Tag Archives: extremism

Extremism Is the Enemy

One day in in the summer of 1966, I walked through the capital of a Latin American nation during the inauguration of a new president. Armed soldiers lined the avenue into the center of town, spaced about 50 feet apart, to guard against the trouble that was expected.

The election had been hotly contested and divisive. The leading candidate of one party had died under mysterious circumstances, but his brother had stepped in and won the presidency. There were innuendos of corruption on both sides.

There were rumors of a planned insurrection, an uprising to disrupt the inauguration and prevent the new president from taking office. In addition to soldiers and military vehicles in the streets, the air force was on the alert, ready to crush any rebellion.

I congratulated myself on coming from a country where this could never happen.

Now consider January 6, 2021. A mob invaded our nation’s capitol building, known throughout the world as a symbol of law, order, and liberty. The mob’s purpose: Disregard law, order, and liberty to overturn a legitimate election. They were driven by a repeated lie that this election was somehow stolen, and they refused to believe the truth despite repeated vote recounts and reviews that disproved the lie. Greedy political opportunists, people who wanted those votes in a future election, just kept on feeding them the lie.

Rabid partisans on both liberal and conservative sides blame the Capitol insurrection on “extremists.” They’re right. To get a good look at those extremists, they need only gaze into the mirror.

Both major political parties have extremists within their ranks who refuse to consider any compromise. To compromise is to deal with the devil; the hyper-partisans demonize people who do it.

In reality, it is the extremists at both ends of the political spectrum who are doing the work of the devil. Left or right, they would willingly impose tyranny to achieve their ends.

In the 1960s, that Latin American country represented the realities of political extremism.

It was one of several countries under military rule in the region where I lived as a missionary. The military had taken over the government in the name of law and order. Under martial law, people were forbidden to gather on the streets in groups of more than four, so when we left a church meeting, the congregation had to carefully break into small groups. Two people were not allowed to ride on a motorcycle because the passenger, even if dressed like a woman, might turn out to be a gunman with an automatic weapon to shoot up the neighborhood police station. Motorists had to drive with interior lights on at night so that police could see who was in the car. People in public could be stopped and questioned by the military or the police.

I wonder how many U.S. citizens would be willing to live under similar conditions? Those who have demanded that troops be called out to impose martial law on troubled cities in our country should be careful what they wish for.

At the other extreme, communist terrorists in that Latin American country were working to foment revolution and undermine the government.

I once had to help organize a funeral for a member of our church congregation—a father of several young children—who had been assassinated by terrorists. On patrol as a national policeman, he had caught them placing a bomb at the home of a prominent military officer. The country’s military could not root out the guerrillas from their strongholds in the mountains. We saw their spray-painted slogans, often with anti-U.S. messages, everywhere—including across the street from the house where we lived.

One day I met one of the communists dedicated to bringing socialism to the country. He was a well-educated intellectual. We talked to him about Jesus Christ and the holy scriptures, and he replied that he didn’t believe in those teachings. “These are the books I live by,” he said, as he pulled three off his shelf and handed them to me. They were Spanish versions of books that had been published by an economic institute in Moscow, U.S.S.R. They laid out the vision that the communists wanted to impose on other countries.

For a time, I worked in and around a very poor barrio in that capital city. Houses were made of scrap metal and cardboard. The sewers were open trenches running in the streets. Residents could look up from their homes and see the beautiful, artistic building housing the city offices—la Municipalidad. That barrio was nicknamed “Red Square” because some said that all the communists had to do to raise an angry crowd was harangue its people about how they were being exploited by the elites in their country, how the elites should be forced to share their land and their wealth. Sometimes such gatherings got out of hand—which was probably what the agitators intended.

The history of political conflict in that Latin American country was long and tragic, with ugly atrocities committed by both sides as they dedicated themselves to destroying the opposition. (Parenthetically, the U.S. was not an innocent bystander in the conflict, having backed the military government.)

Activists in the United States often assert that freedom of speech includes the right to demonstrate in public streets and areas anywhere, anytime, including in front of private residences. If others are endangered as a result, or if their rights are taken away, too bad. Few of those activists seem willing to acknowledge that when they tap into others’ anger at injustice they may light a fire they cannot control.  If the activists have integrity, they will recognize the possibility of hooliganism and take steps to cut it off. And if their cause is just, they will stick to the truth in their protests, offering more light than heat.

Demagogues are skilled at manipulating people’s fears or feelings of injustice. They whip up an angry crowd by convincing people that they are being cheated, that they are being exploited, or that the have-nots are coming to take away what they hold dear—their property, or the place they have claimed for themselves in society. In the Capitol riot, we all saw this demagoguery in action, provoked by a persistent lie—that an election was “stolen.”

Government by, for, and of the people cannot survive in the United States of America with this kind of dishonesty undermining trust in its processes. Politicians who support false myths of corruption for their own advantage are disloyal to the spirit of the Constitution, which I believe was inspired by God.

Surely He would not want His children warring among themselves over who is more fit to rule. Surely He would want us working together to “form a more perfect Union” (Preamble to the Constitution).

The far left and far right extremes in our country are not seeking union. They want dominance for their philosophy and their biases.

I know people of good character and sound judgment on both sides of the political divide who are passionate and firm about what they believe. There’s nothing wrong with that. But once the votes have been counted and recounted and the result is the same, it’s time to work together in a reasonable manner and drop the self-serving myths.

History suggests that corrupt politics and political opportunists will always be with us. But at least for now, in a time of national pain and sorrow, true patriots should be helping with the healing and be willing to move forward.

Echoes of the McCarthy Era

As I write this, I’m listening to one of my favorite folk albums, by a group called The Weavers. I’ve loved their music since I discovered this CD in a music store a few years ago. Only after I bought it did I realize they were the group that recorded one of my favorite songs when I was a little boy. I used to sing along at the top of my voice to their rendition of “On Top of Old Smokey” on an old 78 record.

After I found this CD, I wondered whatever had happened to The Weavers. I, for one, enjoyed the American folk music boom of the late 1950s and1960s. I had several favorite groups, but I couldn’t remember The Weavers being part of that scene. I wondered why.

It turned out, as I read a little about them, that they apparently were victims of McCarthyism or of unchecked root-out-the-Reds fervor in the heyday of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Somehow they were tainted, and that effectively ended their musical careers.

List them among the victims of extremism in thought.

A memorial display honors veterans who gave their lives.

A memorial display honors veterans who gave their lives.

Do not misunderstand what I say here. I consider myself a patriot. I have loved the United States of America from my earliest childhood. I still cry when I sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or “America the Beautiful.” In an era when my country is attacked and demonized throughout much of the world, I am deeply grateful when I hold the passport that specifies where I had the privilege of being born.

As a teen and young adult, I was deeply concerned about the influence of communism in the world. I won a high-school oratory competition with an anti-communist speech. I truly believe there were evil and sinister people among the communist/socialist leaders of the world who needed to be stopped or held in check.

But much foolishness was propagated and evil done in the name of fighting communism. This includes the destruction of lives and careers of people who were tainted because of the great Red Scare.

I am worried because I see the same thing happening today as the pendulum of popular thought has swung in the opposite direction from what was acceptable in society in my youth. I see political correctness as the McCarthyism of our times.

As much as I admired the late Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona for his principles, I never could completely buy into his assertion that “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Sorry, senator, but extremism is almost always the wrong response to a problem in society. It leads to an “us versus them” mentality, a willingness to categorize others in the harshest of judgments, and a willingness to punish those who do not agree with philosophies currently acceptable to the majority. That was the case during the McCarthy era, when a person could be ruined by expressing thoughts that someone else might conceivably describe as socialist or sympathetic to communism. And it is the case now, when someone can be attacked or ruined for expressing thoughts that do not seem sympathetic to “reproductive rights” or favorable toward gay marriage. Even corporations and institutions must not seem lukewarm toward these causes; they must express support or be publicly punished and ridiculed. Never mind the sincerely held beliefs of those who may disagree. There are those who would willingly punish or ostracize anyone who believes that the unborn child has rights, or that marriage is an institution established by God that men and women have no right to redefine.

Self-righteous “patriots” used labeling during the McCarthy era to categorize people who disagreed with them—“communist fellow traveler,” “pinko,” “socialist symp.” (This may seem funny if you watch an old episode of M*A*S*H in which Frank Burns is made to look like an idiot, but believe me, there was nothing humorous about it in the 1950s.) The same kind of labeling is used today to pigeonhole and sometimes demonize people who do not agree with some things that have become acceptable in society. These people may be called “anti-feminists,” “homophobes,” “haters.” This makes it so easy and convenient to dismiss them as people and to judge their beliefs as unworthy of consideration.

I do not feel that I am an enemy to women because I believe that a child conceived without coercion is not simply a “fetus,” or mere tissue, but a person with a right to live. If the woman who conceived the child does not want it or cannot keep it, there are other solutions besides abortion. I believe that marriage is a divine institution established by God so that one of His daughters and one of His sons can join together to progress in this life and to bring more of His daughters and sons to live on earth if they can. Believing this does not make me hate anyone who sees things differently.

But well-known people I admire—notably, actors and other public figures—take positions on these sensitive issues that not only express disagreement, but seem to ridicule and advocate ostracism or punishment for those who do not accept conventional wisdom. Many of these people who use the public forum to attack or criticize the beliefs of others are too young to remember what McCarthyism did to Hollywood and to politics in its heyday. I wish they could.

I fear that some of them would be quite willing to build intellectual and philosophical ghettos for those who disagree with them.

I fear for liberty when people can be punished, even in subtle social ways, for simply holding beliefs that do not conform to those of the majority. Extremism in defense of “liberty” is always a vice if it leads to suppression of thought or to punishment of those who do not accept the philosophy of the majority.