Welcome to the Depressed Activists Club. We serve great Bloody Marys. Today I’m both the bartender and earliest-arriving guest. But don’t worry, more Depressed Activists are dropping by all the time, and it’ll soon be quite a party.
This is what becomes of people who take a stand on issues of principle.
Here’s the specific thing that’s got me feeling frustrated, outraged, flattened and betrayed right now. A group of us tried to prevent an organization we cherish (Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, or JPFO) from falling into the hands of an organization we know won’t cherish it (The Second Amendment Foundation, SAF). We aimed to keep JPFO independent, to stop it being sold and sold out. We had support from a couple of guys you know well. We had JPFO members and even corporate donors howling to the rooftops.
Unfortunately, we had less than two weeks to try to avert a deal that had been planned covertly and bolstered by what I’ll charitably call “misinformation.” By the time you read this, our effort will have long since gone down in flames and been forgotten. Right now the loss is as bloody as the drink I’d like to have but won’t because I’m on deadline. (There is still a long-shot chance we’ll pull this off, but betting here at the Depressed Activists Club is running 50-1 against.)
Those who bought and sold JPFO had the advantage of secrecy, their choice of timing, and a lawyer on the payroll. All we had were people who cared. Cared passionately and intelligently. But who had no time to mobilize an effective opposition against something that was virtually a done deal before we even learned of it.
If you want to know what we fought, Google is your friend and the terms “Gottlieb” and “Manchin-Toomey,” and “Gottlieb” and “Merrill” are your tools. Whether you personally approve of JPFO’s absorption or are with us in dreading it doesn’t matter now. What matters is that we fought on principle, we fought for our ideals and the ideals of JPFO’s late founder, Aaron Zelman, and we lost.
Sneakiness, haste, money and lawyers beat passionate idealism. So be it.
In the last 20 years, gun-rights activists focused on legislative and judicial issues have accomplished remarkable things. But aside from the U.S. Supreme Court’s belated admission that the Second Amendment does indeed protect an individual right, very little has been accomplished on principle, on ideals, or on the big picture.
Don’t get me wrong: that belated concession from the Supremes is big. Some of the individual victories have also been huge (like winning constitutional carry in several states). But the principles on which gun rights stand— and must and will always stand—remain neglected and often scarily unknown, certainly to the general public and all too often, to gunfolk.
Ideas matter. Aaron and JPFO were all about education, all about getting those ideas and ideals across to more people. JPFO wasn’t a lobbying group. It didn’t wheel and deal. It just told the truth—often in ways that smacked people upside the head.
JPFO didn’t just point out that gun control is racist, it produced movies with titles like No Guns for Jews and No Guns for Negroes. JPFO didn’t just note that Hitler used “gun control” to disarm Jews, JPFO published a book showing that the U.S. Gun Control Act of 1968 was based on a Nazi law, which its sponsor, Sen. Thomas Dodd (D-CT) had in his possession after serving as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials and had translated for him.
One of the most important things JPFO did was aggressively promote the U.S. Bill of Rights. Under Aaron’s leadership, a few paid translators and a number of volunteers translated the bill into something like 15 languages. The idea was that anybody, anywhere in the world, could read the great principles that made the U.S., for a time, the freedom miracle of the world—and be inspired.
Aaron knew that the fundamental principles of individual rights underlie all lasting freedoms, and he devoted 21 years of his life to pointing that out in various ways. Not being a political activist, Aaron didn’t have to answer to or compromise with anybody. He ran JPFO from the basement of his house and, although he listened carefully to those of us who worked with him (as I did for seven years), he held to his own vision and to hardcore principles, always.
Then he died suddenly in 2010. There were some 8,000 members of JPFO who believed, as he did, that the Big Ideas behind gun rights and individual liberty had to be taught and promoted. But after Aaron died, the organization staggered along, neglected by its management, doing little, and losing its members— though it still managed to keep that hardcore vision. At least it kept it for a time. In the last year, JPFO was coming back strong under a new director—but apparently not strong enough.
Now, although SAF’s Alan Gottlieb pledges to keep JPFO “independent,” that hardcore vision of rights will have lost Aaron’s voice. At least once before, SAF bought out a lively, hardcore (but financially distressed) operation, kept it “independent,” but gradually homogenized it into irrelevance. (Google “Gottlieb” and “KeepAndBearArms. com” for that).
For a while, SAF’s acquisition of JPFO will look like a good thing. They’ll improve the organization’s hopeless website, gin up more new members, make things look great. People will say my colleagues and I were wrong. But expect hardcore articles to be “disappeared” over time. Hardcore is just not Gottlieb’s style.
Aaron Zelman will continue to be honored as JPFO’s founder while his actual words and personality—so politically incorrect, so inconveniently uncompromising—will be scrubbed. The legacy of a man who never compromised on principle has been sold into the hands of a man who never met a compromise he didn’t like.
And this is in part because people who hold so strongly to principle don’t wheel and deal. We aren’t made for the down-and-dirty of legislatures and legalisms. We get lost and frustrated when faced with pushers of paperwork and parsers of laws. We know what’s right and we will do that and argue that unto doomsday, but once the wheelerdealers have control of a situation, we’re at a terrible loss.
But that doesn’t mean we should change our ways, because people who insist upon principles and Big Truths are necessary. We’re the ones who keep reminding the compromisers that there must be a point where compromise ends. We’re the ones who ultimately hold governments’ feet to the fire and say, “No more!” We’re the ones who wake up ordinary people to the amazing truths behind the grubby everyday.
There have been only two relentlessly principled national gun-rights groups. One is the political group Gun Owners of America. The other was the strictly educational JPFO, which was small and relatively unknown, but did the vital work of showing people why rights must never be traded away. Many people were influenced by Aaron’s ideas and works, even if they never heard of him or JPFO.
The great soul of Aaron Zelman and the vital principles of unyielding devotion to individual rights, and to gun rights as lifesaving civil rights, will live on. Many individuals hold the same principles Aaron did. But JPFO, the most powerful collective voice expressing those principles, will have oh-socarefully and oh-so-subtly been “disappeared” from the world.
Because of that, more gunfolk will forget the warning Gandhi gave us: “All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take.”