Prelude: On The Mountaintop

What follows is my first draft of the Prelude for my upcoming book, tentatively titled “Mostly Flat: <something something something>”. If you have any thoughts or recommendations about clarity, grammar, etc please feel free to email me at pjneiger@gmail.com or Facebook message me. I will add chapters as I produce them and then, after some editing and such, make my book available to purchase. 

 

It started on a mountaintop in Afghanistan, as these things often do.

I guess a mountaintop in Afghanistan is specific to me, but the planting of a seed in the mind needs fertile soil, and fertile soil is often found in those moments of peace and serenity amidst chaos. When the mind has been occupied and the body afraid there is no time to think or plan or dream, but when the fear of imminent death slides away you can take stock of your life and how short it is.

My mind turned towards the future as I was laying on that mountaintop, my automatic rifle laying loosely on my lap, my helmet on the ground, and my eyes closed as the summer sun tried to pierce my lids. The men around me, my brothers, were discussing the same things we always discussed when we had spare time in a warzone. We chatted about the food we wanted to eat, the beer we wanted to drink, and the girls we wanted to sleep with. On that final point I had little to contribute, I was a virgin at the time and had sworn to my God to wait until I was married before bumping uglies.

We also talked about home and the places we wanted to go. This conversation required the help of a translator due to the regions of the US that were represented on that mountaintop. On one extreme we had Gagne, a young boy from rural Maine. Slim in stature and prone to embellishment his excited tales of his time in Maine were some of our favorites and always brought ruckus laughter. We knew his stories of competing in destruction derby’s or driving a car without a windshield or hood so that he could pour oil into the engine while he drove were likely not true, but they made us cry with laughter every time he told them. I like to believe they are true.

Gagne, being ever the story teller, was the polar opposite of Harding. Harding is a southern-boy from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and he fit every stereotype. He was big, both in height and weight, and spoke slowly with a deep southern drawl. He rarely spoke except to ask what Gagne was saying, the two couldn’t understand each other, and because of this I became the default translator. My upbringing on the west coast and neutral/boring accent allowed me to understand and translate Yankee and Redneck.

Discussing the all the towns we came from planted a seed in my mind. This seed was to see the country that I was fighting for and, in a way, pay tribute to my unit, the 82nd Airborne Division, the All-Americans[1]. Seeds in the mind are tricky things. They aren’t like physical seeds you get to plant a garden, they don’t come cleanly labeled with species and growing instructions. You may have a general idea what a mental seed will look like but as it marinates in your mind, just below the surface, it mixes with other ideas and evolves into something you couldn’t predict. Then, when the time is right, it springs forth from your mind. It may be months, years, or decades later, and you may have forgotten that the seed even existed. For me, that season for growth started when I attended Burning Man for the first time in 2011.

Burning Man is hard to describe because it isn’t one thing. At its foundation it is a community of people who gather together for a week to build a society based on 10 Principles[2]. The beautiful thing about these principles is that people apply them in different ways and to different degrees, and everyone is accepted as long as they don’t harm another person. The biggest influence for me was meeting people who had taken charge of their lives. They had decided they didn’t want a normal, stable, monotonous life, and they took action. I camped with entrepreneurs, artists, and adventurers. It was hard not to be inspired and, during a particularly pleasurable night of rolling on Molly and exploring The Playa, the seed that was planted in 2004 started to bust forth.

When I returned to DC I tried to ignore the plant that had sprouted forth. It was easy at first, it was small and existed only in my periphery. But as time went by the plant began to grow. Ignoring it became more difficult. The beauty of the idea took up more and more of my mental space and I found my mind wandering to the plant as I worked. In many ways it was like a mirror, showing me how unhappy I was living in Washington DC, working 40-50 hours a week, and buying into the system. I tried to make changes in my life by working from home and taking on hobbies, but the idea kept growing and as it grew it began to take a more solid form.

Not only was I going to explore the United States, I was going to do it by bicycle, and it would start with a solo cross country ride.

Eventually, I got to a point where I had to make a choice. The idea could not be ignored any longer and I either had to destroy it or I had to embrace it. Destroying it would have taken mental effort, but it could have been done. There were all the logical reasons in the world to destroy it. I had a good job with a bright future in an economy that was weak and I had loads of debt. There was no job waiting for me on the other side of the country. I knew nothing about cycling long distances or bike maintenance. It was a crazy idea to abandon all stability and cross 3,000 miles of unknown land on two wheels. I didn’t destroy the idea, it was too beautiful and inspiring to destroy.

Instead, I destroyed all the poisonous things in my life and used them as fertilizer for the idea. My job, stability, the doubts from friends, and my inexperience all became strengths. I quit my job, bought a $100 bicycle at target, strapped everything I owned onto the back with bungee cords, and hit the road with one paycheck in my bank account. I knew there was a good chance I would fail, but damn it, I was going to try.

 

[1] What is now the 82nd Airborne Division received the nickname “All American” from Major General Swift because it had soldiers from every state at the time.

[2] The principles are Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommidification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy. You can find out more at burningman.org/culture/philosophical-center/10-principles/

Thankful

I kind it kind of cheesy to list the things I’m thankful for, and to be honest, it feels a little bit like a humble-brag. But fuck it, I want to do it. Thanksgiving is a ridiculous holiday in a lot of ways but I think it is important to think about the things we are thankful for, to kind of take stock of the good things in life.

So, here are some of the things I’m thankful for, in no particular order. Some are things that I have little to no control over, and some are the result of my own actions.

  • My partner, Anna, continues to be the most influential person in my life. She is my partner in crime, adventure, and love. She loves me for me and encourages me to pursue what I am passionate about. Our life so far together has been amazing and I am thankful for the millions of random occurrences that brought her into my life.
  • My dog is the best. He is an asshole sometimes and has no self control when it comes to food, but he is my fur-baby and I love him.
  • I have some amazing fucking friends. People who take me in, provide me with support, and challenge me in every possible way. We try new things together and intellectually stimulate each other, I’ve long had a tribe and having it grow and evolve is exciting
  • I can’t help but be grateful for my biological family and my upbringing. There have been rough days in the past but things are looking better and we are creating new, adult relationships. My upbringing was stable and loving, more than many people have.
  • Living in the age we live in is absolutely amazing. We can pursue free education via the internet and have access to more information than would be imaginable two generations ago. I really believe that we have the potential to live forever (if politicians and governments don’t fuck it up), but even if I do die I am glad to live in a world of such dynamic change.
  • It took years and lots of sacrifices but I ended up with a job that allows me the freedom I need. I can be a minimalist by working only a few hours a week but still have more joy, happiness, and adventures than I would have imagined as a kid.
  • I am healthy. Part of that is my decisions to change my diet and my lifestyle (I am thankful that I made that decision early in life instead of waiting until my 40’s to take care of my body), and part of it is simply genetics. I don’t have a sweet tooth, my oral health is good, I am rarely sick, and my body responds quickly to exercise.
  • I’ve had a life filled with new adventures and a lot of potential for more. There are many options for new drugs, sexual experiences, travel, and accomplishments. I can pursue all of those without much risk.
  • I’m thankful for my military brothers. We have a bond that is beyond what many people can relate to. We certainly don’t share the same views on many things but we all know that we can call on each other in a time of need. I’ll always be a Blue Devil.
  • This last one came from reviewing my list… part of me doesn’t have a very “property oriented” (for lack of a better phrase) happiness response. I own basically nothing and have no desire to own anything more. I just don’t have that drive, and I am thankful for that.

Praxis: What I Wish Existed When I Was Younger

I have a love/hate feeling towards my time in college. I met some of the most amazing people and had some great times, and the networking with faculty and students put me directly on the path I am on today. I love my life, and I don’t think it would exist in this form if I had not gone to Horry-Georgetown Technical College and College of Charleston so many years ago. But, I feel like I was sold a lemon in a lot of ways. The information I gained from being an Econ student wasn’t worth the $65,000 of debt and took more years of my life than it should have. In order to graduate I was forced to take a variety of general ed courses that have created almost no value for me, the worst offender is the foreign language requirement. I had to take four semesters of the same foreign language, which is basically a waste of time. You can’t learn enough in four classes to be anywhere near fluent, or even remember the basics of the language a couple of years later. I wish when I was in college there was an alternative.

Luckily, I believe things are improving. With free programs like Coursera and Khan Academy you can feel out subjects, and even get mastery in them, without spending any money. And, of course, programs like Praxis are leading the way in providing a true college alternative. When you enroll in college you are told it is a bundle of goods that will provide you with life experience, networking opportunities, and the skills you need to get a good job, but colleges are failing students in getting the skills necessary to get a job. Praxis actually provides training and an education so that students can prove their worth and be given some freedom to explore their passions.

As a military vet I think Praxis would have been perfect for me. I started college at the age of 23, much later than most of my peers, and I really only went to college because that is what you are supposed to do. If something like Praxis existed when I ended my service it would have been incredibly appealing to me. I hope Praxis can reach out to veterans when they get out of the military, I think many of them would be ideal candidates. They tend to have some life experience and maturity, as well as discipline to get work done. They also won’t be in a rush to the classroom again, it is sometimes tough to become a student again after 4 years of working for a paycheck and going on adventures. Besides, they won’t have much to lose. It is unlikely they will be dependent on parents for support, they have an easy college fall back if Praxis doesn’t work for them due to the GI Bill, and soldiers tend to have a high risk tolerance for travel and new experiences.

The world is getting better and institutions are being forced to evolve. It is a slow process, particularly for any industry that the government has so many tentacles in, but it is inevitable. The internet changed everything and we are just starting to see the effects. Education, from Kindergarten through College, is beginning to undergo a revolution. It is creative destruction, and may be painful for many who are entrenched in the old way, but it will be beneficial to individuals, society, and our species as a whole.

If you are interested in learning more about Praxis just check out their webpage at www.discoverpraxis.com where you can find testimonials, blog posts with their values, podcasts with their founder, etc.

Military Lessons

In some ways the military and college are very similar. In both cases (at least for me), the lessons I learned and benefits that I’ve brought with me after leaving have very little to do with the specific skills I was taught. Sure, I am a decent shot with a rifle or machine gun and I know how to navigate with a compass, but the real world benefit I got from those skills pale in comparison to the lessons I learned from my leaders and peers. The real benefit from the military (and college) is being around different people, having challenging conversations, and being put into a mentor/mentee situation. Here are the lessons I learned from some of my military leaders:

  • Drill Sergeant Koehnig was my first real leader in the military. Unlike my other two drill sergeants he took a personal interest in the troops and got to know us as individuals. On more than one occasion he pulled me and Private Amrine aside and would take us on walks through the woods when we were in the field. He would impart a little bit of wisdom on us and ask us our plans for the future. I don’t remember the details of most of these sessions but one particular lesson did stick with me. He basically said, “During your life you are going to have a lot of leaders, good and bad, and there is something you can learn from each of them. Take the attributes from the good leaders in your life, try to be like them, and use the bad leaders to show you what you don’t want to become. Both good and bad can be inspiration for improvement”.
  • Sergeant Baker was, by far, the most influential mentor I have ever had in my life. It is not possible to sum up all his lessons in specific stories. As my team leader in Afghanistan he was responsible for my personal and professional development and health, and he took that very seriously, but he didn’t take the military hierarchy seriously. He challenged authority when he thought the mission plan was bad, he asked us to call him Vinnie instead of Sergeant (something I never got good at), and he demonstrated often that being the biggest or strongest guy doesn’t mean you are the best fighter. He challenged me to evaluate my views on religion and the way I was raised, and he encouraged me to leave the military as a better person than I came in. He wanted his soldiers to be reading and educating himself, and when heartbreak or family problems hit any one of us he was supportive. He was also hated wasting time and would take his team out regularly to train in some advanced lessons for our martial art instead of bullshitting around the barracks waiting for Battalion to release us for the day. Out of everyone I served with I owe Vinnie the most for helping me become the person I am today. I’m sure we don’t agree on things much these days, I rarely do with my military brothers, but I don’t think that will stop us from sharing a beer someday.
  • Staff Sergeant Pearson is the opposite of Vinnie and one of those people who showed me what I didn’t want to be. He seemed to care more about his image than his troops. He had big muscles (that he would order his soldiers to feel) and talked as loud as possible, but I’m still not sure what skills he brought to the table. I did my best to avoid Pearson as much as possible.
  • Staff Sergeant Shearin was not a leader of mine for long but his silent strength always impressed me. He had the most combat experience of anyone in our unit before going to Afghanistan and his calmness in stressful situations acted as a foundation for all the younger soldiers. He was an example of what I wanted to be.
  • Sergeant First Class Barry was my platoon leader and one of the most impressive people I have ever met. Through example he showed that leaders don’t need to be loud or in your face, they can be calm and quiet. In fact, that is a better way to be a leader. When SFC Barry spoke, everyone listened. He also protected his troops from the bullshit that poured from the upper levels of the military. If Battalion had some bullshit detail for us he would do all he could to get us clear of it. Also, he helped protect me from greater punishment when I got in legal trouble with the Military Police. I know that if he hadn’t stood behind me when I went before our upper leadership for punishment things would have been a lot worse for me.
  • First Sergeant Hawley was the leader of my company when we went to Afghanistan and afterwards he moved me from my combat platoon to help in Operations. This may have been a move because I wasn’t particularly compatible with the combat role, or maybe he truly saw some potential in me. It doesn’t really matter what the reason was, he ended up being a mentor to me as I began to transition out of military life. It was pretty obvious that I wouldn’t be re-enlisting and Hawley encouraged me to take classes and hone my non-combat skills. He gave me opportunities to be a leader and sent me to military programs where I could shine. I am forever thankful for the opportunities he provided.

Law Enforcement, Military, and American Society

“Isn’t it funny how red, white, and blue represent freedom until they are flashing in your rear-view mirror?” – Unknown

Many times the military and civilian law enforcement are grouped together. Sure, there are some similarities. They both carry guns and have a duty to protect the country, just the “enemy” tends to be different. The military, particularly the infantry, has a job to seek and destroy while the police are here to serve and protect. Both are legitimate duties of the government  to provide (unless you are an anarchist) and both come with special responsibilities and power. But in a lot of ways they are very different.

I spent four years in the military with the 82nd Airborne Division but I’ve spent no time in a police department (except for a couple years in high school as a police explorer), just to give you an idea of where I am coming from. During that time in the military I got in trouble once for a fairly minor infraction, though I saw many others get in more trouble. The response to soldiers that misbehave seems very different than the response to law enforcement when they misbehave.

The military is very concerned with honor, integrity, and keeping the image of the unit positive in the eyes of other units and the public. This acts as a sort of check on bad behavior. If you do something wrong or illegal, especially if it becomes public knowledge, the military doesn’t circle the wagons. Quite the opposite, they come down on you hard as an example to other soldiers. The mission comes before the individual and if you fuck you then you harm the mission.

I have mentioned before that when I was in Afghanistan and Iraq we had a more strict Rules of Engagement than many civilian law enforcement agencies. If I had used a strictly unauthorized technique on an unarmed subject whom we were trying to detain and it was caught on video I would have been locked up and found myself facing a court martial in front of some Generals. This would just be to punish me, it would be to keep the American people confident in my unit. To disgrace the nearly 100 years of service the 82nd Airborne has done was one of the greatest sins of all. This applied to things much lesser than the death of an innocent person. I saw soldiers sit in jail cells over the weekend because we were ordered not to bail them out. I had half my pay taken away, my rank stripped, and placed on extra duty for 30 days (basically banned from leaving work or base) because I gave another soldier my ID card so he could buy beer. Mercy was not something allowed for those who gave the Blue Devils a bad name. I just don’t see that type of concern for image or honor in civilian law enforcement, instead I see a focus on covering up and maintaining the blue line of silence above all else.

Policing in the US has many problems that vary across departments. Some departments, like Ferguson, are small and seem to be staffed by officers that are not really part of the community. The average police officer salary in the town is 1/3 higher than the average income of non-officers, and 67% of the city is African-American while only 5% of the police department is African-American. With most police department requiring a Bachelor degree and only 22% of adults in Ferguson holding one it seems very likely that the police come from outside the community. Ideally I’d have access to the personal biographies of every officer but that really won’t happen, though we do know that Wilson was born in Texas but grew up in St. Peters, Missouri which has three times the average income of Ferguson.

This outsider status was not something I really saw in the Army. First, the Army allows you to get in with just a GED. The lack of educational requirement means it can be a stepping stone to financial and social stability. Also, my unit also had an incredible mix of ethnicities, home states, and socio-economic backgrounds (the nickname “All American” for the 82nd Airborne actually come from the fact the original group had someone from every state). Just looking at some of the members of my squad in Afghanistan shows you how diverse it could be… my team leader was an African-American from Kansas who was raised Muslim, our grenadier was an Irish-Catholic from New Jersey, one of the SAW gunners was a big country boy from North Carolina, I was a protestant Christian from the Northwest, one of our riflemen was from Chicago, and another member was from Maine. This diversity meant we had a loyalty to America as a whole and not any place in particular, and because of my connections to those men each of those places felt a little bit like home.

I think the situation in New York is a bit different, though I know nothing about the economic and racial makeup of different neighborhoods so the same “outsider” issue may apply. New York, particularly since 9/11, has had a culture that doesn’t tolerate criticism of the police very well. Elevating humans to a sort of god-like status is a guarantee that rights will be abused, humans are not angels and police should be held to a higher standard. They should not be able to just violate rights through random searches and racial profiling, but that is allowed daily in New York. And clearly, you can do something that even George W. Bush thinks was out of line and the civilian population will tolerate it because of the badge.

Of course, the general public is to blame also. We have become a country that turns to police for every little problem. Neighbor being loud? Call the police. Kid playing at the park alone? Call the police. There isn’t even an attempt to correct the problem without calling someone with a gun to escalate the situation. I saw that first hand here when someone called the police on our neighbor because the dog was barking… no note on the door, no asking the apartment complex manager to talk with them, just straight to the cops. It used to be the police were more like the Fire Department, they were around but you only dealt with them when things were really bad. That just isn’t the case anymore, they are revenue generators for an out of control government, they are sent after peaceful people for victimless “crimes”, and they are supposed to solve every inconvenience that comes from living in a society. We have given military weapons to people who are not properly trained, told them to solve all our problems, and then said they won’t be held accountable if they kill someone… of course this leads to a sick institution, there is no way of avoiding it, and there will continue to be dead, unarmed civilians (most likely men of color) until accountability and transparency are brought to police departments and they return to their primary duty of protecting and serving the community in which they are a part of.

Disclaimer: Clearly this is a complex issue. It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to cover all the details and nuances. Also, I’m just a random blogger so this stuff isn’t an academic study. It is just my thoughts that developed from a conversation on my Facebook page (be my friend!)). Many of the points were made by my friends, like a lot of things in the world value is created through a communal effort and discussion.

From Waving Flags to Burning Them

**This is the first post in a multi-part series about what and why I identify or believe certain things. Ideally I will get one or two up per week.**

 

I guess the best place to start is my move away from Republican conservatism. It isn’t the most exciting thing to me at this point but it was the first domino to fall in my life. Libertarianism was my flirtation with the unknown, my pursuit of answers to questions that I had no answers to, it was a search for truth when one of the foundations of my youth showed cracks and began to crumble. After politics I began to question everything else, nothing was forbidden. Religion, sexuality, lifestyles, etc. were all open to analysis, dissection, and destruction if warranted. And really, I have George W. Bush to thank for it all.

September 11, 2001 affected us all in one way or another. For me, it lead to war. I walked into a recruiters office the morning of 9/11, the second tower had been hit but had not fallen yet. The initial hypothesis that the crash was an accident soon was overshadowed by reports of “terrorism”, a word that up until that point was something that brought to mind deserts far away from the safety of the US. The recruiters assured me this would not be war, I think they thought the idea of combat would scare me off, but I was there because I wanted to fight. I knew I was smart, school was easy for me, but I didn’t know if I had balls. I also thought war was something that the US needed, I grew up hearing about how united the country during the Cold War, we were a nation that needed an enemy or we would turn on ourselves. Better to face a backwards and inhumane “other” then be at each other’s throats. Besides, the casualties would be strangers to us. People that didn’t have the blessing of Christ on their holy nation.

With nervousness and excitement I went through Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training to be an Infantry Paratrooper. Despite my high test scores I opted for the Infantry. The training was easy, it was obviously a mind game more than anything. The Drills weren’t going to hurt us or anything, screaming eventually ends and you can only do so many push-ups before your body gives out. Yep, it sucked but it wasn’t difficult. The body molds quickly and the Infantry training was mostly memorization and becoming comfortable in the woods and/or with a firearm in your hand. Any attempt at molding me into a drone or brain-washing wasn’t really effective, partly thanks to one of my Drills who took me and another guy aside regularly to encourage us to think for ourselves and read books (books were technically contraband).

I arrived at my unit and we quickly deployed to Afghanistan. We hopped around from fire base to fire base conducting searches, setting up ambushes, and basically doing the things infantrymen do. It was really days of boredom broken up by minutes of excitement and it all is kind of a blur. While we were in Kandahar a change occurred that woke me out of the drone like slumber I had entered during the deployment, we declared war on Iraq.

Even at that time I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why that happened. Accusations of WMD’s and moral arguments for rescuing the Iraqi people from a dictator didn’t really make sense. The world was filled with WMD’s and dictators, surely there was bigger and more dangerous foes out there if the US was going to use that as a standard for intervention. As it would turn out I would end up in Iraq less than a year later.

I did what was asked on my Iraqi deployment but the seed was planted for me to question the motives and authority of the government, as well as the moral superiority of the GOP. It was enough to eliminate any prospect of re-enlisting (though I did do one year as a National Guardsman in South Carolina). I had to find another political option but wasn’t ready to even consider the Democratic Party, I was still too religious and they were all baby-killing atheist traitors.

This exploration was going on during my first year in college and I was taking a basic Political Science course. My professor said there were four basic political party philosophies: Liberals believed you should be free in the bedroom but not the boardroom, Republicans believed you should be free in the boardroom but not the bedroom, Libertarians believed that you should be free in both the boardroom and the bedroom, and Statists believed that you should not be free in either. Libertarians seemed the most in line with my current thoughts. He also mentioned that Reason Magazine was the official magazine of the Libertarian Party (I don’t think that is actually true) so I picked up a copy at Barnes & Noble, liked it, and eventually subscribed.

There were three things that Reason brought to my attention but I can’t really remember the order. First, they did a run-down of all the politicians running for President in 2008 and mentioned that in a good world Ron Paul would win. Second, they had some sort of memoir for Milton Friedman, this was my introduction to economics and I purchased “Capitalism and Freedom” because of the article. Third, they had an article about why you should be allowed to sell your own organs, this article shifted my entire way of thinking about self-ownership and the proper role of government, it was the beginning of me thinking like a libertarian.

The next few years involved jumping in head first. I volunteered for Ron Paul’s campaign and I devoured any piece of economic or libertarian political literature I could find. Milton Friedman, Hayek, Ayn Rand, David Friedman, and eventually Rothbard. By time I reached my junior year of college all it took was reading David Friedman’s “The Machinery of Freedom” and an IHS seminar and I was a full blown anarchist. My anarchy was grounded almost primarily in economics and the endless pursuit of efficiency though, I had little love or time for morality.

As I graduated college and entered the workforce in DC my hatred for the state grew but an emptiness was inside me. I needed something positive, some love, art, happiness, and community to add light to the darkness. Working for SFL helped a lot, I was able to converse with a variety of people and travel the country, and they sent me to Porcfest. Porcfest was my first opportunity to see some anarchy in action, the small voluntary community operated as much as possible without a state and served as some inspiration. I was skeptical of it growing beyond a small community in a short period of time though, it seemed that just because something works on a small tribe-level that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work on a city or state level. What good is being morally or philosophically “right” if it had no practical application in human affairs? Was anarchy nothing more than an interesting ivory-tower thought experiment? At the time I wasn’t sure, then came Burning Man.

For unrelated reasons I found myself in the basic dust of the Nevada desert under the hot August sun. Around me ran debauchery and love in every creative form. Humans exploring art, community, and many illegal substances seemed to interact like a designed and living organism, but there really was no designer. The infrastructure provided by the organizers was minimal, basically just some street signs and porta-potties, but you could find volunteers providing medical care, Rangers to provide help, bars to get boozes, massage parlors, live music, tea, art performances, classes being put on by college professors, food, and basically anything you would expect from a 70,000 person city like Black Rock City.

Part temporary intentional community and part everything else, Burning Man provided me with another example of how anarchy might play out if adopted on a larger scale. Certainly there were problems, particularly the economics of a gift economy that seems like it could collapse if it lasted more than a week in such a resource deprived environment. How long can “gifting” last when people had to drive hours to bring in more food, water, and supplies to repair structures? Still, here was anarchy with the capitalism or consumerism. While the economics seemed unsustainable the experience opened the doors to the community and love that anarchy can provide. This was a community of people who wanted no state enforcement of building codes, drug laws, or health codes, but having a reputation for being a dick, speeding more than 5mph and kicking up dust, or mooching off the community could lead you to being an outcast. That rarely happened though because everyone involved wanted it to work, by travelling from far and wide to the Playa they explicitly agreed to the principles of Burning Man.

A life changing week in the dust shifted what I believed was possible in this world, and shifted my means of accomplishing change. Before I didn’t think political action was effective but I saw no alternative. After Burning Man I saw politics as not only as ineffective but a waste of my time and energy. Surely, I would be happier and more effective if I lived the life I wanted instead of voting to get someone in office who might give me permission to be happy and free. I decided to just do what made me happy and abide by my own moral code, “don’t harm”.

Opening the door to new experiences and actively pursuing those experiences means I crossed paths with people unlike me. It was like a fog had lifted over my perception, I began to recognize the struggles faced by minorities and those whose cultures have faced generations of systematic oppression. I began to see that the government is not the only oppressor, and for some people the state can rightly be called a savior and protector. Before I had only seen libertarians and anarchists who fought solely the state. In fact, many people seemed to argue that libertarianism ONLY speaks about a person’s relationship with the government, that the philosophy of liberty has nothing to say about racism or misogyny.

If that is the case then libertarianism is doomed just from a practical standpoint. Progressives and Conservatives provide a complete world view, they not only say the proper role of government but they try to explore the best way to live. People are not going to jump behind a philosophy that remains neutral on a significant part of the human experience. A lot of people like to argue that we are somehow living during the end of liberty, that the state is so massive and powerful that every resource must be mobilized to fight it. I just don’t see that as accurate.

We are living in the freest time in human history. Things are better now than they have ever been. Sure, there are problems, and maybe the US is not holding the torch of freedom high anymore, but things are still on a good path. Even “tyrannical” programs like the NSA are facing greater scrutiny and the country seems weary of foreign entanglements. Not to mention the vast expansion of liberty as the dominoes of prohibition fall at the same time as marriage equality continues to spread. You can’t say that we are living in the worst time for freedom when people have more bodily autonomy and to associate than ever.

But, I don’t think libertarianism is limited to the individual’s relationship with the state. I think embracing liberty as an economic principle, moral guidance, and simply because it provides the best life for the most number of people can provide support in dealing with non-government issues as well. The purist form of liberty is anarchy, it is the rejection of man’s dominion over another, no “ifs, ands, or buts”. It is to say that we are responsible for our own actions and reject the use of coercion. And I believe it should be pursued as much as possible. We all will slip and fall, we are humans after-all, but freedom is something worth pursuing for practical and philosophical reasons. It makes life better for others and, for me at least, the exercise of liberty makes one healthier and happier. 

Anarchist Soldier

I am a soldier. After September 11, 2001 I joined the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division as an infantryman. I served in both Afghanistan and Iraq in varying capacities and ended with an Honorable Discharge in the fall of 2005.

I am an anarchist. I believe that it is morally wrong to use violence against a peaceful person and monopolizing violence into the hands of only a few does not minimize the harm from a moral perspective or a practical one.

These two identities are not contradictory and I think it is harmful for the liberty movement to demonize and verbally attack soldiers and police officers. They are individuals who can be talked to, reasoned with, and shown that the best way to protect family and friends is to end aggression. That is what most soldiers want, to protect those they care about. Unfortunately protecting from threats and joining the monopoly of force has become so linked that it is difficult for most people to conceive of defense without a centrally planned, tax-based military.

There will always be a need for protectors, people to step up and tell an aggressive force that they shall advance no further. Something I have learned since my time in the military is that I can still protect those I care about, and even be part of an organization dedicated to that, without the government. In fact, the government acts as a bureaucratic mess that prevents soldiers from protecting as efficiently as possible. The government entrenches us in unnecessary wars, puts soldiers in positions where violence is necessary to save their lives but does nothing to protect their family, and provides them with equipment that is often years behind what is actually available. The best way a soldier can protect his family and friends is to leave the military and come home.

I understand the more vocal anarchists criticisms of the military and soldiers. It is true, individuals are responsible for their actions. It is true that many soldiers have committed crimes and should be held responsible. It is not true that every soldier should be categorized and demonized for the actions of a few.

Even if it is intellectually consistent to demonize the military it is very simply a bad tactic. Soldiers will protect their own and are trained to view the world in very stark “us versus them” terms, it isn’t ideal but it is the reality. If liberty activists really do want to shift the world towards a more peaceful place they need to convince soldiers, as individuals, that the best way to protect the lives of those they love is to opt out of the military and honor their oath to “defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic”. Their oath is not to a president, a commander, a war, or a corporation, it is to the Constitution and they can be made aware of that.

Peace will come faster by convincing the military to put down its weapons than to call them murderers and make enemies of them. Ron Paul realized this and the military supported him financially, and they will support the liberty movement all the way to anarchy if we treat them as individuals.