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Honesty and Extremism

February 7th, 2020 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

I’m reading a book right now recently published by a prominent conservative publishing house. I’m not going to name the author or the book for the moment because I’m not yet sure how I want to handle the book more generally. I will say he’s a respected conservative academic whose past work I have found helpful and engaging. For now, I want to draw attention to one particular issue with the book.

The book is, as are many conservative books being published right now, concerned with growing left-wing extremism in the US. I have not yet gotten to the author’s proposed solutions to this problem but I already find myself questioning him for the simple reason that I don’t think he’s being honest in his diagnosis.

The concern with left-wing extremism is not misplaced, of course. Baronelle Stutzman, Jeff Younger, and Jack Phillips are just three of the people who can attest to it. Moreover, there are obvious public comments that are alarming, several of which the author has flagged—most notably Congresswoman Maxine Waters’s infamous remarks calling on supporters to publicly harass Trump administration officials. To cap the section, the author writes,

What’s going on? While no faction has a monopoly on extremism, a certain kind of behavior and rhetoric has become a hallmark of the left, especially among the so-called ‘elites,’ who fancy themselves the vanguard of the revolution against the straight, white patriarchy. Not convinced? Imagine a male professor’s fantasizing aloud about the slow deaths of his female opponents, complete with the mutilation of their bodies. Does he keep his job. (He shouldn’t.) …

Although some on the right hold deplorable ideas, they are consigned to the fringes, while the radicals on the left enjoy positions of cultural and political influence.

These are not the words of an honest person sincerely seeking the truth. We do not need to wonder what would happen if a powerful man publicly spoke about abusing women: We know. The Republicans will nominate him for the presidency and conservative intellectuals will endorse him.

What’s more, citing the Waters comments, horrible as they are, as evidence of unique problems amongst left wing politicians is, likewise, dishonest. Trump himself encouraged his supporters to beat up protestors and once even offered to pay the legal fees of a supporter after he assaulted a protestor at a Trump rally. Even if we bracket Trump and focus on members of the House: A Republican currently serving in the House bodyslammed a reporter. Trump, of course, praised him for it.

To completely ignore these incidents by national leaders in the GOP, including the leader of the Republican party and then to argue that those who hold deplorable ideas on the right are on “the fringes,” of conservatism is simply not honest.

Unfortunately, the author is not the only one to make this kind of error. Writing at American Greatness, Mark Bauerlein says the quiet part of the above excerpt loudly: It’s not about ideas. It’s about jobs. He even extols the virtues (if that is the word for it…) of thinking ‘ad hominemly.’ One can’t help wondering what someone like Kirk would have said if confronted with such a crime against the language, to say nothing of such an unprincipled and utterly amoral approach to politics.

That these things happen amongst elected officials is not necessarily surprising—our politics have been reduced to nothing but competing power claims with no regard for the rule of law whatsoever. That’s wrong and no nation governed in such a way can possible be a just society. But there is a defensible (though still wrong) case to be made that if your opponents refuse to be governed by justice, you handicap yourself by restraining yourself with such norms. This is wrong, but you can tilt your head a bit and see how a person lands there. Politicians are inevitably called to pragmatism and compromise and this carries with it a requirement to accommodate oneself to some level of realpolitik.

But when the intellectuals of a movement seem to have given up intellectual honesty or even the pretense of caring about ideas, that seems to me to be uniquely alarming. The intellectuals ought to be able to think independently of present political realities. They attend to the permanent things and try to articulate a vision not primarily of partisan political triumph, but of social health and communal flourishing. They are not chiefly concerned with partisan strategizing, but with seeking the truth and providing the ideas and arguments politicians require to advance the truth. They are the ones who shape a party’s intellectual vision, they imagine the kind of society that the party will seek to promote and advance. When the party’s intelligentsia have become so compromised that they can feel free to make such claims as those printed above then that party has ceased to have a positive vision of the good life that they seek to advance; their only vision is that they would maintain power.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).