New Hampshire: A three year retrospective, with advice

As of this Monday, I have been in Keene for three years. Three years may not sound like a long time, but, in the Keene activist community, three years makes me an experienced veteran, and in this time I have grown immeasurably. For the sake of newer activists, and those considering moving, I’m going to share some of my experiences here, to give a sense of what to expect, and offer some hard-earned advice.

In 2007, at 19, I was attending Texas Tech as an engineering student. But I had hated school for years, and didn’t like college any better. I also became fascinated by economics and the social sciences, and found that engineering, in comparison, was intolerable. I dropped out.

Around the same time, I decided I was an anarcho-capitalist, and, via the MySpace Libertarians group, I stumbled onto the Free State Project. I watched Ridley Report videos documenting gutsy activism by Russel Kanning and Lauren Canario (and even Dave Ridley at times), was amazed by the astonishing Porc411, and found Free Keene.

That’s all I needed. I was on board. New Hampshire presented an opportunity to exploit my new interests to the fullest, promote my new ideology, and make friends with people a lot like myself. So I saved money, and waited for a good opportunity to move.

I got it in November, 2008. A friend on MySpace (known as “AnarchoJesse” now) was moving to Keene from New York, and he’d be happy to help me move. So I did.

And it was great. Friday, my first night, I slept on the couch of that one guy who makes the cool anarcho-capitalist comics, Dale Everett. The next night I stayed in a house with Dave Ridley himself! I saw talk show host Ian Freeman at Social Sundays, and later that day I was hired on the spot by Keene Cinemas. AnarchoJesse finally got our apartment plans sorted out, and we moved in with another new mover from North Carolina, and a local socialist kid who came packaged with the apartment.

Lesson 1: Be careful about who you move in with.

The next six months were tumultuous. My roommates and I discovered that AnarchoJesse wasn’t as mentally stable as he appeared. There were periods where living with him was downright frightening. On top of that, our socialist roommate had a bad habit of inviting all of his homeless friends to party and sleep in our living room for days at a time. (Later he had a drug dealer move into his room.) I would spend my free time at Keene Cinemas just to get away from it.

But it wasn’t all bad. I met Andrew Carroll, who had recently moved to Manchester from California. He quickly became my best friend. (After I got him a job at the cinemas, he moved to Keene.) We also added a young activist from Colorado to our apartment.

Lesson 2: Watch out for sociopaths.

The tumult, however, was not limited to my apartment-mates. I began dating an attractive and surprisingly intelligent girl at work. Our relationship moved forward quickly, and I grew very attached to her. Unfortunately this girl was a sociopath. She made my life torture for months. I don’t have the words to describe the sickening depth of the pain caused by this misjudgment.

Lesson 3: Don’t surround yourself with libertarians.

In May, our lease ended. Thank God! My roommates and I (with the exception of the socialist) decided to be ambitious– we were each going to take an apartment in a 4-apartment house, and fill it up with libertarians.

To my surprise, this actually worked, and the Liberty Bunker was born. A few more of my MySpace libertarian friends moved to New Hampshire to help fill out the house, and they turned into dependable real-life friends.

I found out soon, however, that this wouldn’t work for me. Even in a separate apartment, AnarchoJesse was too close for comfort. And the sketchy drug dealing going on in another apartment made me uneasy.

The 420 events in Central Square started around this time. I had always been skeptical of the more outlandish civil disobedience that started after I moved. Russell Kanning and Lauren Canario I still admired, and Andrew Carroll’s arrest for merely holding a bud of marijuana was superb, but the newer wave of civil disobedience, promoted by AnarchoJesse and others, had a more flamboyant character that didn’t impress me. On the other hand, the alternative, the idea of being a politician, was … *shudder*. (At the time there was a rift in the activist community, between the politically active “politicos” and the civilly disobedient “anarchists”. You were usually expected to be on one side or the other. The whole thing was silly.) So I would play minor roles in civil disobedience events, never doing anything outrageous enough to get arrested or attract attention. Eventually, I decided to take a third path, which I called “outreach”, which consisted of going to events and meeting people and being respectful, in order to promote a more positive image of libertarian activists.

But 420 wasn’t like the flamboyant civil disobedience. It was just a bunch of people hanging out, some of whom were smoking marijuana. The cops obviously knew what was going on, yet they would drive around the square pretending nothing was happening. Amazing!

It was amazing for about a week, then it started fizzling. Many of the local, non-activist participants lost interest. Politically-oriented activists were worried that it would interfere with their efforts to pass a medical marijuana bill. 420 became a semi-daily scuffle with the police, with no discernible direction or purpose.

Meanwhile, Sam Dobson and Meg McClain were ratcheting up the flashy, dramatic civil disobedience, and my interest in academic economics was beginning to clash with my libertarianism. I had a sense of where my views were headed, and knew that the Keene libertarian community at the time would not approve. While my outreach had started as activism, it turned into a welcome escape from the suffocating dogma I had surrounded myself with.

I just needed to get out.

Lesson 4: Get the flu shot.

The swine flu was terrible. I could have avoided it with a cheap flu shot.

Lesson 5: Take activism advice with a grain of salt.

I finally regained my autonomy by moving into an apartment with two local, non-activist friends. I largely withdrew, Henry David Thoreau-like, from the liberty community. Spurred by isolation, my views rapidly left the Keene liberty activist mainstream. At one point, I read Paul Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal and decided I was a liberal (albeit with libertarian leanings).

My outreach was in full swing now, and I constantly got the same message: the antagonistic civil disobedience and protests were turning people away from libertarian ideas, en masse. This style of activism had strong support among the circle of well-respected, influential Keene activists of the time. And they were all wildly, outrageously wrong.

I didn’t understand why this was so at first. After a few attempts at rectifying the situation, I found that the problem wasn’t simply that activists were ignorant of the effects of this activism. Many had a factional axe to grind– they were ideologically dedicated to proving that civil disobedience was the most effective path to liberty– and were unwilling to accept that it could backfire.

More generally, people were unwilling to criticize fellow activists. It wasn’t socially acceptable. How dare I criticize these hard-working, well-respected activists? How dare I criticize people who were just living free? It was inevitable, with this approach, that the activist community would endorse counterproductive activism.

As an amateur social scientist, I diagnosed the problem as groupthink. They had surrounded themselves with libertarians, and couldn’t think clearly.

Lesson 6: Keep at it.

If I was Henry David Thoreau, Andrew Carroll was Ralph Waldo Emerson. He got involved with my outreach because it dovetailed nicely with his political ambitions, and largely agreed with my criticisms of the high-profile civil disobedience. In fact, our approaches were so complementary that I became the campaign manager for his 2010 run for state representative.

Starting about four months before the primary, we pushed the outreach approach as far as it would go, attending all sorts of local Democratic and left-leaning events and making lots of friends. We also ran a strong campaign, knocking on the doors of hundreds of Democratic voters. He didn’t win the primary, but the effort showed– despite the coordinated opposition of a group of Democratic Party elites, and despite running in a party known for being hostile to libertarians, Andrew’s campaign set records (as Ian so nicely put it).

The liberty activist community is constantly evolving, and it didn’t stop after Andrew’s campaign.

On the one hand, Andrew decided to move back to California, which was a blow to the embryonic political activism in Keene. On the other hand, the civil disobedience that I objected to has been toned down, due to a few key people moving away, and some others changing their minds. The activist atmosphere has also become more open-minded, and I’m impressed by what I see in some new movers.

This encouraged me to get involved in the libertarian community again, so I’ve been working harder than ever to turn things around– and it’s actually happening. In the process, I’ve become something like the unofficial, voluntary political director of the Keene liberty activist community, and the future looks bright.

I look forward to the next chapters of the peaceful evolution.

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