Amy Slucter

Winner: IHS Film & Fiction Scholarship

Participant: Liberty & Culture Seminar

What books, thinkers, or teachers have been most influential in your intellectual development? How so?

When I thumb through the pages of my memory looking to discover how I first became interested in classical liberalism, I inevitably recall the joy I experienced when I read Ayn Rand’s seminal novel "The Fountainhead" in my senior year of high school. At that point the philosophy of Objectivism was new to me and I responded enthusiastically by entering an essay contest sponsored by the Ayn Rand Institute.

In my essay I focused on the radical psychological makeup of Howard Roark, a man who, like Patrick Henry, would rather die than sacrifice any of his liberty. My essay won a third place prize from the Institute and soon I received a large box of materials detailing the tenets of Objectivism. While many aspects of Objectivism were appealing to me, the ethics of self-interest as articulated in Rand’s writings and in the Institute's supplementary materials were anathema to my understanding of how human relationships worked. In my experience self-interest often motivated human interactions, but it certainly was not the only factor in human relations.

Thus I turned away from Objectivism and toward the new ideas that I was certain I would encounter in college.

During my freshman year I was repeatedly exposed to John Stuart Mill’s famous treatise "On Liberty". His oft-repeated warning about the "tyranny of the majority" thrilled me because it seemed to wrap itself around the very neck of democracy at a time when the democratic principle had impressed itself deeply into popular imagination. His strong commitment to personal rights and to the integrity of the individual within a society was something I gladly applauded, and I saw that his fear that society itself would become a tyranny had particular salience in contemporary America.

Locke's Two Treatises of Government also formed a part of my early thinking on libertarian philosophy. His discussion about the legitimate and illegitimate uses of government provides a simple and elegant basis for creating laws: governments should protect the right to life, to freedom, and the right to property. While the basics of the "checks and balances" system had been familiar to me for a long time, the idea that each of those branches should have a clearly defined and necessarily limited role in society was intriguing.

The part of Locke’s argument that I found to be the most compelling was his assertion that citizens needed to consistently control government in order to protect against political despotism.

What does "liberty" mean to you?

Contemplating liberty often encourages me to remember those people who have fought to preserve what they believed were their inalienable rights and liberties. Socrates chose to die rather than to surrender his right to speak freely in the public places of Athens.

Polish astronomer and priest Nicolaus Copernicus defended his belief that the earth moved in circles about the sun despite the opposition he encountered from ecclesiastics. His follower, the Italian Galileo Galilei, clearly was fighting for liberty when he continued to advocate the Copernican "heliocentric" view of the universe despite a two-fisted request by the Catholic Church that he remain silent about whether the earth or the sun was the center of our galaxy.

Other not so distant examples of people who have engaged in the ongoing struggle for liberty in regards to inquiry, assembly, speech, choice, information, movement, religion and expression abound and frequently rattle the doorknob of my mind when I think about my own liberties. Famous figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Patrick Henry, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr. formed the crust of freedoms that we now take for granted as readily as popcorn and apple pie.

However, throughout history there have been less known individuals who, silent and steadfast, clearly contributed the apples and spices to the contemporary liberty pie. Thus liberty has been achieved by both the famous few and the anonymous many, all of them having made a stand for liberty against despotic controls, all of them having thrown down the gauntlet for freedom. Now, contemporary individuals interested in expanding personal sovereignty and individual liberty continue the struggle.

Why did you choose to attend an IHS seminar?

My choice to attend an Institute for Humane Studies seminar on "Liberty and Culture" was motivated by my desire to meet with other people willing to discuss the dynamic relationship that must exist between culture and liberty within any specific milieu. I also hoped that I would have an opportunity to become better acquainted with the views held by classical liberals and libertarians about the role of culture in society.

During the week I spent in Bryn Mawr my expectations were well exceeded. Not only did I have an opportunity to discuss how culture and liberty interact but I also was able to listen to lectures on a surprisingly broad variety of topics including 1950s culture, postmodern cultural proliferation and the way Hollywood typically portrays business people.

What are the most intriguing ideas you heard during the seminar you attended?

During the seminar many ideas piqued my interest. However, there were a few notions that struck me as particularly exciting. In a lecture given by Steven Kautz of Michigan State University entitled "Classical versus Contemporary Liberalism" I was impressed by the clever thumbnail sketch he gave of Republican, Democratic and Libertarian party interests.

Mr. Kautz declared that Republicans were interested in promoting moral virtue, Democrats were interested in promoting equality and Libertarians were interested in promoting liberty. While this description can be dismissed as glib and overly simplistic, I think that in its simplicity there is a great deal of truth. In a lecture called "Individualism, the Cult of Celebrity and Democracy," given by Michael Valdez Moses of Duke University, I was at once skeptical and curious about his assertion that in a democratic society everyone wants to be famous.

His lecture used the film "Being John Malkovich" as a dock from which to unload questions about fame and anonymity. In the context of this lecture and a later lecture, "The Globalization of Culture," Mr. Moses talked about how the process of modernization was characterized by the delegitimization of religion as a force around which societies must be organized. In addition, he stated that in western societies romantic love has become a sort of secular religion to fill the vacuum created when religion no longer dominates people’s lives. Finally, I was impressed by a single fact given by Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason magazine. According to Mr. Gillespie, the Statue of Liberty is actually named "Liberty Enlightening the World". A quick look in "The American Heritage" dictionary confirmed Mr. Gillespie’s statement.

What was the best aspect of the seminar?

What I enjoyed about the seminar on "Liberty and Culture" was that every lecture, every discussion - in fact nearly every encounter - turned out to be a learning experience for me. However, my favorite part of the seminar was the fact that it was so thoroughly international. Perhaps half of the participants were not United States citizens.

In addition, the American students hailed from many different regions of the country. The diversity of the student body at the seminar gave the discussions and lectures a complexity that forced everyone present to avoid generalizations and look deeper to find similarities between different national cultures.

Please describe your current job or program of study and your future plans.

In late August of 2000 I will begin to study for a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Film and Television Production at the University of Southern California.

The program, which is three years long, focuses on familiarizing students with the art, craft and industry of film-making. In the winter semester of 2000 I will be taking courses in screenwriting, production and the history of silent cinema. At the "Liberty and Culture" seminar we saw three different films, "Being John Malkovich", "Blade Runner" and "Mystery Train" which provided examples of how a film can be timely, challenging and entertaining. In the future I would like to use film to tell stories that, like these, complicate the way we view the "facts of life".

My hope is that I will continue to develop different screenplays throughout my three-year master’s program so that when I am done I will have both the raw material and the basic skills to begin to craft the films I dream of making.