Sunday, November 15, 2009

On the Battlefield against Leviathan, Part 1: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

A few weeks ago an e-mail from some friends in the Libertarian Party informed me that the commissioners in the nearby township of Abington had voted to take a storefront belonging to an eighty-year-old woman through eminent domain. Since eminent domain is by definition the politically powerful doing as they please with the less powerful, I was duly concerned, even though this particular case was not one I would have chosen: the widow has more money than I’ll ever see, and the storefront is an eyesore. But, as H. L. Mencken said, “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels,” and Moses said, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly,” so I decided to join the protest at the next commission meeting.

I figured I knew what to expect, having been to a meeting of the Lansdale Borough Council. That was a step up from business casual, so I wasn’t concerned when I arrived business informal and saw many of the protesters in jeans, t-shirts, and sweatshirts. One was dressed like this fellow, complete with mask and sign. I thought some of the signs were over the top—”Commissioner X [who voted for the taking] stinks!” and “Thieves SUCK“ being my least favorites (I settled for “Eminent Domain Is Theft”)—but I was a johnny-come-lately, so I didn’t say anything.

After we’d stood outside for an hour showing our signs to the dozen or so people who walked past to go inside, we went into the meeting. That was where I first realized we were in trouble. This place was business formal: carpeted, padded chairs in the gallery, the commissioners and township staff in well-into-three-digits suits, and cameras and screens all around to record the proceedings and show exhibits. We looked out of place, to say the least, in our scruffies. Undaunted, however, as the attendance roll was called, we duly booed those commissioners who had voted for the taking and cheered those who hadn’t.

The business part of the meeting went by quite quickly. Every agendum was read out in a sentence or two by one of the commissioners, seconded immediately, and passed unanimously after the president asked if the commissioners, township staff, or audience had any comments, which usually no one did. Then I got my second lesson. One of the commissioners (who had voted against the taking) took time out to explain that the issues are discussed in detail in committee beforehand, implying that the actual vote is essentially a formality. So, it would seem, if we’re to change any minds on the issues, we need to get to the legislators at the discussion stage.

I had hoped before I went that I would not suffer the same transformation when I got into the meeting room that Charles Colson wrote about somewhere—when he was on President Nixon’s staff, he loved watching people who had come to read the president the riot act turn into pussycats when they actually walked into the Oval Office and were overwhelmed by the trappings of power that pervade the room—but that’s exactly what happened. One person who had not been with us gave an incoherent rant that I think was against the taking, and a couple of others got up and flailed. At that point, I just flat chickened out, and the meeting was over before I could compose myself.

But that’s probably just as well. A couple of people had gotten up during the proceedings and thanked the commissioners for their votes for the taking, specifically mentioning the jeers and hisses that we had subjected them to that evening. And after the meeting, none of the commissioners, not even those who had voted against the taking, greeted us. We changed no minds, unless some of those who voted against the taking were now wishing they’d voted for it.

The third lesson came after the meeting, when my ride home stopped off at a nearby bar to join the other Libertarians for consolation and encouragement. The first people I saw when I walked in were one of the guys who had chastised us at the meeting and a couple who had clapped enthusiastically when he had finished. As I was wondering if they’d be offended if I asked if I could join them and thinking it wouldn’t matter anyway because they were right in front of the DJ, who was doing his best to deafen everyone, the Libs got the bar staff to open a conference room so we could hear ourselves talk and invited the trio to join us. They did join, and the Libs kept their beer glasses full and plied them with onion rings and crab fries; we all had a truly enjoyable time. Our erstwhile chastiser was a nonstop talker, so the Libs sat around him and tossed him questions like a dolphin trainer tosses fish. I don’t know that we got him to see the evil of eminent domain, even after all the times he realized he’d talked himself into corners, but when we finally quit at 1 am, I don’t think he and his friends thought still thought we were unprincipled riffraff.

So, lesson three: we can make more friends for liberty with beer than by 1960s-style demonstrating.

It’s frustrating that well-educated people in nice clothes can commit atrocities and then firm up their support base by looking down their noses at those who violate protocol at their meetings, and it feels great to be able to express our disgust at those atrocities. And evil is still evil even if those who commit it are convinced that they are doing good. But such people are rarely convinced to change their ways when others accuse them of evil, no matter how faultlessly logical the argument, and if our goal is to get them to change their ways, we can’t just throw their evil in their faces and expect them to repent.

The way to a person’s brain is through the heart. (I know I have made my worst mistakes by choosing to believe a pack of lies that I wanted to be true.) I think the Abington commissioners, and thousands like them, love the system and therefore believe it to be good. Before we can get them to change their minds, we need to get them to love those who suffer because of that system. We can’t do that with signs and jeers.

Maybe conflict resolution à la Matthew 18 (mutatis mutandis) can help us here: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” That is, we keep things on a private, personal level as much as possible; once it gets to the power politics stage, the battle is already lost.

All legislation in Abington, and I presume elsewhere, is “advertised” months in advance. That is the time to meet the legislators privately and try to reason with them. Even harder to do, but possibly more effective, would be to meet and befriend them before offensive legislation is even proposed. To put it crassly, we need to learn how to schmooze and lobby. It’s not as much fun as hurling insults, but it sounds more like how Jesus dealt with the tax collectors and prostitutes of his day.

If I’m anywhere close to the truth, we have a lot of crow to eat and a lot of work ahead of us.

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