Give Me Liberty or Something Else
In Bill McKibben’s 2017 novel, Radio Free Vermont, septuagenarian radio broadcaster and lifelong Vermonter Vern Barclay goes on the lam after a broadcast at a local Walmart goes awry. Barclay, who’s grown increasingly disenchanted with big business’s inroads in his beloved left-leaning home state, holes up in a secret location and starts broadcasting a radical message: he wants his fellow Vermonters to consider seceding from the union.
The novel, which was blurbed by Bernie Sanders, is heavy on the hijinks (early in the book, defenders of a local brewery hijack a Corona shipment at the state border; in one of the book’s climactic moments, its main characters escape from federal agents on cross-country skis). But McKibben, a Vermont-based environmentalist, didn’t set out to write a literary masterpiece; this is clearly a political fable. Its moral? Secession isn’t the answer, but readers should consider which issues might drive a state to secede from the United States and how Americans might fix those issues on a local level. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s billed as an explosively relevant fable for our times.
One doesn’t have to venture into the realm of fiction to meet malcontents who yearn to turn in their American passports and become citizens of a new, unsullied nation. Sure, CalExit gets all the headlines, but the thorny, stubborn northern New England states are home to plenty of secessionist tendencies, too. That includes Vermont; but if you want to take things to the next level and see secessionists on the move, you need to head East to Vermont’s trashier libertarian double, the land of granite and flannel and guns: New Hampshire. Last summer, that’s exactly what I did.
It’s 2:00 p.m., which means it’s time to gather on the main field to decompress from the agony of the state. With Hula Hoops.
So it goes at the Porcupine Festival—known among its enthusiastic participants as PorcFest—the world’s largest libertarian gathering. PorcFest is a sort of Burning Man for small-government enthusiasts, held on a campground in Lancaster, New Hampshire. Every June, more than a thousand liberty-minded individuals flock here to socialize, shop, party, and attend panels on subjects ranging from “Firearms Etiquette” to “Removing Government Barriers to Work” and “How to Solve Bitcoin’s Scalability Problem” to “Everything Mushrooms: An Introduction to Fungi.” Many of the attendees are part of the Free State Project, a movement that advocates a political migration to New Hampshire to transform the state into a libertarian paradise.
Sure, CalExit gets all the headlines, but the thorny, stubborn northern New England states are home to plenty of secessionist tendencies, too.
PorcFest has been around for fourteen years, but in the nascent days of Trump’s presidency, I wondered: had Trump’s ascendance, with its vague promises of deregulation, affected this political counterculture? Were they as concerned as the rest of us? Were they excited? Or was it business as usual for them?
And for that matter, who were these people who wanted to take over my home state? (I grew up in New Hampshire’s Seacoast region, which libertarians call the “Free Coast.”) What made them think that their libertarian utopia could actually function? And what, exactly, transpired at PorcFest, where, according to the schedule, “the porcupine lights up the night” after dark?
I had to find out.
Granite State of Mind
My best friend Cassandra and I drive up to Lancaster, nestled among the northern foothills of the White Mountains, on the morning of Saturday, June 24. North Country New Hampshire is a land of moose-antler towers, Jesus-themed bookstores, Trump signs, haunted-looking Colonial graveyards, and snowshoe rental places shuttered for the season. We roll up to Roger’s Campground, the home of the festival, at around 10:30 a.m. and dutifully whip out our credit cards to pay for our $70 couples’ day pass.
“Oh, we don’t take credit cards,” says the friendly woman wearing a North Country Porcupines T-shirt behind the cash box. “Do you have Bitcoin?”
We do not have Bitcoin. Our first mistake. We return fifteen minutes later bearing cash from an off-site ATM, receive our embroidered PorcFest entrance bracelets, and head off to our first panel: a Foundation for New Hampshire Independence Roundtable, all about the feasibility of the Live Free or Die state seceding from the United States.
Secession isn’t the Free State Project’s stated goal—their prime concern is luring libertarians into the state to foster a society where “the maximum role of government is the protection of individuals’ rights to life, liberty, and property.” This project started in 2001, when then Yale PhD candidate Jason Sorens published an essay arguing that the most effective strategy for libertarianism in the United States would be for the movement to target a small state with mass migration from around the country. They chose New Hampshire, and started gathering signatures from libertarians promising to move to the state after twenty thousand signed on. The organization crossed the twenty-thousand threshold in February of 2016; so far, about two thousand have actually moved as part of the project. They’ve also made inroads in the state government: there are currently seventeen of them in New Hampshire’s state legislature, and they were involved in the fight to legalize gay marriage as well as to repeal the state’s knife regulation laws in 2010.
Some of those Free Staters just want New Hampshire to become more libertarian, but others, including the Foundation for New Hampshire Independence, want the state to become its own country. Carla Gericke, president of the FNHI, is a friendly-faced middle-aged woman who wears sensible shoes and carries a vape. She and her fellow secessionists have a strong vision for what the country of New Hampshire could become. The Yankee Hong Kong. A land of German-style autobahns with no speed limits. Gambling halls like Monaco’s. Cafes like Amsterdam’s. “Granite State of Mind,” the YouTube parody of Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” could be its national anthem.
Gericke, who grew up in South Africa and moved to New Hampshire in 2008, after a pit stop in Silicon Valley, says that she came to libertarianism from the left. Part of her presentation during the roundtable involves strategies for seducing leftists to the libertarian movement.
“I wouldn’t approach it as libertarianism. I would approach it as localism when talking to your neighbors,” says Gericke. She adds, “The federal government is an abusive partner,” she says.“They beat us, they steal our stuff and lock us up. And then they say, you can’t get divorced. I feel like that argument does work well in the social justice warrior crowds. Everyone understands divorce. Everyone understands people getting hurt.”
Part of that engagement with the left, says Gericke, involves invoking the discontent and fear surrounding our new president. She calls Donald Trump the “gift that’s gonna keep on giving” for countercultural and secessionist movements like hers.
“Suddenly the leftist states are talking secession,” she says. “When we say it, it’s like, you’re a militia, you’re crazy white people in New Hampshire. But when the left says it, it’s palatable.”
Why, asks an audience member, would the United States government just let New Hampshire go?
“Good question,” Gericke says. “In the end, they wouldn’t have a say. Are they going to roll the tanks in?”
But the federal government isn’t the only entity that might have objections to New Hampshire seceding from the union. There are 1.2 million people living in New Hampshire, many of whom are no friends of the Free State Project. The FSP’s main enemy is Granite State Progress, a progressive advocacy organization that’s monitored the project since 2008. Granite State Progress informs New Hampshirites about candidates for local and state office who are secretly members of the FSP; it cautions voters against choosing candidates who might slash local and state budgets and undermine public education. It reminds longtime residents to stay vigilant against a group that plans to dismantle the state as we know it.
“Oh, we don’t take credit cards,” says the friendly woman behind the cash box. “Do you have Bitcoin?”
After the secessionist roundtable, I mosey up to a circle of male libertarians outside the tent to learn more about this group and its plans for New Hampshire. One man, Craig Gould, tells me that hatred for Richard Nixon and Michael Dukakis transformed him into a libertarian. Another, Andrew Gardner of Maine, is carrying a red and white flag emblazoned with a pine tree: a symbol of the movement that advocates for all six New England states to secede together.
“We want to balance out the Communists within that movement,” Gardner explains. “Some of them want a strong federal government. That doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies.”
The third man, Neal Connor, tells me he grew up in Florida and became a libertarian between eighth and ninth grade, after he picked up a libertarian book at a fair.
“It made as much sense as anything,” says Connor, who’s wearing a shirt that says REBEL with the Bitcoin logo instead of the B.
Connor moved to New Hampshire as part of the Free State Project, but when I tell him I live in Boston, he explains he’s moving there later this year, since his boyfriend is going to get his PhD in physics at Boston University.
“But we’ll be back,” he assures me. “Besides, people in Boston need to hear the message. There’s a Federal Reserve Building there where I can hold up Bitcoin signs that say, ‘You’re obsolete.’”
As I’m leaving, Gould catches me. He wants to make sure I know that for him, and for many of the libertarians here, the Non-Aggression Principle will be the essential foundation of a new society. That’s why their symbol is a porcupine: a peaceful animal that only attacks when it’s provoked.
According to Gould, the rules are simple: “Don’t hurt anyone. Don’t take their stuff. . . . For example, we don’t invade Iraq.”
The Well-Armed Optimist
Gould’s Iraq War dig reflects a larger truth that dawns on me just a few hours into my PorcFest experience: although Gericke said that Trump represents an opportunity, many other PorcFest attendees see the president of the United States as a static symbol of an intractable, evil system, rather than an individual politician with whom they might agree or disagree. Connor, for example, says he’s concerned with issues that span parties and administrations, such as drones, war, and NSA spying.
“We very easily saw that Obama’s promises, such as Guantanamo Bay closing, didn’t happen. Either he was dishonest or there are embedded interests that are hard to root out,” he says, adding that he believes a consistent “deep state” has been at work for decades. Other Free Staters tell me that while Trump’s decisions may be affecting the rest of the country, up here, it’s business as usual: the libertarians are still just planning a new society and living their lives.
After I finish talking with Gould, Connor, and Gardner, Cassandra and I stroll around the main field. We see a fire pit and a wooden box that someone’s spray-painted the word “soap” onto. A beach ball shudders in a light breeze next to the Porta Potties.
I’m distracted by a broad-shouldered man with a buzzcut, wearing a load-bearing vest and camouflage pants. He’s holding a handgun and practicing disarmament moves with a younger man in flip-flops. Both of them are men of color.
It turns out the man with the gun is Dale Brown, director of the Detroit-based Threat Management Center, a martial arts institution. TMC is predicated on the idea that America’s criminal justice system is built on violence and incarceration, that the police cannot and will not seek nonviolent resolutions, and that the only solution is to give citizens the tools to de-escalate situations themselves.
“There is no one who keeps us safe. We have to keep ourselves safe,” says Brown, who hopes to roll out a replicable model of his system to other cities by 2019. “The vision overall is to change the way the world views violence. We remove justifiable killing from the lexicon.”
As Brown explains his philosophy, a girl who was watching the demonstration leans in to say goodbye to him. She says, “I just wanted to thank you for making me believe in the good of people again.”
I turn to Kenneth, the twenty-three-year-old who was demonstrating nonviolent de-escalation with Brown. He tells me he moved here two years ago as part of the Free State Project.
“I didn’t do well in the public school system,” he says meekly. Here, though, homeschooling laws are more lax; here, he can leave his car and house unlocked.
He asks me about my political affiliations: I describe myself as a liberal-leftist pessimist. His countenance immediately brightens.
“I used to be too, but now I’m an optimist,” he says. “I’m so optimistic about what we can do at the local level.”
Kenneth doesn’t care about Trump either; to him, he’s just another politician. I came here thinking everyone would have a hot take on Trump, but after only two hours at PorcFest, I already find mainstream politics receding from my thoughts. That’s not what these people are about. They’re optimists. Somehow, they believe in the good of humanity again.
Light Up (the Night, That Is)
Around 1 p.m., Cassandra and I head on over to Agora Valley, which is a vendor area nestled among the trees slightly uphill from the main field. Here, something called Revolution Chili costs only $7. There’s yarn for sale, and pot Rice Krispie treats, of course. There’s a bounce house, as well as corn dogs and cheesy fries that you can buy with silver. There are buttons that encourage one to Occupy, not Comply. A Coexist tapestry.
“They still control the media,” I hear someone explaining to one of the vendors.
We see tents advertising various ideologies and concepts. There’s an Antiwar Tent, an Approval Voting tent, tents for varieties of cryptocurrencies. We see a sign emblazoned with the words “Liberty: Too Big to Fail.”
There’s an Antiwar Tent, an Approval Voting tent, tents for varieties of cryptocurrencies. We see a sign emblazoned with the words “Liberty: Too Big to Fail.”
One tent is selling “coffee and tea with a fluffy twist.” There’s a bowl full of weed sitting on a back counter next to a baseball cap that says “Pixie Dust”; the vendor explains that she’s selling ordinary coffee laced with CBD, the nonpsychoactive part of cannabis.
“It’s an all-natural super-meal in a cup. It’ll give you a natural up. No crash, no headaches, no jitters. This compound has been missing from our diet because, you know,” she shrugs and rolls her eyes conspiratorially “the government.”
The coffee with a fluffy twist vendor and her chummy explanation of her product illustrates a PorcFest truism: people here are friendly. Very, very friendly. If I pass someone I interviewed earlier in the day, they always stop and say hi to me. Some of them come up to check and make sure I’ve found the people I need to talk to. At one point, I walk down to the swale where a crude porcupine, made out of branches, about the size of a small car, waits for the evening, when it will be immolated in the Burning Man-esque culmination of the festival (that’s what “the porcupine will light up the night!” means, it turns out). As I’m snapping pictures of the porcupine, Gould, the anti-Nixon, anti-Dukakis libertarian from the morning, saunters up. He wants to make sure everyone has been nice to me. I assure him that they have.
“Have you ever met a friendlier crowd?” he says, grinning. Soon after, a man with an unbuttoned shirt walks by wielding an AR-15. There are a lot of guns at Porcfest—as in, a lot of guns—but I actually don’t feel uncomfortable. Everyone seems even-keeled: they seem like they know what they’re doing. They’re just a big group of friends hanging out in the sunshine, who happen to have open-carry permits and assault rifles slung over their shoulders.
At 2 p.m., there aren’t as many people decompressing from the agony of the state as I expected. It turns out they’re at the keynote speech in the main pavilion. Inside, pot smoke permeates the air. I spot a man with a knife on his hip, a woman with fuchsia hair and a polka-dot crop top, a guitar player in a 1970s polyester blouse and a hippie scarf. Some people are barefoot; others wear “Institute of Cryptoanarchy” T-shirts.
The keynote speaker is the CEO of Overstock.com, Patrick Byrne. He talks about the history of libertarianism, from the polycentricity of the Roman Empire to the Dutch early modern thinkers, who he says deserve credit for inspiring the Pilgrims. He also speaks about the plurality of issues that have brought libertarians to the festival.
“There are people here who don’t like taxes, who want legalized weed, who care about education, but there’s a common denominator,” Byrne says.
But then Byrne puts in a plug for Overstock.com, reminding everyone that his website gives vendors a better deal than Amazon. The crowd applauds. This feels far too corporate for the PorcFest my friendly guides have tried to sell me over the last four hours.
Cassandra and I decide to head back to Agora Valley to find a group that I’ve been hearing about all day: Muslims 4 Liberty. We compliment a girl carrying a pink and green parrot on our way up.
Once there, we plunk down by the Muslims 4 Liberty tent, where we meet Mikey, a Jewish libertarian. Mikey, who declined to give his last name (“I don’t like last names. I think people’s last names should be their occupation or place of origin. I met some guys here a few years ago named Amish John and Thunder Dave.”) says he moved to New Hampshire from New Jersey two years ago.
“I used to be a socialist, but I learned economics. I realized the government is hurting people.” Mikey says. He gestures around. “This is our dream. It starts with tents. Then houses. It could become a libertarian city. That’s all we’re asking for.”
Mikey introduces us to his friend Will Coley, the national director of Muslims 4 Liberty. Coley explains that he learned about libertarianism from his Arabic teacher; he believes that the Koran is a fundamentally libertarian text, and that modern fundamentalist regimes have led Muslims away from those original tenets. Coley, who has a big beard and a Marlboro dangling from his fingers, is selling “Taxation is Theft” T-shirts, and he keeps interrupting our conversation to hawk them to passers-by: “T-shirts come with free anti-government stickers!”
Coley’s vision is one of a pluralistic society with multiple infrastructures existing side-by-side.
“Say PorcFest was a village,” he says. “Christians, Jews, Muslims, and pagans would have their own courts, their own markets. I do you, you do me. I won’t violate yours, and I’ll protect you from the violence of others.”
At this point, I’ve been at Porcfest for nearly six hours, and I decide it’s time to ask the big question: What makes you think this utopia is going to work?
For all its DIY aesthetic, PorcFest already has a corporate sponsor.
“Well, it has!” Coley shoots back. He invokes the early history of America, a time when he believes citizens had more freedoms; he speaks about a group of Muslims who lived in Iraq in the ninth century, who some libertarians hold up as an example of early anarchists.
I ask the same question of Goshe King, a mechanical engineer, originally from Pakistan, who moved to New Hampshire from Maryland in 2011. King used to be apolitical, but he “became liberty-minded” after a friend brought him to PorcFest in 2010. He was impressed by the intellectualism, the knowledge of texts, the conversations about books. He read the Wikipedia page for anarchy and listened to the audiobook of 1984 in the car ride home; the next year, he returned to PorcFest and made his pledge to move to the Granite State.
“I was apolitical. I wasn’t a reader. I didn’t care to believe in anything. But now it’s cursed me. I can’t get enough of it,” he says.
In response to my question, he says, “As an engineer, I believe in science. And science is not an absolute. You can’t have a utopia. There will always be problems. But the free market will always find a solution. In twenty years, if something went wrong, people would notice.”
That’s the answer to society’s ills in the eyes of the Porcfest attendees: faith in people, or in the free market, or some other, unpredictable force.
“You cannot eradicate evil,” King explains. “You just have to find a solution. That’s what libertarians think.”
The PorcFest organizers share King’s feelings about the Free State Project and PorcFest fostering community and safety. This year’s organizers are Kendall and Lane Strahan, a couple from Texas who moved to New Hampshire on April 1, 2016. Kendall is wearing a North Country Porcupines shirt with a cowrie shell necklace, a walkie talkie on his pocket, a handgun on his hip, and an AR-15 around his shoulder. He and Dale Brown are putting on an impromptu demonstration of how to separate someone from their gun by poking them in the eye.
Kendall and Lane, who wears a little porcupine charm around her neck, explain that a decade ago, they Googled the best place to raise black children in America, and New Hampshire came up. They visited and they found home.
“The Free State Project was an added bonus,” says Lane. “Finding a whole community that feels the way you feel, about liberty.”
Soap Box Squabbles
I wasn’t lying when I told Kenneth I’m a political pessimist. In fact, I’ve been steeped in dystopia. The words “nasty, brutish and short” haunt my thoughts. In the early evening, as the air cools and dusk starts creeping in over the mountains, Cassandra and I sit on the grass outside the main pavilion listening to a presentation on “unschooling,” an educational philosophy that posits that children should be able to learn whatever they want, whenever they want. The presenter explains that he runs a summer camp where there are no rules; I lean over to Cassandra and make a Lord of the Flies joke.
Sure, I’d like to believe that my pessimism and cynicism are misguided. But potential schisms in the new free state of New Hampshire are everywhere. The PorcFest crowd—decentralized, encompassing countless different causes and viewpoints, with a governmental principle of “we’ll figure it out!”—doesn’t seem destined for success. Nowhere is this thorny truth more apparent than at Soap Box Idol, a debate competition where speakers deliver three-minute screeds on a variety of issues. At the competition, one of the judges jokingly gives low scores to any speeches that deal with legislation, since he’s known as the “legislator-hater.” Another presenter used to be a Quaker, but left the religion after he decided that Quakers aren’t pacifistic enough. Another criticizes her fellow libertarians for not making enough of an effort to create private mechanisms to replace the state system of taxation-funded social support services.
“If you believe taxation is theft, then put your cryptocurrency where your traphole is and start a charity,” she shouts.
In the parking lot, I see a car with one of those purple “Tolerance” stickers next to a car with a “WHO IS JOHN GALT?” sticker. One attendee tells me that he’s met Bernie Sanders supporters at the festival, but that he also saw a Confederate flag a few years back.
And for all its proud libertarianism, PorcFest already has rules: signs hanging up around the campground encourage attendees to inspire, educate, respect personal and property rights, include others, participate, uphold a sense of community, and celebrate. These rules seem benign, but intra-libertarian skirmishes have already sprung up from the festival: in 2016, the Free State Project and PorcFest distanced themselves from another local libertarian organization, Free Keene, because of a member’s controversial views on the age of consent. Banning someone you suspect to be a pedophile from your festival seems pretty clear-cut, but what happens when conflicts arise over murkier issues? King says that libertarians are good at coming up with solutions for eradicating evil, a belief shared by many secessionist movements: the characters in Bill McKibben’s book also espouse faith in small communities and local governments to solve the myriad problems of big government, somehow. But it’s easy to imagine the Free Staters running into the much more mundane problem of any political movement: dissent within the ranks, between factions of committed people who genuinely believe that they are doing the right thing.
Besides presumed future intra-libertarian squabbles, there’s also another issue, a dark truth of American politics: when the government gets smaller, big business swoops in. After all, for all its DIY aesthetic, PorcFest already has a corporate sponsor: look at its keynote speaker. My friendly libertarian guides would no doubt tell me not to worry. The will of the people, or the free market, or some other mythical force will forge the perfect relationship between business behemoths and a new small-government society. But what happens when some members of that new society are seduced by the power and money of the companies and donors who already exert so much control over the American government? What happens when Walmart tries to pay workers thirty cents an hour? Or when Patrick Byrne wants a monopoly for Overstock.com? Maybe “the people” will stop them. But I suspect the residents of this hypothetical libertarian utopia will genuflect before the “free market” and allow these companies to sweep in and do what they will—thus putting their citizens in thrall to the very kind of impersonal, powerful institution that they claim to be dismantling.
There are many reasons why the free state of New Hampshire would never work, why libertarianism is ultimately a simplistic fantasy. I suspect that this is the most fundamental.
At around 8 p.m., Cassandra and I temporarily leave the campground to hit a Dunkin’ Donuts in Lancaster. We hurry to make it back by sunset; we don’t want to miss the porcupine lighting up the night.
The Dunkin’ Donuts trip is reminiscent of returning from a foreign country. At the drive-through, I’m confused for a second when they don’t ask us if we want to pay in Bitcoin.
The porcupine smolders for a minute or two, then bursts into light, flames licking up its branches, sparks leaping into the green lights arcing overhead.
Back at PorcFest, the Muslims 4 Liberty are having a break-the-Ramadan-fast picnic in a tent on the main field; Soap Box Idol is over and everyone is milling about the field, drinking and smoking and talking. It’s almost time for the porcupine to light up the night.
While we’re waiting, a Dartmouth student whose professor suggested he come here strikes up a conversation with us. He seems lost; he bums a cigarette. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. Maybe that should be the PorcFest motto. Its premise makes for a fun festival, but it’s not much of a method for movement-building.
Just then, a cadre of men appears from the swale where the porcupine has languished for the duration of the festival. Someone has tied dollar bills to its branch-quills. They carry it up the path and through the crowd as the “1812 Overture” pipes from somewhere. Everyone surges forward, phones aloft, as the porcupine is torched. It smolders for a minute or two, then bursts into light, flames licking up its branches, sparks leaping into the green lights arcing overhead.
Afterward, we’ll return to business as usual, to the Republican health care bill and the odious travel ban, to entrenched party lines, to thinking about Trump constantly. I don’t believe the Free Staters will succeed. I don’t want them to succeed. I think secessionist movements and small-government utopias should stay firmly in the realm of thought experiments and fiction.
But you can see why Gericke believes now’s an opportune time to pick off leftists for the Free State Project. There’s so much that seems oppressively wrong with government these days. Maybe I’m just swept up in the excitement of watching a wooden porcupine burn, but in that moment, a tiny part of me itches to believe the simplistic fantasy. I understand the impulse to tear it all down and start anew.