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 marks three long years of health care dictatorship known as ObamaCare (as I wrote about in an op-ed in this week’s Washington Times) contrary to decades of my best activist efforts, I have learned the essentials of activism.
Key lessons include matching message to media, objectively communicating on principle, and not without consideration for 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 without having a home for the child 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 and lived happily ever after.
We bought time, made an example of activism and 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 all around me in various forms such as hippies, drug users and all sorts of malcontents that people remarkably still refuse to acknowledge: teachers, priests, political operatives and especially college professors. There were certainly good ones, too, and that needs to be said. But the bad ones put their professions to shame and they were feeding off the 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.
I also learned 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 put me in a paddy wagon without cause when, tipped off by a sympathetic union source, we coordinated a band of teenagers to peacefully protest a Carter/Mondale union rally. That’s where I learned the art of the proper maneuver, getting to know the reporters on site and communicating the message to the right recipient. That day, we’d failed, outfoxed by the unions and crooked cops, ignored by the blow-dried broadcast media that turned the other cheek to youths being wrongly evicted from an exercise in free speech and unprepared for the hostile reaction.
Over years in campaigns and, later, 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, all while studying Ayn Rand’s philosophy and reporting on news, sports and commentary, I developed skills for integrating facts and action with a particular set of criteria based on a clear goal driven by a principled purpose and often in the context of a crisis with a distinct and legitimate requisite for theatrical appeal. In Chicago, we faced harsh weather and physical threats. We also were threatened with physical force on the streets in Philadelphia, where I coached and advised a student protest against state-sponsored voluntary servitude. And there were painful lessons in Miami, where 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, we walked away from activism thinking we’d won when, in fact, we’d lost. In other instances, we figured we may have wasted time when, in fact, we had advanced the cause for freedom in measurable ways; the campaign to liberate Elian, which was opposed by some top Objectivists, comes to mind. But 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 – an extremely difficult balance achieved by shuttling back and forth – and that parroting slogans does not advance the cause of justice. Yes, you have to act on principle to be a rational activist, as I learned in my youth. But you have to act, which I have observed in 40 years of experience most Objectivists do not – and when they do it’s too often with self-centered sanctimony or sneering that puts people off and precludes the intended audience from being receptive to an objective communication about what’s in philosophy for them.
I’ve made scads of mistakes and the record proves it. I strive to be constructively critical of my efforts because I want to succeed. We didn’t stop welfare statism or the notion of being morally obliged to “give back” to God, religion or others – we’re losing that intellectual battle and fast and on an epic scale – and 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-aggrandizing way as most right-wing think tanks and professional political activists do. Activism offers a trade and when properly executed, the results are the highest 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 can call home.
There are other benefits, too, of rational activism: a strong, seasoned, unified network of rare, exceptional intellectuals, neither ivory tower types nor hucksters, who activate like 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. Speaking for myself, and I know firsthand that activism must never to be a sacrifice, the greatest reward is having acted in one’s self-interest. For my part, I plan to do less and less so others can learn from my efforts, improve upon them and do more, faster and with greater success. 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 the thinker I consider the true master of activism, Leonard Peikoff (who learned from Ayn Rand, also an activist), I have learned that the more the altruist-collectivist axis enacts a dictatorship, the more we need to activate reason in action.
On this horrible date in our history, the day the dictate ObamaCare became law, we must 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 that thought is to fight on principle; to know enough to fight to win and live your life. You do have to fight, though, which means getting out of the comfort zone. Having a fighting chance means not just choosing to think but having the will to act.
Objectivism is a philosophy for living on earth. Its application requires thought and action. Today, especially on this day, that means being an activist, not for the sake of activism but for the sake of your own 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 – and the injustice he was fighting, the Clinton health care plan, was not only defeated – 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. That is what activism can do.