Cultural preconditions for liberty

Four women and eleven men have been convicted of “mingling” at a party, in Saudi Arabia. Sentence? According to the AP, “flogging and prison terms.”

The men, who are between 30 and 40 years old, and three of the women, who are under the age of 30, were sentenced to an unspecified number of lashes and one or two year prison terms each.

The fourth woman, a minor, was sentenced to 80 lashes and was not sent to prison.

We don’t really need to ask why this was done. We all know. The Sauds follow the Old Time Religion, and it’s pretty darn strict. (The AP explains it as follows: “Saudi Arabia follows a strict interpretation of Islam that prohibits unrelated men and women from mingling.”) It is also amazingly illiberal, in almost all of the senses of the word.

But before you jump to saying nasty things about sand dwellers, ragheads, and the Prophet, it is worth noting that such rigorous following of old honor rules is increasingly hated in Arab society. These old, opprobrious rules have a shelf life.

And hey, look on the bright side. The cultural preconditions for liberty, much talked about these days amongst libertarian thinkers, may be in place in the Arab world, right now.

When I was first introduced to libertarians, years ago — 30 years ago, to be precise — I found a group of social misfits who, though they generally looked normal, had all the social skills of an idiot savant at a boredom convention. I walked into a room filled with libertarians, and no one talked to me. They looked at me warily, as if mingling with my kind (Nordic-Finnish blonde, thin as a rail, innocent as a burka’d 14-year-old virgin) might bring on The Lash.

Yes, libertarians — thought by some to be ardent upholders of the first two of the sailors’ trinity, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash — acted as if approaching a newcomer were simply unthinkable. Had Tonie Nathan not been in attendance, I probably would have made a circuit of the party and then left. But she was there, made polite inquiries, and introduced me around to the movers and shakers amongst the crowd that had gathered.

On rare occasions when I meet partying libertarians today, they do not seem so stand-offish. This is probably easily explained: There are more libertarians today, and their numbers include a more representative swath of the population, including a few extraverts and “connectors,” to use Tipping Point terminology.

Thirty years ago, the libertarian movement was much like the people of Saudi Arabia, but with all the fear and insularity self-inflicted. Now, the social movement has almost come of age. It’s about to reach a sort of maturity. It might be ready for prime time.

So if, in three decades, libertarians can evolve, I suspect that Arabs under the Sauds can also evolve. Indeed, the very fact that they are now risking whippings and prison merely to associate suggests that a social revolution is underway. A few more years of peaceful flouting of the law, of peaceful disobedience — and then (when the time is ripe) a few carefully placed bullets — and the land of the Prophet may be filled with mature people of both sexes. Mingling. Freely.