Sunday, January 30, 2011

Government and Extremism

"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." Barry Goldwater, 1964
"A little revolution every now and again is a good thing, as healthy in the political world as storms are in the natural world." Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, circa 1776.

Sometimes what is written in a newspaper is most revealing about our blindness. For example, in the New York Times, dated Saturday, January 29, 2011, the following paragraph appears: “In each case [Middle Eastern countries], the overriding concern is that the same people who are clamoring for change could choose leaders who are hostile to the United States, or are even extremists.”

A couple of things at least. First, do those people “clamoring for change” view themselves as “extremists?” I don’t think that they do. I think that they think that Mubarek, the leader of Egypt, is the extremist. And, of course, there are some pretty good reasons to think that they are correct. After all, Mubarek has ruled Egypt for 30 years but only with the help of rigged elections – where he garners something 88% of the vote – and with the help of his “secret” police – who are of course not “secret” to the Egyptian people!

But, of course, those “clamoring for change” must be extremists because they are out in the streets and, worse than that, refusing to obey the duly constituted authorities. However, again, this is illusionary because according to those in the streets, there are no “duly constituted authorities” in Egypt. The government is illegitimate and oppressive or it is illegitimate because it is oppressive, a thought that should not be strange to a people who began their “peoplehood,” as it were, with a Declaration of Independence justifying treasonous war in the face of similar oppression.

This points me in the direction of another observation, more interesting to me than the first one: Government is a way of hiding extremism and extremists. I would argue that this is precisely what Machiavelli understood about government, as well as others like Max Weber [who understood modern bureaucracy better than most]. That is, government disguises extremism and extremists, making them look like the “duly constituted authorities” even while they pursue schemes and projects and policies that can only accurately be described as extreme.

Don’t believe me? Well, ask yourselves: Isn’t a war waged against a tactic, say “terrorism,” extremist, as well as one waged to eradicate evil or “a war to end all wars” or “to make the world safe for democracy?” All of these justifications have come from the “duly constituted authorities” in the United States. But what about “a war on poverty,” or “a war on drugs,” or “a war on crime?” [For those in my presidency class this semester, a question: Is the office of the presidency an excellent way of disguising or hiding, by legitimizing, extremism? Sounds like a good final exam question to me.]

Or, to take another example, one that hits closer to home for me and where I work and live: Who are the extremists on college campuses, the students or those BOBs – Basic Old Bureaucrats – who are trying to change what they call “student culture,” a “culture” that seems rather impervious to the BOBs attempts to change it? As I just realized, it is the students who are presented to us as extremists, that is, they allegedly go to extremes when it comes to sex, drinking, and even apparently “freaking out,” if the latest survey on student “stress” is to be believed. But isn’t this like saying that it was not Socrates’ proposal in the Republic for the rule of philosopher kings, including the arranging of marriages, that was radical but, rather, those who would resist such rule? This seems to be a wee bit insane, does it not?

But aren’t those BOBs who are most committed to their project of rationalizing life at Assumption College, and at other colleges and universities that tolerate and promote what is called the “Student Life” movement, the extremists? After all, what sane person would think that it is possible, to say of nothing of desirable, to rationalize human life on a college campus where young people congregate not to be “socialized” but, rather, to be free one last time before they enter what is called “the real world?”

And isn’t this true of those who would rationalize human life generally, whether that rationalization is seen as the work of “the free market” or the work of a pervasively powerful government as allegedly proposed by liberals?

Ah yes, they are extremists. But put these people in a government, make them “officials,” and watch what might well be called “a magic show:” The extremists disappear into “government officials” or BOBs or others who have committed themselves to participating in the attempt to rationalize human life. The point here is: The extremists disappear into the government and reappear in those who resist! And, of course, perhaps the worst of the newly created extremists are those who point out, call out, this “magic show.” So, those who see most clearly are called extremist. But then Plato/Socrates knew this too as illustrated by the Republic. And don't forget what happened to Socrates!!

No comments:

Post a Comment