is the less patronizing reading of the advertisement – the alternative that we gain rights through the dues is laughably outlandish). My point isn’t that they should have worked better with the little bit of time that they had, but that the entire project of making such an advertisement was rooted in a strange take on what the ACLU is. As you said, this makes civil rights into a commodity which the ACLU then guarantees you, their customer, essentially like how a business provides a service. That’s not just commodification, but frankly commercialization.

    -The commercialization seems to be having that as an impact among other effects. This ad was created out of that attitude and hence reflects it, but also reinforces a commercial idea of what the ACLU can and will do for its customers (no longer members). I strongly suspect that this ad came out of a desire to increase membership since it’s effectively substanceless outside of an appeal for people to join for reasons that aren’t even fully explained so much as referenced. Assuming the ad has an impact on who joins, that could set up a feedback loop between the ACLU advertising its membership in a way to maximize members gained and more members gaining it in response to advertising that’s geared towards popular appeal. That might feel like it makes intuitive sense, but that raises various concerns actually. Will the ACLU need to follow up its new way of talking with a new way of walking? That’s not an insubstantial issue, since their Fall newsletter highlighted the issues faced and strategies used by trans* high school students. Having read their coverage, they appear to be currently in that case and others more supportive of trans* people’s self-advocacy rather than as an institution lending weight to them in their political battles. That’s a situation that, if marketing like this impacts ACLU policy, might result in the ACLU being even less supportive or perhaps even deprioritizing trans* concerns across the board (more than they already are). In short, commercialization is a optional strategy which I expect to impact the ACLU is myriad ways.

    PS: Why are you scare quoting “trans” and “cissexist”? Those are regular, normal, run of the mill terms, even if they’re not commonly used.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for your reply!

    I quote from your reply:
    “I strongly suspect that this ad came out of a desire to increase membership since it’s effectively substanceless outside of an appeal for people to join for reasons that aren’t even fully explained so much as referenced. Assuming the ad has an impact on who joins, that could set up a feedback loop between the ACLU advertising its membership in a way to maximize members gained and more members gaining it in response to advertising that’s geared towards popular appeal… if marketing like this impacts ACLU policy… the ACLU [might end up] being even less supportive or perhaps even deprioritizing trans* concerns across the board.”

    That they were attempting to increase membership is a fairly safe suspicion, I don’t believe there is an equally plausible alternative. If I understand you correctly, your issue with this is that 1) the commercial might actually be effective and, 2) if it is effective, it would incentivize the ACLU to shift its interests towards specific marketable directions. Additionally, 3) this new direction would force them to allocate their budget away from trans* concerns.

    Indeed, I agree with you that the ACLU is not immune to market forces, but were they any less immune prior to the commercial? I would be inclined to say this commercial changes nothing. It is poorly produced and unpersuasive.

    But for the sake of the argument lets assume that the commercial is persuasive and every last American becomes a card carrying ACLU member; how would this lead to diminished advocacy for trans* people? A new source of revenue should allow them further funding for a wide array of advocacy areas. Keep in mind the payment is a lump sum for yearly services and not contingent upon actually advocating in one direction (that is to say card members have diminished influence on the direction of the ACLU once they’ve joined). The ACLU website states that they have sixteen departments, all things being equal, employees of the ACLU who have been working in these departments will compete for the newly available resources, the departments best at lobbying to the executives win. But, for the sake of your argument, lets assume inter-departmental competition does not determine the allocation of resources. Instead the decisions for allocation are entirely determined by a single entity that only views a single factor, recent trends in membership as resulting from a single commercial. Even in this impractical hypothetical I don’t think funding towards trans* issues will be diminished. If same-sex marriage is found to be a popular cause and thus should get more resources where are those resources going? Presumably, to the LGBT Rights department. On the ACLU’s website Discrimination against Transgender People falls within the LGBT Rights department. If this department is given more funding there will very likely be more (or at least no less) funding for trans* related issues.

    In short it is more likely that this commercial will 1) change nothing or 2) create more funding for trans* issues. A scenario where the ACLU reduces funding for trans* issues seems the least likely result of the ACLU creating a revenue stream that hadn’t previously existed and is created by marketing to populations concerned with same-sex marriage.

    Relatedly, you are right to say certain things are inalienable and the ACLU cannot credibly claim that they will sell you inalienable rights for a nominal fee. But it is implausible to interpret their membership fee to actually mean we are selling you your rights. It means we will use pooled funds towards litigating for you. As their website states, “200 ACLU staff attorneys collaborate with about 2,000 volunteer attorneys to handle thousands of cases annually.” The cost of even just serving a complaint on a defendant in civil rights litigation or anti-trust litigation costs more than the $35/year membership (imagine the entire litigation costs). If the membership costs actually provide those who need it with legal services then the ACLU has essentially created a sort of collectivized legal fee scheme (one that pays for thousands of cases annually). Even those who don’t join may benefit from the litigation the ACLU engages in so there might be positive externalities as well. When I said the distributional results of commodification may not be deplorable I was encouraging you to consider these sorts of possibilities notwithstanding other valid criticisms of commodification.

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