I was delighted to be invited to be a keynote speaker alongside esteemed Yonsei University economics professor Kim Chung-ho on May 28 at the inaugural Students for Liberty (Korea) conference in Seoul, but I also wasn't sure I would be an appropriate speaker.
It is true that I am a former Cato Institute scholar and my name still pops up on websites as a leading black libertarian commentator. Instead of dissecting libertarian beliefs and views on current news, I discussed ways attendees could advocate for and do freedom in a practical way, rather than just theoretical gymnastics.
My theme: Storming the Bastille. I got the idea from Howard Fuller, a non-libertarian activist who in the 1960s was called "the most dangerous black man in North Carolina" by the governor at that time. Back when I was on the board of directors of the Black Alliance for Educational Options with him (he was the founder), he would tell us that there were three different kinds of people supporting a cause.
One, those who are willing to storm the Bastille. That is, take direct action, even when it is risky to themselves. Two, those who are willing to hold the coats of those storming the Bastille. They don't engage in risky confrontations, but will provide some type of support, often from afar. Three, those who cheer for the people holding the coats of the people storming the Bastille. They may fear cheering for the radicals in the movement, but will support others doing good work.
In addition to people like Fuller, I have run across many people willing to storm the Bastille. Probably the most memorable ones were the "ninja moms" in Washington, DC. They were low-income single moms determined not to lose their children to the streets. A moment I will never forget is when those ninja moms sided with me, a researcher at a libertarian think tank, when I was debating the president of the board of education in Washington, DC. The only person more shocked was the school board president, the ostensible voice of the people, losing out to a researcher from a libertarian think tank. I had taken my message directly to low-income parents, visiting their neighborhoods and homes, not held debates.
I've released air balloons to North Korea with Bastille stormers like Suzanne Scholte and Park Sang-hak, arranged for information to be sent directly into North Korea via USB drives, and support shortwave radio into North Korea. I'm not sure which way is the most effective, alone none can undermine a regime, but different methods could have an effect.
Many people have Walter Mitty fantasies, but I am fine with admitting that I am the type to hold the coats of those storming the Bastille. When people find out about my activism for North Koreans, they will ask me crazy questions like, "Have you thought about going to China to rescue North Korean refugees?" Haha! It wouldn't take long before I would be captured; someone would have to come rescue me. I hold the coats of those who risk their lives to rescue others.
The third group: cheerleaders. Some are funders who keep movements alive. Unfortunately, there are also "parking lot radicals." In a meeting to challenge power, they are quiet, but later on, they will talk courageously when the coast is clear, such as the company parking lot or somewhere else far from the confrontation. "Yeah, Casey, I supported you the whole time," some will say, but adding: "Oh, yeah, I was quiet again during the meeting because you were so good, I didn't want to interrupt."
Many libertarians are, as we say in Texas, "all hat and no ranch." That is, they have ideas, but no infrastructure or plan. Ideas are important, many have influenced my activities, but I admit that I have action on the brain when I hear the experts and scholars debating. With SFL-Korea, I discussed the ways that I have done freedom--helping to create a school choice program for low-income children in Washington, D.C., helping North Korean refugees improve their job skills and to tell their stories around the world.
I'm sure that some of the libertarians at the SFL-Korea conference would have preferred to hear me denounce the minimum wage or to advocate abolishing public schools, but I encouraged those with such views to demonstrate how their ideas would be implemented. During Q&A, a North Korean refugee praised me profusely, thanking me for my practical action helping other North Koreans. It turns out that he is a refugee who is storming the North Korean Bastille.
I will never be the type of person to storm the Bastille, but I appreciate it when those brave people cheer for me and seem to be willing to hold my coat.
Casey Lartigue Jr. is the co-founder of Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR) in Seoul. He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu.