In the wake of the 2013 International Students For Liberty Conference, it’s probably safe to say most young libertarians were riding a wave of optimism about the future of the liberty movement. I returned home feeling inspired and noticed that one article from Reason.com stuck out amidst a flurry of media content praising the roughly 1,400 students at the ISFLC for their enthusiastic dedication in tackling the difficult challenges of our day. The pessimistic article, written by Nick Gillespie, was published the Monday after the conference and was titled, “Hey Kids: Tonight You’re Young, Tomorrow You’re Unemployed.” It compares the millennial generation to “a whipped puppy whose spirit has been decisively house-broken.” In analyzing the lyrics of the song “We Are Young” by fun, Gillespie bemoans the loss of the “ire, the anger, and most important of all, the symbolic middle finger to mom and dad that has long powered pop music and youth culture.” If one assesses the condition of today’s youth solely by analyzing the Grammies and Obama’s State of the Union address as Gillespie did, the evidence will indeed suggest that Generation Y is “depraved and irredeemable.” However, the young libertarian movement that he failed to address suggests there is hope for the future. Admittedly, the majority of young people are much more likely to pay attention to the Grammies than the ISFLC, but that doesn’t mean the student movement for liberty should be discounted. As my colleague James Padilioni Jr. eloquently pointed out last week, young people are driving the current wave of libertarianism in a myriad of creative and innovative ways. In doing so, we are not only countering unjust government policies, but also the collective mentality Gillespie described.
Of course, based on Gillespie’s work, I don’t actually think he discounts young libertarians. It makes more sense to interpret his article as a reminder to young libertarians of the importance of the fight we engage in daily to overcome the apathy of our peers. This “let’s get back to work” perspective reminded me that there is a good reason cheerleading for the team doesn’t come as naturally to libertarians as it does for people with different ideological stripes. Due to our opposition of the status quo, libertarians are contrarian by nature. While I often worry about the limitations such an attitude places on us from a marketing standpoint, a talk I heard this past week by the distinguished Civil War historian David Blight commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation reminded me that our chronic indignation is far from excessive. Indeed, history suggests it will be our saving grace.
Blight opened his speech by talking about how people tell themselves inaccurate stories to try to make sense of the world. These stories inform our decisions and opinions and we loathe when other people mess with them. According to Blight, one of the most powerful stories Americans tell themselves is the myth of the unyielding progress of democracy. Unlike most people, he claimed, Americans have an aversion to tragedy. I’m no film major or pop culture specialist, but it does seem that the most popular songs and movies of our time tend to have a feel-good vibe and happy ending, as Gillespie pointed out with fun.
Through cultural ceremonies and other institutions, Americans mold collective memory to subdue past and present challenges based on this aversion of tragedy, Blight argued. Specifically, he illustrated how the status quo of racial segregation and simmering violence shaped the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963. Equally important, he highlighted figures who understood historical tragedy and opposed the forces that sought to suppress change. In a political climate in which many people were steadfastly avoiding a confrontation of the country’s racial history, Martin Luther King Jr. boldly asked President Kennedy to sign an executive order issuing a second emancipation proclamation based on Kennedy’s campaign promise of addressing equality of opportunity by the “stroke of the president’s pen.“ Feeling the pressure, Kennedy told King to draft something up, and King presented a 64-page legal brief at a 1961 press conference. While King had hoped that the president would take advantage of such a symbolic moment by signing a second proclamation on the anniversary of the first, Kennedy declined, caving to the conservative coalition in Congress. Instead, the White House organized an event at the Lincoln Memorial commemorating the 100th anniversary with a program of white speakers and a recorded video message from the president (who was busy attending a yacht race) filled with vague truisms about freedom. The ceremony was sparsely attended and that night, federal employees had to clean graffiti off of the Lincoln Memorial reading “nigger lovers.”
Few people know this story. Similarly, few people know that King’s “I Have A Dream” speech also marked the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, or that the first half of his speech was filled with righteous indignation when he declared, “one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.” Americans aren’t taught in school about King the contrarian who messed with people’s stories. Instead, they’re taught about King the martyr who supposedly fit into the American story of progress all along. In his talk, Blight argued that the American tendency to skim over the darker portions of our history is unwise. Rather, he claimed that we should arm ourselves with tragedy as King did to achieve intellectual depth.
Novelist Ralph Ellison also had the wisdom of tragedy. Two years after King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, Americans once again celebrated the triumphant narrative of progress by ingraining the events of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into collective memory. Ellison countered this height of American optimism by publishing a now forgotten essay in The Nation called “Tell It Like It Is, Baby.” The title was inspired by a letter he had received ten years prior to the essay’s publication from his friend Virgil Brannam, who had told Ellison to “tell a man how it is,” requesting information and insight on the political situation of African Americans in the United States. Ellison’s essay describes a complex dream in which Ellison, as a young boy looking for his father, encounters an angry mob desecrating Lincoln’s body. Rich in metaphor, the essay alludes to the continued struggles facing African Americans. At a time of perceived empowerment, Ellison revealed the seedy underbelly of collective memory. In doing so, he rejected the guise of rationality and progress internalized by most Americans.
While the battles fought by King and Ellison have important differences to the battles fought by libertarians today (Ellison was associated with the Communist Party), their stories illustrate why Gillespie should be hopeful about the potential young libertarians have to influence the rest of our generation. Like King and Ellison, we are the dissenting voices. As my colleague Clark Ruper stated last week, gone are the days when libertarians allowed conservatives to dictate terms. Likewise, we refuse to conform to the liberal narrative, contrary to what Ann Coulter thinks.
But King and Ellison’s stories also illustrate why young libertarians should take heed of Gillespie’s reminder of the challenges that still must be overcome. Like them, we must dispute the claim that history has a set trajectory determined by previous victors. We cannot accept excuses to sit back and enjoy the ride. Like them, we must equip ourselves with the wisdom of tragedy, understand that progress isn’t guaranteed, and acknowledge that there will probably always be forces opposing freedom. I am confident that young libertarians will carry on the legacy of dissent through political and cultural activism because our philosophy intuits that a resistance to tragedy is resistance to the truth, and that confronting the truth makes real hope possible. We understand that people hate it when we mess with their stories, but we’re going to keep doing it anyway. So Mr. Gillespie, we are young. And we do intend to set the world on fire.