The Activist's Dilemma

Many people are spurred to activism by a desire to counteract the activism of others, and the realm of public policy has become a battlefield. We're drawn into action by the need to protect the utility of rights or property, to preserve personal autonomy, or the integrity of a community. The threats are real, but each new contingent on the public policy field broadens the scope of conflict. Remember "Where's Waldo?" More faces in the melee make it harder for observers or participants to discern what is happening. It's a chaos created by collective refusal to "mind your business", or acknowledge where one's business ends and someone else's begins. Direct communication between activists holds more promise than reciprocal picketing, or bickering under the cover of opposing groups. Only in conscientious dialogue can we respect the opposition or discover common ground. When we act within a group, a subtle comrade mentality takes over; while we overlook differences among our allies, differences with others grow phantasmagorical.

Activism of all stripes strives toward influencing the thinking or habits of other people. As Aldous Huxley said, "There's only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that's your own self." Small or large time transactions may be subtracted from personal enrichment or private endeavor where they should profit us the most, and added toward legitimizing the supremacy of gang-oriented activity over recreational pastime or personal growth. By preserving an emphasis on combative factions, this contributes to the coffers of state power, strengthening its death grip on society. The state rises against the ordinary person, much like the dollar rises (or falls) against the yen or the euro.

As in Bastiat's broken window theory of economics, the cost of what is lost must be measured against what is seen to be gained. Hours involved in door-to-door canvassing, sign holding, or signature collecting were not spent with loved ones, in study or reflection, conversing with friends, enjoying a hobby, cooking; or writing or attending plays, creating or enjoying music, art or literature. These hours are spent addressing perceived needs or the betterment of community or society, while one's own need or betterment is put on hold. With so many people minding the ostensible needs of the public, while formulas of self-development and self-responsibility languish on the back burner, it's no wonder we find self-government a hard sell.

Outreach easily becomes overreach. We've all had to answer the phone during dinner or go to the door in our pajamas on Sunday morning. It doesn't matter how earnest the mission is when it's perceived as an intrusion. Pleas for money and support become relentless and even when a cause is worthy, resources are finite and time is precious. One mailing list becomes one hundred, and the original cause may become an avalanche of unopened solicitations, most of them written in stark, strident, conspiratorial tones. Even the creative gimmicks begin to leave a bad impression; coins or trinkets, urgent warnings, questionnaires, ad nauseum.

The well meaning effort to 'educate people' or to 'raise consciousness' is subliminally conveyed as a veiled affront, even when graciously received, since most people consider themselves educated and have their own priorities. The ultimate responsibility we bear is cultivating our own consciousness, and if another person's awareness is raised as a consequence, it's because he has observed and understood something empirically. Lessons learned from observation and experience are not readily surrendered to intellectual fad; like dollars earned by our labors, we are aware of their value.

If a person sprouts the seed of an idea, and waters and tends it while it grows, the fruits are his. When you offer someone a seasoned idea because it has flowered and fruited for you, it soon fades. He has no investment in the growth of an idea that will bear no fruit for him. Activism generally engages in the folly of fully formed concepts, or packages of opinion, rather than encouraging people to germinate and harvest their own ideas. It's a mistake to think that concepts must be painstakingly explained to have relevance. It's rather the opposite, since only lazy souls appreciate pre-fabricated notions; reliance on these perpetuates laziness of usage, and ensures a rapid degeneration of the doctrine in question. The person who prefers to nurture his own ideas will make better use of them; he may well improve the breed produced in descendants of the seed idea.

One source of trouble lies in the trendy insistence on 'branding' ideas, or intellectual property rights. If you love an idea enough to wish it to propagate freely, set it free. If you want an idea to produce royalties or gain recognition for you, keep a tight leash on it. The irony is that the reverse is often true, and that which is set free tends to fly home, while that which is copyrighted sneaks under the fence. In the realm of ideas, the freest often prove to be the fittest in terms of survival; possibly because they were loved enough, but not overly protected. Like children, ideas must fly the nest in order to lead productive lives. The activist should come to terms with the fact that his idea must cease to be his if it is to prosper, or cease to prosper if it is to remain his. He must accept that, like himself, his idea is worthy of freedom; that it may appeal to only a few, but that many may follow where the few dare to lead.

Modern education lies at the root of the activist's dilemma. Subject material is fully developed and leaves little room for the adventurous or inquisitive mind to explore. That's why tests are so important; they don't measure creativity, insight, or ability to think, but the facility to absorb and regurgitate 'correct answers'. The correct answer is determined in advance by an authority; deliberately ignoring the possibility of the student formulating a better answer, or one appropriate to his experience that he can test against his own experiments and discard or adapt as warranted. Growth is stifled along with freedom of thought, and freedom of speech is a pitiable sop to throw to someone who has not developed his ability to think for himself. Unless one has something to say that hasn't been inculcated by outward authority, his freedom to speak does not ensure his freedom in the least; it only furthers deceptive aims of those who thereby proffer 'freedom', however meaningless the exercise thereof may be in practice. By using comparable methods, the activist fosters the aims of modern education and perpetuates an illusion of inferior ability in the common man. This may appear to flatter him by comparison, but does no service to the cause of liberty.

When suitors of liberty try to use political machination to vanquish despoilers of freedom, it's roughly analogous to police attempting to defeat crime by behaving like criminals. When the tactic works, it does so at the expense of honor and principle; it blurs the distinction between cop and crook, and assumes that the end justifies the means. People fear what they don't understand, and they deserve to know that the freedom seeker cherishes their rights and freedoms as the complement of his own: he may be unusual, insofar as he's not trying to muscle in and take something away from them. It shouldn't be a political idea; trying to convert it into a political message doesn't translate well. If people feel threatened by our ideas or believe we're attacking them, that reinforces the 'us-against-them' mentality that enables the political machine. We are not wolves, and they are not sheeple; let's stop shooting our objectives in the foot by thinking that they are. It's not a clique of people working for freedom that will win the day, but a plenitude of people who aren't working against it.


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