Friday, February 10, 2006

The Vice of Centrists

I recently offered my thoughts – succinct, I would say, though snarky might also be true – on the vices of conservatives and liberals. An anonymous respondent asked, quite reasonably, what the vice of centrists might be.

I have been puzzling over this. I don't think I have really nailed it, as I do about naming the vices of others. That may be the perennial problem of self-crit. Here is my first cut.

The vice of centrists is complacency.

Liberal and conservative activists seem to enjoy feeling righteously indignant so much that I think that is half the appeal of having an ideology in the first place. But to feel really righteous in our outrage, we have to grossly simplify the issues and options, to eliminate the middle positions and proclaim culture war.

However, sometimes a revolution really is called for. Very rarely, but sometimes. In my lifetime, legal racial exclusion was one such moment. The civil rights movement was the response, and for the most part it was conducted with great justice and forbearance. Centrists are inclined to be gradualists. But the culture of racism really needed to be removed root and branch.

So it is a good thing in the ecology of politics to have the wings as well as the great middle.

On the whole, though, it is best to have the center rule.

5 comments:

Denis Hancock said...

This has been an enjoyable series of postings. I think your "first cut" at a centrist vice is a good one.

Our PC(USA) form of government may be causing the wings of the denomination to chafe at what they call "needless delay" when it comes to furthering their agendas, but on the other hand, it makes it unlikely that we will descend into something like The People's Temple or the Branch Davidians.

Most of the time our church polity serves us extremely well. And yes, that sounds like complacency.

ken mcintyre said...

I will continue my reference to the ideas of others by quoting Jim Hightower, populist, Texan, politician, and humorist (prior description is in no particular order), 'There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.'

On the other hand, Oakeshott had a great admiration for those he called 'trimmers', taking the term from Lord Halifax to denote statesmen who understand that the world cannot be remade according to some abstract ideological blueprint. Instead, according to the trimmer, changes emerge from within traditions and practices, and are most convincing, effective, and long-lasting when they are explicitly defended in such traditional and practical terms.

In the case of the civil rights movement, the most effective argument made by proponents of the movement claimed that the political situation of blacks in the South was unjust because that situation was an incoherent anomaly. The argument went on these lines: blacks are citizens; they have fought to defend the rights of Americans in overseas wars; they share the same beliefs and political values as other citizens; thus, they should be treated as other citizens. The argument wasn't that radical, although the racial animosity that enforced separation was real, powerful, and certainly did not disappear as the result of court rulings, legislation, etc.

ancho and lefty said...

I look forward to reading more about the family class. I checked out the blog this morning.

My only comment on your post on what conservatives and liberals did right is that I have a very different perspective on the issue of the violence that took place on what I believe you call the edges of the Cold War.

Most specifically, as a researcher in Central America, and as a reader of Latin American history, I can not help but view the way that Cold War politics were played out in Latin America as devastating to hundreds of thousands of families throughout Latin America. (I am sure you realize this too, but you seem to place little emphasis on it.)

The U.S. willfully ignored gross human rights violations that occurred in nations whose governments received ample finanacial support from our own government. We justified continued support of oppressive regimes by arguing that our nation's security was at risk. So we accepted not only odd but vicious bed fellows and turned our heads as state-sponsored death squads marched through the city and country killing innocent women and children, and occassionally killing "leftist" guerillas who supposedly threatened democracy in the world. Or, when popularly elected leaders did not suit the United States (Allende or Ortega, for example), we chose to fund ways to disempower them.

This is on my mind because I am currently reading a book on one particular slaughter of more than 500 men, women, and children in Northern El Salvador during the civil war there. It's grizzly, upsetting, and difficult to accept that such violence was justified. I find it particularly interesting, for example, that you laud the civil rights movement as what the liberals did right, but then overlook how the Cold War destroyed civil rights for people in less-powerful nations caught up in a tangled struggle for global power over which they had very little control.

Additionally, if conservatives did the Cold War so well, from where did our current geopolitical disasters arise? Don't we continue to see Cold War kernels in today's current geopolitical landscape?

Gruntled said...

Denis, I agree -- though I am less complacent about the Presbyterian Church than I am about some other things.

Ken, much as I enjoy the humor of Jim Hightower, he is most useful as an agitator, rather than an analyst. Go Oakeshott!

Lefty, my friend, I completely agree that the United States government did horrible things in supporting oppressive regimes through the Cold War. I marched against some of them in the '80s. And there are still Cold War kernels creating troubling ripples. Likewise, racism is not over, though the Civil Rights Movement triumphed.

Still, a massacre of 500 is not on the same scale as nuclear war.

One of the advantages of being a Calvinist is that I am not surprised by the persistence and magnitude of sin. That is why I celebrate the rare and unexpected achievements that human beings sometimes attain.

SPorcupine said...

i rise to quote a mighty faculty wife: Maria Anes Lacey, Brazilian by birth, and a mighty presence when I was in college. She spoke little but with force.

Once, a lecture on Guatemala in the late 1970s degenerated into a debate about who was and wasn't a Marxist, until, from the back of the room, she said rather simply: "50,000 people have died and you can show some respect."

Another time, in a Catholic Social Thought class, a Marxist-leaning student insisted that no change was possible in Latin America without armed revolution. Maria, a guest in the class, caught the professor's eye quickly enough to be asked to respond directly. She said "When I was in school, that was the common view in Brazil, and many people my age went to the jungle to act on it." "What happened?" the young man asked. "They're all dead," she answered.

I wouldn't dare call her left, right, or center: just importnat.