In literature, the character arc is the situation a character finds himself in as the story unfolds. A character begins in one situation and finishes in a quite different one. This change is absolutely essential to a successful story. If a character never tries new things, faces difficulties, fails, succeeds or moves around, it makes for a really boring story.
For example, in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker starts as a naive and reckless farm boy. He faces his guardians’ deaths, he risks his life to free the princess, he witnesses the aftermath of the death of a planet, he gains and loses his mentor, he fights Darth Vader, he loses a hand, he wins battles, he fails at his training, he struggles with his anger and fear. All these ups and downs are the data points on his character arc. In the end, he succeeds, but at a cost.
Where is your Arc Headed?
The activist arc is very similar. It is your status as your activism unfolds over time. Is your arc upward or downward? Is it leading you towards greater personal happiness and success? Is it fulfilling? Is it making an impact on the world around us? What end is it leading you towards?
The importance of this question can not be overstated. Certain activist arcs lead toward failure and wasted time – they’re not “striking the root.” Others can lead to personal difficulties but an ultimate payoff. Some are a fun ride but have a negligible impact. Others lead to disaster, death, poverty and jail.
Sure, when you’re a libertarian activist, disaster at the hands of state thugs can strike anytime. All you need to do is rub the wrong person the right way. It’s a crapshoot. And going to jail isn’t all bad. If you go for the right reasons or simply because the cop that caged you is corrupt, your sacrifice can have an enormous impact.
A Tale of 4 Activists
With that in mind, let’s look at the activist arcs of 4 libertarian activists. Please keep in mind that my intent is not to pass judgment on these individuals. I simply want us both to learn from their experiences.
Julian Heicklen’s trademark is open defiance. His activism is usually classic civil disobedience. He doesn’t talk a lot. He just does, and right in your face. Whether it was holding a burning marijuana cigarette at Penn State or handing out fully informed jury information in Manhattan, Julian does it without pulling any punches. Julian has suffered for his activism. He’s been hauled away by cops, tortured in hospitals and spent time in disgusting jails. But his refusal to stand down and his white hair have ultimately led him to success. Civil disobedience is tried in the court of public opinion and he plays well there.
I don’t know Schaeffer Cox. But recently he made news for his Alaskan militia organization. Schaeffer thinks we need, not a third party, but a second government. The current one is broken and possibly even an impostor, according to him. This places him in the ranks of sovereign citizens. I find sovereign theory interesting and potentially useful, but Schaeffer talks about violence way too much. He even mentioned violence in a recent address to an Alaskan court, a court he is on trial in!
I’m not sure how exactly Schaeffer got into so much trouble, but before you consider following his activist arc, keep in mind that he is in jail right now. He is facing a lot of jail time. His bail is at $3 million. I won’t be surprised if the charges against him are pure fabrications. But the fact remains that whatever he did led him to this point. And his past words do not show him in a favorable light. This is the worst position for an activist to be in. He’s in jail, the bail is too high, he’s facing serious charges and is not winning in the court of public opinion. Don’t let your activist arc bring you to this point.
It looks like Pete started in a very suit and tie setting working with think tanks and inside-the-beltway kind of stuff. Then he transitioned to Motorhome Diaries where he toured the US meeting people, engaging in conversations and generally being an ambassador for liberty. At some point, Pete’s activist arc moved toward confrontation of cops. Now Pete is on trial in Massachusetts. He’s facing felony counts and serious jail time. I am worried about him (and Adam Mueller).
Pete (and Adam) engage(s) in great activism. I blog about and promote their work all the time. But if his activist arc takes him to a felony conviction and jail time in an obscure New England town, it would be a tragedy.
I don’t dare criticize fellow activists without including an appraisal of my own arc. I don’t claim to be in the same category as these wonderful folks, I’m just practicing what I preach. I’m taking my own medicine. You get the idea.
I started off as a do-nothing and a drop out. For many years I just read Ayn Rand, Howard Zinn, Gandhi and others. I talked about it with people and gulched. After getting involved with the libertarian community, I started making websites in support of libertarian causes and individuals. Then in 2009 I started open carrying (the practice of carrying a pistol in a secure but open manner). I was hassled by cops once. Then I was falsely arrested by a cop. Then I took up Julian Heicklen’s call to distribute fully informed jury pamphlets outside federal courthouses. This ended in my arrest by US marshals for videotaping them (as of course is my right). They invented charges against me and put me under a stressful house arrest regime. In hindsight, this was not the direction I wanted my arc trending in.
Confronting cops is a very high risk tactic for advancing liberty. It makes great video. It may produce a few seconds of thought in the cop’s head. It may encourage a lot more people to disobey cops. But the risks for you the confronter are great. It is very easy to get arrested. And dealing with it is no simple thing. There is the stress, the cost to your health, the possibility of high bail and onerous release conditions which can carry additional costs. If you have to go to court, your liberty is on the line and you may need to hire a lawyer. This is not for everyone and it it’s definitely not something even the most courageous and unattached individual can do all the time.
I don’t regret open carrying or confronting cops in front of federal courthouses. I love open carrying. It makes me feel like I can handle all eventualities. I don’t have to worry about some out-of-control attacker with a chip on his shoulder or some guy high on who-knows-what attacking me or my family. It’s a risk I can control. I also enjoy pamphleting the general public. Humans are simply very social by nature. Confronting the thug marshals in front of courthouses – people who are drunk with unquestioned post-9/11 power – is very satisfying and very important. It is refreshing to defend one’s liberties at the source of the threat to them.
But I’ve adjusted my arc. I’m working more on education, commerce and other tactics that don’t require confronting cops or potentially scaring people with the open carry of firearms. And I think that’s not only effective but also a safer place for a dad to be. My first responsibility is to my family, after all.
That’s not to say I won’t engage in high risk activism again.
Where’s your Arc Heading?
Make sure you’re cognizant of your chosen arc and where it will take you before you get into a jam. Consequences can pile up fast. It doesn’t take much to get arrested and charged with a felony these days. Be prepared. Examine these arcs and others. Think through your trajectory carefully before starting.
Discussions of what activism is more effective or most consistent or plays better with the public are important. But this discussion is about which activism is right for you, personally. What can you handle? What limitations do you have in the realm of work, family, personal comfort zone, past legal record? Where do you want to be in 2 years? 5 years? Please ask yourself these questions and think them through before engaging in high-risk liberty activism. Don’t sacrifice yourself. Make your activism work for your own personal goals. We need all hands on deck in order to continue making progress.
4 replies on “What’s your Activist Arc?”
Hey George, thanks for taking the time to write this insightful post. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own “arc” lately and how I want to get more involved, but not at the cost of endangering my family or needlessly alienating people.
Time commitment is also a huge sticking point for me and probably lots of other potential activists. Serious activism requires dedication but often yields little profit.
(BTW – just checked out the slate of speakers for Agora IO and it looks very impressive).
PS – what’s with the giant RSS button? Has it actually helped increase your subscriber rate?
Good points, altho even when I don’t make money I usually have a lot of fun.
I have a goal to increase my subscriber count, and yes it has helped a little.