The Libertarian Party of Canada is in turmoil following the bizarre suspension of Lauren Southern, one of the party’s most visible and popular candidates, at the behest of a small group of aggrieved feminist activists.
Members and candidates are now in open revolt amid concerns that the party has been co-opted by a small group of left-wing culture warriors whose socially authoritarian agendas are alien to the majority of libertarians and toxic to the general public.
Southern, a libertarian activist and commentator for The Rebel Media, rose to global prominence last month when a video emerged of her challenging feminist campaigners at a “Slutwalk” demonstration in Vancouver.
The footage showed her holding up a sign proclaiming “there is no rape culture in the west” and telling feminists at the protest that far from being protected, rapists in western countries tended to be prosecuted and jailed.
The activists responded furiously, calling Southern a “bitch,” physically assaulting her and her cameraman, and ripping up her placard. She later faced a campaign of online slander which she was forced to respond to on her YouTube channel. Feminists then began to email the Libertarian Party, asking them to suspend Southern as a candidate.
But Southern’s lone-soldier activism struck a chord. The initial video of her challenge to feminist protesters was watched over 750,000 times and attracted praise from commentators around the world.
Feminist scholar Christina Hoff Sommers applauded Southern’s activism, calling her a “fabulous young woman.” Freddy Gray, deputy editor of The Spectator, said she should be “given a medal” for her efforts.
Libertarians around the world also heaped praise on the young activist. “We need more women like Southern,” wrote Ella Whelan, a writer for the British libertarian magazine Spiked Online. “Lauren Southern – 2, Feminists – 0,” concluded Laura Meyers of the website Libertarian Republic.
Still a college student, Southern had become one of the most popular candidates of the Libertarian Party of Canada.
You would think a party that struggles for media attention and gained just six thousand votes at the last Canadian elections would be grateful for the positive press and stand behind their candidate, not least because her activism involved speaking reason to dogma and standing up for due process — two causes close to libertarians’ hearts.
But the leadership didn’t stand behind Southern. They suspended her as a candidate.
The decision shocked ordinary party members and candidates. There had been no internal backlash against Southern, who is as popular within the party as she is outside of it. A poll on the decision was immediately set up on the party’s private Facebook group, and it did not go well for the leadership.
On the face of it, it was an inexplicable decision. Southern is popular within the party, popular outside the party, and was generating much-needed press attention. Moreover, it only takes a glance at the pages of Reason Magazine to see that her objections to feminist narratives are squarely in the mainstream of libertarian thought. So why was she suspended?
The story isn’t pleasant. Ignorance of the latest trends in cultural politics, a misguided obsession with PR over principles, and ideological intolerance at the highest levels of the party came together in a series of appalling decisions that have isolated the leadership from their candidates and members.
When I asked party leader Tim Moen to explain his reasons for suspending Southern, his answer was clear: she was bad for the party’s image.
According to Moen, Southern’s actions had “broken message discipline” and undermined the party’s efforts to “connect hearts and minds to the message of liberty and achieve a tipping point of 10% of the population adopting an unshakable belief in Liberty.”
But Moen’s statement is bizarre. His argument implies that people will join the libertarian movement by seeing party members punished for expressing their views on important topics. Why would any Canadian be encouraged to support values of liberty if the Libertarian party itself isn’t seen to follow them?
Secondly, the claim that Lauren Southern was undermining the party’s electoral fortunes is pure nonsense — all the evidence suggests that the precise opposite is true. No other candidate has achieved the kind of positive press coverage generated by Southern.
Southern tells me that prior to her suspension, she had already begun to receive offers of support from local voters who had seen her video. Members of the public were even offering to join the Libertarian Party and campaign on her behalf.
The claim that Southern’s activism was bad for the party’s image runs contrary to all the evidence. Moen’s logic just doesn’t add up.
But Moen didn’t make the decision alone. Sources within the party tell me that he initially defended Southern and her activism, but that he was eventually pressured into removing her by senior figures in the party hierarchy.
Who are these people, and why are they hell-bent on removing one of the party’s greatest assets?
According to sources within the party, the new “hearts and minds” (of Tumblr?) strategy is championed by Rehan Basson, the Party President, Mark Burnison, Vice President for Political Action, and David Clement, Vice President for Communication.
These three are united by a shared affinity for modern feminism and left-wing identity politics. Despite the dire state of feminism in public opinion polls, they are convinced that championing the cause and silencing any criticism of it is a sound electoral strategy.
According to Southern, the arrival of Basson as the new President a few months ago was the beginning of the new approach. “At first I thought it was really cool for the party to be educated on LGBTQ issues. But feminist and LGBTQ issues quickly became the only thing the President talked about.”
Basson, Burnison and Clement are also said to be strongly supportive of feminist narratives around “rape culture” — the very ones that Southern received plaudits for challenging.
As footage of Southern’s protest at the Vancouver Slutwalk began to spread, these three began lobbying Tim Moen to remove her as a candidate. Basson in particular is said to “hate” Southern for her criticism of feminist narratives and pressed for her removal as a candidate as soon as she saw the video.
Moen initially refused to remove Southern. But her opponents weren’t about to give up–and quietly waited for their next opportunity.
They didn’t have to wait long. Last week, at the request of an acquaintance, Southern retweeted a video poking fun at identity politics. The video was inspired by the Rachel Dolezal controversy and poked fun at the myriad of identities that can be found on web communities like Tumblr.
Southern’s opponents used the retweet to claim she was “transphobic.”
But Southern, like most libertarians, supports rights for trans people. “I support the rights of every group and have friends in every group” said Southern in Facebook post. “Whether it be religious, LGBTQ, left-wing, right-wing, rich, poor, big, small.” But “either [all groups] are open to satire, or no-one is,” she added.
It wasn’t enough. Moen caved in to pressure and agreed to let Mark Burnison suspend Southern as a candidate if he deemed it necessary (which, of course, he did). What happened next was something distinctly un-libertarian.
Burnison told Southern to shut her mouth or be removed as a candidate.
Burnison told Southern that in order to remain a candidate, she would have to end her association with Rebel Media, apologise, and “avoid anti-feminist speech” in the future. Burnison initially presented this proposal in pragmatic language, but his mask was soon to slip.
“I can’t support anti-feminism,” Burnison said. “I’ve done my best to remain objective.” He then instructed Southern to remove the phrase “Libertarian Candidate” from her Twitter profile.
The purge was complete. But the fight wasn’t.
The party revolts
Libertarians are happy to tolerate people they disagree with — even when those people support an ideology as authoritarian and fanatical as “rape culture” feminism. But tolerating intolerance is another matter.
As soon as news of Southern’s suspension spread to the rest of the party, a backlash began. Candidates and members rallied around Southern and used an online poll to call on the leadership to reinstate her.
Another group of candidates went further, demanding that Southern be allowed to stand in the party’s elections for Deputy Leader.
Then, earlier this week, Richard Heathen, the party’s regional coordinator in Victoria, British Columbia, released an open letter, signed by a number of candidates. It called for the “immediate and unconditional reinstatement” of Lauren Southern and urged the leadership to abandon its current “hearts and minds” strategy.
“The party should not alienate people who are extremely socially liberal, just as it should not alienate people who extremely are socially conservative,” the statement reads. “There are enough political parties that pander to the middle. It’s time for an authentic party whose members embrace their diversity of opinion and lifestyle.”
Heathen’s call for tolerance of social conservatives is a direct rebuke to Mark Burnison, who recently announced that there was “no place” for socially conservative values within the party.
(I am told that Christian libertarians feel so alienated by this attitude that they are abandoning the party en masse.)
The statement also highlights the suspicion of “agendas outside libertarianism” at the top of the party — another rebuke to Burnison, Basson and their seemingly zero-tolerance approach to critics of feminism.
Unprepared for the backlash, Tim Moen has extended an offer of reinstatement to Lauren Southern — but only on the condition that she obeys “message discipline” and holds to the party’s current “hearts and minds” strategy.
In other words, it’s the same offer that was presented to her by Burnison. Shut up about feminism, and remain a candidate. Southern tells me she will not return as a candidate under those terms.
Meanwhile, the group of candidates and members gathering around Richard Heathen want the leadership to drop its current strategy altogether, and they refuse to take “no” for an answer.
The party is on the brink of a split.
A colossal blunder
Had Tim Moen known a little bit more about cultural politics, he might have been able to avert this. I am told that prior to Southern’s video, he wasn’t even aware that the erosion of due process on college campuses was even a major issue. Nor was he aware of the term “social justice warrior.”
Perhaps it’s time to bring him up to speed.
Social justice warriors are widely perceived as the cultural left’s answer to Jerry Falwell. They heckle, they bully, they coerce, and generally use any power at their disposal to dictate other peoples’ behavior and opinions.
Some of them are happy to call themselves fiscal conservatives and pay lip service to libertarianism, but this tends to evaporate when “socially progressive” statism like the now-infamous Title IX interventions on US campuses gets thrown into the mix.
Even those who aren’t focused on state power are hellbent on exerting cultural and social control over those they disagree with. Shaming campaigns and ostracization (expelling a candidate from their party, for example!) are among their chief weapons.
They are also fond of ruining their opponents’ reputations with social media campaigns. Jon Ronson just wrote a book about it.
And Jon Ronson isn’t even a libertarian. In truth, people of all political persuasions are waking up to the danger posed by social justice warriors. Everyone from conservatives to liberals to the politically unaffiliated are manning the barricades against the new political correctness.
In Britain, public figures from across the political spectrum are waging a full-scale revolt against the recent purging of Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel-prize winning cancer researcher, over comments that were taken out of context by social justice warriors.
In the world of entertainment, comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Stephen Merchant, Patton Oswalt and Amy Schumer, as well as actors like Chris Pratt, are raising their voices against the new era of witch-hunts.
Even liberals have joined the rebellion. High-profile columnists like Jonathan Chait, Nick Cohen and Judith Shulevitz have begun to speak out against the new class of culture warriors and their new tools of social control.
Moen has chosen to cast his lot in with the new political correctness at the very moment when the rest of society is turning against it. Some “hearts and minds” strategy!
I suspect his approach is born from ignorance. Moen just doesn’t seem that interested in cultural politics–and presumably thinks the field is still divided between those who support abortion, LGBT rights, and those who don’t.
But it’s become a lot more complicated than that. Liberals and libertarians who are 100% supportive of causes like gay marriage and abortion have become strongly opposed to their loudest advocates — the social justice warriors.
You can support a cause while also recognising that its most radical champions, given the chance, would be just as intolerant as their opponents. And that’s what an increasing number of people have come to believe about socially liberal causes.
This is the cultural and political arena that Tim Moen has blundered into. If he truly doesn’t know what a “social justice warrior” is, he’d better find out soon — because it is they, not Lauren Southern, who are driving “hearts and minds” away from the party.