Recently, some friends and I decided to work on a student group for our campus. The concept was a sort of liberty-oriented, politically active group that would distribute information, host occasional events on campus, work with local and state politicians, and so on. We were fortunate enough to get in contact with a similar organization that was already operating on a national level, and they were able to get four of us enrolled for a weekend-long event in Washington, D.C. The event was dedicated to providing information on how to start a successful group on campus, so we figured that it would be a great benefit to us all if we could attend for some great ideas and networking.
The trip down wasn’t too bad, though it was long enough to make us glad we arrived. We did some walking, and eventually found the registration desk and the place for the opening seminar. The room was large, open, and lined with big round tables that would seat around eight or ten people each. We were a bit early in arriving, so we grabbed an empty table and watched people as they started to file in.
It didn’t take long before I started noticing something felt wrong. I watched people come in, greet one another, and find their seats in a sort of methodical way. It was stiff. They told jokes that you’ve heard told a thousand times before, and then laughed at them in the way that you always do out of respect for the person telling them. They weren’t telling jokes because anything was particularly funny; instead, they told jokes because telling jokes is what you do to break the ice — if you didn’t laugh, you would upset the formula of things. Nobody wanted that. When they sat, hands were on the table and clasped in that professional way that was supposed to look calm, confident, and thoughtful, but it lost its effect when a hundred other pairs were clasped in the same way all around. It was an unsettling scene, and it was hard for a moment to remember that these were men and women around my age. They acted like they were much older — but not in the good way.
The conference itself was very enjoyable. The seminars, lectures, and workshops were all of a very good quality. Despite this, I found it hard to concentrate only on the things that were being said by those standing at the front of the rooms — the people around me were so much more striking. I remember one of my friends who came with me from Ashland telling me about a gentleman in one of the workshops describing a certain part of the Declaration of Independence as a “crucial fiction.” When my friend asked if that was something like the “noble lie” of Socrates, he was answered that the two were similar, but that crucial fictions were simply more “relevant.” After hearing that story, I started to think about what made these people so oddly uncomfortable to be around. I couldn’t quite answer the question yet, but more help came around as the weekend continued.
I met a very interesting woman during my time there. She was interesting in the good way — a smart, fun, and goodnatured person. Her group came from Reno, Nevada, and we started talking during one of the evening socials that went on after all of the events for the day were over. I remember watching a gentleman talking very awkwardly to one of the ladies at the conference (not awkward in the sense of being nervous, but awkward in the sense that he had no idea she was a woman), and I remarked to her that none of the men here seemed to understand how to talk with a woman — or even in the company of women at all. She stopped for a second and considered what I had said, and after a few seconds she smiled a little and told me that she had noticed something very similar. There was a sense of respect that was missing, a sense of warmth that understood it was talking to a human being. At the end of the conference, this girl remarked to me and a friend that she wouldn’t have expected to meet such “Midwestern gentlemen” during her trip. It was a striking comment; I started to understand things a bit more.
During another one of these socials, I met a pair of men and struck up a conversation with them. We added a fourth, and a joke happened to find its way in about selling marijuana. It was light-hearted, obviously not meant as a true statement, and one that you really can’t expect to avoid in these liberty-oriented groups. What followed truly blew my mind. I stood in silence as the pair of men traded stories on speculating stocks, illegally chopping car parts, selling harsh drugs, using drug addicts as errand boys and feeding their addictions as payment, and other things which don’t merit being mentioned again. It was shocking and a bit degrading.
I walked away from that conversation, and as I put together the pieces from all that I had observed, I came to understand the odd feeling that loomed over the weekend. I hadn’t been talking with human beings for the whole of the weekend; the people around me were libertarians merely because of the bottom line. Their graphs, their formulas and their policies came back with the highest yield, and so they got on board. They didn’t believe in anything but trends and numbers. In this sense, I came to think that libertarians have really begun to embrace the progressive way of politicking; morals change with the times, and everything takes a back seat to policy. Women and men become supply and demand, while natural rights are reduced to “crucial fictions.”
James Velasquez is a sophomore from Dousman, Wisconsin, majoring in Political Science and Economics.