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.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.