The Myth of the Middle Ground
Are moderation and compromise good things? It's worth pondering.
No matter what your pet conservative issue is, there are always people eager to tell you to sit down with the other side, "build bridges," "open a dialogue," "listen," and "not demonize." The people who say this usually state their pleas in vague terms. More often than not they are trying to placate friends or co-workers who find something about conservatism unappetizing, or else they simply don't know very much on a specific topic and would rather not get "caught in the weeds" between two debaters who are well-informed.
There are countless examples I could cite, but let me choose two specific ones, both people I like and admire: Jonah Goldberg and Bernard Goldberg. They are bright and illuminating writers, but their recent statements on the need for civility exemplify the unproductive nature of calling for "all sides" to calm down and be less combative. Jonah Goldberg writes this in the increasingly moderate National Review Online, as his goalposts for 2014:
So I have small suggestions for New Year's resolutions for both the Right and the Left in 2014. For liberals, maybe you should try to accept the fact that you're not the non-conformists you think you are. And for conservatives, perhaps you should consider that you're not necessarily the irrefutable voice of "normal" Americans.
There are some problems here. I live around many liberals and they don't actually consider themselves "non-conformists." They see themselves as conforming to liberal orthodoxy; the problem is that they see non-liberal thought as abnormal, dangerous, and too "out there."
I am one of those "conservatives" he mentions, yet I've never thought of myself as the irrefutable voice of "normal" people -- I've been painfully aware, as are many readers of American Thinker, that the shifting mores of our nation have actually left me living at the fringes with other people who have humane standards about the sanctity of life, sexual integrity, and the right of children to be raised by a mom and a dad, speaking to a mainstream defined by Miley Cyrus, Perez Hilton, and the Kardashian sisters.
A similar nebulousness is creeping into Bill O'Reilly's efforts not to be too divisive or one-sided. As I wrote about recently, on O'Reilly's show, Bernard Goldberg actually agreed with GLAAD and felt that Phil Robertson should have been suspended from the A&E network over Robertson's comments on homosexuality.
Continuing in the same vein, on January 7, Goldberg and O'Reilly had a chat about "Political hatred on the rise." Once upon a time, the author of Bias talked about the problems with newsrooms excluding viewpoints outside the homogeneity of journalistic thought. Now Goldberg longs for the past, when some viewpoints could be banished from polite society:
Look, during the Great Depression, there was a lot of bad stuff going on, but we were united. During World War II, we were united because we had faith in our institutions. Now, because of Vietnam and Watergate, who trusts Congress? [...] Who trusts the mainstream media? [...] Compromise now is tantamount to sellout, a crime against humanity [...] They're afraid to compromise, they're afraid to be seen as sellouts. [...] Now, knuckleheads who couldn't get a letter to the editor published years ago, they go on the web[.]
I can't transcribe the entire six minutes, because it's even vaguer than the New Year's resolution put forward by Jonah Goldberg. Bernard Goldberg seems to be getting a little too comfy in his sconce at Fox News. He dismisses those "knuckleheads who couldn't get a letter to the editor published" -- those "knuckleheads" being the excluded conservatives in whose name Goldberg ostensibly wrote Bias as an exposé.
Never mind the historiography of the good old days when Roosevelt and the Democrats could intern Japanese-Americans and redesign the entire government without a second thought, like Bill O'Reilly's nostalgia for the halcyon years of the Vietnam War, when people merely rioted in hundreds of cities over their differences.
On issues that matter, people disagree. They argue. When has it not been that way?
Bernard Goldberg's golden destination is "compromise."
Combine Jonah's and Bernard's calls for a new year of civility and compromise, and what do you get? As far as I can tell, the worst of all possible worlds, pace Pangloss. You get social conservatives bowing their heads and being humble while the left mows over them with apocalyptic social engineering schemes. All the while, pot-smoking pseudo-libertarians who idolize S.E. Cupp offer a toast to the collapse of society.
It is always helpful to brush up on our recollection of Aristotle's ideal of a "mean" between two extremes -- not in order to apply this model to every debate in life, but rather, to understand the limits of its applicability to things that matter in our lives. Consider this paragraph from Stanford University's page on Aristotelian ethics:
[E]thical virtue is a condition intermediate between two other states, one involving excess, and the other deficiency (1106a26-b28). [...] The courageous person, for example, judges that some dangers are worth facing and others not, and experiences fear to a degree that is appropriate to his circumstances. He lies between the coward, who flees every danger and experiences excessive fear, and the rash person, who judges every danger worth facing and experiences little or no fear. Aristotle [...] is careful to add, however, that the mean is to be determined in a way that takes into account the particular circumstances of the individual (1106a36-b7). [...] Finding the mean in any given situation is not a mechanical or thoughtless procedure, but requires a full and detailed acquaintance with the circumstances.
Please note a few things here. First, just because Aristotle says something doesn't make it right. He disagreed with many bright minds, including Plato and Socrates.
Second, as this Stanford summary points out, the "mean" isn't a strict halfway point. If I am looking for the best place between Buffalo, New York and Baffin Island to build a home, it doesn't follow that I should build at precisely the middle. Maybe Toronto is best, even though it is only two hours north of Buffalo and days' traveling from Baffin Island, because the lake-effect snow isn't fatal there, and everywhere else between the two points is uninhabitable tundra.
The specifics matter. I am not very involved in the debate on immigration or health care, but I am heavily involved in debates on LGBT issues, because the latter are the issues on which I offer the most new information. The reality is that I've been open to hearing the left's point of view on gay issues for decades.
At the university where I teach, I've tried to open up discussion and organize forums. I've always come to the debate from a position of compromise: yes to civil unions, but not to marriage; yes to foster care, but not to adoption. No faculty at my university has been willing to engage in discussion -- none. Outside the university, pro-gay journalists lied and said I belonged to organizations I was not part of; then I was decried as "anti-equality" and "anti-gay," among other choice insults, by a long list of gay publications and organizations: OnTopMag, TowleRoad, EqualityMatters, Bilerico, FrontiersLA, The New Civil Rights Movement, and so on and so on. Google my name and you're likely to believe from these blogging savages that I am the new Rasputin.
Neither I nor the other side is guilty of immoderation. We disagree; that's all. As far as I am concerned, I am right and they are wrong.
My position on gay issues has been that children cannot be treated like commodities and that "gay rights" cannot imply the right to acquire and control children like chattel. I base these beliefs not on far-fetched extremism, but rather on the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, UNICEF's statements on adoptions, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and a long history of literature attesting to the importance of heritage, lineage, and patrimony. But I suppose I am one of Bernard Goldberg's "knuckleheads," seeing as none of the following publications has yet been willing to consider my point of view: Mother Jones, Salon, San Diego Union-Tribune, Houston Chronicle, Orange County Register, Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Washington Examiner, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, and quite a few more. I submitted letters to the editor to all of these with no luck.
Keep in mind that we just won a major victory over Duck Dynasty not because of a wishy-washy peacemaker trying to build bridges with gays, but rather because of the outspoken Phil Robertson refusing to back down, temper himself, or apologize. On things that matter, there isn't really a middle ground, because life is too complex to reduce to a one-dimensional line between two poles.
Defend yourself. Defend your beliefs -- once you've given them a lot of thought and feel strongly about them. Fight. That's what you should do this year and every year following.
Robert Oscar Lopez edits English Manif.