Forty-five years ago this summer, while accepting the Republican party’s presidential nomination at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Barry Goldwater thundered: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” The party’s newly visible right wing exploded in cheers while liberal delegates headed for the nearest bar. Although Goldwater was soundly hammered that November by Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Goldwater campaign is considered by many historians to have been a turning point in the process of recrafting right-wing extremism in America as “the mainstream.” Numerous regional conservatisms, organized around everything from white supremacy, to reversing progressive schooling trends, to opposing all forms of taxation, began to federate in a concerted, and ultimately successful, effort to take over the Republican party apparatus. As they did it, they altered the language of politics profoundly.
Goldwater’s speech terrified members of his own party into voting Democratic; it began the polarizing realignment that we are living with today, in which liberals have no home among Republicans and conservative Democrats play a decisive role in brokering policies advocated by the liberal wing of their own party. But this famous phrase (branded political suicide at the time) was, as it turned out, a harbinger of a deft conservative strategy, forged in the white supremacist south, in Father Coughlin’s New Deal demagoguery, in Joe McCarthy’s hearing room, and in the pamphlets mailed by Richard Viguerie that promised the death of the American family itself. Extremism would, in the end, sell a range of policies and attitudes to a broader public over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. Extremism, as it has become business as usual across the political spectrum, has also brought us to a point of absurdity in American history where we, the people, are being urged to cancel scheduled trips to Scotland and to boycott Scottish products (name three Scottish products that you consume regularly — oops! time is up!) to protest the Scottish government’s release of Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, convicted in 2001 as the Lockerbie Bomber. Two hundred seventy people were killed when Pan Am Flight 103 plunged into the town of Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21 1988 in one of the most deadly terrorist attacks in history.
Al-Megrahie claimed to be innocent throughout his trial, and indeed, there was some evidence that pointed to the bombing as the action of a Palestinian group. As CNN reports, “British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who had earlier faced criticism for remaining silent on the issue, said Monday that freeing al-Megrahi would not act as an encouragement to terrorists.” What CNN does not say, of course, is that terrorists seem to need no encouragement to keep on doing what they are doing. One alternate explanation for continued terrorism might be, for example, the continued killing and torture of civilians by the United States and its allies, or United States military and financial support for corrupt and repressive regimes.
On the other hand, history suggests that the Scots are very easy to provoke as well. No one would be more aware of that than the English so, were I Gordon Brown, I would play hot potato with this one too. The former Kingdom of the Picts was in rebellion against various colonizers almost continuously from the eighth century until they were brutally repressed by the English army at the Battle of Culloden in 1745; thousands of Scots were murdered following their surrender or deported to penal colonies where they then died of disease and starvation. But even when thoroughly repressed and stripped of their kilts, the Scots were perceived as a possible source of domestic terrorism within the empire. In 1812, Lord Selkirk brought thousands of Scots who had been tossed off their land by enclosures (including ancestors of the Tenured Radical) to Manitoba so that they could starve and die in the outer reaches of the empire instead of roaming about land they no longer owned in search of food and shelter and rebelling against the Crown again. The Selkirk Settlement accomplished two things: it balanced out the ratio of Europeans to Native people a bit more in England’s favor, and it got a lot of angry Picts out of the Crown’s hair just in case.
In other words, what is now called Scotland has only been pacified for less than a third of the time that it has been in open rebellion, and Gordon Brown is not about to quarrel with the Scottish Parliament (which became semi-autonomous in 1998) about something so small as the release of a terrorist who is going to be dead from prostate cancer within the year.
But to return to a serious discussion of political culture for a moment, let’s look hard at the kind of outrage ordinary Americans are being asked to muster in the face of al-Megrahie’s release, an entirely symbolic event. We, who in the face of a rising crime rate, are still drinking the conservative Kool-Aid and believe unquestioningly that locking up people for life and stacking them six to a cell made for two makes us “safer.” We believe that executing people gives grieving relatives of murdered people “closure,” unless the killer happens to be an NFL wide receiver, in which case closure is best achieved by writing a very large check. What do we know about justice? And if some Libyans want to dance in the streets to welcome al-Megrahie home, so what? As Americans we cannot, on the one hand, declare that we are promoting “our freedoms” around the globe at the point of a gun, and then insist that the Libyan government use its powerful state apparatus to clamp down on a mass demonstration exercising what would be known in America as first amendment rights.
The American response to this non-event, and the amount of media time being wasted on it, shows how completely the rhetorical culture war launched by Goldwater has shaped popular political thought since that critical speech in 1964. What was roundly decried as dangerous then is the new normal now. Extremism is why politicians, instead of staying in Washington to work on a health reform bill, are spending gobs of time either propagating lies about what would constitute good health care or patiently explaining to otherwise normal people that Barack Obama is not a National Socialist, a socialist, or a communist (thanks to decades of conservative education cuts, many citizens my age seem believe that all three political categories represent different ways of saying the same thing.)
In the decades since Goldwater’s fiery right-wing candidacy, extremist rhetoric has become the new normal. As a consequence, many Americans have no tolerance fo
r a sustained, nuanced discussion and have acquired a collective Attention Deficit Disorder when it comes to political life. A budget meltdown in 48 out of fifty states? Let’s talk about adultery! Health reform going down the tubes? Hey, whaddya think about Michael Vick? Possibility that we can create the grounds for a new diplomacy by demonstrating to the Muslim world that Americans can show compassion and humanity towards a man who urinates in a bag and may not have been guilty in the first place? No, no, no: it’s much more important politically that the relatives of the Lockerbie dead get to claim “closure” by having some Libyan — any Libyan, really — die in jail.
Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the defense of justice is no virtue.
Americans, and their market-driven news outlets, are virtually unable to focus on the big picture for long enough to think about what actual “American values” are being expressed by the desire that al-Megrahi die in a Scottish prison (at a moment in history where conservatives wax rhapsodic about the beauty of Grandma’s lingering, painful death surrounded by loved ones who write checks to Big Pharma every hour or so.) At the same time, we insist that to punish (or, heaven forfend, even just fire) CIA interrogators who tortured detainees — many of whom were innocent of any involvement in terrorism — would “send the wrong message” to “our enemies.”
What message? Which enemies? I’m surprised that Nike has not been asked by some creative right-wing Senator to step forward and make a formal statement that the company does not condone al-Megrahi’s decision to travel home in one of their signature tennis caps.
In fact, there is a good argument that moderation in pursuit of justice actually is a virtue, and the Scottish pardon creates an excellent opportunity to discuss this question as a national and an international ethic. Part of the problem with Americans today is that we either don’t understand what would constitute moderation anymore, or we apply this doctrine selectively (as in the case of professional and college star athletes.) But I would also argue for a third possibility: that there is no longer any rhetorical or judicial space available to discuss compassion, redemption or reincorporation as virtues that a democracy can practice. For example: sex offenders are punished for the rest of their natural lives as if all of them were predators, when the reality is that there is a broad range of statutory crimes that are felonious even if both parties to the sexual act happily agreed to it. And yet, we have created a political atmosphere where tolerating broad injustices (including a high rate of homelessness and unemployment among registered sex offenders) is not worth the opprobrium that would be rained down on any policy maker who tried to reform this senseless and (I believe) unconstitutional policy.
In 2009, we Americans have come to believe that all politics are ultimately cultural, and can be addressed with vague, and increasingly shrill, cultural responses. We expect politicians to craft laws and social policies that reflect our opinions, our emotions and our collective sense of fear, not reasoned and substantively researched positions. And this, in my view, has been the ultimate Goldwater victory.
Cross-posted at Cliopatria.