The Outstater: Here’s a Really ‘Extreme’ Point of View
“Albert Einstein lived to see moral relativism, to him a disease, become a social pandemic, just as he lived to see his fatal equation bring into existence nuclear warfare. There were times, he said at the end of his life, when he wished he had been a simple watchmaker.” — Paul Johnson in “Modern Times,” 1991, HarperCollins.
Look, political idiocy is my friend. I am an editorial writer. I have depended on its existence in one form or another for 50 years. I swim in the stuff. And if I’m worried, you should be worried.
Our concern should be with the quality of the public discussion rather than any particular ideological drift. Ideologies can self-correct; ignorance is fatal.
David Mamet notes, in his wonderful book “The Secret Knowledge,” that America is not divided between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. Rather, it is divided between those who think and those who merely talk in code.
There is no need to list these code words here; you know what they are. They are the adjectives that fill the headlines on the front page and on the evening news, that pepper every stump speech.
Let’s look at just one example — extreme. To say that someone is “extreme” is code today for a person who holds to absolutes, who refuses to concede that all ideas, beliefs, people, places and things are relative.
As code it is powerful, albeit secret, damnation. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer was caught on tape some years ago explaining to his fellow politicians why he recommended characterizing any spending cut proposed by any opposing politician as “extreme.”
“I always use the word ‘extreme,’” the senator said unabashedly. “That’s what the caucus instructed me to do.”
It is a tactic, exposed or not, that apparently works. A few weeks ago, I saw the the same senator on television characterizing the National Rifle Association, a group that arguably has more active, paying members than either political party, as an “extreme fringe group.” It is now extreme to ask, Second Amendment aside, how the registration of firearms will reduce gun violence by those who do not register firearms.
What else? Well, I’m Old Navy, so you can safely dismiss my opinion on the enlistment of women and gays. Heck, I don’t even like the all-volunteer service. But is it extreme to question in the context of national defense whether a great number of these new enlistments are motivated by a desire to “fight” for our country or are merely securing indoor work with early retirement and a reasonable pension?
Of course it is, but I’m on a roll here. Is it extreme to ask law enforcement to protect us against any individual who would terrorize us — even a foreign national, even if that person happens to share physical characteristics, however vaguely, with a politically influential group? How about demanding a common language or prohibiting the illegal crossing of our borders? What about the concern that a government that abides the killing of innocents in the womb might not have any trouble sending your sons to be slaughtered on the battlefield?
Are those extreme questions? Okay, I’m being silly.
When I first started writing editorials, it was not extreme to wonder aloud whether the various alternatives to a biblical, nuclear family might fail, that they might produce a self-destructive society. Fifty years later, even as social researchers verify some of our worst fears, it is extreme to say so — that is, to mention that intact families headed by a male breadwinner fare better on the whole than whatever other combination mankind can imagine. This has proved to be the case regardless of income level, social acceptance, legal privilege or even governmental assistance.
A friend considers this inability to rationally discuss obvious societal dysfunction and political disconnection as nothing less than a sin — a civic sin, an intellectual sloth. And like all sins, it began in the heart and has only gradually taken over our daily thoughts and actions.
To be sure, this generation has developed the habit of denying these dysfunctions. It has a soft spot for public policies that are heavy with good intentions but light on tangible results. The penalty for all this has been buffered by the achievements and victories of past generations, all of which are now being diminished by the historical fashion that prevails in our schools and universities.
Now we may agree that it is time to examine those failed policies — indeed, we are desperate to do so — but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it. We may have forgotten how.
Our epitaph will be simple but inglorious: “They Quit Thinking.”