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27


THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 27, May 1, 1997

A Protest at the Service Summit

By Steve Friedman
friedmsm@gusun.acc.georgetown.edu

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

         I recently went to Philadelphia with the Coalition of Students Against Servitude, a group formed in conjunction with the Ayn Rand Institute, to protest the President's Summit on America's Future, also known as the Service Conference.
         One may wonder why we were protesting against the conference that enjoyed near universal support. Simply put, we objected to the idea behind the conference; that every American has a duty to serve.
         We are not against volunteerism. In fact, we ourselves were volunteering to protest. And though we are opposed to forcing people to "volunteer" (If it's forced, it's not volunteering; it's servitude without pay.) we were not so much protesting that as protesting the flawed system of morality that leads to people being forced into servitude. We were fighting the principle that somebody who does not volunteer is somehow guilty, while the person that does volunteer is morally superior.
         Retired General Colin Powell summed up the ideals of the conference when he said that people who volunteer are on the "moral playing field" while people who do not are on the "moral sidelines." To say that somebody who paints over graffiti is somehow superior to somebody that spends his time bettering himself is a fundamentally evil idea, and it is against that that we were protesting.
         When we gathered at our staging point 7:15 Sunday morning, I grabbed sign saying "Declaration of Independence, not Declaration of Servitude." Other signs said, "Mr. President, my life is my own, HANDS OFF," "Don't volunteer ME," "Service = Slavery with a smile," and "Duty to serve = Nazism." (The last one we stopped using midway through the protests, when we realized that people who were reading the signs were missing the =, and thinking it said "Duty to serve Nazism.")
         While we traveled, the leader of the protest, David Bombardier, projects director of the Ayn Rand Institute, reminded us that we were not engaging in an act of civil disobedience. We wanted to make our opinions heard and get media exposure, but not disrupt the conference or be obnoxious. We were to cooperate fully with the authorities.
         The first place we protested at was Marcus Foster Stadium, where many celebrities were slated to speak. We marched around the stadium, past the people waiting in line to get in. Some reporters talked to our media representatives, but few of the multitudes gathered there understood nor cared to find out what we were protesting. Generally, we were getting brief comments such as one policewoman who said, "This is ridiculous." I was intrigued by two markedly different responses. One man, who disagreed with what we had to say, said, "All right, they're exercising their freedom of speech, and their right to petition the government for redress of grievances. God bless America." Another woman said, "In another country, these people would be shot," in a tone of voice that suggested she wished this were another country.
         After the attendees had entered the stadium, we positioned ourselves at a point where the Presidential motorcade would drive by us. It was amusing watching their reactions as they drove past. Hillary Clinton smiled and waved, evidently not reading or not understanding our signs. President Clinton and Jimmy Carter both started to wave, then stopped with puzzled looks on their faces. Colin Powell just scowled and glared at us.
         We then went to a sight on Germantown Avenue, where Powell was slated to participate in a community cleanup. Here the police kept us around a corner from Powell, so we couldn't see him. We did, however, see Elizabeth Dole, who refused to look at us.
         We still continued to receive insults. An entire busload of children extended their middle fingers at us as they drove by. On woman, carrying a sign saying "No housing, no peace," came to argue with us. She shouted out many illogical, ill thought out statements, such as "All housing should cost the same price." To each of these, a person from our group would give a well-reasoned response. Eventually, out of frustration, she shouted "What do you know? You don't have a job!" A girl from our group responded, "Actually I get up at six o'clock every morning to go to work." The "No Housing, no peace" lady stormed off, right into the path of an oncoming bus. The bus was barely able to stop in time to avoid hitting her.
         Yet not all encounters went like this. Many people, some of whom were initially hostile and some of whom were merely curious, actually took the time to listen to what we had to say. Nearly all of these people we were able to convince that our side is correct. Doing so was an experience that I found to be one of the most satisfying of the protest.
         It is interesting to reflect that if we were chanting, shouting, and yelling insults, we would have been more noticeable, but nobody would have cared about our message. By being polite and engaging in rational discourse, we were able to be much more effective.
         One encounter in particular stands out. A man who initially thought we were protesting because the cleanup was in a black neighborhood, became convinced that we were right and even gave us information we were not previously privy to. Residents of the neighborhood were not allowed to participate in the cleanup; only volunteers from other areas were permitted. It seems the idea of somebody taking pride in his own neighborhood, and cleaning because he wants to live in a place that looks nice, goes against the spirit of servitude that the conference advocated. People who live in the area they clean are selfish; people who have no interests in what they are doing are altruists.
         While I certainly hold that morality exists independent of utilitarian concerns, it is no coincidence that the greatest utility will come from a proper morality. This holds true in the case of the clean-up. The volunteers cared more about feeling good about themselves for volunteering than they did about doing a good job. Many of those who were cleaning up trash were later littering. Buildings were left half-painted as children would paint as high as they could reach, and then leave the rest. Much of the focus was on cleaning two dirt lots. It did not occur to the volunteers that these lots would always be dirty, because they were made out of dirt. After the clean-up, there appeared to be as much trash, broken glass, and rubble as before. Apparently, the volunteers were putting dirt and plants in bags so they could be carried away to landfill, leaving the dirt lots with less dirt than before. I opposed the conference and the clean-up on moral grounds, and still would oppose it if they had done a decent job. But I can't help noticing that one experienced sanitation worker and a handful of experienced painters, armed with a street sweeper and some power painters, would have done a much better job than the hundreds of incompetent volunteers, and it would have been much cheaper than organizing the clean-up.
         Later, we went outside the Philadelphia Convention Center, where the Presidential Service Awards were being given out. Here we met more people with whom to discuss our ideas. However, after a short while, a group of roughly a thousand militant leftists arrived. These unwashed masses (And I do mean unwashed. Many of them were seriously in need of a shower.) were carrying signs that ranged from "Free Mumia" to "Health care is a right, not a privilege" to "Eat the rich." They proceeded to hurl insults, profanities, and threats at us. When the police officers who had been standing between the 60 of us and the thousand leftists withdrew, we decided to leave. As we were walking back to the subway station, we saw quite a few teenagers from the leftist group driving expensive cars which no doubt had been paid for by their rich parents.
         The next day we went to Independence Hall, where they were holding the opening ceremonies for the conference. At one point during the ceremony, George Bush said that the Constitution was written by "Jefferson, Madison, and the rest of the Founding Fathers." This of course is false; Jefferson had nothing to do with writing the Constitution since he was in France during the Constitutional Convention. That somebody who ruled the world does not know basic American history is a fact which both amuses and scares me. Another highlight of the ceremony occurred when Clinton said that "micro-computers" had rendered big government obsolete, so it should now be replaced by millions of volunteers. Clinton also praised Maryland for requiring high school students to "volunteer" a certain number of hours before they graduated, and suggested that other states emulate this and force not only high school students, but also middle school and elementary school students into servitude. This makes me wonder about child labor laws. I do not understand why it is immoral for a child to work and receive compensation for this work, yet somehow moral for the same child to be forced to work without pay.
         Another interesting moment was when a bullhorn carrying leftist of the group from the previous day, who were back in much smaller numbers, told me that they were planning to disrupt the conference and asked if we wanted to join them. The same people that were threatening us the previous day and had goals and ideals directly contrary to ours wanted us to help them in their immoral activity. Needless to say, I declined.
         One of the most touching moments of the protest occurred when an elderly gentleman of Italian origin asked me what we were protesting. I told him, and he whole-heartedly agreed, even having me take a picture of him holding one of our signs. He then told me that he spent two years in a concentration camp.
         The next girl to talk to me understood that it was wrong to use force to make people work without pay, but done understand why we were protesting against the idea that service is the sole determinant of virtue. She denied that ideas have consequences. I pointed to the man who had been in the concentration camp, and said, "What he went through was the consequence of an idea."
         This is the core reason of why we are protesting; ideas have consequences. When it is established as an idea that the only measure of virtue is how much people "serve," how long will it be until servitude is mandatory? We already see Clinton calling for this. When those who fail to "volunteer" as held as morally inferior, how long will it be until they are repressed? What that Italian man went through was the result of the belief that people of certain races are morally inferior, a belief very similar to the belief that those who are not altruistic are inferior. I am not suggesting that the Service conference will lead to another holocaust; nobody can know what the results will be. But the philosophical foundations underlying the two are ominously similar.


Steve Friedman is a freshman at Georgetown University. If you want to ask him questions about the event, email friedmsm@gusun.acc.georgetown.edu


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