The vice and virtue of extremism

Op-ed: The folly of desperate measures in desperate times.

Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona said the following when he accepted the nomination for president in 1964 at the 28th 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."

To our Democratic ears at that time, with the Cold War at its height, with McCarthyism still distorting political and cultural discourse, and the Civil Rights and feminist movements gaining traction and momentum, these words rang an ominous note. They sound even worse now, as rhetoric from both right and left gets louder and uglier and more violent.

On the right, a Balkanized GOP vilifies gun-control efforts, immigrants, Muslims, Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act. Many Republicans, feeling too long dissed, ignored and victimized by social and economic changes have been mesmerized by the incendiary rhetoric of Donald Trump. His misogyny and xenophobia validate those who once benefited most from the economic inequities and white privilege woven into the fabric of American society. Vocal partisans of the Christian fundamentalist wing of the right are determined to remake our nation as a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. Ted Cruz energizes religious extremists who would disenfranchise Americans who practice a different religion — or none at all — replacing civil rights with theological constraints.

On the left, those who feel the Bern demonize Hillary Clinton and the entire Democratic Party but ignore what progressive politics has achieved, starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Ms. Clinton has made unnecessarily personal attacks on Mr. Sanders and he on her. Both agree that the endgame is a Democratic victory in November in every race at every level, yet both would leave the other mortally wounded before that contest. Mr. Sanders' vision of an American ecology of honesty, prosperity, education and freedom underwritten by enormous sums collected from the One Percent, Wall Street and Big Business, is a pipe dream as long as the GOP controls Congress and Mr. Sanders does not relinquish his sense of self as an Outsider. Ms. Clinton's personal arrogance has led her nearly to self-destruction.

Both the right and the left are becoming the parties of extreme ideology and unconscionably bad manners. Their justification is, essentially, that desperate times call for desperate measures. It's not a new idea. The Greek physician Hippocrates (roughly 470-360 BCE) said, "For extreme diseases, extreme methods of cure, as to restriction, are most suitable." Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus concurred in 1500: "for a hard knot a hard tool must be sought."

This was the thinking of the southern states when they fired on Fort Sumter in 1861. This was the thinking of Americans who risked — and sometimes lost — their lives to win the vote, to end Jim Crow, to practice their full measure of American citizenship. Their historical legacy rests on the justification for these actions as judged by history.

But today, whose liberty are we talking about, and when is liberty is worth such a defense?

Most people in this country have agitated for their freedom — starting from a very young age. Few, however, have given thought to what it means to do the right thing when liberties are in conflict. Fewer still have sacrificed their desires believing that the liberty of others has a better, higher, more righteous claim.

And justice for whom? As might has most often determined right, the mob, the wealthy and the powerful have been immoderate in their pursuit of "justice." Or as Charlie Sheen or Donald Trump might put it, "winning."

I understand the folk who would change the world. We children of the '60s took on the project half a century ago. But their tone scares me, whether they champion Messrs. Trump or Sanders. Their violence of expression scares me. And their abandonment of rational and measured discourse scares me most of all.

Some extremism is always vice; some moderation cannot be virtue.

It depends on where you stand. And where you want to go.

Ellen B. Cutler is an adjunct professor of art history, theory and criticism at MICA. Her email is ebcutler@verizon.net.

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