In Defense of Extremism

Recall the moral clarity with which Barry Goldwater addressed the 1964 Republican National Convention:

I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Goldwater understood that terms like extremism and moderation only matter in a defined context. Nowadays, the negative connotation of extremism is commonly taken for granted. No one bothers to ask: extreme in relation to what?

As candidates announce their runs for president left and right, the editorial board of the Minneapolis Star Tribune calls upon us to move “beyond ideology.”

Ideology, it seems, is reasserting itself in a world that less than a generation ago appeared headed toward pluralism, tolerance and pragmatism, all bolstered by an unprecedented flow of free information that promised to render extremism obsolete.

Why should we want to render extremism in defense of liberty obsolete? Why should we desire pragmatism in the pursuit of justice?

The Star Tribune op-ed offers its words without context, used more for rhetorical effect than for substantive communication. Its use of “ideology” seems to reference cultish political dogma, ignoring the fact that any given philosophy – even the conscientious choice to reject conscientious choice – is an ideology. There’s no escaping it. There’s nowhere “beyond ideology.” The very attempt to “render extremism obsolete” proves profoundly ideological.

Indeed, as their appeal to “pluralism, tolerance and pragmatism” develops, the editorial board’s own ideological goals emerge:

Screeds portraying government as a manifest evil are especially damaging because they taint even the most sensible government solutions. With national campaigns approaching, our fervent hope is that voters have grown weary of the threadbare recitations common to both parties and will instead demand pragmatic, creative and courageous approaches that bypass the tiresome interest groups…

We yearn for an agenda that matches the nation’s and the state’s actual problems: Creating a wider prosperity; building an infrastructure that works; forging a coherent, sophisticated foreign policy; fostering a truly effective system for education and training; reforming the corrupt financing of campaigns, and devising serious policies on climate and energy. We long for solutions based on hard evidence, not ideological correctness.

All this as if their laundry list were somehow “beyond ideology.” There’s nothing at all ideological about the green movement or education, is there?

To understand what the Star Tribune editorial board has done, we must recall Goldwater’s insight that appeals to moderation and accusations of extremism only matter in a defined context. We must first know: extreme in relation to what?

The editorial board has appointed themselves as the benevolent center and decried those with divergent views as “extreme.” Anyone could follow suit. Anyone could simply declare their ideology “centrist” or “moderate” and lambast dissenters as extremist. These labels prove meaningless without a reference point.

Goldwater’s reference points were liberty and justice. From these, we may properly judge the virtue or vice of a given course. Government may not be “a manifest evil” in all circumstances, but certainly when acting in defiance of these ideals.

We don’t need pragmatic approaches which compromise our essential liberties. On the contrary, we need principled resolve against all forms of coercion.

We don’t need a thoughtless tolerance of any given idea in blind pursuit of pluralism. We need a rational policy of non-aggression enabling real tolerance.

The editorial board misses the point embedded in ruminations by New York Times  foreign correspondent John Burns:

[He] worked in some of the world’s ugliest places, among them Soviet Russia, Mao’s China, Afghanistan under the Taliban, South Africa under apartheid and North Korea under the Kim dynasty. “I learned that there is no limit to the lunacy, malice and suffering that can plague any society with a ruling ideology,” Burns reflected.

The malice and suffering in these places manifested from the notion that a ruling elite can better direct people’s lives than people can direct themselves. Yet, the expressed agenda of the Star Tribune editorial board harbors that very conceit. They call for a state which dictates the distribution of wealth, the development of infrastructure, the education of children, the content and expression of political speech, and the energy production crucial to economic and personal activity. How would such a state differ fundamentally from the hellholes Burns laments?