Monday, January 31, 2011

Government and Extremism, a continuation

The last blog contained some thoughts on government and extremism, which will continue here based on remarks made in my classes.

My earlier blog began with some stuff from the NY Times that struck me as odd, viz., that according to the Times, the U.S.'s "overriding concern is that the same people who are clamoring for change [interesting choice of words here] could choose leaders who are hostile to the U.S., or are even extremists."

So, two possibilities scare us: hostility to the U.S., whatever that means, and "extremism." Now, first, the hostility part, whatever that might mean. I mean I have some hostility to the U.S. and especially its government. Apparently, even the Fox News people have some hostility toward the U.S. these days, no? Certainly Tea Partiers and even or especially "liberals" have hostility, are hostile to the U.S. these days too, no?

My point? What kind of standard is this? Either it is meaningless or it is meant to conjure up pictures of gun-wielding fanatics or crazies, like Loughner, who have, quite inexplicably not realized that the U.S. is on a mission that will benefit the entire world, if not the cosmos as well! How could anyone, especially in the Middle East [as we call it; they who live there call it "home"], be hostile to the U.S? I mean, after all, we just got through with invading Iraq and killing thousands of its civilians to "help them" and to make "the world safe for democracy." Is this the thanks we get - "leaders who are hostile to the U.S."? And this is especially troubling in Egypt where we have spent billions helping to prop up Mubarak and his rather repressive regime over the course of the last 30 years. Talk about being ungrateful!

But the other standard - "extremism" - got me thinking - or asking: "Who are the extremists here, the protesters, the rebels, or Mubarak and his government?" And because this seemed to me like a strange question to ask, I asked another: "Why does it seem so strange to ask if those in power, those in government, are extremists, and not those in the streets?" Then I thought: "Hey, maybe this has something to do with the idea, the phenomenon of 'government' itself." That is, maybe the connection, blurred as it is, between "government" and "extremism" is not an accident or an aberration.

Then I thought about Machiavelli, whom I consider the creator or inventor of "government," at least in the modern sense of that phenomenon. After all, Machiavelli is known as "a realist," that is, as one who knew what had to be done to get where we - that is, we human beings - want to go or get to how we want to live. [The latter question was not difficult for Machiavelli: Human beings, most of them, want to live comfortably, relatively freely, while perhaps enjoying some glory or grandeur that comes from living in a "great nation," that is, one noted for its power, its prosperity, and its development, a lot like ancient Rome. I will return to this question soon.]

Maybe Machiavelli was a realist because he knew, "discovered" might be too strong a word, that extremism is absolutely essential as the foundation of any decent, that is, relatively stable, prosperous, and free, society. Also, Machiavelli realized that what was necessary at the outset is also necessary at other times, times of danger, or that is all the time because dangers are always present or almost present. The "best" statesmen see these dangers coming and act against them when others don't see them. A chilling thought if you think about it.

Ah, but here a difficulty arises: Extremism is, willy-nilly, threatening and people, at least most people, shy away from it, a behavior that seems to make sense given the dangers of extremism. So extremism needs to be hidden, not to say domesticated. [An important distinction I suspect, but only suspect now.] Where can we hide the necessary extremism, the necessary extremists? Answer: Government. More particularly, in a powerful and/or energetic government which will draw those attracted by extremism into it and foster or strengthen their tendencies, their desire for extremism. Here it is hard to beat Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist, speaking about the love of fame: "...the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds,...prompt[s] a man to plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit...." And, of course, for his fame or glory or even his immortality. [We are still quoting Hamilton!]

So, draw these types into government and their extremism may be made to look like something else entirely - for example, necessity or rationality. It might go something like this: "Hey, I hate to torture human beings or kill innocent civilians, but I have to do so. You cannot make mayonnaise without breaking some eggs. You cannot create and maintain a decent society without breaking some heads. It takes great courage or resolve for me to behave like this, but I will do it - and let the consequences be damned."

And there is or could be considerable truth to this speech as a troublesome issue raises itself: What if we human beings have "souls" and these "souls" are harmed by doing injustice? This was the basis for the question Socrates bugged everyone with: Is it worse to suffer or to do injustice? Our answer, like Machiavelli's and the Athenians: It is worse to suffer injustice and, hence, we allow ourselves to kill, maim, and torture innocent human beings because this is "realistic."

But even Socrates' question gets lost in the business of government, which is I think precisely what Machiavelli intended. There is work to be done, "extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit" that must be undertaken, even if the cost to ourselves or "souls" is dear. Extremism lies hidden in the recesses of our government, of any modern government and this is what the Egyptians in the streets are rebelling against. It is most interesting that in taking what is labeled a "careful" or "prudent" stance toward the events in Egypt that our president is seen not as a supporter of extremism but as a moderate. And the beat goes on.....As Jefferson said, a little revolution every so often is a good thing. He knew, I think, from whence he spoke.

No comments:

Post a Comment