'The Extremists Are Coming; The Extremists Are Coming!'

“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice! And . . . moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

~ Barry Goldwater, in speech written by Karl Hess

A recent discussion on the Fox Business channel, amongst John Stossel, Stuart Varney, and Judge Andrew Napolitano, has raised, once again, the empty charge directed at libertarians: “you are being an extremist!” Such words are always offered in lieu of a substantive analysis of the position advocated. That both Albert Einstein and Jeffery Dahmer could be labeled as “extremists,” by virtue of how far their thinking deviated from some norm, provides us no basis upon which to evaluate their thinking or conduct. Intelligent minds would ask: by what criteria do you judge these men; what are the implications of what each is doing or saying? That so many scientists who contributed to the development of our understanding of the world had to endure such criticism, should cause us to insist upon a standard of evaluation that rises above the simplistic thinking presently in place.

These three men were debating the wide-ranging NSA surveillance practices recently revealed by Edward Snowden – whose actions have led statists to label him an “extremist,” among other charges. When Judge Napolitano insisted that the government should be required to adhere to Fourth Amendment standards and procedures, Varney – the moderator of the program – began accusing the good judge of “extremism.”

But how does one define “extremism”? Is there a standard by which we can make intelligent distinctions, or is the word only intended as a polite form of name-calling? Words are but abstractions and require interpretation, no matter how certain we feel that our subjective sense allows us to overcome the difficulties that often attend defining them. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous admission to the difficulty of defining “pornography” nonetheless led him to conclude “I know it when I see it.” Does Mr. Varney’s charge of the good judge being an “extremist” amount to anything more than his stating a preference for his preferences?

Explanations for the inability of people to employ a reasoned analysis in their thinking are to be found in institutions of learning. One criticism directed at the government schools is that they do not do an adequate job teaching students how to pass the tests such systems use to evaluate themselves. In this sense, schools – including universities and graduate schools – are more in the business of certifying their students to the next level at which they are to perform than helping them learn to become independent thinkers capable of engaging in principled, factually-supported analysis. In performing this certification role, schools engage in the circular process of certifying themselves. “See, 83% of our students passed the test that we taught them how to pass!” In law schools, this helps to explain the preoccupation with bar exam results.

When a school system’s emphasis shifts from helping students learn how to think, to teaching them what to think, the dumbing down process is well under way. The principal failure of the education system is not reflected in the fact that most students cannot identify the kinds of information easily found in a Google search, but that they cannot analyze the meaning of such empirical data. An honor student may correctly answer that the Hundred Years War was a series of 14th and 15th conflicts between England and France; that same student may give you a blank response to such follow-up questions as what were thecauses or the consequences of this war?

Persons who were educated in the rote methods of the institution-serving schools, tend to be very weak in the skills of intellectual analysis. Being unable to intelligently evaluate a particular proposition, they may resort to public opinion polls, or the pronouncements of a recognized authority for direction. They may also fall back on the “extremism” charge when confronted with a point of view they are otherwise unable to analyze.

The contrast between these two approaches is evident from Judge Napolitano’s discussion with Stuart Varney. The judge’s criticism of the NSA’s ubiquitous, unconsented surveillance of everyone was grounded in principles from which he reasoned. He quoted the Fourth Amendment, which has a narrowly-focused exception to the general rule that people should be “secure . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures,” an exception that requires the government to go to court and seek a warrant against specific persons, at specific locations, identifying the specific items to be seized.

In making this argument, the judge is being accused of engaging in what is rarely taught in modern schools: the art of implicit thinking. It is not just that the state is engaged in actions wrong in themselves, but that the acceptance of such behavior can lead to even more serious consequences. If Uncle Willie drinks a quart of Scotch every day, cirrhosis of the liver is implicit in his habit. Does this mean that he will develop this disease? The study of chaos tells us “no,” that outcomes associated with complex systems are unpredictable. It does mean, however, that his addiction will greatly increase the likelihood of his developing cirrhosis. As such, on the first day that Willie consumes his quart of Scotch, he should understand that the destruction of his liver is implicit in what he is doing, and not just assume that each additional day stands on its own, unaffected by what has preceded it.

If, on one occasion, a police officer brutalizes a harmless individual, does that mean that a police-state has arisen? No, but intelligent minds should recognize that such totalitarian consequences are implicit in such an act, and should respond accordingly. I am reminded of that powerful scene at the end of the movie, Judgment at Nuremberg. Judge Haywood (played by Spencer Tracy) has been called to the jail cell of the Nazi judge (played by Burt Lancaster) who has just been given a life sentence for his crimes. The convicted judge tells Judge Haywood: “Those people, those millions of people. . . I never knew it would come to that.” Judge Haywood replies: “it ‘came to that’ the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.” This is a poignant example of “implicit thinking.” If you doubt that one atrocity, indulged in and sanctioned today, does not have implications for the future, ask the ghosts of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Treblinka – and the hundreds of other Nazi concentration camps – whether critics of such systems were being “extremists” for warning of the likely consequences! A more dramatic expression is to be found in Judge Haywood’s explanation of the court’s ruling at the end of the movie. His words may help us to understand the implications of the present behavior of the American state.

Implicit thinking requires a standard by which to judge the propriety of one’s actions. Judge Napolitano used language from the Constitution as such a standard, but other principles could be employed as well (e.g., the inviolability of the person or property of individuals). Having a norm by which to measure one’s response to state action is a necessary means for engaging in an intelligent, reasoned analysis. Without such a principle, one is left with frenzied ranting, name-calling, or empty rhetoric such as accusing another of “extremism.”

How does one learn this art of implicit thinking? It is evident that such skills will never be a part of the curriculum of government schools. Their job is to condition young minds in the establishment mindset, a purpose wholly inconsistent with the development of critical thinking. There is nothing so annoying to the state’s conditioning academies as children who keep asking questions. The word “why?” – and the independent thinking that underlies it – is a constant challenge to a system that has no standards that would appeal to curious minds. The child who persists in questioning what is being taught may soon be labeled “hyperactive” or having an “attention deficit disorder” and be subjected to therapies or drugs to overcome his or her resistance. The words of the late Steve Jobs come to mind, in discussing his response to elementary school: “I encountered authority of a different kind than I had ever encountered before, and I did not like it. And they really almost got me. They came close to really beating any curiosity out of me.”

How does one help children develop the skills of implicit thinking, and avoid the indoctrination that trains one to become a servo-mechanism of the corporate-state? In his 1976 book, The Uses of Enchantment, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim discussed the importance of fairy tales in helping children deal with the kinds of fears that are so much a part of growing up. In the course of reading and finding meaning in such stories, children would experience the kind of emotional development necessary to the well-lived life.

I believe that such stories – and the processes of questioning that accompany their reading – can help children learn to think implicitly. Fairy tales are often presented in terms of black-and-white contrasts: the consistently “good” guy up against the “villain” who is beyond the possibilities of rehabilitation. The purpose of making such sharp comparisons is not to make children aware of how people necessarily behave in the world, but to provide standards with which to evaluate human conduct. Are all children as sweet and innocent as Hansel and Gretel, or as loving and considerate as Little Red Riding Hood? Are step-mothers all mean? Hardly. These stories are not offered as psychological or sociological studies, but as clearly defined criteria by which to make judgments.

One of my favorite children’s stories is The Little Red Hen, but I detest those modern corruptions of the tale in which the Red Hen gives in to all the free-riders and allows them to share in the product of her labors. There is an important lesson for children to learn from Ms. Red Hen, which goes far beyond the modern simple-minded standard of “niceness” that seems to limit the judging of human conduct. The story informs children of what, in a welfare-dominated world has long been forgotten: not only are there consequences to our actions, but precursors for the attainment of what we enjoy. The bread that the Red Hen produced – and the moochers now want to enjoy – came about only through her willingness to incur all of the costs necessary to create the bread. This is the meaning of Milton Friedman’s now classic observation: “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Someone had to incur the costs of providing it.

Implicit thinking has no relevance absent a clear standard by which to evaluate our thinking and behavior. In order to live as intelligent adults, children must learn to explore the importance and meaning of principles that transcend the immediate circumstances they confront. In the turbulence of a world that is redefining itself into fundamentally new social systems and practices, our thinking – and judgments – must undergo major transformations. If we are to survive – and I believe that we will – we must walk away from such school playground rhetoric as “if you’re not with us, you’re against us,” or “America: love it or leave it,” or “you’re being an extremist.” As Einstein observed: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Butler Shaffer Archives