Rebirth of Reason

War for Men's Minds

The Virtue of Extremism
by Lindsay Perigo

"Extremism in defence of liberty is no vice; moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue."

As new presidential nominee Barry Goldwater uttered these words at the Republican National Convention in 1964, Richard Nixon was sitting on stage behind him. Mr. Nixon, the master-pragmatist, was horrified. Those words, he thought to himself, will cost us the election. Nixon was an astute observer- & reinforcer - of the moral climate of his time.

Goldwater had been plagued throughout the campaign by allegations of "extremism" - & this was his answer, in effect: "Yes! Proudly!"

No one, alas, would dare say that today. "Extremism" is never defined, merely equated with mad, bad people - the Taliban, the IRA, the Ku Klux Klan.... Everyone scrambles to occupy the "middle ground," to be seen to be "moderate" - heedless of the contradiction that they are being extreme in their moderation.

Oddly, though, this seems to be so almost exclusively in the realm of political ideas. As I've had occasion to observe previously:

"In the matter of one's health, it wouldn't occur to anyone to say, 'I desire to be healthy. I wish to avoid disease. But this is a simplistic, extremist way of approaching the question which overlooks the universal need to compromise & settle for something in between. I ought to temper my desire for excellent health by making sure I get sick some of the time.' One doesn't say, 'I like my butter to be moderately rancid, my eggs to be moderately rotten, my meat to be moderately putrefied, my vegetables to be moderately decomposed, with the degree of rancidness, etc., to be determined by consensus' - in order to avoid charges of 'extremism.' One doesn't say, 'I would really prefer my shoes to be fully comfortable, but that's a crackpot position which I shall avoid by seeking out shoes that are moderately ill-fitting.' In buying a car one does not feel constrained, in the interests of striking a balance, to insist that it have flaws. One does not encourage encourage one's children to be stupid as a mitigating influence on their intelligence. Etc., etc.."

Common sense makes us extremists most of the time, thankfully. The issue is not whether one is extreme, but what it is one is extreme about. To paraphrase Goldwater, it is no vice to be extreme about the good; it's no virtue to be moderate about the bad. It's no vice to be extreme in the promotion & protection of reason & freedom; it's no virtue to be moderate in dealing with terrorists & dictators. It's an issue of integrity. Extremism is - taking one's values seriously, upholding them consistently, & not compromising them. That is what the good requires, now more than ever. It won't do to say, "I'll refrain from initiating force some of the time, but, for the sake of balance, initiate it at other times." That would be on a par with saying to the Taliban, "6000 murders was excessive - 3000 would have been OK."

Ayn Rand put it best:

"If an uncompromising stand is to be smeared as 'extremism,' then that smear is directed at any devotion to values, any loyalty to principles, any profound conviction, any consistency, any steadfastness, any passion, any dedication to an unbreached, inviolate truth - any man of integrity."

Put me down as an extremist!

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