A Confession from a Hypocrite: Alas, I, too, am a Free Rider

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It was the most regrettable thing I had ever done in my entire life. At the time I thought it was a giant step forward, a statement that, because of who I was, because of who we were, would make a difference.

Organizing the protest had other alluring advantages. Our teacher encouraged us. We respected her and she respected us. She treated us like adults. We liked that. It presented us with the ultimate reward: greater self-esteem. In addition, the entire class participated. That meant we could be with our friends, and all the social rewards that brings. Finally, only our class was allowed to participate. It was a reward for getting our schoolwork done in a timely fashion. There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment to fill the soul with self-confidence.

Of course, it helped that we hooked our wagon to a national movement. It was the first ever Earth Day. Earth Day was the brainchild of Gaylord Nelson. In 1969, an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California grabbed headlines. Nelson saw this and, using the student anti-war protests as a template, decided to create Earth Day. According to the EarthDay.org website, the date April 22nd was selected because it fell between Spring Break and final exams. Apparently, the idea was students were more likely to skip classes than skip either Spring Break or final exams.

On that first Earth Day – April 22, 1970 – 20 million protesters attended rallies all across the nation. I was one of them.

The optics for our little protest were ideal for the media. We waived our signs in front of the cameras against a backdrop of the vast smoke-belching Bethlehem Steel complex in Lackawanna, New York, just south of Buffalo. After all these years, I still remember my sign. It said, “We did it, we can fix it.” A photographer snapped a picture of me and my sign. It was in the local paper. I was so proud. I was taking responsibility. I was doing something.

In less than a decade, the reality of the solution hit.

I am not merely embarrassed by my participation in this national protest, I feel intractable guilt.

You see, the solution was a series of environment laws that, ultimately, made it cheaper to produce steel in foreign countries. As a result, like other steel mills across America, the many steel plants in Buffalo closed, placing tens of thousands of good people out of work. These people supported young families. These people supported the community. These people were my friends.

With this deep economic disruption, lives were changed, lives were ruined, lives were lost. Yes, lost. When you’re raised to be responsible for yourself, it’s easy to get depressed when events take control over you. You lose your sense of identity, your sense of worth, your sense of hope. Sometimes, there’s only one way out…

Do you understand why I’m not just embarrassed, but ravaged by a life-long guilt that can never go away?

That’s why I’ve always been against free-riders – people who hook onto movements, extracting personal rewards without consideration of the consequences of others. I rode the wave of the Earth Day movement. I relied on others (in this case Gaylord Nelson’s marketing strategy and the activists he commanded). In return, I received a small ounce of glory. Yes, it felt good. But at what price. I added no value, other than being a tool for Nelson’s political agenda. In return, my actions helped destroy the people and the community that had more meaning – more relevance – to me than anything Walter Cronkite might tell us on the CBS Evening News.

Alas, I am ashamed to admit I did not fully learn my lesson.

You see, for years, I have relied on others to protect me. I considered them my ultimate safety net. They formed that vital first line of defense that would shield my family from the horrors of forces far greater than I can imagine, far greater than I could possibly fight against.

Growing up, we had this box of shotgun shells on the out-of-reach shelf high above where the coats hung. I knew my father hunted, so this wasn’t a surprise. But something didn’t seem quite right. One day I asked my mother why we had them, since I never saw a shotgun. “I told your father I didn’t want any guns around where you kids might get them,” she said. I might have been six years old, but this sounded reasonable. It was then I immediately decided to follow my mother’s lead.

There are no guns in our house. There never have been. It’s not like I fear or hate guns. Quite the contrary, I enjoy shooting (maybe it’s a physics thing). I’ve fired guns, I’ve been shot by a gun (in the gut, point blank), I’ve encouraged others to own guns and take NRA gun safety classes.

And that’s precisely where the free rider hypocrisy comes in.

I’m educated enough to know the reason why we have a second amendment. People forget this wasn’t an idea our Founding Fathers came up with. Rather, it is an artifact of England’s Bill of Rights promulgated in 1689 following the overthrow of King James II. These Bill of Rights were inspired by the Magna Carta and carry an eerie similarity to our own Bill of Rights. Besides provisions guaranteeing “freedom of speech” and against “cruel and unusual punishment,” the English Bill of Rights also allows people to “have arms for their defence” (albeit here “people” means only those of the Protestant religion).

More important than the exact wording (or spelling) of the 1689 Bill of Rights, it was the reason outlined in the Act for this particular right: James II was accused of disarming Protestants while papists remained armed. In other words, the people could not properly defend themselves. To use a strictly American analogy, imagine a cowboy showing up for the high noon draw and having his gun removed while his opponent was allowed to keep his. Not fair.

Our Founding Fathers studied history. They weren’t just interested in identifying governments that worked, they wanted to understand why governments failed. Having just survived a revolution against a tyranny, they were all too familiar with the frailty of human character.

Literally a century before Lord Acton wrote it in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, our Founding Fathers understood “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” To counter this woeful human tendency, they structure their new government with a series of checks and balances. Their ultimate check: the second amendment.

The second amendment was designed for only one purpose, to allow the citizenry to defend their own best interests. This includes not only foreign invaders and outlaws, but against its own government if necessary. Thomas Jefferson once said (and believed) “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical… An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine(sp) necessary for the sound health of government.”

I have chosen not to participate in the right to bear arms. That is my choice and only my choice. I expect others to make their own choice. In fact, I am relying on others to choose to bear arms.

And that makes me a free rider. I benefit from the individual freedoms of our constitution that come from the right of the citizenry to defend itself. I am not (by choice) participating in that right of defense. Rather, I am allowing (and encouraging) others to do it on my behalf.

But maybe that will change.

When I see those children parading themselves willfully against guns, I am reminded of the guilt I feel now for the sin of having allowed myself to be used as a tool when I was their age. Will they one day feel the same guilt? I hope they don’t have the opportunity to. For, in my case, the event that triggered that guilt was the destruction of my home town caused by the closing of the surrounding steel plants. In the case of today’s kids, the triggering event may very well be the destruction of America caused by limitations on the second amendment which will prevent citizens from acquiring the arms necessary for self-defense.

Educated readers recognize the Founding Fathers didn’t include the second amendment in our Bill of Rights because they wanted to insure citizens could hunt. The second amendment has nothing to do with hunting. It was placed there for only one purpose: to allow citizens to have what they need to kill bad guys.

The last thing you want to do is bring a knife to a gunfight. Hmm, maybe that’s why Ben Franklin said “A republic. If you can keep it.”

Maybe I should stop being a free rider, join the NRA, and get my pistol permit.

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