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Extremism and the Golden Mean

Discussion in 'Articles' started by Medora, Dec 16, 2011.

  1. Medora The New Architect

    The following was my argument essay for English 101.

    Extremism and the Golden Mean

    “The philosophies of one age have become the absurdities of the next, and the foolishness of yesterday has become the wisdom of tomorrow.” – Sir William Osler, educator

    When it comes to national politics, a popularly held belief may be clung to as undeniable truth, only to be replaced by a formerly unpopular belief. This essay will use several historical examples – drawn from America’s Civil Rights Movement and Abolitionist Movement – to demonstrate that beliefs thought undeniable truths today were previously equated with extremism; that so-called extremists who advocated these beliefs when they were unpopular faced severe persecution from the majority; and that lacking the courage to advocate against a popularly held belief can have consequences that affect many lives. In regards to the historical examples, the one for the Civil Rights Movement focuses on Martin Luther King Jr. and his writings in defense of his philosophy of peaceful civil disobedience as a case study and symbolic of the Movement as a whole. With the Dr. King example demonstrating the first two points mentioned above and familiarizing the reader with what is meant by extremism, examples from the Abolitionist Movement will be used not only as additional support, but in order to introduce and emphasize the idea of the “Golden Mean” and lead the reader to the crux of the argument: That it is important for people to critically examine unpopular beliefs and not uncritically accept popular ones.

    1. Undeniable Truth Today; Extremism Yesterday

    It was a spring day – 16 April, 1963, to be exact – and Dr. King, already a prominent leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, was sitting behind bars in a city jail in Birmingham, Alabama, writing a letter (King, “Letter”) to several clergymen who accused him of promoting “such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be” (Carpenter, et al., “Public Statement”) – of being an extremist by acting outside the “proper channels” for negotiation with the government. In the present day, it is not difficult to find Americans who do not think Dr. King’s actions and beliefs controversial, but the people who were not yet born or were too young to remember the Movement are living in a country already effectively changed by its accomplishments. It is easy to point and laugh mockingly at opponents of the Movement with the benefit of being separated from their environment: 1960s America.

    Still, to call Dr. King an extremist was a serious accusation, so much so that his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” – written on newspaper margins, smuggled writing paper scraps, and later on a pad eventually permitted into his jail cell (Comley, et al., 559) – was dedicated to thoroughly refuting the charge with all the eloquence of a pastor steeped in Biblical literary knowledge and historical understanding. And yet he, to an extent, embraced the charge: “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label” (King, “Letter”). In supporting his idea of extremism, Dr. King gave many examples, only a few of which follow: Jesus’ uncompromising love, Abraham Lincoln’s declaration that America cannot stand only half free, and Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that the equality of men is without question. Put another way, scholar Michael Leff and communications professor Ebony A. Utley describes Dr. King’s extremism not as a matter of “placement along a spectrum of existing [political] positions” but “of intensity of conviction” (Leff and Utley, 37-51).

    At this point, readers may be wondering why Dr. King was perceived as extremist in more than conviction. Going by the dictionary definition for extremist (Collins English Dictionary), Dr. King may be classified as such for several reasons, one being his uncompromising pursuit of a goal that the majority opposed. After all, by protesting – albeit peacefully – he went beyond “proper channels” and into the area of civil disobedience, which the American government is historically hostile to (Zinn and Arnove, 278), and which only rarely leads to powerfully unified movements that effectively influence national policy; e.g., the historically unprecedented and massive protests backed by two-thirds of the American populace (Zinn and Arnove, 421) against the Vietnam War. Even more, as assistant professor of history S. Jonathan Bass argues in his book (Bass, 11) about Dr. King’s “Letter,” the segregationists (“separate but equal”) and integrationists (equality without separation) both represented a minority, which made them the political extremes between which sat a moderate majority that included gradualists, or people who supported “gradual accommodation…to new ways of thought and behavior” (Bass, 4).

    If gradualists were a notable portion of the moderate majority, they were part of the audience Dr. King aimed at in his “Letter,” as he never sent the “Letter” to the clergymen since they were not his intended audience (Leff and Utley, 41). Mr. Leff and Miss Utley put the point this way (emphasis added): “The clergymen functioned rhetorically as a synecdoche [part of a whole], as a representation of the larger audience King wanted to reach, and his decision to respond to their statement and his manner of doing so were both strategic” (Leff and Utley, 41). This larger audience is then identified by the authors: white moderates. Dr. King’s Birmingham campaign relied on this moderate majority, and they could be won over since they were tentative about their position; they could more easily be convinced to join the integrationists’ side.

    As indicated above, the segregationists were a minority but they could combine their strength with the moderate (including gradualist) majority, which leant sympathetic ear to segregation. That said, in 1960s America there was still a powerful enough portion of the population receptive to segregation to allow for Dr. King to be labeled an extremist. Contrast how Dr. King was perceived to how protestors of the Vietnam War were when they gained the backing of two-thirds of the population by the early 1970s: military servicemen were resisting, veterans were speaking out, acts of civil disobedience were as rampant as ever, draft refusal was becoming common (Zinn and Arnove, 422) – and the label of extremism could not easily be affixed to them because their voices combined dominated. In other words, it was not Dr. King’s “intensity of conviction” per se that worried people, but that it was for a cause they were still unsure of. Civil disobedience, then, was extremism only insofar as it represented an effective effort to change the status quo (segregation to integration), rather than an inept effort buried in the halls of government where it could die a quiet death.

    2. Severe and Routine Persecution

    1850s America, like 1960s America, exemplified the fallacy known as the Golden Mean, or Argument to Moderation, which journalist John Walcott described as “the pernicious [harmful] philosophical [notion that truth is] found midway between two opposing poles of an argument…” (Walcott, “Truth Is Not Subjective”). Just as, in the 1960s, the majority’s preference for middle ground between segregation and integration was the problem Dr. King saw in society in general when replying to the clergymen who accused him of extremism, moderates of the 1850s saw a middle ground between abject slavery and “immediate emancipation and racial equality” (Goodwin, 84), prompting abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison to give them the following vehement response:

    On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present (Garrison, “To the Public”).

    Alarmed by the extremists called abolitionists who argued that black people should be considered first-class citizens, the public sprang into action: In some northern cities, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin explains, abolitionists were subjected to physical assault (Goodwin, 134). Even more, northerners were so convinced that the abolitionist “movement threatened the Union” due to how angry it made the southern states, which were already entertaining secession, that northern and western abolitionist printers were attacked, their presses and mailings burned, and editors given death threats (Goodwin, 84; Meacham, 304). And sometimes an abolitionist did not merely receive threat of death: By 1837, abolitionist Wendell Phillips gave his famous speech in which he condemned “the murder of abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy of Alton, Illinois” (Hogan, 63-79).

    In 1835, Mr. Garrison, the abolitionist leader, was dragged through the streets of Boston by a mob hoping to have him hanged (Hogan, 62-79). Mr. Garrison survived, but as the 1840s approached the atmosphere got no better for abolitionists, as evidenced by the following incident: When in 1839 New York Governor William H. Seward – later Secretary of State for Abraham Lincoln – protected three free black men from the custody and baseless allegations of the slavery-supporting Virginian government, his words in defense of the black men and in correctly pointing out his right under New York law to protect them earned him the epitaph “bigoted New England fanatic” (Goodwin, 84) by his critics. In addition, when Mr. Seward made a speech that condemned laws against black people and called for an end to slavery, Thurlow Weed, Mr. Seward’s top political advisor and a brilliant political organizer who propelled his career, warned him that his words risked placing “him in the same camp with extremist figures such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips” (Goodwin, 134).

    When Miss Goodwin said that a schism was growing between North and South due to an increase of “rancor on both sides” (Goodwin, 84), she was apparently referring to the abolitionists on one extreme and the South’s slaveholders and leaders on the other extreme. Although abolitionists and Southern leaders and slaveholders were both thought extremists by northerners, the former were persecuted and silenced while the latter were accommodated and given compromises (more on that later). The difference was clear as day: Although abolitionists were merely peacefully protesting in their publications and speeches, they angered extremists with actual power: Southern leaders and slaveholders. After all, the secessionist-entertaining southern leaders and the slaveholders they either were or protected represented a class with the ability to wage war, which in fact they would. (Imagine if abolitionists represented a class that held the power to break away from the Union, and how that would affect their treatment by northerners.) In other words, though the southern elites were extremists, they could raise an army for war against the Union, so moderates thought it best to accommodate while it could yet be assumed that there was hope.

    But whether there really was hope in accommodation is an important question, and feeds into another question: of whether the most sensible belief is always the moderate one. The North did not feel compelled to re-adopt slavery, whereas the South was compelled to hold onto it at all costs – as the slave was the lifeblood of the economy the latter had built up. Short of becoming the South as regarded the slavery question, the South probably never would have been satisfied with the actions of the North, as the following will attempt to support.

    1850 America could be considered near dawn for the Civil War, which began 12 April, 1861, since at that point tensions were reaching the breaking point between North and South. Indeed, 1850 saw the introduction of the Compromise of 1850 to Congress, which was a package of laws meant to ensure that no matter how many states were entered into the Union an equal number would be slave states. Even so, influential Northern Congressmen such as Daniel Webster and Stephen Douglas were determined to go against their principles for the sake of political expediency – to adopt the moderate position of accommodation over the uncompromising position of the abolitionists. Along those lines, Senator Henry Clay, who proposed the Compromise and had been trying to get it passed since 1820, got his much wanted boost when Mr. Webster made his famous 7 March, 1850, speech to Congress and surprised his supporters when he began “castigating abolitionists, vowing never to support the Wilmot Proviso [created to stop slavery from extending into the territories] and coming out in favor of every one of Clay’s resolutions — including the provision to strengthen the hateful Fugitive Slave Law” (Goodwin, 145). Mr. Webster’s “speech won nationwide approval from moderates who desperately wanted a peaceful settlement of the situation...” (Goodwin, 145).

    3. The Courage To Advocate

    It is not in question that Mr. Webster did what he thought best for his country, but in choosing to accommodate the slave states in trying to preserve the Union he fell into the trap that since there were two extremes, the best response was to moderate, or to compromise his stance so as to prevent too greatly offending those opposed to it. The Compromise kept the country together for a few years, but was a temporary solution – an adhesive strip applied where stitching was necessary. In other words, “the Compromise failed to solve the underlying struggle over slavery between the northern and southern states, eventually leading up to the Civil War” (“Compromise of 1850”). Historian Deborah Gray White goes further by saying that the Compromise, “meant to quell anxiety about the slavery question, actually fanned its flames” (Kelley and Lewis, 218). As part of her support for that assertion, Miss White focuses on the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, a “most obnoxious” part of the Compromise with “harsh provisions” that increased the number of whites sympathetic to abolitionism in the North and increased the anxiety of whites in the South (Kelley and Lewis, 220-221).

    Although moderation is not inherently wrong, neither is it inherently right. It is easy to wear moderation like a crown of reason or sensibility, since most people will not criticize and the powerful will not see a threat. That said, it is sometimes a fear or weariness of conflict that encourages people to cling to moderation, but as abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet avoid confrontation are people who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its waters” (Douglass, 375).



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