May 9, 2009


Saturday, 27 March 2009

“One of the researches most urgently needed is into the whole problem of compromise and noncompromise. I am dangerously and mistakenly much against compromise: “my kind never gets anything done.”  The (self-styled) “Realists” are quite as dangerously ready to compromise. They seem never sufficiently aware of the danger; they much to quickly and easily respect the compromise and come to rest in it. I would suppose that nothing is necessarily wrong with compromise in itself, except that those who are easy enough to make it are easy enough to relax into and accept it, and that it thus inevitably becomes fatal.  Or more nearly, the essence of the trouble is that compromise is held to be a virtue itself.

James Agee: From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Cited in Robert Coles: Teaching Stories. Modern Library, New York: 2004. Pp. 233.

Centrism may not really exist. Moderation may be an illusion.  Please consider this premise for the moment.

Maybe there is a “center.” While you read our argument, please keep in mind our openness to this proposition. Maybe you are a scholar and a leader in the domain of that “center.” It may exist. Maybe there are several! There may be substantial, reasoned and reasonable policy positions, ethically supported and credible, somewhere around the region of space we fondly and fuzzily call “the Center.” 

We, the Editors, are willing to have this whole line of inquiry be completely wrong. Divisive, inflammatory and offensive, even. Oh, yeah. But we ask you to consider the following as a radical thought experiment. As always, our postulate is not a solution. We theorize not to conclude anything, but to deepen the question and invite the conversation. (We urge you to read our Essay entitled HYPOCRISY IS BAD: A deliberate, Numbing Assault On Our Public Conversation and dated 05 November 2008 at ).

So please indulge us for a moment. We apologize for some weak geographical metaphors, and we ask you to consider this proposition:

Centrism may not really exist. At any “center,” maybe there is no substantial policy, no ethically supportable stance, no passionately held and shared belief (or indeed belief of any kind). Or even a valid opinion. Just observing reality from a place can only be fuzzy, soft, incorrect and epistemologically incomplete.

“The real power of junk thought lies in its status as a centrist phenomenon, fueled by the American credo of tolerance that places all opinions on an equal footing and makes little effort to separate fact from opinion.”

Susan Jacoby, The Age Of American Unreason: Pp 211

Is it an illusion that there is anything at any sort of “center” that is not vacuous?

There really is no “place” in this region of the map. There is no “center” that can be reliably found and identified by any honest geography, or any honest geographer.

At the empty space at the “center” of our peculiar cartographic discourse there is really only fear and directionless immobility: inertia.

There is something at this certain “Center,” but it is not opinion, policy, ethical conviction, or shared belief. It is nothing of the kind. This something is not without “gravity.” It is fact extremely dense! It is like a black hole of Infinite Ignorance, from which no meaning and communication can escape. (Please see our Essay entitled EXTREMISM IS SAFE: How Is Radical Extremism reassuring? and dated September 5, 2008 at ).

It is a kind of perch where the unsure, insecure and ignorant find a craven, sanctimonious pulpit from which to chortle and dismiss.

Have we have simply lost any shared clarity of language about a real, responsible “center” of policy positions and ethical substance? Maybe this is nothing more than a semantic issue, or a matter of confused and uncertain definitions. Has it become confusing and opaque due to imprecision? Intellectual sloppiness? Failure to consult our dictionaries?

We assert that if so, this is in itself a bad thing. At best things are certainly muddied and blurred by confusion. Imprecise, ambiguous usages are simply incorrect. We owe it to ourselves, and to one another, to commit ourselves to certain, precise and respectful use of language.

The richer, more nuanced and multi-dimensional our dialogue is, the more understanding we will share. Multiple meanings and metaphor add immeasurably to the art of communication.  Language is a living thing. Do we kill it by disrespecting its whole, ineffable existence? Believe us; we (the Editors) are social and anthropological radicals. A look around this website should convince you that we strive to be anything but dogmatic stiflers of language.

To be sure, the fearsome matters before us are complex, contradictory and multi-dimensional. Do we imagine we are simply being respectful of cultural and ethical difference? Do we accept another’s unique usage of terms because of her “unique social position, experience and subjectivity?” No. Mutual respect for cultural and personal difference does not allow us to simply invent our own language from our respective “experiences.” It is dishonest and destructive. We can only recover intellectual honesty, and the means to understand one another truly, with intellectual rigor about our meanings.

“Rereading Hofstadter at the end of the nineties, I was struck by the old-fashioned fairness of his scholarship- not the bogus “objectivity” or bland centrism that always locates truth equidistant from two points, but a serious attempt to engage the arguments of opponents and acknowledge evidence that runs contrary to one’s own biases.”

Susan Jacoby: The Age Of American Unreason: pp. xvi

Confusion and blurring may reflect more an intellectual sloppiness than a moral weakness- but we believe that both do us great harm. Mutual respect requires us to commit to complete, mutual integrity and shared, dogged pursuit of what we –and our words– truly “mean.” To fail is a moral weakness.

Moral weakness exposes us to genuine peril, though. We detect a theft of our language-  abstruse and dishonest: a hijack of  our public conversation. We witness the discursive appropriation of power through the appropriation of language and discourse. Done by “Blue Dog” Democrats, yes? Heinous! Grave injury is done to shared meaning, real ethical commitments, and convictions. Honest public conversation is suffocated by the instruments of power and identity. The true natures of ideas (and of ideological conflicts) are trivialized and debased.

But! Maybe worse yet: maybe the “center” is an epistemological falsity, a tautological error and a failure of reason. Under cover of smug righteousness, it mesmerizes us, and confounds and paralyzes serious contemplation of matters of ethical gravity. 

“Moreover, the much lionized American centrists, sometimes known as moderates, are in no way immune to the overwhelming pull of belief systems that treat evidence as a tiresome stumbling-block to deeper, instinctive “ways of knowing.””

Susan Jacoby, The Age Of America Unreason:___ (***) Pp 211

Okay. Maybe you are not religious, but not antireligionist. (And not an activist.) Maybe you are uncomfortable with the consequences of religious extremism. Or  hey- maybe you are an anti-religionist. More power to you.

Maybe you are uncomfortable about violence, or dislike it.  Or maybe you are passionately, committedly opposed to it, and you abhor violence by extremists— from any of the cardinal points of extremism. Or maybe you are actively anti-violent. More power to you.

But maybe you are just uncomfortable with conflict. You just don’t like -or don’t engage in- shrill, polarizing conflict.

Maybe you passionately, devotedly oppose hate and intolerance. Hurray. But maybe you are just not that angry with, or hateful toward, others. 

Maybe you are uncomfortable about some of what “extremists” and “extremism” produce. Or maybe you have complete conviction about the unethical and moral wrongs that some extremisms produce.

Maybe you are just- UNCOMFORTABLE. But not an activist.

But does this discomfort distract and obstruct us from having real convictions about what might discomfit us most? Discomfort may push you away from positions of real conviction- about racism, about sexuality, about violence. This is not neutrality, or even reason. Often, it is not even very complicated.

Our greatest discomfort should be at failed convictions, and failed resistance to racism, oppression and violence of all sorts. We should honor, and embrace, this sort of discomfort.

Only a strongly polarized moral compass will allow us to navigate surely.

Maybe you are uncomfortable about men having sex with other men, or women having sex with other women. But… maybe you are anti-gay.

Or maybe you just don’t want to have sex with other men, or women. Maybe you’re just altogether a bit uncomfortable about sex. Shouldn’t we be? It’s fun, but it is really quite an abyss, isn’t it? But maybe you are truly intolerant.

Maybe you are uncomfortable about wholesale violence undertaken abroad by your country. Maybe you are uncomfortable -but just a bit- that it is undertaken in your name.  Maybe you are also uncomfortable with people openly opposing and condemning that violence. You may be afraid to resist it yourself. You may be uncomfortable that you may be a victim of violence. But… maybe you are an ultarnationalist warmonger and advocate, nay embrace it. We don’t know.

Maybe you are uncomfortable about black people starving in Africa, and the oppression and killing there. Maybe you are uncomfortable about black people approaching your car. Maybe you are racist, and oppose the enfranchisement of others. Dunno.

Does discomfort “pull” you diametrically into the center of a spectrum of beliefs? No. This is repulsion, not attraction. There is nothing “attractive” about it. The only thing “attractive” about the center is that the instinctively craven feel more secure when surrounded by the like-minded (-or the similarly un-minded). The “center” o(of a herd) is a matter of perceived reproductive advantage (for those of us who “believe” in evolution). There is an evolutionarily conferred reduction in the statistical likelihood that one will be eaten- especially by one’s own kind. (Please see our Essay on herd-opinioning, titled “EXTREMISM IS SAFE: How Is Radical Extremism Reassuring?” and dated 05 September 2008 ( . It is quite funny).

Could the following be true? If you are a “centrist:

This is not pallid neutrality.

You are not Neutral.

You are not Sober. 

You are not Responsible.

You are not Moral.

You are not “Moderate.”

You are not a “Centrist.”

You are not in the “Center” of anything.

You are Nowheresville, man.

You are not in a safe, secure and comfortable place.

You are not a political “actor,” or an “actor” in the world at all. You are not an “agent” and you are not a civic participant.

Centrism and moderation are not a moral stance.

Maybe there is no such thing as responsible moderation.

Try this: If you are a “centrist:”

You are at the margin.

You are at the sideline.

You are “on the bubble.”

You are at the junction of Apathy, Inaction and Passivity.

But you are not safe. You are at risk. You are in danger. You expose us all to extremisms.

You are next.

This is the absence of a moral or ethical stance.

You have an absence of conviction.

An absence of belief.

Maybe this is not really the opposite of taking a stance. That would be taking a stance, wouldn’t it? Maybe it isn’t Anti-stance. But it is an absence of stance, a failure of stance. It may not be the opposite of conviction, but it is an absence or failure of conviction. Not anti-conviction but a-conviction.  It may not be opposed to morals and mores, but it may be a-moral. Actually, it is anything but amoral. We assert that it is immoral, especially because it disguises itself as principalled and gives protective cover to evil. That is not amoral, is it? But let’s not lose sight: does it do wholesale damage to the operations of morals and mores in the world? Does it pretend to morality? Does it do violence to shared meaning, and to language itself?

Maybe you just don’t give a shit. You are still not a “centrist.”

But it may be that these are really horrible failures. Our proposition is that to fail to believe, to commit and to act may in fact be immoral. It may admit and abet the spread of extremisms and destruction. When there is nothing moderate about the beliefs and practices (and horrors) that you oppose, how can you be a “moderate?”

Is there no such thing as responsible moderation?

We argue that what we describe here far worse than irresponsible. Worse than merely sanctimonious, self-righteous and craven.

“Centrism” paints itself as reasoned, sound, grounded, and pragmatic. A sympathetic, accepting understanding of multiple dimensions and nuanced perspectives. It propounds to be knowledgeable and tolerant and honoring -perhaps embracing- of positions that it situates as, well, extreme. Relative to itself.

“Moderation” may seek to materialize and validate “solid” ground simply by finding a sort of “middle” ground among competing claims and calling it some sort of “common” ground. It is defined, manifested, and located in the world only by the coordinates of the “grounds” around it, however unfounded and spurious the claims thereto may be. It is “ungrounded,” and unfounded in the way that colonies and settlements may be unfounded.

It then (perfidiously) presumes to define all else, all that lies around it as far as the eye can see, as “extreme.” It paints all that is “extreme” as fundamentally immature. As lacking its multi-perspectival maturity.

Here: the premise is false that “centrism” is a measured, calculated response to real, complex and consequential situations. It is not measured, calculated or real. By positing other positions as extreme, relative to itself, IT POSITS EXACTLY NOTHING. It is vacuous.

Without inherent substance, “moderation” nonetheless endorses -even requires- the rejection, without serious consideration, analysis or understanding, of anything that another extremist might call “extreme.” 

“…With a renewed esteem, it may be the scholarly equivalent of the general public’s weariness with ideological polarizations that has sanctioned not only the demonization of opponents but the trivialization of all opposing positions.”

Susan Jacoby, The Age Of American Unreason: Pp xvi

It endorses the rejection of … –everything. Every conviction, every conclusion, every assertion and every truth. In fact, as a false epistemology, it requires the negation of every real (grounded) position or epistemological stance that matters.

It cloaks such rejection and intolerance in smug sanctimoniousness.

It glorifies knuckleheaded ignorance. More, it makes ignorance more powerful than reason or ethical conviction or truth. It evades them, trivializes them, infantilizes them and then eradicates them.

“As both dumbness and smartness are defined downward -among intellectuals and nonintellectuals alike- it becomes much easier to convince people of the validity of extreme positions. Not only basic knowledge but the ability to think critically are required to understand the factual errors (as distinct from differences of opinion) that generally provide the foundation for policies at the far ends of the political spectrum.”

Susan Jacoby, The Age Of America Unreason: pp. 298

We assert that it is intellectual sloppiness, moral weakness, and worse to mistake this “centrism” for a “stance” or position on any sort of issue.

But is it worse? Does it cosign, endorse, legitimize, in very fact give manifestation to, radical extremism? By putting all claims on some sort of “equal ground?”

It is far beyond sloppiness and weakness to mistake this for an ethos or creed. This is a comprehensive tautological error. It is the absence of any such things.

“Most” of us are not “somewhere in the center.” “Most” of us are chickenshit, or lazy.

 We ask: Are there solid, substantial, reasoned and reasonable policy positions, ethically supported and credible, somewhere around the region of space we fondly and fuzzily call “the Center?”

Centrism may not really exist. Moderation may be an illusion. What do you think?


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1 Comment »

  1. […] You, our dear Reader, know what we think of those who dismiss ideas because they are not “moderate” and “balanced” and “centrist.” And if you don’t, by gosh, you will find this essay to be well paired with our previous essay:… […]

    Pingback by » FAIR AND BALANCED? Both Sides Of A What? — October 3, 2009 @ 10:20 pm

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