“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 remember very well, when in the summer of 1964, Barry Goldwater made the statement above in accepting the Republican nomination for President. 


It caught the nation’s attention. Those on the right applauded it and focused on the need to defend our “liberty”. Those on the left focused on the ills that extremism had wrought in the 20th century. Whether you thought it was a brilliant statement of principle or the rantings of a right-wing pol depended on where you stood on the political spectrum. 


Lately I’ve been thinking of that quote.  I think it says something about our nation when the candidate of a major party says that extremism can be virtuous. And  looking at our country 60 years later, I would say we have embraced extremism — not to defend our liberty — but to  take us to a place where moderation and discipline are put on the back burner. 


Indeed, one could make a fairly convincing case that we are a nation of extremists when compared to the rest of the world. 


Some examples.


Gun Ownership.


Because our founders endorsed citizen militias, they allowed citizens to own weapons. In SC, where I grew up, this meant that people, mostly males, owned shotguns and/or hunting rifles. The outliers owned pistols as well, many of them brought home from a world war. During my lifetime, though, gun ownership has become cultish. Exotic weapons designed for combat are sold to anyone who wants one. We stand out among nations in every category of gun ownership and gun violence. Most politicians don’t dare to discuss curbs on this form of extremism, even when children are slaughtered while attending school.


Climate Change Denial 


Evidence shows that every major industrialized country has debates about what to do about climate change. This is expected in free societies. The science, though convincing, is new and there’s often disagreement about the best way to slow global warming. But our country is unique because one of our two major political parties denies that there is any need to do anything about climate change. The Republican Party,  aided and abetted by Big Oil’s propaganda machine, sows doubt about whether global warming is  a problem at all. The GOP thinks Greta Thunberg is a pariah. And those who support the party think climate change denial is patriotic. Might that be a bit extreme?


Military Might


We don’t share our borders with hostile military superpowers like, say, Japan, Poland or India do. And we have the Atlantic and the Pacific as buffers against invasion Yet our military budget is larger than the next nine major military powers combined —  China, India, UK, Russia, France. Germany, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea.  Does that sound a bit extreme to you? 


Lest you think that U.S. extremism is limited to matters of public policy, I beg to differ. As a society we exhibit a definite bias towards taking other things to extremes


Take the recent introduction of sports betting around the country. Before sports betting became legal almost nationwide, it was legal only in Nevada. (Thanks to the excellent services of local bookmakers, though, anyone wanting to get a bet down could find a way. Trust me, I know.) Now airwaves and billboards are awash with every conceivable enticement to gamble on sports. We went from the closet to neon lights overnight. Try to watch any sporting event without seeing an ad for DraftKings! It’s impossible. Every ex-athlete is shilling for a casino or some other betting enterprise. Who wants to bet against a massive increase in the membership of Gamblers Anonymous in the years ahead? In Europe where the Puritans never got a foothold, it has always been possible to bet on almost anything. But the fact that it has always been there renders that particular liberty almost invisible. Here we are bathing in our new found freedom to gamble and it will be to our detriment. 


That’s another bad point about extremism. When we banned alcohol and banned gambling, it didn’t eliminate either. Extreme puritanism doesn’t work. But when we suddenly unleash freedom to drink and gamble, you can count on pent up demand to take things to extremes.


And then there is patriotism. We are the most patriotic country in the world if patriotism is measured by public displays of flag-waving, anthem-singing, pledges of allegiance and flyovers by jet fighters. It makes us feel good, I guess. But its sheer excess renders it relatively meaningless. It’s everywhere just like DraftKings ads. When patriotism is taken to extremes, it is jingoism. 


Final example: We take religion to extremes, too. We’re the most religious country among Western democracies. We have mega churches with  thousands of members. Our politicians make piety part of their “brand.” (Watch former VP Mike Pence, an icon of piety). As those who have read my blog over the years know, I think a lot of this public piety has turned off a whole generation of religious seekers. So while we’re the most Bible-thumping of nations, we’re  creating legions of young atheists, and I regret that. 

Were I not conscious of the need to “not go on too long,” I would at this point explain how our unfettered brand of hyper capitalism is mostly to blame for our  embarrassing extremism. But that’s a diatribe for another day. For now, I’ll  simply say to Barry Goldwater that he needn’t worry about his cherished nation not going to extremes — we’ve done it in spades. But I am not sure our extremism has done much for the cause of liberty.

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About Buck Close

Deacon Buck Close serves on the staff of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Newport, RI. He was born in South Carolina, graduated from Tulane University in 1972 with a BA in Economics and Latin American Studies.

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