When Extremism Is No Vice

Michael Kazin argues that “sometimes, those who take an inflexible, radical position hasten a purpose that years later is widely hailed as legitimate and just.” He points to historical examples:

In the 1830s, the “moderate” way to abolish slavery in the U.S. was to compensate slave-owners and ship their former chattels, nearly all of whom were American-born, to Africa. Extreme abolitionists argued, loudly, that it was a sin to hold human beings in bondage; nothing but immediate freedom would do. “I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity?,” asked William Lloyd Garrison. “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation.” A little over three decades later, his principles were written into the Constitution.

Over time, certain other extremists on the left also turned out to be prophets.

Moderate authorities in politics and the media once lambasted such pioneer woman suffragists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, militant opponents of Jim Crow like Ida Wells Barnett and W.E.B. DuBois, and early critics of the war in Vietnam like the members of Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. But who would now claim that only men should vote, the races should be segregated, and that it was a good idea to send more than a half a million soldiers to Indochina?

His conclusion:

[T]o vaunt moderation over extremism just signals one’s good intentions without communicating anything meaningful about the issues at stake. If you think Bill de Blasio will bankrupt New York or Ted Cruz has no sympathy for the uninsured, then make that argument and drive it home with facts. Insisting that our biggest problems would be solved if everyone crowded into the middle of the road is a lazy attempt to avoid real debate about what divides us. It’s an extreme waste of time.