Why Should Extremists Have All the Fun?
Sometimes I wonder why I use good brain cells in a doomed attempt to combat extremism. By now I’ve concluded that extremism, factionalism, discord and bile are essential components of the human genome. We’re squabbling creatures, and I can do nothing to alter that essential truth. It would be like fighting primal and unstoppable forces of nature: gravity, for example, or the Kardashians.
At my age I should be conserving my dwindling supply of gray matter for more immediately rewarding tasks, like figuring out how to replace a washer in a leaky faucet. Why bother crusading from the median strip of the political highway, when everyone seems to be zooming past me in both directions? Does anyone pay attention to that solitary figure with the sensible placard as the wind ruffles what’s left of his hair?
Well, here I stand, as Martin Luther proclaimed (though I doubt if I’ll have a church named after me): “I can do no other.” Let the extremists quake at my proclamation — assuming they can hear me as they whiz by with their radios blasting, always tuned to the same station.
Yes, extremists seem to be having all the fun. Here’s just a sampling of their antics over the past month:
The so-called Islamic State appears to have entered the demolition business: hacking ancient statues to bits, destroying Islamically incorrect Muslim shrines, ruining the noble ruins of Assyria. If they ever spread their tentacles toward Egypt, all the archaeologists in the world will be powerless to stop them from dynamiting the Great Sphinx.
Of course, the armies of ISIS and their fanatical allies have been wreaking havoc on human life as well: over twenty Coptic Christians beheaded in Libya… nearly that many tourists gunned down at a museum in Tunisia… more than a hundred Yemenis blown up in suicide attacks at two mosques (wrong denomination)… a young Afghan woman beaten and burned to death by a savage mob for alleged offenses against a copy of the holy Koran. Now the Islamists are threatening attacks on European targets and random American soldiers. It’s ugly out there, and chances are we’ll be living with that ugliness until the day we’re lowered into the ground.
Meanwhile, in the Holy Land, veteran Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, finding himself lagging in the polls, cleverly made a sharp right turn to clinch a last-minute victory over his more moderate opponent. Suddenly declaring himself against Palestinian statehood, he roused his base and they showed their love in return. Moral of the story: never underestimate the power of extremism to galvanize the masses.
Here in the U.S., freshman Texas senator and Ivy-educated right-wing demagogue Ted Cruz officially launched the 2016 presidential campaign by announcing his candidacy. In a rousing speech before a captive audience at Liberty University, he exhorted “courageous conservatives” to restore America to greatness. Notice that he didn’t reach out to the American people as a whole; why bother when you can win by appealing to tribal loyalties? Here was factionalism in its purest state, ready to widen the already gaping gulf between the two Americas: beleaguered, science-denying, government-hating, gun-endorsing Bible-believers on the right… latte-sipping, NPR-listening, politically correct Whole Foods shoppers on the left.
Speaking of left-wing latte-sippers, a debate on “rape culture” at Brown University made the news because a member of the Sexual Assault Task Force created a “safe space” in the debating hall for sensitive young women who presumably would be traumatized by hearing the libertarian opponent (a woman, no less) poke holes in the rape culture narrative. Even The New York Times, in a piece by Judith Shulevitz that made the rounds online, seemed incredulous at the need for a literal safe space — a room equipped with (I still can’t believe it, but apparently it’s true) coloring books, Play-Doh, blankets and videos of frolicking puppies, as well as trained trauma counselors. Apparently we can’t let the delicate children of the progressive elite — even at renowned universities that are supposed to train and challenge the intellects of the next generation — have their orthodox world-view punctured by surly contrarians. It would be like forcing them to ingest GMOs, gluten, non-organic tomatoes and Velveeta all at once. Yes, American universities are doing their best to make the world unsafe for heretics. (Maybe that explains their peculiar sympathy for Islam.)
Of course, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that collegiate feminists, some of whom might still be reeling from first-hand experience with rape, deserve to be verbally brutalized while already suffering from PTSD. But if they choose to attend an honest-to-God debate, they probably need to steel themselves for opinions that might stray from scripture. College is not — should never become — a nursery for ideological sheep.
So, yes, the extremists are engulfing society from both ends. They’re gaining ground; they dominate public discourse and Internet message boards. The sensible middle, with its tricky nuances and lack of rhetorical heat, lies almost bereft of life, unable to mesmerize the public or enlist bright-eyed recruits. I admit it; we’re losing the popularity contest to these battling bozos. If you drew a graph of American political sympathies today, you’d see a hill at either end with a depression in the middle. That’s us, down there in the valley.
The extremists are winning converts, but are they really having all the fun? I have my doubts. The left today seems whiny, prone to neurasthenic vapors, and oblivious to common sense. The right, for its part, puts up a macho front that conceals an underlying terror of demographic and cultural change. Both sides come across angry, clannish, intolerant and ready to take offense.
That’s not how I want to spend my days. Moderation and common sense might not generate much heat, but at least we’ll go to our eternal reward (or the communal boneyard) with the knowledge that we tried our best to make sense of these bewildering times. And while we’re here, we can enjoy the heady rush of firing away at follies to the left and right of us. After all, we moderates deserve to have some fun.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.