Extremism versus fanaticism
By Gennady Stolyarov II
The War on Our Own Citizens continues. More precisely, Britain's war on its own citizens has just been initiated. In an earlier treatise, I described the devastating effect that the Western governments' reactions to the July 7, 2005, London terror attacks had on the liberty and privacy of air travelers. But the misdirected, detrimental effects of domestic government "security" policies can be far more insidious, aiming at the very intellectual core of what it means to live in a free, Western nation historically based on individualist premises. One of Tony Blair's new policies entails the possibility of targeting not terrorists, nor even violent criminals, but anybody whose views diverge from the "center" or the "mainstream." Our most sacred liberties are in danger, because a scapegoat has taken the blame for terror activities, and is now bearing the consequences of retaliation. This scapegoat is "extremism."
On August 5, 2005, Associated Press reported the following comment by Tony Blair: "We are angry. We are angry about extremism and about what they are doing to our country, angry about their abuse of our good nature. We welcome people here who share our values and our way of life. But don't meddle in extremism, because if you meddle in it… you are going back out again." To accompany this statement, Blair has introduced new "stricter" measures, allegedly to fight terror. According to Associated Press, these measures are designed to "allow Britain to expel foreigners who preach hatred, close extremist mosques, and bar entry to Muslim radicals." Curiously enough, not one of these three points combats actual terrorism, i.e., violent attacks on innocent individuals with the intention of gaining political advantages.
Furthermore, "authorities will draw up lists of radical preachers who will not be allowed to enter Britain, and a list of radical websites and bookstores. Any foreigner who ‘actively engages' with those places could face deportation." It is one thing to close down an organization known to be specifically planning or endorsing a given terror activity, but these new measures amount to blatant censorship of ideas alone, and the punishment of individuals who espouse them. Organizations which serve as meeting places and discussion forums for actual terrorists, or which funnel money to terrorist activities, or which recruit or persuade individuals to engage in acts of terror are one matter. "Radicals," "extremists," and "preachers of hatred" are a whole other issue entirely.
Note that nowhere is it stated that the new policies would be limited to proponents of Wahhabi Islam, or Islamic fundamentalism, alone. Indeed, the scope of their applicability is left conveniently vague. This is, however, despite the glaring fact, which Western governments have done their best to evade and hush up, that virtually all terror activities directed at Western civilians or soldiers have been committed by Wahhabi Islamists. Blair's new policies are conveniently vague not by accident, but by deliberation. Their ultimate, long-term intent is not to prevent further bombings. One prevents bombings by arresting bombers, not talkers. Nor is it to reduce the sway Wahhabi Islam holds on the British. After the London bombings, most British residents' disgust, horror, and outrage at the atrocity will surely forever keep them from joining its perpetrators, even in spirit. If anything, the London bombings undermined the support that Wahhabi Islam held among the British. The subtle aim of Blair's measures is to crush any form of "extremism" or "radicalism," i.e., any thought or idea that deviates from the "mainstream." I fear far more for the "extremist" laissez-faire capitalists that might become victims of these policies than for the people who will not be harmed by terror attacks that will not occur if these measures are abandoned.
Extremism: The Anti-Concept
In 1965, the great thinker Ayn Rand wrote an article titled, "'Extremism' or the Art of Smearing," published in The Capitalist Manifesto. At the time, "extremism" was a new term, invented with the insidious purpose of equating the views of "extreme rightists," i.e., those of the advocates of capitalism, with the actions of the Communist Party and the Ku Klux Klan. How did the enemies of capitalism manage such a ludicrous and evidently self-contradictory conflation of terms? When Rand wrote of a 1965 "moderate" Republican convention, she noted the following.
"First, observe the peculiar incongruity of the concretes chosen as the objects of the ‘moderates'' hatred: ‘the Communist Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and the John Birch Society.' If one attempts to abstract the common attribute, the principle, by which these three groups could be linked together, one finds none…
To begin with, ‘extremism' is a term which, standing by itself, has no meaning. The concept of ‘extreme' denotes a relation, a measurement, a degree. The dictionary gives the following definitions: ‘Extreme, adj.—1. of a character or kind farthest removed from the ordinary or average. 2. utmost or exceedingly great in degree.'
It is obvious that the first question one has to ask, before using that term, is: a degree—of what?
To answer: ‘Of anything!' and to proclaim that any extreme is evil because it is an extreme—to hold the degree of a characteristic, regardless of its nature, as evil—is an absurdity… Measurements, as such, have no value-significance—and acquire it only from the nature of that which is being measured.
Are an extreme of health and an extreme of disease equally undesirable? Are extreme intelligence and extreme stupidity—both equally far removed ‘from the ordinary or average'—equally unworthy? Are extreme honesty and extreme dishonesty equally immoral? Are a man of extreme virtue and a man of extreme depravity equally evil?
In Rand's example, it was clear that the "moderates" did not intend to target the Communist Party or the Ku Klux Klan with their denunciations of "extremism." Both were already known as atrocious organizations and widely detested. The John Birch society was the only real target on the list of three, and the term, "extremism" was used to equate it with the communists and the klansmen by means of a definition based on non-essentials (such as the degree of a quality rather than the nature of the quality itself). And even the Birch Society, according to Rand, was a straw man for the real enemy of the "moderates": principled advocacy of capitalism. If the "moderates," i.e., the advocates of welfare-statism, managed to cast all rightists as "extremists" in the sense that they characterized the Birch Society as being, then they might succeed in directing legitimate public distaste for communism and racism against the only consistent opposite to communism and racism: laissez-faire capitalism. What was the vision of those who wielded the term "extremism" against their opponents? Rand reveals it to be
The safely undefined, indeterminate, mixed-economy, ‘moderate' middle—with a ‘moderate' amount of government favors and special privileges for the rich and a ‘moderate' amount of government handouts for the poor—with a ‘moderate' respect for rights and a ‘moderate' degree of brute force—with a ‘moderate' amount of freedom and a ‘moderate' amount of slavery—with a ‘moderate' degree of justice and a ‘moderate' degree of injustice—with a ‘moderate' amount of security and a ‘moderate' amount of terror [How appropriate for today's situation and prescient of the true implication of Blair's policies!]—and with a moderate degree of tolerance for all, except those ‘extremists' who uphold principles, consistency, objectivity, morality, and who refuse to compromise.
This mixed-economy welfare state is the status quo for just about every Western country. Rand was right to note that the welfare state is never stable. It inevitably resolves itself into one of the two "extreme" elements which constitute it: total freedom or total tyranny. Today, the term, "extremist," uses as its straw man the terrorist, who would seek to plunge Western countries into total tyranny, while actually marking as its target the capitalist, the man who would seek the diametrically opposite "extreme," total freedom.
Blair is the current head of Britain's Labour Party, a welfare-statist political force if ever there was one. Governing over a welfare state which largely follows Labour's ideal, Blair is invested in the status quo, in theory and in practice. It is therefore no error to assume that he will work to strengthen the status quo which keeps him in power, the welfare state, and to secure it against all threats to its existence. The terrorists threaten the existence of the welfare state, because they believe that the welfare state is insufficiently coercive. But, likewise, the advocates of unadulterated capitalism are a threat to the welfare state, because they believe it to be too coercive. Furthermore, they are a far graver threat to the welfare state than a horde of irrational, illiterate, suicidal users of explosives who enrage more than they persuade. The capitalists have a breadth and depth of argumentation, history, principles, and practice on their side that no other party could match. They do not coerce anybody with their activities, because they neither need to nor believe in the validity of such coercion. In any sane country, they are given full freedom to express their views, which consequently win on the free market of ideas and uproot the welfare state. The only way to combat the growth of these ideas, and to entrench the welfare state, is through censorship and punishment of such "extreme" notions.
The term, "radical," is a synonym for the term, "extreme." Dictionary.com provides three definitions of the word, all of them instructive:
Of urgent notice is the fact that none of the above, genuine definitions of "radical" contain an element of violence in them. Radicalism does not imply hatred, it does not imply coercion, and it certainly does not imply terrorism. Definition #1 illustrates clearly that "radical" also means "principled," addressing the root of a given issue and applying the insights thus gained, rather than just adhering to superficialities. Anybody who holds consistent basic premises and rigorously applies them to specific issues is a radical. In other words, Tony Blair's policies could be extended to persecute anyone who competently employs the deductive method. By Definition #2, anybody who is outside the "mainstream" on some issue, anybody who disagrees with a majority of his peers on what ideas are correct, or even what books, films, clothing, and hairstyles are desirable could be construed as a radical. By Definition #3, anybody who disagrees with his welfare-statist rulers about the proper form of government, anybody who wishes to reform today's bloated, omnipresent, simultaneously imploding and exploding state behemoths, is a radical, and fair game for censorship, deportation, or arrest without charges.
Hatred, the Ever Vague
Of the trio that Blair is targeting--"extremism," "radicalism," and "hatred"—the third term is the most ambiguous. Of all the above terms, it is also the simplest to define. Dictionary.com states that it is simply "intense animosity or hostility." This, of course, begs the question: animosity or hostility toward what? The answer? Absolutely anything at all! I am glad that I do not live in Britain, for if I had, and dared to express my personal distaste for a pair of homosexuals kissing in the middle of a crowded restaurant, I could be construed as a "preacher of hatred" in a culture that is even more over-sensitive and politically correct toward homosexuals than is that of the United States. Is hatred defined based on the perceptions of "intense animosity" of the sender of a given message, or its receiver? The answer, in a politically correct society, is either. Provided that one is of a protected "minority" group, his/her/its definition of "hatred" will always be upheld. If one happens to be a white male rationalist, however, one is presumed guilty of "hatred" before one even opens one's mouth. Once again, the term "hatred" is sufficiently convenient in its vagueness to use terrorism advocates as straw men for the British government's true target: political incorrectness.
One might also note that "hatred" need not be directed at a person. An idea, policy, or institution can easily be its target. And he who opposes the idea of collectivism, the policy of government's systematic intrusion on privacy, or the very institution of the welfare state itself, could quite elementarily be construed as a "preacher of hatred" against the aforementioned. Blair's policies are a glaring danger for all free thought, principled living, and political dissent.
To baffle just about every modern government official in existence, I will state another fact that has slipped them by. The reason why terrorists are a danger is not because they are extreme in their views. Rather, they are a danger because they are fanatical about imposing their views on others through force. The extremist and the fanatic are seldom one and the same, and seldom does fanaticism stem for any consistent, radical set of principles whatsoever. One cannot, after all, call the terrorists masters at profound, integrated ideology, even their own ideology of fundamentalist Islam. Their own "sacred" book, the Koran, prohibits attacks on innocent civilians, after all.
The defining premise of the fanatic is not extremism, or even ideology per se. It is orthodoxy. As I wrote in "The Mark of the Fanatic:"
The Islamic fundamentalist seeks to, with vicious fervor, enforce a pristine orthodoxy of Muslim ritual, down to the sorts of foods a ‘believer' should or should not eat, or the type of headgear he should wear. The screeching demagogue of the New Left seeks, with bitter, uncoordinated rage, to enforce an orthodoxy of ‘victimization.' Woe to him who dares assert that the livelihood of modern African-Americans is not tarnished by the specter of slavery, or that no inherent gender-discrimination exists in contemporary America, or that the free market would not somehow inhibit the opportunities of poor children, or that the elderly would not be ruthlessly robbed and cheated in a free market for medicine and pensions! The hippie will smear him with the names, "fascist," "cold-hearted brute," "Eurocentric patriarchal bigot," or that favorite obscenity of the "counterculture" and its intellectual descendants, "f****r." And of course, the moderates who use the emergence of terror as an excuse to suggest a suppression of "extremism" are themselves advocates of the most vicious orthodoxy of them all, the status quo. What else could be more "conventional and accepted?" What else could be more stereotypical and less systematic than a random hodgepodge of whatever most people happen to feel or wish or, more rarely, think at some particular time? It can be generalized from this that a fanatic is inextricably linked to an orthodoxy and seeks to defend an orthodoxy against any "unbelievers."
With the use of the status quo as the quintessential orthodoxy, one may ask the question, "But does the status quo truly espouse any principles? Is it not an-ever shifting set of often self-contradictory beliefs, which cannot even at any instant be pinpointed to or related with any absolute?" And I will answer that this question strikes the mark precisely when identifying the nature of the status quo. It is not based on principles; nor is an orthodoxy. The fanatic defending it defends not principles but conventionality. He enforces it not because he seeks to champion a cause, but because he seeks a cause to champion, not for the sake of the cause but for the sake of the championing.
Earlier on in the treatise cited, I had suggested a definition of fanaticism: "excessive intolerance of opposing views." This definition has nothing to do with extremism, but it perfectly characterizes the mindset of every terrorist who ever lived. Were the terrorist not concerned with imposing his own views on others, with limiting the range of others' non-coercive free choice, would he have undertaken his bombing attacks? The extremist, on the other hand, is more often than not quite tolerant, both of "moderates" and of others with "extreme" views. He recognizes that the majority sentiment is not aligned with him, and if somebody's freedom is to be the first to go, his will be it. Therefore, he will likely defend all freedom zealously, in hopes of thereby preserving his own. The extremist is intense in expressing his views, but he is, in the overwhelming majority of cases, nonviolent, civil, and far more interesting than the typical purveyor of the "mainstream.
The extremist does not typically have a firmly established societal mechanism to promote his ideas; if he had, he would already be in the mainstream! Therefore, he has to work on a level of small-scale activities: a conversation here, a debate there, a series of articles, perhaps, all aimed at creating the slightest foothold for his views with the minimum cost to the extremist himself. Certainly, he would not even wish to put his good name on the line, not even to mention his life, for his views. Any victory, no matter how small, is a cause for the extremist's celebration, but, if he does not succeed today, he is willing to shrug it off and try again tomorrow. He is never so desperate as to risk the standard of living he already enjoys and endanger everything he holds dear in a gamble of violent terrorism.
The purveyor of orthodoxy, however, has everything to lose from any contender, from whichever direction he might come. The orthodoxy, or the "mainstream" of any given society, discipline, or movement, already controls vital means to power and influence, and it would not control them if it had not desired to do so. There are two ways for any orthodoxy to go: up, at the expense of the dissenters, or down, to their benefit. Since both the leaders and the rank-and-file of the orthodoxy do not seek to lose their treasured political or social sway, they are the most likely to employ vicious fanaticism and coercion in targeting those extremists who disagree with them. The more rational the disagreement, the more formidable it is, and the more the orthodoxy will seek to suffocate it.
The culture of the West, with its basic individualist premise, its capitalist economy, and its abundance of material prosperity, poses a serious challenge to the theocratic, authoritarian orthodoxy of the Middle East. Those who advocate the pre-Western status quo have the most to lose from the advance of Western prosperity and freedom into their lands. With the terror mastermind Osama bin Laden as their arch-embodiment, they recognize that the coming of Western culture is the most rational disagreement possible with the Sharia-based societal structures that preceded it. The effectiveness of the West's influence has been shown in the colossal number of Middle Easterners who had willingly embraced it, becoming swayed by the rationality of Western ways. The old Wahhabi orthodoxy is a pushover in the realm of argument, but, in the realm of force, it could stand a chance. In effect, because Western individualism, capitalism, and rationalism were mighty stimuli for change in the Middle East, they elicited an equally dramatic response in the form of terror. Terrorism is the manifestation of the old Middle Eastern "mainstream" fighting to prevail against superior "radical" infusions from abroad. The cause of terror would have been a futile one, doomed to lose, had not the West been plagued by power-hungry orthodoxies of its own, in the form of its welfare-statist governments, which stifle the progress of freedom and capitalism to a degree that terrorists can only dream of.
It can be seen now that the policies of Tony Blair, in their insistence on preserving the status quo orthodoxy in Britain, stem, in a way, from the same basic premises that cause terrorism itself, a distaste for the innovation and renovation that can save a society from the grip of all orthodoxies. Only "radicals" and "extremists" committed to the principles of freedom, individualism, and capitalism can bring about this orthodoxy-free society of full liberty and toleration. Not surprisingly, it is those same "radicals" and "extremists" to whom both Tony Blair and the terrorists show a staunch opposition, along with the readiness to use coercion if need be. The same peaceful, freedom-loving, thoughtful, innovative individuals whom the terrorists despise most of all are valid targets of Blair's new domestic measures!
If this eventual outcome were not Blair's intention, then why did he structure his policies deliberately to target anyone except actual violent criminals and terrorists, and to render especially vulnerable those who the support the opposite of everything terrorists stand for? Is this an honest error? Ayn Rand would have said that mistakes of this size are never made by accident. It is certainly not by accident that the British government has rendered itself capable of closing your bookstore or shutting down your intellectual website. Nor will the British government by any means relinquish its newly endowed authority once the terror threat subsides.
Were she alive today, Ayn Rand would have urged a staunch, vocal opposition against Blair's new methods of "moderate" fanaticism. In her words, "There can be no compromise on basic principles. There can be no compromise on moral issues. There can be no compromise on matters of knowledge, of truth, of rational conviction. If an uncompromising stand is to be smeared as ‘extremism,' then that smear is directed at any devotion to values, any loyalty to principles, any profound conviction, any consistency, any steadfastness, any passion, any dedication to an unbreached, inviolate truth—any man of integrity." It will take men of integrity to stand up and show Tony Blair's wanton power grab for what it truly is.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to The Autonomist, Le Quebecois Libre, and The Liberal Institute. He is also Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator , a magazine championing the Western principles of reason, rights, and progress. Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's newest science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus, here and his newest non-fiction treatise, A Rational Cosmology, here . Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
© 1996-2013, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.