Follow by Email

Friday, October 1, 2010

"Extremist" is not a dirty word

People have always attempted to negatively label political opponents.  My rule of thumb is that the briefer and more "loaded" the label is, the more likely it is to be inaccurate.  Although all politicians and some media  do this, I think the Republicans may have been worse recently.  That may be a function of having the Democrats in power, particularly in the Presidency.

Some recent labels, often repeated:
    Nazi (Obama and Bush-silly for both). 
    Communist (Obama-silly). 
    Anti-American (Obama-silly, but I suspect someone defines the term a lot differently than I)
    Anti-white (Obama-silly, but, again, I think we may have some "creative" definition here))
    Moslem (I saw one alleged survey that said 20% of the American people believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth-nuff said)
    Socialist (Obama-not by any traditional definition - maybe you could make a case if you were willing to define what you mean by the term). 
    Liberal (Obama-sure(of course I think that it is a badge of pride-and I suspect I would define it differently from those who use it in an accusatory manner)). 
    Ultra-liberal (Obama-not sure what it means, but almost certainly inaccurate).(also see comments below on "extremist" and its use to marginalize opponents) 
    Racist (Bush, the Tea Party. Rand Paul and (maybe) anyone a liberal does not like-not Bush.  As far as I can tell, not Rand Paul  (maybe tolerant of racism in other people, but see my last post). The Tea Party, some of them, probably; most of them, almost certainly not.  Rush Limbaugh, yeah, I really think so-generally a term that has been overused and cheapened to the point where many Americans (including me)have a negative reaction to anyone who uses the term, although there are certainly still a lot of real racists around.) 
    Anti-Semite[here's where I get in trouble](Obama-not that I've seen any evidence of it,  George H.W. Bush and James Baker-same.  Whats-his name, the President of Iran, definitely).  Unfortunately, I fear this phrase has also become overused - and is sometimes used to describe anyone who takes issue with policies of the Israeli government. 
Now we come to today's word [any Sesame Street fans out there?]:  "Extremist"

This has long been a political insult;  it was used by Barry Goldwater's opponents.  And against Obama.  And against Reagan.  And now against what could be called the "Tea Party" candidates, particularly Rand Paul, Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell and Joe Miller. (Let me interject that  these people are all "extremists" in significant ways, and I would not vote for them.) However, there is nothing intrinsically bad (or good) about being an "extremist".  All that the word means is that one is at an extreme within a certain group.The American revolutionaries were extremists, as were the French revolutionaries, the Russian revolutionaries, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Abolitionists, the Suffragettes, and  Ronald Reagan.  Of course, so were the 9/11 bombers.  Most significant political or social change starts with extremists, who then convince enough other people that they are right.  I view political use of the word as an intellectually dishonest attempt to marginalize a candidate or group without actually dealing with the issue or issues that they raise.  It makes me suspicious of anyone using it.

I think this use relates to some of the less appealing aspects of our society: a focus on the "right now", and the presumption that the majority is right simply because it is the majority.  These seem connected to our preoccupation with polls which measure opinions right now as predicting future behavior, the ubiquitousness of polls in general, and a focus on the short term.  We seem to have forgotten that what people think now and what is going on now are not necessarily what they will think or what will occur in the future.  The other day I came across an online poll as to whether people thought that the threat of climate change was "real".  Even assuming a scientific sampling (which it was not), the results of that poll (I did not bother to find out) will not effect whether or not the threat of climate change is real.  Nor did the fact that people bought a lot of mortgage-backed securities make them worth anything in the long term.  We get to elect our leaders;  but the poll on climate will not directly determine whether the threat of climate change is real or not, or even whether events or information will change people's minds on climate change (or even about politics) in 6 years, 6 months 6 weeks or whatever.  It's like we think that the world somehow runs just like American Idol.  I am reminded of a Jr. High school joke: 8 billion flies can't be wrong; eat s@@t.  I am also reminded of "The Emperor's New Clothes"; the annoying kid was certainly an "extremist".

Admittedly, how the majority thinks will have an effect on how we deal or do not deal with what we think will happen, from what, if anything we do about carbon emissions, to whether a candidate perceived as a "loser" will get funding for the rest of the campaign.  Thus, our preoccupation with the immediate "vote" may have an effect on the future because it will affect our present conduct, which may effect future outcomes.  I basically think this is a bad thing, in that it shortens our opportunity for consideration and judgment.

"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice".  Barry Goldwater. I actually agree with Barry on this one.  Of course, as Ross Perot said: "the devil is in the details", and it depends on how you define both "extremism" and "liberty", which I plan to discuss in my next post.  Enough


  1. You forgot other examples of extremists. I heard one person at work recently refer to some of the people in his home town in "the buckle of the Bible Belt" as Christian extremists.

  2. To Skippette: I did not forget them as much as omit them for a lack of time and space. I think that Religious groups who argue that political decisions should be based on Religious (and not merely moral or ethical)reasons are very dangerous. As an American Jew, the Christian variety makes me particularly nervous, as they are really the group most likely to try to "oppress (word used very loosely)" me.