July 05, 2007

Am I more extremist than you

Moderate governments historically have had mixed success. It was the administration of the moderate Jimmy Carter (a Democrat who afterall had voted for George Wallace) that is commonly acknowledged as the worst of the recent completed Presidencies in the United States, the moderate governments of the 1950s and 1960s in the UK are commonly reviled (inaccurately possibly in the case of the fifties) for creating the problems of the 1970s. Its the administrations of the moderate appeasers in the 1930s and 1940s who offered blandishments to the two tyrants of the age and probably supreme tyrants (excluding Mao) of all time- Hitler and Stalin. Churchill was always regarded as a firebreathing extremist and a rather dangerous one at that, irresponsible in his political activity. Milton Freidman and Freiderich Hayek may have been right in their economic diagnosis of the ills of their age- but noone gave them credit for it at the time. Conventional wisdom has the habit of being wrong just as much as it has the habit of being right.

And yet all of us persist in the idea that there is some of merit in being in the centre of the argument. Often we construct artificial centres to do this with. Jane Galt in a recent post blasts both conservatives and liberals in the United States for their approach to what is the centre- she suggests that in the United States roughly speaking George Bush represents the centre-right and Al Gore the centre-left- having said that of course for a leftwinger Al Gore is the centre, George Bush the rightwing and Ralph Nader the left, and for a rightwinger Bush is the centre, Gore is the left and a Pat Buchanan or a Sam Brownback stands on the right. Galt is right in a wider sense than she implies. Conversations with American conservatives often bring up the sense that if something is believed by middle America- ie by those living in the farm belt it is somehow the centre of the country, the silent majority beloved of President Nixon speaks and defines what is in the centre. Conversations with Liberals are about how America compares to other states- and often by that token of a comparison to say Western European social democracy the liberal finds America to be rightwing. Both are inaccurate perceptions- defining the American centre by the silent majority that votes Republican is as silly as defining the American centre by the majority that votes Democrat. Defining America with reference to Europe as rightwing over say homosexuality or sexuality in general forgets that there are continents- Africa- and regions like the Middle East for whom American conservatism is the height of decadence- it was a rural dance in the American midwest that turned Said Qutb into an Islamic fundamentalist afterall.

But why ultimately do people want to appear to be in the centre- what claim are they making. Ronald Dworkin in his fascinating recent attempt to homogenise political language in the United States argues that liberals and conservatives falsely beleive themselves to be talking in languages that claim different things about politics- rather Dworkin suggests that they talk in a similar language but just draw different conclusions from the same axioms. Dworkins analysis matters in this question- because if conservatives and liberals are so different that they talk in different languages, the one whose language is centrist will win the argument. If however they are actually arguing within the same philosophical tradition- it means that the centre will and can always change as people are persuaded or not that their common axia lead to conservative or liberal conclusions.

The argument about the centre therefore is often an argument to stop arguing- its something addressed to your own side to persuade them that it isn't neccessary to couch your ideas in terms that the other side might understand. Its also an aggressive move designed to intimidate the other side into coming over to your side- designed to make the other side beleive you have won the discussion and that they have to join you. Its not a very pleasant political tactic- and as I've noted above being in the centre doesn't mean you are right. Having said that neither does being an extremist mean you are right- all these questions of where one lies avoid the real question which is is someone talking the truth or are they talking nonsense. That ultimately is the only question that matters- and centres or extremes are far less important- especially because historically anyone who beleives in the combustion engine, is definitely on the far extreme of human behaviour and belief!


Lord Nazh© said...

Interesting piece, but how the hell do you consider Jimmah Carter to be 'moderate'? :)

edmund said...

Lord Nash I think the Carter example is as legitimate as the others ( which are also highly disputable- in many ayes the 60's saw a social revolution) which I think helpfully makes Gracchi's points abbot the limits of the Centre!

Carter had backed George Wallace for president in the 1968 presidential convention and boosted about it when he run for Governor. He talked about not hiring adulteress, won as the 2nd most rightwing democratic candidate in the 76 primaries (the most rightwing being the Cleary conservative Wallace), opposed congress for rising spending too much and at the end of his tenure provides aid to Afghanistan resistance

He nearly lost the 1980 primary to Edward Kennedy-running hard from the left attacking him on price controls, Afghanistan ect

Now there's a lot of lefty stuff as well-but I hope I’ve shown enough to let you see why Gracchi could reasonably make such a comment

Excellent post btw I would also add the US left (or indeed right) often ahs very flawed views, and the liberal be like the world is inconsistent-they don't use western up as a model for abortion law, European nation states arch state, most forms of environmental regulation, civil liberties and the roles of courts, and other national defences have varied enormously. Even on homosexuality today Poland say would be more conservative than the US by some way

Brownback I think is much more part of the discourse of American politics than Buchanan - Buchan is a bit flaky for Jane Gilts example (very anti Israel for example) the US Taxpayers party's ~Howard Philips is probably the best equivalent of Nader.

And of course "Europe" is a very misleading title- in Russia Europe's biggest country a 1/4 of the male population supports the death penalty for homosexuality.

I don't quite get the Working point- he seems to me to be wrong particularly when talking about ideological speeches-rather than electoral trying to get the centre ground one

On extremist right/wrong I wouldn’t so absolutely reject Aristotle- but I think universality is important, one shouldn’t just look at one's society’s consensus but look at other societies throughout history as well as throughout the world when looking at "vernal opinion" as a guide (though not a determinant) of truth

Ruthie said...

"The argument about the centre therefore is often an argument to stop arguing-"

This is where I often find myself.

That was a great article by Jane Galt, btw. Really something.