Aug 31, 2008

A Study Group for Intellectual Activists

Would you like to improve the world in which you live? The four-week "Cultural Movements: Creating Change" study group (CMCCSG) might be the right place for you to start. Within a few weeks, the CMCCSG will begin in SGO at:

Every SGO study group is focused on a particular text, but as an experiment the "text" here consists of videos of the three lectures Yaron Brook and Onkar Ghate presented at the 2008 Objectivist Conference (OCON).

The CMCC lectures examine three 20th Century movements that were at least partly successful: free-market economics, environmentalism, and religious fundamentalism. (For the nature of a "movement," see the July 5 and July 14, 2008 posts.) The two speakers then draw from what they learned about those movements to suggest techniques for the Objectivist movement.

CMCCSG is a very short-term study group for anyone who wants to improve our world in the decades ahead. For long-term students of history, an added benefit of studying these lectures is seeing the value of applying lessons from history.

To join this study group, (1) register as a member of SGO, and (2) click on the home page link ("All") for the "Cultural Movements: Creating Change" study group. That link will take you to the "Details" page, which describes the study group and allows you to participate. 

Aug 29, 2008

Study Groups for Objectivists (SGO)

Gene Ligman, a registered member of SGO, says:

By participating in the ITOE, Ch. 5 ("Definitions") study group, I have assuredly learned more than I would have through self-study by itself. I would not have broken the subject down into such small sections, which helped immensely, nor would I have known the questions that I should ask myself in order to make sure I had integrated it sufficiently. I appreciated the time scale, having other pursuits in life to take care of.

The optional study questions were very helpful. They were targeted to help ensure integration of the material studied. The act of stating something in one's own words is an act that causes further thought. Whenever I had to think of examples to use, it helped me to fit the new information into the right places. Also, reading other peoples examples and answers provided extra insight as well.

PURPOSE. SGO provides a platform for short-term, specialized study groups working with particular texts, mainly in the fields of philosophy and history. A study group is not a classroom, a tutoring session, or a debating arena, but an opportunity for trade. In SGO, highly motivated students of history or philosophy can enhance their individual studies of a certain text by trading insights, questions, and answers with other individuals who are studying the same text at the same time.

FEATURES AND BENEFITS. SGO offers five main features:
- Rigorous etiquette ensures that study-group members focus their comments on ideas not on other members of the study group.
- Scheduling--one section of text per week--encourages steady, thorough, and consistent study.
- Leadership--one administrator overall and one moderator for each study group--provides focus and continuity throughout the weeks or months of study. The temporary position of study-group moderator offers a brief opportunity to practice project-management and other social skills as a means for achieving one's individual, long-term, intellectual goals.
- Open archives provide information that enables serious students to decide whether to purchase and study a particular text.
- Advanced notice allows students to prepare adequately, perhaps completing an initial reading of the assigned text as a whole, long before the study group begins addressing parts of that text.

PARTICIPANTS. SGO welcomes serious students of Objectivism. They may be young or old. They may be enrolled in academia or studying on their own plan. They may have a lot or only a little knowledge of the subject they wish to study. Trade arises from such differences. For example, a novice in a particular subject may ask a question that requires more knowledgeable members to stop, think, and make explicit what they had only assumed as "obvious" before.

When a study group is complete, each member should have expanded his knowledge of the particular text the group examined. He will have answered some of his original questions, but the study group experience should also give rise to new questions, which only more study will answer. A study group is not the end of study, but only one turn on the spiral of learning.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Aug 8, 2008

In-line vs. off-line activism

[For this post, I assume my readers have studied Ayn Rand's most important philosophical work, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, especially Chs. 1-5.]

As a preliminary step toward clarifying the differences between in-line and off-line activism, consider five imaginary examples of intellectual activists--individuals taking action in society to disseminate philosophical principles as they apply to current social or political issues.

(1) A physicist, Dr. A, works for a nuclear power-plant management company. He works 8 am to 5 pm, five days per week. In his spare time, in the evenings and on weekends, he writes a long article for a popular magazine. In the article, Dr. A argues for liberation of the nuclear-power industry. In support of his theme, he offers ethical principles (e.g., the moral right to property), political principles (the only function of a proper government is protecting rights from aggression and fraud), and technical knowledge (nuclear power does not cause neighbors to glow in the dark). Dr. A also occasionally meets informally with investors, power-plant managers, and others to convey to them his philosophical and technical views. He hopes to give them the information they need to clamor for liberating the nuclear-power industry. Dr. A is a scientist, not a professional intellectual, that is, his central purpose in life is not in the area of the humanities.[1] Besides being a scientist, he is also an in-line intellectual activist.

He is an activist because he is taking action in society to improve his world. He is an intellectual activist because he is applying philosophical principles to the culture in which he lives. (He is, in some measure perhaps, also a political activist if he takes steps to change his government in particular ways.) He is acting in-line because he is disseminating information that he has gained, directly or indirectly, through his efforts to achieve his central purpose in life, which is, in his particular case, "to facilitate the production of energy through nuclear power," or some similar statement of purpose.

(2) A second physicist, Dr. B, has essentially the same central purpose in life but is now retired from working for an income. She writes a series of articles, pamphlets, weblog posts, and books--some written to the general public and some to her scientific peers--calling for the deregulation of the nuclear-power industry. Capitalizing on the many contacts she made while working, she also occasionally meets with investors, power plant managers, and others to convey her philosophical and technical views, in hopes of giving these powerful individuals the ethical, political, and technical "ammunition" they need to fight for liberating the nuclear-power industry. She too is an in-line intellectual activist. Dr. B differs from Dr. A in that she can work full-time at her activism.

(3) A third physicist, Dr. C, has essentially the same central purpose in life as Drs. A and B, and he works for a nuclear power-plant management company 8 to 5, five days per week. In his spare time on one weekend, Dr. C writes a letter to the editor of the local, small-town newspaper. The subject of the letter is a protest against the local police department wasting time arresting prostitutes and heroin addicts in the town. Dr. C writes the letter in favor or abolishing victimeless-crime laws. He uses moral arguments (e.g., the right to liberty), political arguments (e.g., the proper function of government), and financial arguments (half the police budget goes for victimless crimes, while rapists and robbers run free). In this project, Dr. C is an off-line intellectual/political activist.

(4) Dr. D is a professional historian. Her particular central purpose in life is to "promote understanding of our past." She is a professional intellectual.[2] So far, her career has consisted mostly of publishing her own historical research and teaching in academia. She chooses to spend some of her weekends and evenings preparing philosophical arguments (e.g., about the nature of objectivity) and other arguments to persuade local public school board members to adopt more objective history texts for middle-school students. Dr. D is, in this respect, an in-line intellectual and political activist. If, instead, she chooses to devote some of her evenings and weekends to working with a local, ad hoc group trying to stop a proposed sales tax, then she is, in that respect, an off-line intellectual activist.

(5) Mr. E is a carpenter. His central purpose in life is to use wood--which he loves in all its many forms--for making things that improve life, such as houses, boats, conference tables, and model planes for the children of his friends. He is not a member of a carpenter's union, so he works only on nonunion jobs. On the side, he likes reading about and discussing basic philosophy. He has also invested some time into reading the laws of his city and state as they apply to unions. When he works as a carpenter, he works long hours. Between jobs he writes letters to the editors of newspapers and of magazines for carpenters. In these letters, Mr. E cites fundamental principles, stated in his own words, as support for a free market in labor. In particular, he opposes restrictions on immigration and laws that regulate relations between corporate management and laborers, particularly in the construction business. Mr. E is an in-line intellectual activist.

The preceding five examples illustrate this point: The defining characteristic of an in-line activist is the special relationship between his work (physics, history, or carpentry) and his intellectual activism: The two areas have the same general subject matter, at least in part. An in-line activist is an intellectual/political activist in his field, which is the field of his beloved central purpose in life.

An off-line activist, by contrast, is active in a field outside the field of his central purpose in life. Whether the off-line activist spends only a few minutes or 60 hours per week at his activism is not an issue here. What makes him off-line is the fact that the subject matter of his activism is outside ("off") the field of his beloved central purpose in life.

NONDEFINING CHARACTERISTICS. In defining ideas, the thinker should set aside nonessential characteristics. Examples of nonessential characteristics for in-line activism are: the amount of time the activist invests in his activism; whether the activist is a professional intellectual; whether or to what degree the activist needs to increase his communication skills; and how much (if any) research the activist needs to do for particular activist projects.

(1) In-line activism can be a full-time activity, as in the case of a retired person who maintains the same central purpose in life but perhaps in a different form, one not requiring that he work a regular job. Or in-line activism can be part-time. Likewise, off-line activism can be either full-time or part-time. How much time an activist spends on his activist projects is not an essential (causal, explanatory) characteristic. As in the formation of concepts generally, measurements are omitted in the formation of the idea of in-line activism.

(2) One need not be a professional intellectual in order to engage in intellectual activism, either in-line or off-line, just as one need not be a professional politician in order to engage in political activism, and one need not be a professional scientist in order to advocate that schools teach the scientific method. In the Objectivist movement, as Ayn Rand explains, the "New Intellectuals" are "those who will take the initiative and the responsibility [for applying Objectivism to life]: they will check their own philosophical premises, identify their convictions, integrate their ideas into coherence and consistency, then offer to the country a view of existence to which the wise and honest can repair."[3] The New Intellectuals of the Objectivist movement need not be professional intellectuals.[4]

(3) A need to improve one's skills in objective communication is common to both in-line activists and off-line activists--and even individuals who are not activists at all but who want to succeed in the advanced levels of their careers.[5] So the need to improve one's communication skills is not a characteristic that distinguishes in-line from off-line activists.

(4) Both types of activist may need to do additional research for some of their activist projects, but not for other projects (e.g., those projects that involve only a quick statement of position, backed up by a very simple argument). A need for research and a potential need to substantiate all assertions with citations are not distinguishing characteristics of either in-line or off-line activism.

SUMMARY. In understanding the idea of in-line (versus off-line) activism, it is very important not to define the idea by any characteristic other than the relationship between the activist's field of beloved work and the subject matter of his intellectual/political activism. The amount of time invested in an activity, one's professional status, one's skill in communication, and the amount of research required are all inessential and therefore nondefining characteristics of either form of activism.

The essential defining characteristic of in-line activism is the positive relationship of the activist's area of activism to the field of his central purpose in life. In-line activism means intellectual (or political) activism that is "in-line" with--drawn from, congruent with--the work he has done to fulfill his central purpose in life.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] For central purpose in life: posts for May 20 and June 5, 2008. [2] For "professional intellectual," see: Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 25 (hardback) or 27 (paperback); or see "Intellectuals," The Ayn Rand Lexicon, first excerpt. [3] For a description of the New Intellectuals of the Objectivist movement: Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 59 (hardback). [4] For the nature of a movement, see the July 5, 2008 post. [5] For a series of lectures and practical exercises (performed by audience members) on objective communication, suitable for anyone who communicates as the core of his work, but especially for the New Intellectuals: Leonard Peikoff, "Objective Communication," an audio recording of a long series of lectures, available from The Ayn Rand Bookstore.

Aug 1, 2008

What is in-line activism?

The Summer 2008 issue of The Objective Standard carries an article by Raymond C. Niles, "Property Rights and the Crisis of the Electric Grid." According to his profile under the "Contributors" tab on the TOS website:

Mr. Niles manages an investment fund focused on the electric utility and related industries. Prior to initiating his fund, Mr. Niles was a senior electric utility analyst at Citigroup and Schroders. He has appeared on numerous industry and media forums, including the Edison Electric Institute, the NYMEX, the Wall Street Journal, Barron's, CNBC, and ABC News. Mr. Niles holds an MBA from the Stern School of Business at New York University.

Mr. Niles's clearly written and tightly edited article looks at the history of the economics of power generation and transmission. The article calls for a principled change toward a free market ("a liberated electric grid based on property rights and private ownership of the rights-of-way") and away from the crony-statism now controlling this industry. Mr. Niles's article is thus, in part, a project of intellectual and political activism. He is working as an activist from a broad base of philosophical, historical, and technical knowledge that he has accumulated throughout his career.

Mr. Niles has also taken his activism one step further than writing a substantial article in a prestigious journal. He has taken his activism directly to individuals in the electricity-generation industry, individuals who have some economic power and potentially some influential power of ideas with others inside and outside the industry. He writes (reproduced with permission):

I gave a speech based on my article to an industry trade group that represents owners of power plants and electricity traders who do business in California. I wasn't sure how they would react, especially after I told them that the 'deregulation' that they thought they were pursuing wasn't deregulation at all, and actually has made the industry worse. Also, when I told them that people should own rights-of-way underneath and above the city streets and that we should have competitive electric grids, I thought they would think that I had three heads!

Well, to my very pleasant surprise, they reacted with genuine interest in what I had to say. What I took from their reaction is that most people hold socialist/interventionist views only by default. Many people implicitly support a capitalist society but they have not been properly sold on it. When I presented my reasons, they 'got' much of it, to my great surprise.

To make things happen, the first thing required is the idea. For the electric utility industry, I presented that idea in my article, a way forward out of the morass of pseudo-deregulation and ratebase regulation. As far as I know, I am the first one to state it. However, until it gets said, it cannot happen.

Mr. Niles is an in-line activist. He is engaged in an activism that is a direct and natural application of his career and his central purpose in life.

As a student of history, especially of philosophical movements, I wonder about the comparative potency of various forms of philosophical and intellectual activism. As a working hypothesis, I would expect that in-line activism would be, all other factors being equal, more effective in disseminating ideas than off-line activism, that is, actions taken in one field by someone who is an expert in another field. Why would in-line activism be more effective? I can suggest four answers, as elements of a working hypothesis.

1. The in-line activist has the specialized knowledge required to back up his principles with technical and historical details. Principles and concretes together are objective; and, rhetorically, objectivity is far more persuasive than either principles or concretes alone.

2. The in-line activist knows his audience, not only their degree of knowledge, but also which individuals have power--the ability to make changes in one's world despite opposition. The in-line activist can tailor his argument to the appropriate individuals at the appropriate times and places. He can talk in their terms, understand their problems, and share their aspirations

3. The in-line activist is more likely to gain personal access to the most powerful members of his audience as individuals--at professional conferences, at lunch meetings, or at other events.

4. In-line activists can organize, lead, and participate in public discussions and debates more successfully than individuals outside the field could do. An in-line activist is more likely to have already heard the opposition's standard objections, usual fallacies, and conventional rhetorical tricks. The in-line activist is well-armed through experience.

A student of history or contemporary culture can test these elements of the working hypothesis for in-line activism. Such testing might mean (1) studying the records of successful movements of the past (for example, a movement to abolish tariffs) and (2) observing activists engaged in struggles today (for example, in the tiny but growing movement to stop statist monopoly medicine, that is, the politicalization of medical care).

A central topic of this post is the question of which type of activism (in-line or off-line) might be more effective in disseminating fundamental ideas for change in special fields and, cumulatively, in the general culture. However, whether a particular individual should choose one form of activism over another (or any form of activism at all) may properly depend on factors such as other personal interests and purposes besides his central purpose in life.

Based on my observation and speaking generally, I would say rational people act more intensely, persistently, and effectively when they are operating on their "home territory," which is the domain defined by their highest personal as well as philosophical values--including their central purpose in life.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith