How OActivists Can Help ARI Promote Cultural Change

 Posted by on 10 March 2008 at 6:00 am  Activism
Mar 102008

How does the formal work of the Ayn Rand Institute fit in with the informal work of the OActivists list in their mutual goal of promoting Objectivist ideas? Although the two entities are separate and independent, I’d like to sketch out one possible way that both groups could work to their mutual benefit.

Yaron Brook mentioned in last year’s “State of the ARI” address that one of his eventual goals was to have Ayn Rand’s ideas circulating everywhere. Those ideas might not necessarily always be associated with her name or the name “Objectivism”, but they would become part of the background cultural climate.

So this would mean that an average thoughtful person would get exposed to Ayn Rand’s ideas if he walked into his local Starbucks and overheard other customers discussing foreign policy. Or if he started talking politics with his coworkers at lunch. If he opened the newspaper, he’d see a letter to the editor taking an Objectivist position. If he read a blog post about a current events topic, he would see someone in the comments section offering an Objectivist perspective.

Even if those ideas weren’t always associated with the names “Ayn Rand” or “Objectivism”, they would still have an effect. And of course, once an honest and open-minded person started doing some investigation, he would quickly find out where they came from.

For instance, if he asked his co-worker at lunch where he heard that interesting take on Middle East politics, his friend might say, “My cousin mentioned it to me last week, and he said it came from Ayn Rand”. Then he might read an OpEd in his local newspaper from the Ayn Rand Institute. Then his daughter might tell him that her high school English class was covering the theme of independence and individualism in their reading of the Ayn Rand novel, The Fountainhead. A leftist local politician whom he disliked might say something snarky about Ayn Rand while advocating another bad government program.

Each repetition of those ideas would continue to reinforce one another, and soon the average honest person would recognize that there was an interesting body of ideas out there, from Ayn Rand under the name of “Objectivism” — a body of ideas that had application to real-world issues that were important to him.

If we got to that stage, then we would be in pretty good shape. As Ayn Rand’s ideas became widely circulated in the culture and recognized as such, then they would be (correctly) regarded as part of the mainstream of public discussion. From there, it would be much easier for Objectivists (either at the Ayn Rand Institute or outside of it) to have opinion pieces published regularly in major outlets such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Investors Business Daily, etc., with an explicit affiliation to “Ayn Rand” and/or “Objectivism”. Similarly, Objectivsts would be appear regularly on television and radio programs. News editors would want to know the Objectivist position on important public issues, just as they currently seek out the environmentalist viewpoint or the feminist viewpoint or the religious conservative viewpoint on a variety of issues.

At that point, I believe that the quality and clarity of Objectivists ideas compared to those of the opposition would become increasingly apparent to all reasonable people, especially because it would resonate with the fairly good “sense of life” still held by many Americans. They would learn that there was an explicit philosophy that matched their implicit sense of life. And once we established a self-reinforcing “virtuous cycle” where the advocacy of our ideas inspired others (Objectivists and non-Objectivists alike) to express support for similar ideas, then we would be well on our way to victory.

So how does the OActivists project fit into all this? I believe that we can be very helpful throughout this process, but especially in this critical first phase of getting the ideas seeded and circulated in the culture. Everyone who has an interest in some sort of activism can proceed in whatever fashion suits his or her own goals, interests, and desires. This should not be a painful duty or chore, but something that one actively enjoys.

For instance, I like to write, but I don’t have much time for or interest in public speaking. Others might enjoy going to a high school class and presenting the basics of Ayn Rand’s ideas to students. Others might enjoy sending letters to public officials or speaking at community meetings. Others might be willing to leave a brief comment on a non-Objectivist blog post, even if it’s just a link to an ARI webpage that summarizes the Objectivist position on that topic or to a relevant The Objective Standard article. Others might enjoy informal discussions with co-workers, friends, and family. All of these efforts can have an impact.

No single bit of writing or speaking needs to be overly deep and profound. It just has to be clear and relevant. The constant repetition and exposure to these ideas will add up in the average readers’ and listeners’ minds faster than one might realize. In particular, repeated exposure to our ideas will have a good effect on two noteworthy target audiences — public officials and news editors. An editor might not print the first letter supporting free market health care or supporting America’s right to self-defense against Islamofascism, but if he gets 7 or 8 of them, then he’ll start thinking that this should be a legitimate part of the debate. The same is true with politicians. No single drop of water will wear a hole in a stone, but given enough time a steady drip of water will wear through any rock.

If only 15-20 active people could shape the course of the debate of an important political issue (health care) in the state of Colorado, think of what 500-1000 motivated Objectivists around the country could do, if they each pursued avenues for activism that they found satisfying and enjoyable.

Personally, I’m getting tired of hearing the same old garbage from the leftists, the environmentalists, the multiculturalists, and the religious mystics, and feeling that my ideas are always under attack. I think it’s about time for us to go on the offensive promoting our ideas in the culture, and let them start worrying if their ideas will become a beleaguered minority.

But to accomplish this, one thing needs to change: Ordinary Objectivists need to begin actively advocating their ideas publicly. There may be many reasons why this isn’t already happening to a greater extent. Some may want to do something, but not know what to do or how to do it. Others may think it’s hopeless, and hence not worth their time. Some may think that this is the job of the ARI. Others may be wasting time in fruitless online arguments with other Objectivists, rather than directing some of that energy towards the outside world where it could have a much greater payoff. (This is not meant as a criticism of online Objectivist discussion groups and mailing lists per se, but only of the sorts of endless back-and-forth internet debates that generate more heat than light.)

Of course, there is no self-sacrificial “duty” for anyone to engage in any sort of intellectual activism. But I believe that many (if not most) Objectivists would find that they would greatly enjoy this kind of activism, and that they would also recognize that it was in their self-interest. Some tangible benefits of engaging in this sort of activism include deepening one’s understanding of Objectivism, concretizing the ideas more firmly in one’s mind, watching others change their minds in response to one’s arguments, gaining a sense of efficacy and optimism by seeing one’s words have an impact in the culture, and meeting like-minded Objectivists. I personally have experienced all of these benefits because of my past year of involvement with the Colorado FIRM activists.

This sort of informal activism dovetails nicely with the formal efforts by the ARI to spread Objectivism through their “Education Funnel” of introducing high school kids to Ayn Rand through their Free Books Program, teaching the motivated college students more about Objectivism through the OAC (Objectivist Academic Center), and helping them get placed in influential positions as scholars, writers, teachers, journalists, politicians, and community/professional leaders after they’ve completed college and graduate school. In a few years, these writers and thinkers will help feed the growing demand for Objectivist ideas in the culture as well as create more demand.

The OActivists can play an important role by seeding the ground and “softening the culture” for these ideas, thus making people receptive towards and interested in learning more. And as the culture continues to become more friendly to Objectivist ideas, we’ll be able to build on our earlier success with even more grass-roots intellectual advocacy, thus feeding the virtuous cycle.

For those who are familiar with chemistry, the OActivists can function as the equivalent of a “catalyst”, i.e., an agent that helps speed up a chemical reaction. Of course, in chemistry a catalyst speeds up a chemical reaction that would have happened anyways, just more slowly. In intellectual affairs, there is no such guarantee that the ARI’s efforts to affect cultural change will automatically pay off; people have free will to accept or reject any idea. But the OActivists can help increase the likelihood that good intellectual change will happen, and we can help increase the speed with which it occurs.

Given that there are other powerful intellectual forces driving the culture in bad directions, we may not have much time to spare. Hence, the OActivists could save precious time and could conceivably even make the difference between victory or defeat.

If the ARI and the OActivists remain active and committed, then I predict that we will see significant cultural change for the better within 15-20 years. We have a legitimate and realistic shot of winning. But whether we do so depends on whether we have the willingness and courage to take tangible action to actually promote our ideas — in other words, whether we are willing to act to turn our goals into reality.

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