March 30, 2003

Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Those who recognise this quote know that it comes from that prototype of the Reagan conservative, Barry Goldwater. I thought it appropriate in light of the recent web dialogue brought on by a Calpundit 's post on liberal "extremism", followed up on Body and Soul, Eschaton, MacDiva, Alas, a Blog and on Pandagon, and leading to a response on Calpundit.

My own perspective on this is much more ecological than those presented. A healthy body politic needs its extremists and its moderates, and who is right is generally impossible to judge in advance. Decades, sometimes centuries, later there is enough perspective to judge each and the general conclusion is usually that they were all right, or all wrong, but either way no one got exactly what they asked for.

It can take angry extremists to draw public attention to a matter, and to serve as a rallying point for those might agree, in part or in whole, with the extremists goals. It can also make dealing with the moderates much more appealing for those who would rather ignore the whole issue. The existence of some group driven by ideological purity and devotion to cause does not always harm that cause, and usually a historical perspective on such people in past conflicts leads one to that conclusion. Radicals are the ideological engine of social and political change. It is there that the grand narratives and utopian visions that come to motivate mass social change are born. I don't think the Black Panthers did any serious damage to the cause of civil rights in the US and I would in fact be more surprised had there been no group advocating more active and violent resistance to an unacceptably racist state. Fear - fear from the white upper and middle class - of a more violent response to the situation of blacks in America was a factor in advancing the cause of civil rights, and the lack of any such fear now is one of the reasons racial integration and equality has been set so far back in the last 20 years.

On the other hand, it does not do for a large public cause not to have its moderates. Civil rights were advanced in America in part because a large part of the white American public believed that many, perhaps the overwhelming majority, of blacks simply wanted equal treatment in society and nothing else. There was a group of moderates that white people could easily identify with as not asking for them to radically change themselves or their lives, and able to make the kinds of arguments able to appeal to them. This kind of good cop/bad cop approach has on the whole been wildly successful in producing actual progress in almost every kind of industrialised, mediated state in the world.

It has failed primarily where demands have been met not with attacks on the radicals - who are generally well equipped to survive organised opposition - but by attacking the moderates who are not well equipped to win in ideological warfare against motivated opponents. The two most outstanding cases are in Central America and the Middle East. It was the attack on moderate land reformers in Central America, people like Jacobo Arbenz or the early Sandinistas, that led to a radicalisation of reformers and the prolongation of damaging civil wars. Even now - more than a decade after most of the fighting ended - it is hard for the different sides in Central America to trust each other enough to compromise.

In the Middle East, the attacks on fairly moderate nationalists - people like Mohammad Mossadegh, non-Ba'athist socialists in Iraq and Syria and even modernisers like Nasser - have served more than anything else to create the current mess where only extremists motivated by religious purity are able to draw any attention to injustice in the Arab world and have become in many places the only ones who appear able to do anything about it. When there is no prospect for reform by more moderate channels, the disaffected with turn to more direct action. The same applies to the Palestinians, where Israel has liquidated every organisation the might have advanced a peaceful transition to a two-state Palestine, and is now attacking the Palestinian public directly. This direction leads only to greater radicalisation and more violence. Yet, before condemning the radicals in Palestine, consider the alternatives. Israel has a record of taking about peace, but then attacking moderates. If Palestinians were to take a Gandhi/Martin Luther King type strategy up, they would not be any closer to having a proper state or civil rights.

What has happened in America in recent years is that the moderates are under attack. The assault on "liberals" - mostly just moderate progressives who are hardly demanding radical changes to American society - has undermined the possibility of moderates driving institutional change. A radicalisation of American politics is the inevitable consequence. There is very little moderate force in America willing to stand for gay rights at all, even in the Democratic Party. Running on identity politics has become nothing but a way to lose elections in the US. The result is people turning to more radical expressions of their beliefs, with greater polarisation as a consequence.

If Kevin Drum really believes in the need for a vital centre - and if he does I agree with him - the way to get there is not to attack the radicals, but to defend their intentions as legitimate. Recognise that radicals have a place, and an important one, and that electoral politics can only be an alternative to radicalism if there are electable people willing to stand for the radicals' general programme.

Update: Kevin has posted a response to many of the arguments made on other blogs. Essentially, it points out that progressive reform in America has rested on strong Democratic majorities in Congress - which is true but beside the point - and if I'm reading him correctly, on a distinction between radical and extremist that I don't think he has made clear.

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Posted 2003/03/30 14:55 (Sun) | TrackBack
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"Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

Barry Goldwater

Posted by: Curt from Houston at March 10, 2006 20:03
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