Years ago, I had an office next to a guy named Don. He was the Network Administrator for the same company that employed me, and, like most network guys, he had a strong libertarian bent. It goes with the turf — a network administrator is like a yeoman smallholder, guarding his domain fiercely from cyber-intruders: “No one’s gonna f**k with my network.”
On any given question — gun control, affirmative action, political correctness, global warming, government spending — Don held what would commonly be known as the conservative position. I doubt he voted for Democrats very frequently, even though he viewed Republicans with an almost equal contempt.
Yet Don took great pains to identify himself as a moderate. “I’m not a liberal, and I’m not a conservative,” he told me. “I’m middle-of-the-road.” I doubt the average Kerry supporter would have agreed with his self-identification, but that’s the way he thought of himself.
Why this desire to distance himself from the people he fundamentally agreed with? Why not identify himself with his natural allies?
There’s a normal social urge not to be held in contempt by one’s fellow humans. The fact that more people agreed with Don’s positions than disagreed with them was not enough to save him from a nagging feeling that his opinions were beyond the pale. Everything he took in from the larger culture around him — the TV news, the pronouncements of government officials, the unctuously politically correct magazine advertisements placed by large corporations — told him that his natural tendencies were atavistic, hateful, and wrong. He couldn’t bring himself to adopt a liberal stance, so the safest thing was to be “middle-of-the-road”. No one could fault him for that.
If you adopt a moderate stance, you won’t be mistaken for a racist or a Nazi or a theocon. Nobody will call you a “right-wing extremist”.
But have you ever noticed that liberals don’t sweat being confused with Trotskyites, or Maoists, or Stalinists, or anarchists? It doesn’t bother them particularly to be seen as further left than they are. From the point of view of the larger culture, they have nothing to lose by being mistaken for communists — after all, it only means that they get to bathe themselves in the hallowed red glow that surrounds Che Guevara and the other icons from The People’s Sourcebook of Communist Saints.
All this goes to show who controls the national conversation. There are only two available positions: Left and Further Left. Anybody claiming middle-of-the-road status is well-advised to announce repeatedly, “Hey! At least I’m not a conservative.”
There’s another kind of “moderate” stance which is very much in vogue: the idea that the best course of action, not mention the truth, always lies somewhere between two extremes. This was brought to mind by a comment on one of my recent posts:
The major downside of blogs is they allow people to tune out any alternative opinion and hear only what they want to hear. This not only destroys communication, creating ever greater divides between groups, but it also serves as an echo chamber pushing people further and further to the right or left. I think this partially explains your growing paranoia. Political studies show that as people move further right or left, they become increasingly convinced that not only is the ‘other’ party wrong, but also their own. Taken to the most extreme, you end up with groups like Daily Kos or truthers, willing to believe even the most ridiculous paranoid rants because it conforms to their pre-determined expectations.
This is the number one problem with the counterjihad in my mind. The conservative message is not ‘Islamic fundamentalism is a problem that must be stopped’. Instead, the conservative message is ‘Islamic fundamentalism is only a problem because of the liberal media, the left wing conspiracy to overthrow the west, and because our own leaders are really secretly working against us’. Meanwhile the liberal message which necessarily has to be the opposite of the conservative one is now ‘there is no terrorist threat, it was a huge plot by republicans, and any terrorism that occurs is orchestrated by the USA’. As a result, the messages are restricted to groups that are too small to effectively stop the jihad.
There are several false premises at work here. Our commenter’s point is that there must be a “happy medium”, a position somewhere in between the extreme liberal and extreme conservative positions. The middle-of-the-road approach of necessity reflects the well-reasoned, thoughtful, moderate, and dispassionate truth, and following it instead of the overheated extremes is bound to bring success.
But is this necessarily true? Is the happy medium always the truest and most moral course to take?
Let’s take some instructive examples from history. Consider the ancient controversy over the idea of a geocentric cosmos. At one extreme were the traditionalists who insisted that the Earth lay at the center of creation, and the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars all revolved around it in a set of concentric crystalline spheres. At the other extreme were the radical proponents of the heliocentric universe, among them Aristarchus of Samos, Ptolemy, and Copernicus.
Did the truth lie somewhere between these two extremes? Was there a model of the universe which included some geocentric elements? Maybe we could tinker with the original theory and have the moon and the stars revolve around the Earth, while the planets could revolve around the sun…?
– – – – – – – – – –
Or consider Communism. At one extreme were Lenin and Stalin, who believed that private property was an unmitigated evil, that the socialist state had the right and the duty to control all aspects of people’s lives, and that the extermination of the bourgeoisie was a moral imperative. At the other extreme were capitalists, who believed in the sanctity of private property, the rule of law, the right of people to live free of interference by the state, and the value of private contracts to promote the general welfare.
Is there a happy medium between these two extremes? Is there an ideal way to construct a polity which includes elements from both sides? Maybe we could allow people to keep some of their property, but force them to surrender other parts of it. Maybe we should permit them to live free of government interference except when it’s for their own good. Maybe we could eliminate the bourgeoisie by taxing away their prosperity, rather than by hauling them out of their beds in the dead of night and shooting them.
Actually, these prescriptions sound pretty much like life under the European Union today. And don’t get complacent — we Americans are no more than a decade or two behind our comrades across the Atlantic.
For a final example, consider slavery as practiced in the antebellum South. At one extreme were the plantation owners, who believed that their Negroes were their property, just like their cattle and their chickens, and that they had a right to buy, sell, and abuse their property as they saw fit. At the other extreme were the Abolitionists, who thought that the slaves were human beings no different from white people, and that holding them in bondage was an unmitigated evil.
Was there a happy medium between these two extreme views? Did the best course lie somewhere in between them? Perhaps we could have forbidden the ownership of Negroes as property, without recognizing them as full human beings. Maybe they could have the right to hold some property, though not the same rights as white people. We could allow them to live autonomously, but not to vote, nor to share schools and other public institutions with white people.
Wait a minute — haven’t we heard this somewhere before? Do you really think it would be a good idea to try it again?
This is not to say that a successful political system never involves compromise. In order for our political structures to work, they must always allow for compromise.
But sometimes one extreme or the other represents the truth. It’s not always true that “both sides” have validity. The best course is not always the happy medium. We have to take the issues on a case-by-case basis.
And sometimes we just have to grit our teeth and hold out for the “extreme” view because it is, well, right.
Another false premise presented by our commenter is that if we stopped “preaching to the converted”, if we could somehow broaden our audience to include people who are not members of the VRWC, we could convince them of the rightness of our cause.
It’s been my experience that no matter how soberly and judiciously and reasonably I present an argument, I never convince anyone who isn’t ready to be convinced. Not only will someone who actively holds an opposing position not be convinced, the more reasonable I am in my argument, the more angry and vitriolic will be his response.
Carefully-written argument is aimed at those whose opinions are not fully formed, people who may have an inchoate sense of the truth, but have not yet articulated it or even brought it into consciousness.
Our goal as polemicists is to reach out to such people, to strive for an eloquence and cogency that makes them snap their fingers and say, “You know, he’s right! I never quite thought of it that way, but what he says is absolutely true.”
I will never convince a liberal that my ideas are right. There’s no point in trying.
But there are innumerable people out there whose minds have been fuddled by decades of one-sided MSM propaganda, people who know that there’s something not quite right with all the PC nonsense that irradiates them every day from all the outlets of the popular culture. They’re aware that there’s something vaguely wrong with the way they feel. The culture has taught them how they’re supposed to feel, but they can’t quite manage to feel it.
Our job is to reach out to them and deliver a message that is immediately recognizable to them as true.
It’s hard to tell how many of them there are because they are separated from us and from each other by fifty years of liberal domination of the culture. The smothering blanket of political correctness has made their opinions doubleplus ungood, so much so that they will lie even to political pollsters about them.
That’s why it’s so hard to determine how vast this untapped reservoir of public opinion is. We know it’s out there, but how do we determine its extent?
The future Baron Bodissey recently related to me this story about an experience he had in college:
I was talking with a friend of mine, and the conversation, for whatever reason, turned to the subject of Israel and “Palestine”.
He made some typical liberal knee-jerk comment about Israeli “terrorist tactics” (I can’t remember his exact wording, but it was hostile). This guy was (and still is) a good friend of mine, and I knew him well enough to know that dislike of Israel could only be a result of various indoctrinations.
So I said, “Wait a minute You’ve been talking about Israeli targeting of so-called civilian areas. Consider this: Palestinian terrorist leaders have issued manifestoes proclaiming their intention to kill as many Israelis as possible, including children and pregnant women. Israeli military leaders have given press releases in the same vein — except that they say they will, and currently do, go out of their way to avoid killing women and children.
“So this assertion of yours about ‘Israeli terrorism’ is spurious.”
He paused, and thought for a minute, and then said, “You know, you’re right. I just never really thought about it.”
The future Baron’s friend is my intended audience. Not the staffers at the State Department, nor the editors of the New York Times, nor the readers of Daily Kos.
I’m talking over their heads to Don and the millions of others like him, people “who have no skill to speak of their distress, no, nor the will.”
And I’ll repeat once again the words of Walt Whitman:
I do not say these things for a dollar, or to fill up the time
while I wait for a boat;
It is you talking just as much as myself — I act as the tongue of you;
Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d.