Sunday, September 16, 2007

No Vice

The late, great, Quentin Crisp said of himself, "I don't fly to extremes.   I live there."

We were reminded of this by an especially good analysis posted yesterday on Rochester Turning by the essayist Exile on Ericson Street.

Responding to a newspaper editorial, Exile considers accusations of "extremism" and whether that term has value in understanding a political position or the person who supports it. One of the larger points we take away from the essay is that imputation of political "extremism" can tell us at least as much about the imputer as about his target.

Is it "extreme" to be fully committed to a position or principle? To be a passionate advocate? That seems enough to trigger suggestions of "extremism" from self-identified moderates.

We've wondered often, with respect to important public issues, just what there is to be moderate about.

Suppose you believe the death penalty is morally wrong. A reasonable person holding this view should oppose all executions. Yet if we apply to this position the standard employed by newspaper editorialists, we conclude perforce that opposing all executions is "extremism."

But isn't that the only rational position that derives from a belief that executions are immoral? That, then, makes a person extreme?

It's because editorial writers typically don't characterize opposition to executions as extreme that we choose this example to show where the regulation-issue take on "extremism" can bring us.

Approach the same issue from another angle. You believe the death penalty is morally wrong. But you don't want to be an extremist. What then constitutes "moderation?" That we execute half the people sentenced to death? That we leave the rest alone? That doesn't make you a moderate. It makes you a nut.

A burning building contains 10 people. You rescue them all. Are you an extremist, when you could have been moderate by saving 5?

Consider examples from the historical annals of extremism. Exile cites Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Here's another:

"No State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Fourteenth Amendment, U.S. Constitution.

Anyone insisting on legal enforcement of these words risks branding with the Scarlet E.   And usually with another label even worse. This is because of the implications for preference-based affirmative action programs if we were really to require equal protection of law.

Yet, just as opposing all executions is the only rational consequence of believing the death penalty to be immoral, opposing programs that assign preferences on the basis of race is a rational consequence of believing in "equal protection of law."

Apologists for these programs tell us they're necessary -- to compensate for historical injustice, or to offset effects of racism. Supporters of the Patriot Act tell us it's necessary to reduce the risk of terrorism. But the Patriot Act's unconstitutional, too.

The point is that to label as "extreme" opposition on constitutional grounds to race-based preferences or the Patriot Act, or on moral grounds to executions, is to render the term "extremist" meaningless. At least for much of our political discourse.

Which returns us to the conclusion of Mr. or Ms. Exile: that the epithet "extremist" is useless for reasoned consideration of political issues.

To which we'd add the corollary: except as understood in a defined context.   In a room full of drunks, the teatotaler's an extremist. (For further elaboration, consult H.G. Wells's The Country of the Blind.)

This spares us from the error that no one properly might be deemed extreme as long as he's sincere in his principles, consistent in applying them and vigorous in asserting them. That describes the Unabomber. But that's why the corollary about context is important.

We think the commenter to Exile's posting got it right who invoked Patrick Henry's famous dictum, “If this be treason, make the most of it.”

Calling something "treason" or "extremism" doesn't make it wicked. Whether it's wicked depends on the relative merits and demerits of the argument and of the goal. Understanding that lets you turn the argument around.

And for turning the argument around, maybe no one since Patrick Henry has said it better than this:

"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; and . . . moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

Nor are they today.

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