When Reason's Nick Gillespie mentioned to me that he had met Emma Sulkowicz—a Columbia University graduate and performance artist known to many as "mattress girl"—and invited her to social events for New York City libertarians, I thought he was joking.
But some days later, I found myself at one of those events—a happy hour at a bar in Manhattan—with Reason folks and friends. And there was Sulkowicz.
Sulkowicz's recent adventures in libertarian circles is the subject of a fascinating piece from The Cut's Sylvie McNamara, who interviewed both Gillespie and I for it. McNamara describes Sulkowicz as someone ideologically adrift, making new friends, and interested in ideas and perspectives she formerly would have rejected.
Regular readers of this website know a great deal about Sulkowicz. She was the subject of a series of Reason articles in 2015, after she became famous for carrying her mattress around Columbia's campus as a from of protest. Sulkowicz had accused a fellow student and former friend, Paul Nungesser, of sexually assaulting her during an encounter that began consensually but then escalated into unwanted sex and violence. She reported the alleged attack, but the university cleared Nungesser of wrongdoing and declined to remove him from campus. This triggered Sulkowicz's protest, which gained nationwide recognition. She even attended the State of the Union as a guest of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D–N.Y.). (She later confessed disappointment that President Obama had not addressed the alleged campus rape crisis in his remarks.)
Suffice it to say, I was extremely critical of Sulkowicz, whose advocacy was, in my view, undermining important principles of due process and the presumption of innocence for the accused. I wrote that she was making life "a living hell" for Nungesser. I assailed some members of Columbia's administration for not merely tolerating but actively encouraging her "harassment campaign" against him. And while I never claimed that she had lied about what happened to her—I don't know, and still don't—I did cast doubt on her allegations.
I was not Sulkowicz's only libertarian critic. Cathy Young, a contributor to Reason, has also criticized her for many of the same reasons, in our pages and elsewhere. Young's piece in The Daily Beast prompted Jezebel's Erin Gloria Ryan to accuse Young of "writing virtually the same rape-is-a-hysterical-feminist-fantasy op-ed over and over again for years." Ryan was editor of Jezebel when one of her writers, Anna Merlan, called me an idiot for doubting the soon-to-be-debunked Rolling Stone story; I've subsequently had many pleasant social encounters with Ryan and one with Merlan, who has not been shy about continuing to critique Reason. It is indeed possible to like people or their writing, while maintaining very strong objections or reservations.
Young was also at the happy hour. In fact, I was talking to her when I noticed Sulkowicz. It seemed like we should say hello.
I can't imagine what it would be like to meet two of your biggest critics—two people who had not only criticized you, but had done so with reference to a deeply personal, disturbing subject. But if Sulkowicz was fazed by this, she didn't show it. She was friendly, even.
— Cathy Young (@CathyYoung63) April 16, 2019
With this somewhat awkward but ultimately pleasant introduction out of the way, the next time I encountered Sulkowicz, it was like running into an old friend. This was despite the fact that the occasion was a party for me to celebrate the release of my new book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, which included (among many other things) a chapter about how Sulkowicz's activism had negatively impacted the landscape for due process on campus. Sulkowicz was accompanied by McNamara, who writes:
This party is for Robby Soave, a libertarian reporter on the snowflake beat whose new book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, is—per Soave's own description—"a book that is extremely critical of [Sulkowicz] and that I don't wish her to read." Soave met Sulkowicz a month or so before at another libertarian happy hour. Initially bewildered, he warmed to her, finding her to be inquisitive and even fun to talk to. "We exchanged contact information," he tells me later, "and talked about maybe becoming, I guess, friends or something?" He laughs incredulously as he says this, sounding a bit on edge.
As Sulkowicz swirls around the party, her presence stirs an obvious question: whether this is performance art. Soave brings it up twice when we speak on the phone afterward, acknowledging the possibility that he's being set up. While he's inclined to believe that Sulkowicz is moved by earnest curiosity, he's aware of her background in "elaborately planned performance art" and her reputation as a provocateur. Since graduating from Columbia in 2015, Sulkowicz has done around a dozen performances touching on issues like consent, anti-institutionalism, climate change, trauma, wellness, and female sexual desire. It's natural to wonder if she's currently breaking bread with this crowd to lampoon civility politics or to expose views she hates. Honestly, it might be harder to believe that she's simply trying to learn. …
Leaving Robby Soave's book party, I walk Sulkowicz home through the June heat and she wants to know how I'll describe her. "You're a trickster," I say, and she asks how I came to that word. I tell her that she seems to relate to the world on the level of mischief and play, rather than through any kind of ideology or strict moral code. I use the word "chaotic," and she doesn't object. A friend of hers wrote a book about tricksters, and she says she relates to it. Tricksters, he argued, can move unrestricted between any circumstances, because they're always playing.
McNamara was right to bring up the possibility that this all some sort of trick, or game, or even an art project. Sulkowicz's past art work—not just the mattress project—often involved elaborate setups, and the audience becoming not just passive consumers but part of the art themselves. I would not be completely shocked if that was the case here.
But I don't think that's what is happening, mostly because Sulkowicz's starting point for her journey of self-discovery was Jonathan Haidt's outstanding book, The Righteous Mind. It does not at all surprise me that someone, after engaging with Haidt's work for the first time, would subsequently find value in meeting new people and exploring different ideas. Sulkowicz even attended one of Haidt's talks and became friendly with him.
"My wife and I have gotten to know her well, can attest that she is open-minded, loving, funny, forgiving," he wrote on Twitter. "She is on a journey, guided by virtues badly needed these days."
Gillespie hit on this theme as well in his comments for the Cut piece:
Gillespie laments that, despite the "embarrassment of riches with how much we can communicate and explore ideas, we're having kind of shitty conversations." He hopes Sulkowicz's journey sparks "a movement, among younger people in particular, to broaden the types of conversations that happen." Asked about the value of these conversations, Sulkowicz's friends mostly resort to abstraction: the benefit of dialogue is to "bridge divides" or "build empathy," responses that are neither trivial nor satisfying. To be fair, not everything that is valuable can be easily explained. Several people tell me that, after knowing Sulkowicz, they have "more respect for people's personal narratives" and are less likely to see others in bad faith.
I think libertarians are a bit better at having these kinds of uncomfortable conversations and associations simply because we tend to have larger areas of passionate agreement and fiery disagreement with just about everybody. Indeed, those of us in the Reason orbit are sometimes accused by people outside the Beltway of zipping from one cocktail party to the next, happily clinking glasses with the very government policymakers and elite media class whose ideas we are inveighing against in our writing.
As a serial attender of ideologically-all-over-the-place social events, I'm guilty as charged here. I get drinks with Brooklyn lefties then head to Fox News to talk with Tucker Carlson about why Trump is right to pull out of Syria. I carve pumpkins with Vox writers and play Dungeons & Dragons with Federalist writers. I've dressed up for a gala featuring neoconservative stalwart Nikki Haley, and gone to a drag show with David French (OK, I made that last one up, but all the others are real). The simple truth is libertarians can't really afford to avoid being friends with non-libertarians. If I only associated with the people whose views very closely matched my own, I would only associate with a small handful of people.
There are, of course, critics of this kind of befriend-everyone feel-goodery, and many have reacted to the Cut piece with predictable condemnation. On the right, some were furious that we would seemingly welcome Sulkowicz without her having made any kind atonement for her perceived wrongs. On the left, many accused Sulkowicz of betraying her own tribe. Both extremes might be surprised at how alike they sound, if they could possibly listen to each other for even one minute.
Everyone else, I think, can take solace in the fact that it is possible for people with stark differences to be on friendly terms, and make strides toward better understanding each other. We often have more in common than we think, especially when we set aside politics—the art of bossing each other around.