When Edward Snowden came on camera, live at the International Students for Liberty Conference in Washington, D.C., I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. Here is a courageous man who did a daring and wonderful thing for the world in exposing what the U.S. government was doing to its own citizens. For speaking out, he had to flee the U.S. government’s jurisdiction. Officials have said that if they ever get their hands on him, they will wring his neck. So he ended up in…Russia.
I’m old enough to remember Cold War propaganda. We built weapons and waged hot and cold wars in order to protect our freedoms against the evil communist totalitarians in Russia. We were the good guys and they the bad. And yet, here we are 25 years after the end of that conflict, and now Russia is provide sanctuary to the U.S.’s own political dissidents! What an amazing world of lies we lived in, and still do.
If the U.S. government could stop Snowden from speaking, it would. But it can’t. Here we were in the nation’s capital, at a gather of some 2,000 young liberty activists and intellectuals, and Snowden greeted us in real time. Stunning. He spoke and we asked questions and he spoke some more. His answers were beautiful and erudite and inspiring. He speaks the language of liberty, and only technology allows him to do so within our borders.
Indeed, what inspired me the most was the technology. We are evidently living in a post-censorship world. Not even the world’s largest and most powerful state can stop its most famous dissident from speaking from his sanctuary (a former totalitarian state) directly to a huge crowd right in the nation’s capital! How about that for the triumph of freedom? Isn’t it wonderful?
For those who despair for the future of liberty, I can only suggest a trip to this conference. It is now matured into the greatest liberty gathering of its kind in our time. The energy, emotion, and mass dedication were on display even before the conference began, and extended all the way to the tearful ending. And, yes, Liberty.me was the cool kid on the block (thanks all Liberty.me peeps for a great turn out!).
At the last session, we heard from the person who is probably the best living scholar of human liberty today: Diedre McCloskey. We heard her model what great scholarship sounds like. She was brilliant, humble, erudite, visionary. Following her speech, we had the final thank yous and goodbyes. There wasn’t a person present who didn’t feel the sense that liberty owns the future.
I gave several presentations at this event. They were in sessions that were somewhat edgy but ended up very successful. The first was organized by the Foundation for Economic Education, and I spoke on ways to communicate liberty. I didn’t want to tell people what to do or what not to do but rather convey my impressions from my experiences in dealing with a range of opinions. I emphasized inspiration over didacticism.
Another session was sponsored by Liberty.me to celebrate the launch of our new artspace, Liberty.me Create. It was the Art Gala, the second year but much larger and more creative than last year. We had paintings on display, and the live session featured music, poetry, and other forms of performance art. For my part, I opened with a lecture on how art lives longer than any existing state. To illustrate the point, I sang a song from the 6th century that illustrated commercial themes, a song from the body of music commonly called Gregorian chant. Others followed with fascinating presentations. The session lasted an hour but I felt like it could have gone on all evening.
The next session I hosted on an impromptu basis. It was designed to give people a chance to tell their stories with a liberty theme. It was here that it really hit me: liberty must mean something in our lives or it won’t mean anything at all. People told stories of personal struggle and triumph over the odds. The session gave people a chance to speak from the heart, and get over that fear of sharing with a crowd of listeners. I’m really hoping to expand this session to longer next year because I found it so beneficial.
I’ve said for several years that I sense a newer form of libertarianism arising among us. This conference reinforced that. There was surprising little talk about base politics as such. It was more about the demand for human rights and the urgency of living as if we have them. If we embrace our rights and liberties, and dare to live outside the plan, we can not only live better lives but we can also contribute to building a new world.
The number of organizations who were exhibiting was higher than ever. I would estimate some 100 of them came to give away free books, collect contacts, network with others, and generally show the students gathered what they had to offer. What were the major themes? Civil liberties and antiwar themes were high on the list, but I was also super pleased to see that this conference featured a solid opposition to the police state — as intense as any you might have found on the new left in the 1960s.
Most of the students here had only the lowest level of interest in national politics. It has failed this generation and they know it. There will be no more chasing the illusory dream that some one person is going to gain power to save us. We must save ourselves or we won’t be saved at all. That is a welcome realization because this conviction is a much stronger basis on which to build a lasting social force than any political campaign.
And you know how national websites like Salon are always claiming that libertarianism is all about white males? Come to this conference and you know that this claim is nuts. This conference was hugely diverse. I would estimate probably 40% woman, and 35% nonwhite. They came from all over the world, forming a kind of libertarian international to rival the spirit and power of the Marxists of old. The new libertarianism is neither left nor right but its own thing: a maturation of the classical liberal conviction that society can work without the state.
As glorious as this event was, I have the sense that it is just now being born. It is going to grow and grow, from 2K to 3K and 5K and 10K. This is where we are headed. It’s all about the future. And yes, there will be factions and factions within factions, and there is nothing wrong with that because that doesn’t preclude real community forming at the same time. Liberty is diverse. But we all have the same goal. We are going to get there one way or another. The cages are opening up, and the more birds that fly from them, the harder it will be for the state to put us back in them.