Flamboyant libertarian radio show host and occasional miscreant Adam Kokesh announced recently that he plans to organize a rally of at least 1,000 citizens to march on Washington D.C. to celebrate Independence Day — with fully "locked and loaded" weapons. Surely nothing will go wrong!
I recoiled with horror on first reading. Surely, Kokesh is starting some abortive attempt at overthrowing the government? If not, won't the media portray it as such anyway? Will there be shots fired? Arrests? Treason? Martial law? New conspiracy theories?
Then, I realized something.
Libertarians usually shy away from newsmaking or controversy. We aren't usually on television for anything other than apologizing for our kooky ideas. With the exception of "Stand With Rand" last March and the often sneered at Ron Paul presidential campaigns of 1988, 2008, and 2012, libertarians seem to work very hard to stay out of the limelight, having achieved a sort of zen-mastery of irrelevance in American politics. At least the Tea Party is hated by someone! Surely, they're doing something right.
Perhaps it has to do with our wonky adoration for philosophical nuance and policy minutae. Young libertarians seem to spend a lot of time trying to win arguments rather than friends, buried in the latest BLS job stats and monetary white papers so we can catch the statists red handed in their destruction of our liberties.
Then, there's Adam Kokesh.
You'd have to work very hard to find a more controversial libertarian (besides of course, Lew Rockwell). Ron Paul's old man charm won over even people who hated his ideas. Rand Paul's appreciation for subtlety and persuasion is slowly winning him friends in congress, the public and even the international community.
Kokesh, though, is a different sort of character.
A former marine who was discharged for political activism, the 31-year-old host of "Adam vs. the Man" has found a wide audience of disillusioned young men by doing exactly the opposite of most libertarians — getting out there and grabbing attention on his own terms. Based in Washington D.C., he organized the successful dance party protest at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial (ostensibly rebuking the silence mandated at the monument), and Ron Paul event where several hundred veterans symbolically turned their backs on the White House to protest the president's wars.
The coming protest, like his previous outings, is promised to be peaceful. It's still a terrible idea, especially the "armed" part.
Which is why he should definitely do it.
Even if his protest progresses flawlessly, Kokesh will be ridiculed as a conspiratorial gun nut by the media; along with all the other 50 million gun owners in the U.S. who would like to not be considered criminals. All because he thinks the recent attempts in congress to infringe on a constitutional right are worthy of a stern, yet peaceful rebuke.
It seems there is little to lose from this protest, assuming it remains peaceful. If it doesn't happen, liberals will still think conservatives are gun nuts, and will still lump libertarians in with them. Republican gun nuts will likely still support the idea, and Kokesh will have brought some renewed attention to a controversial topic with a big political stunt, much like Samuel Adams did in the mid-18th century with his "trained mobs" of protesters, as one historian put it.
Adams, who is so beloved by Americans we named a beer after him, famously remarked, "What a glorious morning this is!" the day the Revolutionary War began. In his own day he was a relentless agitator for a bloody and controversial war with Britain; today he is fondly remembered as a champion for liberty and a "founding father." Adams knew the shortcomings of moderation; he was among the most radical founders, and knew what it took to achieve radical changes.
The sad truth is there aren't too many radical movements in history that have won over the public with reasonable arguments and gentle persuasion. They've all won by creating a mythology built around supposedly heroic individuals and events. It doesn't matter if those individuals are actually heroic, or just crazy, like Samuel Adams.
The American Revolutionaries, were some of the most effective myth-builders who ever lived. Americans still revere the Boston Tea Party, which was a bunch of guys dressed offensively as Indians throwing tea into a harbor because they didn't want to pay a rather paltry tax. Perhaps they only went ahead with it because there was no Rachel Maddow or Stephen Colbert to ridicule them.
The American left successfully spent a decade or more building their own mythology around events like the Civil Rights, Free Speech and Anti-War movements. They even accepted martyrs at Kent State. These were all high profile events that defined their generation. The Civil Rights Movement built one of the most effective mythologies in history: the idea that Rosa Parks was just an average person who was fed up with being told to sit in the back of the bus, galvanizing a movement by happenstance. The NAACP describes the popular account as "folkloric" and notes she was "a knowledgeable NAACP stalwart for many years."
To build a mythology, you need powerful, compelling events, and a willingness to embrace controversy in deeds as well as words. To his credit, this is what Adam Kokesh is at least trying to do.
Libertarianism's mythology is "a bunch of old white guys got together and spent a lot of money on stuff only they cared about." Oh, and an icy Russian lady wrote a novel about railroad tycoons. How does that fire anyone's imagination? Heroism, like effective entrepreneurship, requires risk, sometimes extraordinary risk, including the risk of being loathed. Most libertarians aren't keen on getting arrested, so it's left largely to Kokesh and his radical followers to take those risks in order to attempt to prove that these ideas aren't just academically sound, but worth suffering for.
I don't know if Kokesh's event will be a success or disaster. I'd much rather there were no loaded weapons. But at least he's out in the streets.