Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Intellectual activism in defense of free speech

I firmly believe that there needs to be public outcry over the appallingly week defense of free speech rights in the wake of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, especially outcry directed at the Bush administration, which has refused to defend the freedom to criticize Islam without caveats or equivocation. The question is how to engineer it-and evidence the power of Objectivism in the process.

I've mentioned in an earlier post that I want to host a free speech demonstration in Washington. I have received several messages in support and I think the times demand such an act. Yet at the same time, I have several reservations.

Demonstrations are notoriously difficult to organize. I've organized three demonstrations in DC; two "countermarches" in defense of industry and technology on Earth Day in front of the White House and a protest in defense of Elian Gonzales in front of the Department of Justice. Additionally, I participated in a small demonstration in defense of Microsoft in front of the courthouse where the firm's antitrust trial was held and the ARI anti-volunteerism protest in Philadelphia.

Each demonstration that I worked on took about a month to put together. Talking points had to be formulated, participants had to be recruited, accommodations and transportation secured, signs printed and press releases and position papers issued. All the while, the burden of fundraising hung over my head as each demonstration barely paid for themselves, let alone bring in money to be used for future endeavors.

There's also another problem with demonstrations-it is next to impossible to get Objectivists to participate in them. We averaged around 50 participants for each of the demonstrations I organized. While I deeply appreciated every soul that came to march, that's still a paltry sum. I think there's a clear reason for this: many Objectivists are utterly controversy-shy. It takes both balls and a clear head to hold a sign saying that Earth Day or volunteerism is immoral or that Microsoft should not have to suffer antitrust and be able to quickly explain to non-Objectivists why. For some reason, too many Objectivists fail to possess both these attributes in sufficient numbers to bring 500 people to a protest, instead of the usual 50. (Well, that, and the "I have a job" claim that seems to exempt both physical participation in a demonstration and monetary support).

And then there's the claim of anti-intellectualism. Protests are mostly exercises in marching and chanting (that's the charge at least), so what then is the point then in participating in them. Never mind that to be in the news, one often has to make news (which means the willingness to pound the pavement in defense of one's principles from time to time). Every demonstration that I organized had clear talking points and included pre-march briefings to bring all the participants up to speed with how to communicate our message effectively to the media and the public.

So What were the dividends? The press conferences for both Earth Day countermarches were covered by C-SPAN. I was asked by a top-ten newspaper to write an anti-Earth Day op-ed. Ed Locke's speech in defense of Elian Gonzales was heavily quoted in the conservative press, and the protests received other news coverage as well. Young Objectivists who had never met anyone who shared their views in person made friendships that apparently have endured for years.

Yet if all these achievements were valued, we simply would have raised more money. What else must one do to engage in Objectivist activism that is worthy of support-unless any such activism itself is frowned upon?

I don't know anymore. In the case of the Muhammad cartoons controversy, I can't help but think that we need to go to the mattresses in defense of our free speech rights, and that even a protest manned by 50 Objectivists is an important contribution to this fight. No one is taking the administration to task for its failures on this issue. Everyone is terrified of violence if they show the cartoons, yet no one is demanding that the government do its job to protect against that threat. And if we are not free to criticize Islam-if we are not free to illustrate Islam's irrationality and barbarism-we are not free to defend our lives and address one of the central questions of our time. How can we allow this to happen without a fight?

I say we cannot. That said, I'm not sure everyone else shares my enthusiasm. So I put it to you: is a weekend event defending free speech -a mini-conference and protest march-worth it to you? What would you be willing to do to make such an event possible? How hard will you be willing to work to stand up and defend your right to free speech?

I'd like to know. Our rights deserve defending, but there's no point in issuing a call to action that will fall upon deaf ears. So please share with me where you stand.

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