On Politics 6: The Extreme Middle

“I’m against all extremes: the extreme right, the extreme left, and the extreme middle.”

-Walt Kelly

I’ve been an admirer of Walt Crawford Kelly Jr’s work since I was 4 years old. In fact, I credit his long-running comic strip Pogo as the catalyst that led to my literacy. My father was and is quite a collector, and I wanted nothing more than to read the Forbidden Books filled with cartoons. Eventually he trusted me… or just realized I hadn’t hurt them when I snuck them off the bookshelf.

Kelly influenced my personal philosophy profoundly, and the man himself was a factory for quotable material. I always liked the above quote; he had the credentials to back it up. He mocked both Joe McCarthy and Nikita Khrushchev in his gently vicious way.

Khrushchev was a sinster pig in the strip which… well, fair’s fair.

I laughed at the idea of an extreme middle, but recently I’ve started to understand what he was getting at. Kelly’s opinions were his own, not governed by the constraints of ideology– but he wasn’t afraid to commit. He believed in believing in something– and acting on those beliefs.

Recently, I made the terrible mistake of talking politics with a stranger. It’s a legitimately terrible way of introducing yourself, even when you agree with someone. In this case we’d preemptively agreed to agree to disagree, but to stay civil and to do our best to appeal to logic and not emotion (“like Jesuits” is how I framed it). I learned a couple things from this discussion.

First, not everyone knows about “logic.”

Second, it’s very hard to grapple with an amorphous argument.

The discussion started around the question of the current opening on the Supreme Court and whether the Democrats should oppose the nomination of Neil Gorsuch. He said he “didn’t like Trump,” but that the seat wasn’t stolen. So I asked him what the Democrats should do. He said that “all politicians are hypocrites,” and “seek power.” He strongly implied that the Democrats would likely lose this fight regardless of what they do.

To which I said “Sure. But that’s not useful. It’s a battle. What should they do to win the war?” At which point he begged off and promised to check out my blog.

His arguments were cynical, but hard to gainsay at first glance. However, they were not logical. The proposal that ALL politicians– every slimy eel among them– are corrupt, power-seeking hypocrites is an assumption, not a fact. It’s an assumption that most of us make in hearts every day, but there’s no logical proof. Politicians are people and we can logically assume that pols act like people. They don’t always do the right thing… but sometimes they do.

As evidence for my position I would point to THE MAJORITY OF HUMAN HISTORY. Life in the U.S. has definitely gotten better over time– our economy is no longer based on human slavery, for example– and in spite of widespread anxiety and fearmongering, life is better now for most Americans than it was 40-50 years ago– less crime, less poverty (though still way too much), and if justice and equality are still struggling, things have gotten better.

And the reason that things have gotten better is that sometimes people do the right thing. There are good politicians and sometimes even the bad-to-mediocre ones take a stand.

My father and his father before him were both politicians. My grandfather was a state senator; he ran (unsuccessfully) for the U.S. House of Representatives. He was a Superior Court judge, re-elected many times. He had the kind of backstory contemporary politicians often wish for– a poor family from a poor county, a violent alcoholic step-father, nights spent in the local library, Technical Sergeant in the U.S. Army, law school on the G.I. Bill. He was smart and able, loud and sometimes childish, 6 feet 5 inches tall with red hair and blue eyes, handsome for a man who looked like he could twist your spine into a loop, full of country charm. A Southerner seeking office during the Civil Rights era, he publicly left the VFW because they wouldn’t admit black veterans into their club. He was a good, principled man.

My father ran for Superior Court 3 times during his career; he’s never been defeated. He’s spoken out against corruption in state politics, forced local officials to maintain their courthouses, worked hard to keep the citizens of North Carolina safe from the likes of Blanche Taylor Moore and Michael Hayes. Campaigning for him, Republicans told me– not just friendly but joyous!– he was the only Democrat they planned to vote for*. I don’t always agree with my family or my family’s politics– my grandfather was a great advocate of Victims’ Rights, which I feel are a mixed bag and sometimes favor revenge over justice– but I know neither Daddy nor Pappy ever looked for power. They sought to serve. They worked hard because there is satisfaction in hard work, because they were capable, because they believed in their work. Don’t tell me about ALL politicians, friends. I know at least two who believed/believe in real things and knew/know how to take a stand.

So I disagree with my erstwhile conversational partner’s arguments. My disagreement with his unspoken philosophy runs a lot deeper.

What the Extreme Middle cannot do is take a stand. Cowards often accuse everyone else of cowardice. To justify a lack of character the Extreme Middle claims no one has ever had character. Instead of saying what they would do to make things better, they disparage the idea of resistance or action. They have a lot to say– like Polonius in Hamlet, they give as much contradictory advice as they can, hoping they’ll sound smart. Hoping they’ll feel like they won an argument they wouldn’t take a side in. Their minds are small and their numbers are legion.

Remember that quote about good men doing nothing?

This old thing?

If the current crop of Right Wingers are reminiscent of the Know Nothings, the Extreme Middle represents the voice of the Do Nothings. By the Extreme Middle’s self-fulfilling arguments nothing can get better; by default people who love money and power make things worse for everyone (themselves included– there’s no hallucinogen like money and power). It’s not much of an end game. They could be smug on the Internet, which admittedly is 75% of the reason for the Internet. In the end, there’s no cure for uselessness, no substitute for being useful.

Sometimes people mistake philosophy for useless rhetoric. It’s actually incredibly useful for finding direction. We are defined by the things we do, and defined even further by the things we fail to do. Counseling patience is one thing– if someone counsels giving up, then it’s not a rational argument. There’s no scenario where giving up makes things better, and nothing ever stays the same. Things can get better or worse; the only other questions are about quantity.

What? Ben Franklin said it first.

America is so very great; it can get so much worse. Let’s, like, do stuff, m’kay?

*If reading this blog makes my father look like a superhero, well, I haven’t exaggerated any of his achievements or exploits. Until I actually find the entrance to the Batcave, though, I’ll have to assume he’s merely awesome.

 

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