XCV – Extremism In Defense of the Status Quo

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If you
want government to intervene domestically,
you're
a liberal.

If you
want government to intervene overseas,
you're
a conservative.

If you
want government to intervene everywhere,
you're
a moderate.

If you
don't want government to intervene anywhere,
you're
an extremist.

~
Joe Sobran

The
world continues to unwittingly thrust upon me topics for articles.
The latest arrived via one of the few cable television channels
I respect: C-SPAN. A conference broadcast on the topic "Countering
Religious and Political Extremism," showed men and women orating
as though the topic had genuine meaning, and that their views on
the matter added to the store of human understanding.

For
almost half a century, I have had a quarrel with the use of the
word "extremism," not out of self-defense, but for the
utter meaningless of the term. The abstract nature of words only
allows us to make approximations of what we intuitively understand,
invariably leaving a great deal of "fuzziness" around
the edges. Nevertheless, intelligent discourse with others demands
that we try to be as precise as we can in speaking our minds, and
to avoid — as much as possible — words and phrases that carry an
inordinate amount of obscure baggage. When politicians and militarists
speak of the killing of hundreds of thousands of people as "peacekeeping
missions" or the promotion of "freedom," language
is not simply being distorted, but ravished.

There
are few words that have a more subjective or relative meaning than
"extreme." Dictionary definitions speak of "exceeding
the ordinary, usual, or expected," or "situated at the
farthest possible point from a center." The word is commonly
used to indicate degrees of relatedness to
standards that are often arbitrarily defined.

In
a political context, "extreme" — and its derivation "extremist"
— is often used to force the discussion of ideas or programs into
a middle ground. The purpose is to further create a collective mindset
around which the state can mobilize large masses of people. The
idea of compromise — so useful in facilitating economic or
social transactions — is smuggled into debates over political policies
in such a way as to marginalize philosophically principled responses.
In the mass-minded culture of politics, once one's opinions get
characterized as "extremist," they become irrelevant to
any further discussion, no matter how factual, rational, or principled
they might otherwise be. The individual is thus made to feel impotent,
incapable of achieving his or her interests other than through attachment
to collective power blocs. In this way, carefully reasoned analysis
gives way to a mushy amalgam of sentimentality, prejudice, and factual
error which, as long as it remains superficially plausible, will
appeal to the lowest common denominator consistent with generating
the greatest mass of human support.

This
is not to suggest that "extremist" thinking is necessarily
factually or rationally sound. The point is that, whether sensible
or not, such thinking is dangerous to the health of political systems
because it introduces variation and complexity into discussions
and, in so doing, detracts from the simplistic certitudes upon which
mass-mindedness depends. To give serious consideration to "extreme"
points of view is to open up the possibility of lateral movement
that lowers the center of gravity of vertically-structured political
systems, and decentralizes social organizations.

Like
those who condemn conspiracy theories, critics of "extremist"
views operate from an anti-intellectual position that shuns evidentiary
and analytical inquiry. Appeals to the mind are, by necessity, appeals
to individual judgment which, of course, is anathema to collective
thinking. This is why public opinion polling has become the epistemological
standard for a society grounded in groupthink. Just as the government
school system exists to condition minds in political catechisms,
a major function of the establishment media is to generate, by rote
reinforcement, the acceptable range of opinions.

By
definition, collective thinking has no tolerance for deviations
from announced norms. The "extremist" is the individual
whose opinions lie outside the herd mindset. Whether the substance
of those opinions might be beneficial or detrimental to human well-being
is determined not by institutionally-managed opinion polls,
but by the independent judgments of other individuals who have not
ceded control of their thinking to multitudinous forces. Such self-directed
persons are likely to understand that asking the wrong questions
will always generate wrong answers.

The
question "should Christmas music be permitted in public schools?"
will elicit a sizeable number of both "yes" and "no"
answers, helping to create the illusion that a diversity of viewpoints
prevails in this best of all possible worlds. But smuggled into
the form of the question is an assumption that makes the answers
thereto harmless to the political establishment, namely, that it
is a legitimate role of government to operate a school system. If
you or I were to be asked such a question, and we replied "government
schools should be closed down," our answers would be pigeon-holed
as "undecided," thus protecting the system from our discouraging
words.

Asking
the kinds of questions that we are not supposed to ask has always
been central to the creative process, and the insightful persons
who dare to ask such questions have often suffered at the hands
of the prevailing order. Socrates, Jesus, Galileo, Anne Hutchinson,
Wilhelm Reich, and countless numbers of "heretics," "traitors,"
and "witches," have been punished for their "extremist"
threats to the status quo. The scientific community — many of whose
pioneers had to endure pain for their "heresies" — has
often been a staunch defender of existing scientific knowledge or
methods and attacked those who strayed beyond the established boundaries.
Inventors, too, have suffered ridicule and criminal prosecution
for the products of their minds. When the tug-of-war between the
creative process and institutional interests favors the status quo,
the future of civilization, itself, is threatened.

During
the conference covered by C-SPAN, one of the speakers managed to
condemn "extremism" and, at the same time, praise "diversity."
To be able to entertain such contradictory premises — and to announce
such confusion to the world — reflects the shallowness of thought
in a world of collectivized thinking. To respect diversity is to
welcome variation and uniqueness; deviation from a central norm.
It is, in other words, to defend extremism (i.e., opinions
or behavior that do not conform to the collective model).

Of
course, tolerance for views or conduct that diverge from the collective
mindset is not what most defenders of "diversity"
seek to promote. In academia, for instance, the fostering of "diversity"
entails the hiring or enrollment of people of various racial, ethnic,
gender, or lifestyle identities who embrace a collective [i.e.,
"progressive"] political perspective. You will not
find any politically correct colleges or universities wringing their
hands over the lack of "white supremacists" or "militia
group" applicants: such people are considered "extremists."
"Animal rights" advocates or "environmentalists"
who employ violence in furtherance of their ends will be welcomed
in the name of "diversity." Thus it was that, in a recent
holiday parade in Denver, a gay/lesbian group was permitted to have
a float, while a Christian church group — which wanted to have a
float with Christmas carolers — was not allowed.

There
is an underlying logic to these distinctions. After decades of conditioning
that has led most people to give up their insistence upon individual
liberty in favor of an enjoyment of group-defined rights,
the idea of a society of free men and women has become transformed
into one based on collective privileges. A sense of liberty originating
from within oneself as a claim to immunity from coercion, becomes
transformed into state-conferred licenses, immunities, and indulgences
arising from politically-engineered conflicts among various collectives.
When the institutional order identifies groups worthy of the "diversity"
preference, it announces a collective pecking-order and, in so doing,
shifts the attention of individuals from their personal merits and
worthiness and toward the machinations of herd politics.

The
establishment's hostility to "extremism" is not unlike
the charge of "counter-revolutionary" directed against
those Russians who questioned the direction taken during the Bolshevik
Revolution. To have a collective resolve weakened by doubt or alternative
purpose is a threat to the power base from which all political action
arises. Furthermore, "extremists" often end up being people
who operate on the basis of deeply-held and integrated philosophic
principles, an attribute unwelcome in a collective atmosphere in
which the pursuit of power is an end in itself.

Very
often, an "extremist" is one who sees the long-term implications
of present government policies, and opposes them in an effort to
prevent what he views as their harmful consequences. Such a person
does not await the rounding up of men and women to be loaded onto
boxcars for shipment to concentration camps to voice concerns for
the police-state implications of legislation giving the state such
powers! This is why libertarians are often labeled "extremists,"
for their insistence on including spiritual, philosophical, and
other non-material costs in the calculation of social policies.

This
understanding also helps to explain why the Austrian school of economics
is held in contempt by practitioners of neo-mercantilist, corporate-state
economics. The Austrian school treats economics as an expression
of how human beings pursue their self-interests within a social
context, with a focus upon the costs and benefits to individuals
of various courses of action. While the institutional order focuses
its attention on such collective matters as "gross national
product," the "Consumer Price Index," and "rates
of growth"; libertarians and Austrians are concerned with opportunities
for individuals to maximize their well-being. This is why micro-economics
has always been a more humanly-relevant area of study than has macro-economics.

I
have been labeled just about everything from a "crackpot"
to an "ivory-towered dreamer" to an "extremist,"
more often than not by people who have never bothered to inquire
into the basis of my opinions. It seems to be enough that my views
lie outside the boundaries of conventional thinking that have been
carefully constructed to confine our minds. To those who do ask,
I tell them that my social and political philosophy comes down to
a very simple proposition: to not trespass upon the person or
property of another. Such is the essence of my "extreme
crackpottery!"

The
playing out of that principle does, of course, bode ill for all
political systems. The state is nothing more than organized theft,
trespass, and killing, all of which are attacks upon privately-owned
property. To support my proposition is to be an anarchist. No matter
how deftly one tries to tap-dance around the subject — as with delusions
of "limited government" — political systems are inherently
at war with private property. If "government" is defined
as a system with a monopoly on the lawful use of force, such force
can only be exercised against the lives and property of individuals.

Each
of us is biologically and experientially unique. There is probably
no one else on earth who thinks, acts, and dreams exactly as you
and I do. In this sense, each of us is an "extremist,"
and our individual uniqueness is what we have in common with one
another. And yet, we have been conditioned to deny this shared quality;
to imagine — as the political establishment must have us believe
if it is to survive — that mankind is some collective monolith,
and that "we" are outsiders, while all "others"
naturally fit into the common mould. We buy into this collective
mindset so that we will not feel alone in the world, ending up as
members of what David Riesman termed "the lonely crowd."

If
humans are to survive qua humans — and not as "resources"
to be exploited for the institutional order, or as "assets"
by which military leaders define soldiers — we need to break out
of the collective cages in which we have allowed ourselves to be
confined. In doing so, we will have to confront the reality that
institutional authorities neither care for nor represent our individual
interests; that institutions do not feel pain or bleed, suffer degradation
to the human spirit, and rarely die. The costs that collective behavior
inflicts upon our humanness exhibit themselves only individually,
having no relation to institutional interests. In a collective world,
the nonmaterial is immaterial.

Those
of us who break the chains of our institutional restraints will
have to endure the label of "extremist." But the spiritual
release of doing so will have an energizing effect not only upon
your own life, but upon many around you. Over forty years ago, in
my politically active years, I was part of a state delegation to
the Republican National Convention in San Francisco. I heard the
words that my late and dear friend, Karl Hess, had written for Barry
Goldwater to speak to the convention. One passage, in particular,
aroused the passions of delegates as no other political speech has
in my lifetime: "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice!"

Karl
and I did not meet until a number of years later. Perhaps it was
no more than coincidence that, following our separate paths into
and out of political action, each of us found ourselves on the outside
of the political system, looking not into the system, but
into ourselves. Karl and I did what free individuals always
do: transformed ourselves into something new and, in the process,
discovered one another as friends. In the eyes of those with whom
we had worked within the system from which we walked away, we became
"extremists." Neither of us would have had it any other
way.

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