I approved of a meme I saw that consisted of the mug shot of the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood killer and the words "Where was he radicalized?" It referred, of course, to the question that has been asked of the San Bernardino terrorists. It's important and useful to remember that terrorism in the US has much more often been the work of white native-born Christians than of brown Muslim immigrants. The answer in Robert Dear's case would presumably be that he was radicalized in evangelical Protestant or Roman Catholic churches, which are hotbeds of anti-abortion propaganda and activism.
But the meme in its social and political context seemed to be more an attempt to deflect accusations of extremism and radicalization, which I think is confirmed by all the denunciations I've been seeing of right-wing extremism and radicalism. These miss the point. Racism and religious bigotry in various degrees of intensity are mainstream American values. That doesn't mean they're good -- it means that "mainstream" doesn't equal "good." Since the mainstream routinely tries to marginalize its critics as extremists and radicals, I think it's important to stress that change has often been the work of extremists and radicals. (I should also say something about the use of the word "criminal" in this discourse, but I'll try to do that in another post.)
So, the meme I made and posted today. (I hope it will be the first of a series.) The question isn't rhetorical, of course. Rosa Parks was radicalized first of all by being a black woman in white-supremacist America. She joined the NAACP, and though that organization has often been derided as too tame, too safe, not "radical" enough, it wasn't and isn't seen that way by American racists. She became an officer of her local chapter and underwent training at the Highlander Folk School, a Christian Socialist establishment. Remember that for many years the Communist Party of the USA was the only white organization which not only supported equality for African-Americans but put its white members on the line, establishing themselves as targets for violence by white racists. Finally, as is well known, Parks set off the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man when ordered to do by the driver. That meant going to jail, which was an extreme choice for a middle-class woman of any color in the United States during the 1950s. Civil disobedience was still a marginal tactic, and for a woman of color it meant extra risk of police violence while in their custody. The bus boycott, though it's now hallowed by history, was an extremist if not a radical project; "more conservative black leaders" were at least uneasy about endorsing it, and it was denounced by white racists.
In the early weeks of the boycott, then-Mayor W.A. Gayle declared: ”We are going to hold our stand. We are not going to be a part of any program that will get Negroes to ride the buses again at the price of the destruction of our heritage and way of life.”The echo of defenses of displaying the Confederate battle flag in that last clause is not coincidental. It shows that the boycott and the aim of desegrating the buses was not only extreme, it was radical. Having a few seats reserved for blacks, perhaps loosening the requirements that they surrender their seats to whites -- these are reformist solutions. Rejecting racial discrimination altogether is radical in the context of the time and place (and meanings are always determined by context). Think also of Gandhi and the movement for Indian independence, another extremist project -- as was the American Revolution: instead of accepting representation in Parliament and other reforms that they could probably have gained, the colonists chose the radical move of independence. Direct action, like the bus boycott and later nonviolent resistance, is extreme. It almost has to be if it's going to achieve its aims.
Which brings me to another point. It should be obvious but apparently it's not. "Extreme" and "radical" do not equal "violent," though that confusion is endemic not only to those who reject change but to some who want to bring it about. As Noam Chomsky argued decades ago:*
In fact, it is senseless to speak -- as many now do -- of tactics and actions as being "radical," "liberal," "conservative," or "reactionary." In itself, an action cannot be placed on a political dimension at all. It may be successful or unsuccessful in achieving an end that can be described in political terms. But it is useful to remember that the same tactics that one man may propose with high conscience and deep commitment to radical social change may also be pressed by a well-placed police spy, bent on destroying such a movement and increasing popular support for the forces of repression.Martin Luther King Jr., who'll be the subject of another of my memes, explained this distinction to white "moderate" ministers in his letter from the Birmingham jail, some years after Montgomery:
You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of the extremist.Instead of using the standard liberal response (Oh How Can You Say Such an Awful Thing!), however, King counterattacked.
But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love -- "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice ... Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ ... So the question is not whether we will be extremists but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice --or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? ...I'm not a fan of Jesus, Paul, or Amos, but King chose the right response here, especially considering those he was addressing. I had an entertaining exchange on Facebook this morning when I quoted King's letter to some liberals, a few of whom reacted with fury, accusing me of confusing extremism and violence (no, they were; I was explicitly doing the opposite). (It reminded me of the time I advocated direct action in comments at another blog, and a nice but historically-illiterate liberal accused me of being "a believer in the idea of destroying everything so a perfect Utopia can arise from the ashes." Well, maybe she wasn't so nice, but what matters is that she had no idea what "direct action" meant.) Long-dead "extremists" tend to be recast as moderates once their movements have joined or become the establishment. This is also true of King, whom both liberals and conservatives would like to claim for their factions.
I'm not saying that the extreme or radical position is always automatically the right one. For one thing, it's not always clear what is radical or extreme in a given context, and there are usually multiple options that might qualify in each case. Maybe this is the place to quote Barry Goldwater's quip, "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!" I agree, but Goldwater said it to divert scrutiny from the validity of his policies. Each proposal must be evaluated on its merits, and whether it's extreme or radical or moderate or reformist is a distraction from more important questions. There is no simple principle for deciding these things. They have to be approached with evidence, knowledge, and critical reason -- which are no vices either, however unpopular they are.
* In American Power and the New Mandarins, Random House, 1969, pp. 398-99.