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Our forefathers obviously had a very different idea of activism than we have today; it was a relatively slow process, to load an 18th-century activist with principles (given the energy necessary to propel the activism). To ignite this fuel, a relatively primitive, and slow-burning ignition system was used, and sometimes passions might flame up quickly but result in no real-world activism at all (a misfire known as a “flash in the pan”).
This “flintlock activism” delivered results on the 18th-century political battlefields, but it relied heavily upon prior preparation of often-cumbersome arguments applied to solid facts, and upon careful accuracy since every shot had to count. (It’s worth noting that this was the system used in personal quarrels as well as in political ones, in those days—a more manly time.)
Nineteenth-century advances in activism technology resulted in the quicker ignition of activism propellant. By and large, though, the style of activism known through the antebellum period would have been easily recognizable by the American Founders, and propellants still had to be hand-loaded carefully into the future activist. Facts, principles, and passions, which would interact explosively when action needed to be taken, were carefully and separately considered in those frontier days. A revolution in activism occurred in the late 20th century, however, with the discovery that passions and (somewhat-adulterated) principles could actually be pre-mixed and mass produced, allowing activism to occur on an industrial scale. No longer encumbered by the lengthy process of aligning arguments with consistent principles, or ramming them home with the use of logic before loosing those arguments upon the world, activism soon reached terrifying levels of effectiveness.
Rapid-fire “talking points” replaced the careful shot placement which had characterized earlier times, and the increasing availability of synthetic facts and manufactured passions led to an unprecedented level of political firepower, whose socially-destructive power the Founders surely could never have imagined.
A brief taxonomy of modern activism:
Bolt-Action Activism: In this model of activism, not too far removed from frontier days (though taking advantage of some improvements in technology), a deliberate thought is necessary to initiate the process—and the firing sequence of this sort of activism is relatively slow. However, the activism thus launched is often long-range, and driven by old-fashioned propellants including coherent principles, it can sometimes pierce ideological armor, especially since a solid core of fact is often involved. Indeed, to the patient aficionado, few feelings are quite as satisfying as the single, carefully considered bit of activism reaching its target with precision.
Lever-Action Activism: This relatively efficient activism makes shrewd use of the levers of power and mechanics of government to advance an agenda. It remains somewhat popular, especially among older citizens, but its complexity and old-fashioned feel marks it as obsolete to younger activists.
Semi-Automatic Activism: This variety of much more rapid-fire activism, relying heavily on synthetic principles, is criticized by old-school thinkers for being lightweight—but what it lacks in impact, adherents insist, it makes up for in ease of use and speed of response. Semi-automatic activism occurs as an automatic response when “triggered”; no independent thought to prepare for the activism is necessary—one twitch, and the activism has already gone downrange.
Fully Automatic, or “Assault” Activism: As if the semi-automatic variety were not frightening enough in its destructive power, when activism becomes fully automatic, a single “triggering” launches a burst of thoughtless activity. Residual civility has been entirely engineered out of the “assault activism” process, allowing the latest synthetic principles and manufactured rage to reach their full activism-propellant potential. Assault activism attains its effectiveness through groups of activists characterized by military-grade conformity—a level of conformity which the Founders never intended to be employed by ordinary American citizens, outside of military operations. Let’s be clear: nobody legitimately needs this level of socially destructive capability.
We seem now, as a nation, to have reached a crisis point with semi-automatic and automatic activism, which indiscriminately employed (and make no mistake, these modern forms of reckless, rapid-fire activism are meant to be indiscriminately employed; they have no legitimate purpose other than being weapons of social destruction) have made discourse nearly impossible. Freely available, even over the internet, the means of mass destruction by “assault activisms” tempts our children and threatens our very way of life.
What can we do?
A good first step is to teach young people activism safety—just as the NRA teaches gun safety. Start your own youngster early on the joys of old-fashioned, accurate, long-range activism—perhaps with a thoughtful letter to a legislator, on paper, just as Davy Crockett would have done. Teach him the power, but also the danger, in the political weapons at our disposal in a free society. Treat every genuine fact and principle with respect, and understand that every issue is a loaded issue. Know your target, and what’s beyond it, because every political decision your activism affects can have unintended consequences.
And when it comes to “assault activism,” well, there is no safe or responsible way to employ that. An age requirement for self-righteous passionate posturing, while an excellent first step, is only a first step. Emotional trigger locks are a technology worth pursuing, but they don’t offer us a permanent solution either. Until we have a society free of “assault activism,” none of our freedoms are safe.
Photo credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images