Jan 16, 2012

An Activist's Choices

This post is a set of notes, not a treatise. I am basing it on my experience, my reading of history (especially for The Power and the Glory), and my observation of activists during my fifty years as a student of Objectivism.

WHAT IS ACTIVISM? If you design and build skyscrapers, you are an architect; if you campaign to eliminate your city's controls on construction, you are an activist. If you make steel rails, you are a manufacturer; if you speak against tariffs on imported steel, you are an activist. If you are hired to explain elementary math to children, you are a teacher; if you work with others to abolish governmental schools, you are an activist.

If you are in business, then offering a product on the market directly benefits both you and your customers. You and they are traders. In contrast, activism for objective people means taking some form of action in society to improve the social circumstances in which individuals trade material and spiritual values. The benefits of activism are indirect.

An activist is free to choose his subject matter, scope of operation, form of action, and other factors. The choices are personal; they are shaped by one's intelligence, ability to learn new skills, and, most of all, one's deepest personal values.

In the battle for a more objective society, the battleground is wide. On one side are ranks of the enemy, standing shoulder to shoulder from one end of the battleground to the other end. They control or threaten every aspect of life. On the other side, the side of advocates for a more objective society, there are many empty spaces waiting to be filled by revolutionaries.

THE CHOICES TO MAKE. Following are some of the factors that an activist can consider in planning his activism. Planning is important because successful activism requires a long effort -- to accumulate skills, acquire specialized knowledge of subject matter, select allies, and make contacts in the appropriate media (decision influencers) and centers of power (the decision makers).

Which Issue? The essential factor in activism -- the factor that shapes many of the other factors -- is the issue you choose to work on. Beyond that, the order of the factors to consider is generally optional.

Example issues are: Regulations enforced by your local government's "Planning Bureau"; the international slave trade; the national prohibition against narcotics; the lack of civility in debate and discussion; ignorance or antipathy toward the scientific method; racism; legislative threats to your profession; altruism vs. egoism in personal life and politics; the latest in a long series of attempted tax increases proposed by your state legislature; or the whole deluge of philosophical, social, and political problems in general.

Brian Phillips, author of Individual Rights and Government Wrongs: A Defense of Capitalism As the Only Social System That is Both Moral and Practical, has chosen to write broadly about government and individual rights. He has spoken out for years in his own weblog, in a local activist network, and in national publications.

Specialist or generalist? Rather than choose a special, long-term interest, an activist can be a generalist. That means keeping up with the ever-changing parade of issues that are "hot topics" for the mass media and their audiences. Being a successful generalist requires an ability to quickly study an issue, uncover the deeper principles involved, learn the particulars of a few examples, and develop a rational alternative to the present problem.

The danger of general activism is shallowness; and generalists speaking in public forums cannot speak authoritatively. They are therefore less persuasive than specialists who have long studied the issue and practiced presenting their side to a variety of audiences. On the other hand, specialized activists must be prepared to be out of the spotlight of mass media attention most of the time -- and then be in the center of the spotlight for a brief but intense time. Socialized vs. free market medical care is an example of an issue that comes and goes in public attention; the specialists quietly continue their work regardless of the immediate attention they receive.

An example of a specialist is Bosch Fawstin, a highly accomplished illustrator and graphic-novelist who focuses on fighting Islamic aggression. He also writes and speaks out in radio interviews and at conferences.

Geographic scope? An activist can work on an issue in a geographic area small enough that he can easily and repeatedly meet, face to face, all the individuals involved. For example, a local activist could meet the city council members who are considering privatizing city-owned utilities, as well as the other activists who want privatization or who oppose it. Or an activist can work on a larger scale: county, state, region, nation, or world. An example of the last are the activists who work in organizations such as Amnesty International, which pressures governments to release "prisoners of conscience," individuals imprisoned for their beliefs, not for crimes of aggression or fraud. (I am using AI as an example, not endorsing all of its actions; I did volunteer work for AI about 35 years ago, but I have had little contact with AI since then.)

Pro, con, or mixed? In your activism do you want to mainly express support for an objective alternative -- such as explaining the nature and benefits of science -- or do you want to mainly oppose a threat -- such as a particular organization (like the Council on American-Islamic Relations), particular news agency (The New York Times), or even a particular fallacy (like the Broken Window)? If you mix the positive and negative approaches, the proportions are of course optional.

Alex Epstein is the founder and director of the Center for Industrial Progress. A model activist -- indeed an activist "entrepreneur" -- he calls his positive approach "aspirational advocacy".

In-line or off-line? Do you want to make your activism an application of your central purpose in life (CPL)? That approach is in-line activism, which means your activism is in line with, an extension of, or application of your productive purpose in life. An example would be a nuclear engineer who, in the evenings and on the weekends, fights political restrictions on building nuclear power plants.

Or do you want to move away from your CPL to pick an area of activism that has a deep personal value but no direct connection to your CPL -- as when an accountant decides to fight drug laws because he sees the destruction such laws cause.

One example of an "in-line" activist is Paul Hsieh, MD. He is the founder of the weblog Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine. He writes letters to editors, "op-eds," and other essays, criticizing proposed and current statist medical programs or advocating separation of Medicine and State. His portfolio has grown steadily through years of effort.

Social relationships? Do you want to work alone (for example, writing letters to editors). Or would you like to network with other activists focused on the same issue? Or do you want to associate with like-minded individuals on a series of intense but occasional, ad hoc projects (such as a temporary committee opposing a proposed state tax increase). Or would you prefer to be the founder or employee of an institution such as the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights? Examples are employees of The Ayn Rand Institute.

Jared Rhoads, founder of The Lucidicus Project, works directly with medical students who are looking for a philosophical foundation for freedom in medicine.

Cognitive level? To be most effective, all activism for a more objective society must be an integration of the deepest philosophical principles and the most particular facts. Which do you mainly want to focus on -- for example, propagating principles (such as rational egoism vs. altruism) or working with legislators to change the details of certain existing or proposed laws?

In other words, in the stream of philosophical ripples from the philosopher to the man in the street, do you want to be mainly a philosophical activist, an intellectual activist (who applies philosophical principles to current issues and offers alternative solutions), a principled political activist (stressing the guiding principles of proper government), or a political tactician who takes care of the detailed "mechanics" of political campaigns, such as scheduling a candidate's speaking engagements and so forth?

Apply a particular skill set you already have? Are you now a researcher, writer, accountant, filmmaker, office manager, speaker, salesman, trainer, legal adviser, clerk, or website designer? Would you like to do the work you love, but for an activist organization whose goals you support? The Institute for Justice may be an example of such an organization.

What medium? Through what medium do you expect to propagate ideas -- writing (speeches, weblog posts, magazine articles, books), speaking (in online or face-to-face interviews on radio or TV, or to "live" audiences); or focused personal communication in which you are a salesman?

Investment of time and money? Do you want to eventually work full-time as an activist, or do you want to devote part of your time each week? How much of your own money are you willing to invest in your activism; or would you like to find or create a job as an activist? Mike Neibel, author of the weblog Mike's Eyes, engages in a part-time, low-expense form of activism.

A small-scale example. My own activism is the one I know best. In influence, it is very small scale -- but I love doing it. The issue that fascinates me is broad: the war between reason and mysticism in our time. I am "specializing" in that war, but in certain defined ways.

Since I am retired (I am 67), I can devote full time to it. However, my activism is a by-product of my continuing central purpose in life, which is to tell success stories from history. Two earlier products of that central purpose in life are The Aristotle Adventure and The Power and the Glory. Indirectly both support my activism. They help spread ideas I support.

The next major product I plan to create is also a book (in eight or ten years). Between now and then, intermediate products will be mainly the posts I write for my weblog, The Main Event, but occasionally other, related articles such as book reviews for The Objective Standard, here and here. Those short-term writings are, in effect, entries in my work journal; they should become a base for the book.

As I learned initially from philosopher Ayn Rand, fighting for a better world is in fact living in a better world, a world in which I meet individuals who share my values, and we take action toward those values.

If you do choose to become an activist, welcome to a better world.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory:The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

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