Radical Right Reality Check

Libertarian looniness

How far will the market fundamentalist right go?

What does the subject of “mail-order brides” have to do with the quest for freedom? If you, like most other sane people on the planet, have never given this strange question a moment’s thought and have instead always considered cross-border, for-profit “marriages” to be a kind of thinly-disguised form of human-trafficking from the creepy underbelly of society, then you must be a Marxist and/or a “radical feminist.”

That, at least, is the argument made by a fellow named Justin Merriman. Merriman is a graduate student in history at Southern Illinois University who wrote a lengthy, footnoted article this past June for The Independent Review – the quarterly journal of a libertarian “think tank” known as The Independent Institute. The article was a defense of mail-order weddings.

And why, you may ask, should any North Carolinian give a darn about the views of an obscure and embarrassingly uninformed Midwestern grad student who admits that he got interested in the subject while trolling Internet pornography sites? The answer, sadly, is that some people of supposed relevance here actually pay attention to and promote this kind of garbage; people like the “Director of Fiscal Policy Studies” at the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation – the organization that drafted much of the policy agenda for the current state legislative leadership and that seems likely to enjoy even greater prominence in 2013.

The Locke staffer actually interviewed Merriman on his radio show this summer – a show called “The Stateless Man” that is promoted in Locke Foundation newsletters and on the group’s website.

Mail-order marriages as paths to economic “freedom”

In the article (“Holy Matrimony Plus Shipping and Handling: A Libertarian Perspective on the Mail-Order Bride Industry”) Merriman attempts to portray the modern, Internet-based phenomenon of western men buying women from Russia and other struggling Eastern European countries as simply the latest in the age-old tradition of arranged marriages that goes back thousands of years.

Today, according to Merriman, mail-order matrimony is not something to be combated as a worrisome component in the worldwide human trafficking epidemic. Rather, it is actually a perfectly logical and appropriate path pursued by women seeking to escape troubled circumstances and something that ought to be supported by “libertarians.” Opponents, meanwhile, are mostly stuffy, old man-hating commies. To quote the article:

“The debate over mail-order bride industries is dominated by two schools of thought. The radical feminist view asserts that brokering a marriage exploits women. It connects market exchange with male chauvinism, bolstered by globalization. The competing viewpoint is libertarianism, arguing that free will and a desire to better one’s life lead women into this kind of mutually beneficial marriage contract.

Feminists with the anticapitalist (sic) view dominate most of the scholarship on mailorder (sic) brides. They argue that capitalism has created a system in which dependence on money in a male-dominated society leads women to engage in behavior they otherwise would avoid. Moreover, they assert, men seek women from overseas because they resent feminism at home and view foreign women as docile.”

Here’s Merriman’s big conclusion:

“The act of brokering a bride seems exploitative on the surface, but the women knowingly engage in the business because they foresee personal, social, and economic gain in it. Anticapitalist (sic) feminists may not agree, but the end result is usually in the best interest of the women who seek a better life for themselves and later for their children.”

“The Stateless Man” interview

Merriman repeated all of these arguments in his appearance on “The Stateless Man,” a show that its host, the Locke staffer, promotes – queue the Twilight Zone theme – as:

“…a home for those who pursue individual liberty beyond arbitrary borders, oppressive governments, and myths of national obligations. If you value liberty and are willing to migrate and vote with your feet, you’ve come to the right place.”

In a 20-plus minute interview that featured plenty of “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” male banter and giggles, Merriman contended that mail-order brides fare about the same or better than women in average domestic marriages in terms of divorce rates and domestic violence. He also argued (rather blithely it would seem for an anti-government crusader) that if mail-order brides are abused, western (public) social services systems and “women’s centers” are standing by to rescue them.

He and the Locke staffer and the show’s co-host also exchanged chuckles at the idea of finding online “bargains,” and the notion that what really lies behind much of the opposition to the practice by western women is their fear of “competition” from more sexually alluring women.

Late in the interview the Locke staffer asks:

“Why do you think the – you called them radical feminists in your article – why do you think they have it wrong and are so vitriolic against this sort of thing – the quote oppression of women?”

After Merriman provides a brief and mostly incoherent rant about Marxists, the Locke staffer asks (to more laughter):

“Do they feel like they’re out-competed by foreign women?”

Why this even matters

While it may be tempting to dismiss this kind of sophomoric blather from a group of overgrown college boys as, well, sophomoric blather from a group of overgrown college boys, there are a couple of reasons why it’s worth at least a few minutes of your attention.

First, the individual promoting this whole discussion is not merely some completely irrelevant Internet wacko. The man is employed as the expert on budget and tax policy (arguably the single most important subject in the state policy debate) by a well-funded and influential conservative group that enjoys enormous access to the political powers-that-be in this state. Today, in multiple media outlets in North Carolina, he and his colleagues will be solemnly cited and quoted as responsible and important analysts of state policy.

Second, and perhaps even more important, is what this kind of thing says about the state of our ideological debate. For decades now, the right has been pushing further and further on the envelope. Crazy ideas that once were dismissed (and still ought to be dismissed) as completely nuts – ideas like privatizing and selling off our public schools, allowing people to carry concealed weapons in churches, restaurants and schools and conferring constitutional rights on microscopic fertilized eggs – have, through sheer repetition, become respectable. What’s next – the idea of individual states coining their own currencies as is currently proposed by a serious candidate for state Treasurer? Turning our entire public infrastructure (water, sewer, public safety, open space, roads) over to corporate ownership? Or will it be legitimizing the practice of American men purchasing their wives online?

We may laugh now at such absurd ideas, but the hard truth of the matter is that 30 years ago, caring and thoughtful people were laughing a lot of ideas that are now taken seriously on Capitol Hill and Jones Street in Raleigh. And today, the right-wing envelope pushers are better funded and better organized than ever.

Let’s hope that this kind of nonsense quickly finds its way into the dustbin. But don’t count on it happening without some effort. Progressives who care about our state and its future ignore today’s wacky ideas and the people and groups that promote them at their own (and everyone else’s) peril.