Phi Beta Cons

Activism, ctd.

Before responding to Jason’s post, I wanted to address Allison’s from yesterday: Due to space limitations, my original note, in which I addressed conservative “activism” only briefly, could not adequately clarify my general thoughts on the subject. Doing so now may preemptively refute misplaced criticisms Jason directed at me–before I respond to him more directly later this afternoon. (Though, vide Kathryn, and pace Jason, I will try to keep my remarks limited to narrow, substantive points.)
My problem with “activism” is partially one of semantics. The term itself conjures up images of bongo-drum protests, sidewalk chalkings, and cacophonic nonsense screeched from megaphones. Most of the time this kind of activism is largely divorced from logic, but even if there is a strong underlying point–and there sometimes is–it gets lost beneath the shrill murk of platitudes.
Allison is spot-on to say a primary difference between conservative and liberal activism is that conservatives tend to be clever, whereas their liberal counterparts do not. But cleverness is a matter of taste, and taste is a matter of discrimination. I think the bake sales worked quite well as humorous protests against affirmative action–especially the directly applicable ones at Michigan. On the other hand, I thought the White Scholarship, sponsored by Jason Mattera and intended to make a similar point, was blunt and humorless. “[T]he scholarship did its job by generating media attention and prompting discussion on college campuses across the country,” he wrote in a response to Ed Gillespie, who as Republican party chairman criticized the stunt. But was that nationwide discussion actually about the merits of federally funded scholarships for minorities? Probably not, for the same reason that inviting the KKK to campus wouldn’t do much to engender a robust discussion of free speech.
Becoming enamored with one’s tactics—hot-dogging for the biggest media splash—can overwhelm simple matters of taste. And it can also overwhelm the objective: to convince people of a point of view for the long-term, not to grab headlines in the short-term. The rise of conservatism was not due to slapdash political protests; it was due to a sustained commitment to ideas, promulgated by people like Ronald Reagan and Bill Buckley: people who bolstered their positions with civility, wit, and charm.
The decline of liberalism on campus, on the other hand, has been marked by a lack of civility, an inability to enunciate and defend positions, an obsession with tactics and strategies rather than ideas. What happens when you lose sight of the ideas through the fog of tactics? Just look at the intellectual state of the Left on campus. Activism may be a means to an end, but it can quickly become an end itself. Young conservatives need to guard against this tendency.
(See here and here for two fine pieces further examining the dangers of succumbing to an “activist mindset.”)

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