SYNDICATED COLUMN: In Defense of Extremism

From The Washington Post: “The cost of turning against the Islamic State was made brutally apparent in the streets of a dusty backwater town in eastern Syria in early August. Over a three-day period, vengeful fighters shelled, beheaded, crucified and shot hundreds of members of the Shaitat tribe after they dared to rise up against the extremists.”

From USA Today: “Contrary to the popular opinion that radical Islam is the primary threat to homeland security, Christianity provides the other four groups with their extremist rationale.”

“Extremism” is the new “terrorism” – a word that so automatically conjures revulsion that its user is under no pressure to justify its use with logic or reason. The U.S. government and those charged with disseminating its propaganda – wait, we’re supposed to call them “talking points” now – in the media like to define themselves as the 50-yard line of politics. Like an ideological Goldilocks, neither too left nor too right but just perfect for this time and place and species, these self-described “centrists” and “moderates” vilify their enemies, opponents, and rivals with the E-word.

Upon examination, however, it becomes clear that few words are less meaningless in political discourse than “extremism.” (At least “terrorism” means something. Terrorism is the use of violence against civilians in order to promote or achieve political ends.)

An extremist is only an extremist in comparison to what is mainstream/centrist/moderate. Whatever system of political, religious or economic belief happens to dominate at a particular moment in time smears its opponents as extreme and therefore beyond normal and acceptable discourse. But that can change. Today’s extremism becomes tomorrow’s moderation under a different system.

(This is even true when the system doesn’t change. In the U.S., 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater was defeated because he was considered a right-wing extremist. Today, 50 years later, he would be too far to the left to be a viable candidate in the Democratic party.)

In the quote from the Washington Post above, the deeds allegedly committed by the Islamic State are violent, brutal and arguably barbaric. But even within the bounds of ideological discourse of mainstream U.S. corporate media, there is nothing “extreme” about what ISIS did. American fighter jets routinely kill civilians in the Middle East with the same impunity – ironically, sometimes while attacking ISIS – the only difference is the weapons and tactics used to achieve the same result: death.

We should demand that journalists use more specific, useful words than “extremist” to describe ideological opponents of the current system, which can credibly be called extremist in a number of important respects.

It’s pretty extreme, for example, to tell sick, poor and unemployed people that they are on their own, responsible for their own trials and tribulations, and should expect no help from their government. Indeed, very few other societies in the West believe such things. Executing the mentally ill makes the U.S. basically unique in the world. And if the “exceptionalist” American legal doctrine that U.S. law applies in every other country, allowing Americans to violate foreign territory and capture suspects of interest to the U.S. isn’t extreme, I don’t know what is.

The media conflates extremism with purism. Islamic State fighters want to restore the medieval Muslim caliphate and governance by Sharia law; those goals indicate fundamentalism or purism, not necessarily extremism.

One measure of an adjective in politics is, does anyone use it to describe themselves? No one calls themselves a terrorist; no group calls itself extreme. When you see those words in print or spoken by a broadcaster, therefore, you know you are looking at a smear, an insult, lazy shorthand masquerading as argument.

Frankly, anyone who has trouble finding legitimate reasons to oppose ISIS – beyond their supposed “extremism” – doesn’t deserve our attention. For starters: ISIS members believe in God; God doesn’t exist. They massacre innocent civilians to carry out ethnic cleansing; a pluralistic world is more interesting than a homogeneous one. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, they are ignorant, stupid hicks; who else would behead journalists who were willing to let them tell their story? Stupid hicks shouldn’t be in charge of anything.

Most dangerously, if we accept the framing of the current state of affairs as normal and that of groups and people who want to change it as extreme, few people will ever consider alternatives to the way that we do things now. Many Americans still view communism or socialism as beyond the pale, not because of what those ideologies espouse – many of them don’t know – but because they have absorbed decades of government and media propaganda describing them as fringe, weird, extreme. The result is a remarkably incurious, passive citizenry that accepts the status quo merely because it’s the status quo.

Which is pretty extreme.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)


9 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: In Defense of Extremism

  1. > Many Americans still view communism or socialism as beyond the pale, not because of what those ideologies espouse – many of them don’t know –

    Yep, that’s been my experience. Kinda hard to have a conversation with someone who can’t even define the words they use. I can’t begin to count the number of righties I’ve asked to define communism, socialism, or capitalism – but I can remember the number who’ve answered correctly: ZERO.

    To a republican, the word “communist” is just A Bad Word. Something to use as an insult, not as an actual description. I once heard one little white kid call another “nigger” – it was obvious that he had no idea what the word meant, he just knew it was A Very Bad Word. He’ll probably grow up to be a commentator on Fux News.

    • @ CrazyH –

      *I once heard one little white kid call another “nigger” – it was obvious that he had no idea what the word meant….*
      That reminds me of (true story) two kids on the elementary-school playground who got into an argument. The white kid calls the black kid “Nigger!” and the black kid responds, “You’re a Nigger!” They soon found themselves in the principal’s office. Each was asked what the word “Nigger” means. Neither of them knew.
      For the record, though, I have to confess that the white kid once stuck a popsicle in his back pocket after lunch and said, “I’m going to save this for later.” Reckon that’s relevant? 🙂

  2. Mr Rall’s definition of ‘terrorism’ is not the standard term. ‘Violence against civilians for political purposes’ is something the US military has done since the Wars against the Native Americans, and US military actions cannot be called terrorism (or else).

    Socrates might have won the dialogue, but Thrasymachus won the war.

    Thrasymachus’s definition of terrorism would be ‘illegal violence against civilians by criminal enemy combatants for political purposes’, where the US and only the US gets to define ‘illegal’ and ‘criminal’. (“Enemy,’ of course, means ‘Enemy of the US government’.)

    It follows a fortiori that Thrasymachus’s definition of ‘extremism’ is also whatever the US government says it is, and if the US declares a village ‘extremist’, Thrasymachus says it has every right to order the US military to kill every man, woman, and child in that village, and that cannot be called terrorism or extremism.

    • Michael,

      You make a good point, but the bigger issue remains: people still think terms such as “terrorism” or “extremist” have meaning. They don’t. Why? Because each side defines them differently. Look at the example of the American Indians. Ask an Indian about Wounded Knee. Terrorism. Ask an American school teacher. “Oh, Wounded Knee was a dreadful misunderstanding. Uh, accident. Uh, mishap.” the school teacher will never say, “Wounded Knee was a terrorist act committed by U.S. soldiers against a group of unarmed native Americans. The soldiers murdered them.”

      Not if the teacher wants to keep his or her job.

      Extremism? Pfui. Watch. “I don’t understand why so many people are such extremists when it comes to pedophilia.” That’s a statement you will never hear someone say because there’s no way to make pedophilia “okay.” You can argue, legitimately, about whether a 19-year-old and a 16-year-old are in a pedophilia situation. But you can’t make a case for “oh, that 7-year-old was asking for it. Look at what he/she was wearing, sneaking in to the bar with a fake ID …”

      The terms don’t hold because the terms have no center. Violence always occurs with a reason behind it. Sometimes, the reason is good (He pulled a knife on me. I didn’t think I could outrun him, so I shot the mofo right in the face.), sometimes, it’s bad (I wanted to see what it was like to kill someone.), and sometimes it sounds good (My country told me I had to kill these illiterate farmers thousands of miles away to keep my homeland safe.) and isn’t.

    • And “Enemy of the US government” of course means, “No added value to the shareholders”

      • And “No added value to the shareholders” means “Employee about to be downsized.”

  3. Good column re: slippery language.

    Speaking of slippery language, Ted, I recommend a quick edit of this sentence: “Upon examination, however, it becomes clear that few words are less meaningless in political discourse than ‘extremism.’ ”

    I believe that you meant to say “few words are *more* meaningless.”