Cultural Libertarians From History

Wikimedia Commons/Napoleon Sarony

I recently wrote about a new wave of academics and media personalities, whom I call cultural libertarians. These iconoclasts are resisting the nannying puritanism of both conservative cultural elites and left-wing “social justice warriors.”

My piece led several people on social media to come out and adopt the label for themselves. What I found surprising was the sheer diversity of the people who were attracted by the concept. On the one hand, there was the anarcho-punk turned conservative rabble-rouser Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice; on the other, mild-mannered academics like Jonathan Haidt. and Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

There’s a reason for this. Throughout history, culturally libertarian values have appealed to very different groups: intellectuals, who push the boundaries of knowledge and ideas, commentators and satirists, who push the boundaries of political debate, and artists, who push the boundaries of creative expression. All of them count conformity and the finger-wagging of the Establishment as their enemy.

Intellectually, cultural libertarianism is closest to the classical liberal tradition, outlined by John Stuart Mill in his influential essay On Liberty. Mill argued that freedom had to be protected just as much from the tyranny of  popular opinion and cultural elites as it did from the state.

Mill’s theories have always been important to the educated classes, particularly those who argue for unpopular theories. In an era where the President of Harvard can be ousted for simply suggesting the idea of innate differences between the sexes, Mill’s argument for the necessity of subjecting established ideas to scrutiny is as relevant as ever.

So it’s no surprise that the most well-known academics of our generation continue to defend the right to unfettered free speech, especially those at the forefront of academia who are overturning old theories and ruffling feathers.

It was no surprise to see Steven Pinker, one of the world’s most influential psychologists, give a keynote address to the anti-censorship Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, in which he defended free speech as “fundamental to human flourishing.”

Other acclaimed thinkers, like Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky, and Richard Dawkins have made similarly robust commitments on the principle.

Academics have an attachment to free speech because they see it as a means to protect advocates of new theories from the guardians of established orthodoxies. This is especially important for authors and thinkers investigating religion, evolution or the science of race and gender, all topics where it can be dangerous to be too provocative.

But cultural libertarianism extends far beyond the ivory tower, and there are many popular figures in history who, had they been alive or at the height of their powers today, would likely have classified themselves cultural libertarians.

Rebels and insurgents who capture the imaginations of the masses, often encouraging a spirit of rebellion in their followers, are dangerous to the cultural elites.


One of the most gifted writers of his generation, Oscar Wilde was also fond of scandalizing British society.  When the playwright and poet visited America, a prominent clergyman and abolitionist, indignantly wondered how someone who had committed so many “offences against common decency” had attained such popularity. His famous novel, A Picture of Dorian Gray was condemned by one London newspaper as “unclean, poisonous, and heavy with the odors of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” An unashamed hedonist in the age of Victorian puritanism, Wilde’s arrest and imprisonment on charges of sodomy only cemented his reputation as one of history’s great martyrs to individual liberty.



Thanks to Gawker, tabloids have a bad reputation. But the 18th-century British radical John Wilkes, perhaps the original tabloid journalist, was enormously important in establishing freedom of the press. Wilkes was despised by the establishment and faced several spells in jail for embarrassing its leading members. King George III personally ordered his arrest after Wilkes eviscerated one of his speeches. Another nobleman, the Earl Talbot, challenged him to a pistol duel over one of his articles, although both men ended up missing their shots. Wilkes’ outspokenness earned him enormous popularity among commoners, and his eventual imprisonment led to a 15,000-strong uprising. The protesters, who were eventually fired upon by British troops, chanted “No liberty, No King.”



Today, it’s normal for entertainers to fill their routines with vulgar language. This wasn’t the case in the 1960s, when the influential and famously foul-mouthed comedian Lenny Bruce was put on trial for obscenity. His crime was using the word “c***sucker” as an insult, but it was just the latest in a string of what was then considered to be outrageous behaviour. Bruce, a notorious hellraiser, was expelled from the U.S. Navy for “homosexual urges” was once arrested for impersonating a priest. Already an icon to rebels, his trial fully established him as a cause célèbre of the nascent 1960s counterculture.

S6c1c99abc8df4ae288458da556b3bd2931e07832ALVADOR DALI

Despite his historical renown, surrealist pioneer Salvador Dalí was also a perpetual dissident. Dalí was expelled from the Royal Academy in Madrid after insisting that his professors lacked the intelligence to assess his work. He was also ostracised from the surrealist movement after refusing to conform to their Marxist political views. Dalí was also famous for his disregard for even basic social norms. His pets included an ocelot and an anteater, which he regularly took for walks in Paris, and he was known to avoid paying for expensive meals by sketching on the back of cheques (restaurant owners wouldn’t dare cash such potentially valuable pieces of art.) If Dalí were alive today, he might be accused of trolling.



Another subject of a famous obscenity trial, OZ magazine was described as “arguably the greatest achievement of the British underground press” by the cultural historian Jonathon Green. Its uninhibited coverage of drugs, sex, and contentious political topics like Vietnam made it one the centers of British cultural rebellion in the 60s. One of its contributors during the obscenity trial was second-wave feminist Germaine Greer, who recently faced a SJW-led attempt to ban her from UK university campuses on the grounds of transphobia. Greer can now claim to have been the target of cultural authoritarians on both the right and left.

Monty_python_footMONTY PYTHON

The famously outrageous British comedy troupe rose to prominence just as the campaign against indecency on TV was reaching its height. As Mary Whitehouse and the socially conservative National Viewers and Listener’s Association piled pressure onto the BBC to censor its content, Monty Python doubled down. The height of their rebel status came with the release of The Life of Brian, a film which satirized religious and political zealotry and was banned in multiple countries for its allegedly blasphemous content. Today, the threat to artistic freedom from religious groups has diminished, and it’s little wonder that outspoken troupe member John Cleese now spends more time talking about the dangers of political correctness.

1.15.13-Dee-SniderDEE SNIDER

In the 1980s, the growth of heavy metal led to a moral panic in the US, with popular lyrics accused of promoting violence and delinquency. Led by Tipper Gore, wife of then-senator Al Gore, a committee of movers and shakers in Washington succeeded in bringing some of the genre’s most famous stars to a Senate hearing. It was a mistake. The metal and rock stars used the invitation to publicly demolish their critics’ points, as well as cement their rebel status. While most attendees wore suits, it was Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, who arrived in the Senate wearing glam-rock hair and a sleeveless denim vest, who stole the show.


In both intellectual and popular culture, similar battles have been taking place for centuries. Whether these battles are fought over an idea, a song lyric, or a form of behaviour, they are always fights between experimentation and conformity. Although John Stuart Mill’s theories mainly influenced the chattering classes, it is that spirit of eccentricity and experimentation that he sought to protect. For both intellectuals and the avant-garde of popular culture, freedom of expression has always been treasured.

In the modern era, too, there are different groups fighting for cultural libertarianism in different arenas. In academia, scientists and psychologists fight for more space to discuss contentious theories about gender and race. In the world of entertainment, everyone from video game developers to Hollywood film directors are fighting against a rising tide of creative intolerance. In political punditry, outspoken commentators are fighting to keep important issues inside the Overton Window. If all of these groups were to unite, they would be a formidable force indeed.

Follow Allum Bokhari @LibertarianBlue on Twitter. 


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