May 13, 2002
Extremism and responsibility

Josh Trevino responds to my post about the moral responsibility to speak out against extremism. I had disagreed with Josh's assertion that the failure of Europe's leftist leaders to unequivocally condemn the murder of Pim Fortuyn is equivalent to the failure of American liberals to condemn the likes of EarthFirst!, PETA, and Al Sharpton. My point was that Al Gore (whom Josh singled out) and EarthFirst! are too dissimilar to be lumped together for these purposes. Says Josh:

I used EarthFirst! as lazy shorthand for "destructive environmentalists." Charles is justified in challenging the parallel, but I think it holds -- especially given my intent in writing it. They share language and analyses to a startling degree. As Al Gore says in "Earth in the Balance":

....our activities are now beginning to have fundamental, systemic effects upon the entire life-support system of the planet - upsetting the world's climate, poisoning the oceans, destroying the ozone layer which protects us from excessive ultraviolet radiation, changing the CO2 ratio in the atmosphere, and spreading acid rain, radioactive fallout, pesticides and industrial contamination throughout the biosphere.

Sorry, that wasn't Al Gore at all, but EarthFirst's (EarthFirst!'s?) website. But if you've read Gore's book -- or even representative samples of it -- you know that the vocabulary and the logic are strikingly similar. Charles says that they "agree in a broad sense that something ought to be done to protect the environment, but the paths diverge pretty sharply from there." But that's not quite true. They agree in more than just a broad sense -- they agree on specific problems, and specific causes. Their paths don't really diverge significantly until it comes to remedies.

I would argue that having one's reasonable rhetoric coopted by a dangerous crank does not make you a dangerous crank as well. It's not unreasonable to say that once this has happened that you must disassociate yourself with the cranks, however, lest people confuse your silence for tacit approval. I'm rather of two minds on the subject. On the one hand, at some point I think you really do have to say something. The danger of being associated with extremists is real, and it's devastating to one's moral authority. If the extremists gain any credibility by your lack of denunciation, that's far worse.

On the other hand, I agree with Ginger Stampley when she says

I have minimum standards for considering an opinion on [matters] worth bothering to argue with.

I like to think that I put forth reasoned and rational arguments that most people will think are worth their time to consider. They may well not agree, but I hope no one has grounds for calling me a nut. So why should I waste time arguing with ideologues and zealots who have no firm grasp on reality and contribute nothing to the general debate? Can't anyone tell from what I have already said - and not said - that I plainly disagree with people like that?

I'm more than a bit uncomfortable advancing that line of thought for the obvious historical reasons - evil triumphing because good men did nothing, that sort of thing. In a way, though, this is my point. We all have a responsibility to speak out for good and against evil. I may happen to be incrementally closer to the nutball in question on the ideological panorama, but that doesn't shift the burden. There is good reason to castigate those who have failed to do their part, but this often feels to me like scoring points, especially when prompted like a tragedy such as Fortuyn's murder. That wasn't Josh's intent here, but others (*cough* *cough* Andrew Sullivan *cough* *cough*) have had no shame in doing so. All this does is to distract from the main point - that evil is, y'know, a Bad Thing - and bog us down in arguments over who has and hasn't done the most to denounce it.

Having reread what I've written, it appears that I don't disagree all that much with Josh, and on the larger point I don't. I still won't go along with his categorization of the American left including centrists like Al Gore and wackos like EarthFirst! for the reasons I previously stated, and I still bristle at attempts to score rhetorical victories, especially in situations like this, but we would all do well to remind ourselves why we're different - I'll be so bold as to say better - than the extremists. If anyone actually needs reminding, we've not been doing enough.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 13, 2002 to Other punditry