From the day I first became an activist – when my best friend told me that his family’s home was being seized by our hometown government when we were in the third grade (as I recently wrote about here) to this black day in our nation’s history, March 23, which, contrary to decades of my best activist efforts, marks three years of health care dictatorship known as ObamaCare (as I wrote about in an op-ed in this week’s Washington Times), I have learned the essentials of activism.
Key lessons include matching message to media, objectively communicating on principle, and not without consideration of factors which may at first seem irrelevant, an important aspect that many well-meaning activists, especially Objectivists, fail to grasp and master. For example, in the case of the third grade property rights action – we took on city hall with our door-to-door canvassing throughout the town – seeing two eight-year-olds walking across town to save a child’s home from government-sponsored seizure and demolition for the sake of a park concretized for residents that having a place for children to play seemed beside the point if it means depriving the child of a home to live in. Our campaign for justice was the perfect counterpoint in reality to the local government’s claims. They backed down. We won. My friend grew up in that home.
We bought time and we set an example of activism; he was able to keep his home. Seeing the bastards buckle was, for me, a tonic to the counterculture which I knew I hated. I could not have conceptualized it this way at the time, but I sensed that the New Left, which later spawned the ultimate nihilist Obama and was spreading all around me as a child, was sinister – I was being subjected to it every day in government schools amid ‘progressive’ education which was pure poison – and even as a boy I knew the left was contaminating the government. Whatever had almost happened to my best friend was caused by some dark intellectual force I had yet to identify but knew was lurking and slithering around me in various forms such as hippies, drug users and dealers and all sorts of toxic hosts that people remarkably still refuse to acknowledge: teachers, priests, political operatives and especially college professors. There were good ones, too, which must be said. But the bad ones put their professions to shame and were feeding off New Left dogma – if it feels good, do it; whatever works; love the one you’re with; just believe; who are we to know?; what’s right for you isn’t necessarily right for me – and bloodsucking the life out of youths. I learned to be on guard. In this sense, I learned that the New Left radicals have a point; the personal is the political and the reverse is also true and both to the extent that politics apply to one’s life.
I had also learned as a child to commit to physical action, whether for property rights, charity (ringing bells for the Salvation Army and soliciting on street corners to raise money to help the blind), safety (as a crossing guard and kids’ safety school instructor) and politics, standing at blustery Chicago locations to promote individual rights. Chicago Police detained me without cause when, tipped off by a sympathetic union source, I joined a peaceful protest of a Carter/Mondale union rally. That’s where I learned the value of the proper maneuver, getting to know reporters on site and communicating the message to the right recipient. That day, we failed, outfoxed by unions and corrupt cops, ignored by the broadcast media that turned the other cheek to youths being wrongly evicted from an exercise in free speech. We had been unprepared for hostile reaction.
Over years in campaigns and, later, on Capitol Hill with John Porter, on the advance team for Ronald Reagan, whom I met and talked with, and while running editorial operations for free market health care and patient advocacy, while reading Ayn Rand’s writings and reporting on news, sports and commentary, I developed the ability to quickly assimilate facts and action with a principled purpose, often in a crisis with a distinct and legitimate requisite for some degree of theatrical appeal. In Chicago, I had faced harsh weather and physical threats. I was also threatened with physical force on the streets in Philadelphia, where I coached and advised a student protest against state-sponsored voluntary servitude. There were lessons in Miami, too, when I met Elian Gonzalez days before he was seized at gunpoint by the U.S. government only to be returned to a Communist dictatorship.
At times, the activists walked away thinking we had won when, in fact, we’d lost. In other instances, the team figured we may have wasted time when, in fact, we had advanced the cause for freedom in some small but measurable way; the campaign to liberate Elian, which was opposed by some top Objectivists, comes to mind. The team had mobilized and activated thousands in unity in an unprecedented national effort which provided crucial experience to future leaders and serious artists, entrepreneurs and intellectuals. Most of the time the results were as mixed as the culture, a fact of reality which yields the best lesson of all: that, with regard to activism, reality is beyond one’s immediate control and you have to let go of what you can’t control to focus on what you can control, which may be an extremely difficult balance to achieve in an activist moment. Yes, one must act on principle to be a rational activist, as I learned in my youth. But one must act, which I have observed in 40 years of experience most Objectivists do not. When they do, it is often with self-aggrandizement, sanctimony or sneering that puts people off and precludes an intended audience from being receptive to persuasion from an objective communication about what’s in philosophy for them.
I’ve made scads of mistakes and the record proves it. We did not stop welfare statism or eradicate the notion of being morally obliged to “give back” to God, religion or others. We are losing that intellectual battle and fast and on an epic scale. We lost free choice in medicine to health care dictatorship and a child refugee to Communism. But, for the few who have activated their minds in principled action, and you know who you are, activism is not hustling in a self-centered way as most right-wing think tanks and professional political activists do. Activism offers a trade. When properly executed, results are the reward: Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), a moral challenge in action to those who seek to rule by force in the heart of where they gather – Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, DC – and a house a child calls home.
There are other benefits of rational activism: a strong, seasoned, unified network of rare, exceptional intellectuals, neither ivory tower types nor hucksters, who activate like real-life superheroes in a given crisis in a nation heading toward catastrophe, buying more time to live, which buys more time to be happy here on earth. For myself, I know firsthand that activism should not be a sacrifice, and that the greatest reward is having acted in my self-interest. From the life of the late John David Lewis, whose Tea Party speeches for free market medicine and victory in war with jihadists were as passionate as his lectures on history, to the example of Leonard Peikoff, who learned from Ayn Rand (who was also an activist), I have learned that the more the altruist-collectivist axis enacts a dictatorship, the more urgently the egoist-individualist and his allies must self-activate.
On this horrible date in history, the day the dictate ObamaCare became law, Americans should keep in mind the words of Leonard Peikoff, who said, when faced with the prospect of government-controlled medicine – and he said it to a general audience, not to a cluster of academics, let alone Objectivist academics: “So long as people believe that socialized medicine is a noble plan, there is no way to fight it. You cannot stop a noble plan—not if it really is noble. The only way you can defeat it is to unmask it—to show that it is the very opposite of noble. Then at least you have a fighting chance.” The upshot of this thought is to fight on principle; to know enough to fight to win and live life. In this sense, activism means fighting to live and this is a balance; one must keep in mind both that the point is to live and that living means active fighting, not passive griping, forwarding of e-mails and sharing of posts or making jokes, memes and comments. Activism is not only reading, listening and making donations to others. It means going on the offense, deep into the adversary’s field of operations. It means the opposite of sloughing off the world at large; it means engagement, not disengagement. As Ayn Rand wrote, it is sooner than you think. I think this is still true.
Objectivism is a philosophy for living on earth. Its application requires thought and action. Today, especially on this day, this means being an activist, not for the sake of activism but for the sake of your life. Dr. Peikoff’s forementioned health care activism resulted in an instantaneous standing ovation. I know because I was there and, as I remember it, I was first to stand up. The injustice he was fighting, the Clinton health care plan, was not only defeated; unlike ObamaCare, it never went to the White House for signing. That’s because it never made it to the congressional floor for a vote and that’s because it never became a piece of legislation. This is what activism can do.