Activist, activism: These are two of the ugliest, falsest, and most sinister words in the English language. As citizens of the Age of Activism, subject to the unremitting harassment of activists who refuse to leave society in peace, we need to understand the phenomenon they represent, as well as to recognize it.
According to my Webster’s Dictionary, the noun activism dates from 1915 and is defined as “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action (as a mass demonstration) in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.” This definition strikes me as being as outdated as a protest by feminists marching in pedal-pushers. The reason is that people cannot contrive to live their entire lives as one long and uninterrupted demonstration, while modern-day activists have no difficulty in consecrating themselves to activism as completely as a convent nun does to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. For nearly all activists (including many of those who claim to act in the name of religion), religion represents escapism in its most reprehensible form; activism, the radical embrace of reality.
They could not be more wrong, of course. The solitary nun praying her rosary contemplates wholeness in the particularity of a wooden bead; the activist at his computer, networking unseen strangers in cyberspace on behalf of a cause that has been abstracted out of existence, concentrates his being on an existential pinpoint no angel could recognize clearly enough to dance upon. The activist congratulates himself on living the fullest life of which a human being is capable, entailing the most direct engagement possible with the world. For him, only the activist is truly active, just as, for the Marxist, the working man alone works at all. His ideal is a Long March Through the Institutions led by Col. Teddy Roosevelt, the Strenuous Life in service to a revolutionary or deconstructionist political program. In truth, he has forfeited his life for a pathetic half-life as constraining of his own humanity as it is destructive of the society in which he and his fellow cybershades operate. He has become what 20th-century English Jesuit Philip Caraman wonderfully described as “a mere fragment of a man dwelling in a shadow world.”
All of us are familiar with the activist in one cause or another, whose entire life is spent visiting websites, copying and posting links, e-mailing predrafted faxes, now and again attending a meeting of like-minded people—or differently-minded ones, in which case the aim is to infiltrate or demonstrate, as the case may be. To this miserable existence, he has too often sacrificed finding a wife, raising a family, experiencing and enjoying and appreciating the world as its exists outside his own narrow forehead. (No wonder he is gray-faced and weak-chested, relentlessly angry, perennially embittered, perpetually disappointed, and always dissatisfied with life as he finds it.) Before the communications revolution, his life was broader, though not by much. In those days (perhaps this is only an impression), activists indeed did more demonstrating and meeting-going, saw more of the world and of the people in it, witnessed history at times—and exercised their generative powers to create a generation of little activists to succeed them. Today, the most successful of them compose a sort of celibate counterbureaucracy, whose work consists of writing tendentious newspaper advertisements, “spinning” stories for the media, hiring lawyers and directing lobbyists, and raising money.
Activists as a class are pathetic people, possibly deserving of pity rather than blame. They are also public nuisances, with the alarming potential to be menaces as well. Beyond that is the effect (or success, as activists see it) activism has had in splintering large wholes into incoherent small parts, while fatally narrowing the scope of reality as healthy people are wont to view it. The result is that, in order to stand up to activism and confront the activists on their own ground, we have all become, willy-nilly and to some degree or another, activists now. This situation bodes ill for any society. Activists, of course, insist that the citizen’s immersion in private life is “escapist.” In fact, the truth is just the opposite: Escapism, for all but a small elite, means the self-immersion of mass-minded people (which most activists are) in public life. And the reason why this form of escapism is dangerous was explained four decades ago by Kenneth Minogue, when he observed that “a political policy which aims at attaining any of the supposed conditions of freedom is likely to destroy free behaviour.” Of course, attaining more of these supposed conditions of freedom is a paramount aim of activists—whose results in lost freedoms are spectacularly evident all around us.
For years, conservative writer Jeffrey Hart has praised modernism for the nearly infinite possibilities it affords differentiation and specialization—hence, he claims, individual freedom. I think he has a point, but I am not sure that the freedom Hart has in mind has been an unqualified success either in individualistic or in social terms. If we are all activists now, this is partly because we are all specialists now, forced and seduced in almost equal measure into our own partial and compartmentalized view of the world, imposing its narrow and circumscribed concerns that the hysteria of modern life usually presents to us in context as critically pressing ones.
The sun hasting to the place of his going down takes no account of the information revolution, making it ever more difficult to stay abreast of developments even in those reduced spheres of interest in which we make it our business to keep up, whether the subject in question is environmentalism, immigration reform, international trade, abortion, war, terrorism, states’ rights, “values,” religious freedom, healthcare, judicial tyranny, morality in scientific research, workers’ rights, the rights of capital, animal rights, voting reform, or any of the other myriad issues that galvanize activists on both sides of these questions, while annoying or boring those who stand in between them. It is inevitable, as well as essential, that issues such as these should be discussed—even agitated—in a free society. There are, nevertheless, a number of problems associated with agitation, as activists engage in it.
The first of these, being obvious enough, has been widely recognized as well. Activism—which, for the concerned citizen, is an avocation—is, for the professional activist (and the professionalization of activism is among the most significant phenomena of our time), a living, at least, and often a lucrative career, in addition to a vocation. This gives the activist a tremendous advantage over his nonprofessional opponent—something which, while not ordinarily a proper case for the law courts, still raises valid questions regarding the power exercised by special interests in a modern democracy.
The second problem is the splintering of public attention and perception to the extent that it can no longer focus on the total picture—or even recollect that there is such a thing as a total picture—much less have an interest in the totality that picture represents. The result is that environmental activists (for instance), their sympathizers, and supporters relate (and usually subordinate) all other public issues, international as well as national, to the structure of environmental crises and solutions with which they are single-mindedly concerned. In this way, every issue becomes a “single issue”—the vile epithet hurled in the 1970’s and 80’s against antiabortionism, which (as Joseph Sobran explained decades ago) is almost the single activist movement not to deserve it. (Another is immigration restriction.) Enthusiasms of this sort quite naturally tend to blinker people, and even to blind them. Where activism is concerned, however, the victims are not the activists alone but society as a whole. Activism has become simply how modern people (most of them deprived, not coincidentally, of religious faith) prefer to comprehend reality—that is to say, in bits and pieces. Even nonactivists tend to assume nowadays that public life amounts to one gang of activists fighting the other and that their personal welfare—and that of the country—is best served when the gang whose interests seem closest to their own prevails over the others.
The third problem with activism is that activists, in their single-minded devotion to their single cause, are drawn inevitably to confuse it with themselves. We all know the type: the free trader, for instance, who cannot really say, finally, whether he has devoted his life to the cause of free trade because it is the single most important thing in the world or whether it is the single most important thing in the world because he has devoted his life to it. Such people, being unshakable in their fanaticism, should perhaps be left to it. Unfortunately, they are more tenacious than bulldogs in their hold on a corner, at least, of the public discourse, from which they can hardly be shaken at all.
It is a paradoxical feature of the modern differentiation Professor Hart celebrates that today everything tends toward the same thing. An example of this tendency is the way a professional reputation gets made and maintained these days, reputation having become pretty much dependent on specialization—which is only a professional term for the marketer’s creation of a brand product and his undeviating determination to maintain all the established associations connected with it. Long-term success, in other words, lies in getting yourself known for having done something—and then doing that one thing over and over again, as consistently and changelessly as possible, for the duration of a career. To do otherwise is to alter the established brand, blur the familiar identity, complicate your marketers’ job of selling you, confuse and disappoint your audience, fans, and followers, let everybody else down, and ruin yourself. If, for example, you have made a name as an environmentalist writer, don’t—for God’s sake!—write a biography of Mozart next. If you are known as an activist in consumer issues, let someone else worry about global warming. If you have written a book advocating immigration reform, then write another and another one after that, not neglecting to contribute to journals on the subject and to attend as many immigration restrictionist meetings around the country as you can possibly manage to make. This is the reality of the intellectual and political life of our times, making indeed for a reassuring predictability in public discourse but also for an incoherent incompleteness in the public view of reality. Thus, it encourages the agitated disproportionality of the activist society, by reinforcing the fragmentary-mindednes of the specialized one.
“For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Individual free will is not a thing that Christians, anyhow, are at liberty to dispute. Nevertheless, I do not believe it is heretical to suggest that history, in its broadest outlines at least, is indeed determined—not by God necessarily but by forces men themselves create and set in motion by their own collective will, which is at once something more and something less than many multitudes of individual wills. I may deplore the use of automobiles because they create hundred of thousands of tons of carbon monoxide that destroy the ozone layer and warm Earth’s atmosphere. As an individual, I am free not to own a car or to junk the one I own and buy a horse instead. Such an exercise of the individual will satisfies most consciences, but by no means all. The activist’s conscience may (or again, it may not) goad him to abjure driving altogether, for a starter. But it insists on more than this: It goads him to launch a campaign to force the automotive industry to retool to produce nonpolluting vehicles or even to ban automobiles altogether. Losing all perspective as well as proportion, he imagines a day when not only has the environment been dramatically cleansed through his efforts but the world itself has been stamped by his personal will according to the vision he has for it. This is not the way the world works, however. While it is amazing what Orwellian Newspeak and the hypnopaedia of Aldous Huxley’s dystopia have been able to accomplish in the way of mass brainwashing over the last 50 years, propagandizing is a far easier task than activism. The activist is someone wholly inflamed by what Hayek calls “the passion for conscious control of everything.” Of course, the activist, like every man who ever lived, does well if he ever manages to achieve control of himself. As an integral part of the world he deplores, he is closer to it than he knows: half its creature; half its creator. The world, like time itself, waits for no man—the man who belongs to it, particularly. Denying the connection, and the dependence, the activist makes a Faustian bargain of his own, which he seals by disdaining to meet the finger of God and reaching out to touch the Pretender’s claw instead.
The activist temptation is dangerous both to the heart and head of society and those of its individual members. In a country like our own, where virtually every politician is an activist whose constituents expect an activist approach to government from him, the problem is particularly grave. What the solution is, I have no idea, if indeed there is a solution. One thing I do know for certain: The answer is not an activist campaign, waged by counteractivist campaigners.