I never know whether to laugh or cry after reading a summary of news headlines from my internet feed. Take one from last week as an example.
The mayor of Washington D.C. decided that 78 city streets must be renamed because their historical namesakes were “persons of concern.” She doubled down by suggesting that the Washington and Jefferson memorials be torn down or repurposed.
Is there some kind of extremist contest under way that gives a prize to the most nihilistic demand made? What is in store from the next eager contestant?
History instructs us that revolutionary movements like today’s "cancel culture" have a preordained ending, an eschatology of total destruction of its target and eventually of itself. One need only to think back to the French Revolution as it spiraled downward from a constitutional monarchy to a parliamentary democracy and then to the guillotine. Robespierre’s “Madame Guillotine” also took him in the end.
One French historian of the period wrote, and I paraphrase, that revolutions devour their own young. No matter how much pride you take in your own extremist credentials, someone even more extreme is waiting in the wings to denounce you, as most of the early radicals of the French Revolution learned to their hurt.
Perhaps that is where our hope lies. As each successive wave of accelerating extremism and intolerance breaks, more of us are wrenched out of our complacency. Where is the tipping point, where enough is enough? Must the D.C. mayor succeed in her quest to obliterate that iconic monument to the father of our country before middle America rises up?
Can middle America rise to the challenge? Or have we become ossified in our own conceits such that we are blind to what needs to be done?
Consider this: When was the last time you had a rational discussion about a controversial issue? It is almost impossible these days, even among people who are in general agreement. Nothing is nuanced, nothing bears fuller examination. We are reduced to being automatons, marching to someone else’s drum. It seems the purpose of conversation these days is to make a point, which is not the same thing as convincing others.
What I believe we have lost is the virtue of moderation. I’m thinking here of something I learned 50 years ago as an undergraduate in a political philosophy class. It was Plato who defined moderation as a virtue of the soul, one that produces harmony among reason, spirit and desire.
Let me be clear that I am not speaking here of a middle of the road wishy-washiness born from incoherent ideology or fixation on the next opinion poll. In a representative democracy those people have their usefulness at times but don’t count me as one of them. And I’m certainly not referring to what the New York Times called “pragmatic moderation” in its cheerleading for Kamala Harris as the putative vice president.
Rather, the virtue of moderation is an ability to school one’s perspective to avoid the temptation to give way to passion, one of the greatest dangers to Plato’s ordered mind. Few of us seem capable of that these days as we are more likely to rush to claim moral superiority, self-assigned of course. Feigning outrage ought to be an Olympic sport.
So what is a moderate in this classical sense? Here’s my definition: Someone who listens more than speaks; someone who thinks more than talks; someone who reads before deciding; someone who respects the great minds that went before. How many of those people do you know?
If we are to escape from what the poet William Blake described as “endless night,” it will take heroic effort on the part of people of good will and their rededication to the lofty principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Are any to be found? I suppose I should ask the ancient Greek cynic Diogenes if I can borrow his lantern to look for one.
Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar and of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to [email protected]