#94: What Is Political Extremism Today?

We are conditioned to think in political categories of “right” versus “left”, with an underappreciated center in between. This model has become deeply entrenched in political thinking, no matter how simplistic it actually is.

Politically, “left” and “right” derive from seating arrangements of pro- versus anti-monarchist forces in the National Assembly during the French Revolution, but the principle, of course, goes deeper.

First, this understanding of power is based on thinking in a strict dichotomy, in a way of thinking believing in either-or propositions, in adversarial style, in a simplistic for-and-against way of conceptualizing every single issue, or even a worldview.

Second, it typically includes gradations, especially in systems that have more than two political parties (or rather, whose election system is not based on winner-takes all, which seems to cause the two-party system – CGP Grey has some great videos explaining voting systems). The more diversified the parties become, the more there may an entire panoply of parties. Some parties may be directly in the center, others center-left, others center-right, others moderate left or right, others extreme left or right, whatever “right” or “left” may mean at the time. Traditionally, “right” suggests establishment, “left” suggest reform or revolution.

(Fun fact: whoever you consider to be a “sinister force” in politics depends on your knowledge of Italian: “La sinistra” is the left. But if you think of old clips of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show depicting Dick Cheney as Darth Vader, the music may have sounded sinister, but the implication certainly was not that Cheney was a leftie. But I digress.)

Third, we now have a problem on the extremes. There are both right-wing and left-wing versions of extremism that are no friends of democracy and its values and institutions. Some models – for instance the “horseshoe theory” – point to similarities amongst both extremisms. There may still be something that separates them (it’s not a closed circle in that model), but they look rather similar.

Is that even a helpful distinction? There were moments in recent history where surprising thought alliances appeared. Agreement with or resistance to allowing stem cell research was and is still an issue finding support along strange ideological lines (Greens + Conservatives), but they deviate when it comes to the issue of abortion (Conservatives). Globalization critique used to be left-wing and has now also found equivalents on the right, albeit sometimes with a different tone. Support of Israel used to be a stalwart issue on the left, and now finds it, at least rhetorically, on the right, though not in the outright Nazi parties, I would assume (though once you find out about Jewish Neonazis, you have seen everything).

Personally, I have never found the left-right paradigm useful. It is too simplistic, and I am not much in favor of party loyalty. You support who you support based on issues and personnel, but even that is dicey as party programs oftentimes don’t mean much. But my voting record has always been mixed, and so it shall be. I prefer to be flexible, depending on what I see on the table (or rather, on the ballot).

Politics is a game played by politicians, and to assume them to follow clear philosophical principles which sustain their ideology is a bit of a stretch, in my view. A good politician does what works, and chooses the respective ideology as they see fit. A bad one makes reality bend to their ideological blinders and either doesn’t get anything done at all, or won’t succeed in the long-run. A strict reality-orientation though will eventually banish all ideology, and so it should be. That does not mean that ideology is useless, but if it is at the point of becoming dogma, it needs to be seriously questioned.

But especially with regards to new developments during the Coronavirus crisis, we can see that anti-democratic extremism arises from a new background that might formerly have been described as “left” or “right”. Things are becoming confusing very fast, and I would suggest that rather to use tired old labels, to stick to the actual issues.

I have thus began to work on a tentative list of extremist thought that still uses coded language but appeals to extremist and anti-democratic thought. There is certainly no assumption of completeness, but it may be helpful to shed some light on some of these here.

Versions of the following key statements always occur on the extreme fringes, especially now in parties catering to Covid Deniers or the New Right:

  1. Insistence on Freedom as an absolute value: All democratic parties value freedom, but it is not the only value in a democratic society, nor is it always easy to define. My own freedom has limits if it severely limits the freedom of others, for instance.

  2. Insistence on Sovereignty as something absolute: A democratic country recognizes that its people are the sovereign, and they send representatives into political office. Government actions thus always have to align with popular will, which is in turn measured through elections and other democratic processes. The sovereignty of a country is thus an extension of the sovereignty of its citizens. It is in the interest of the citizens to exert this sovereignty in a way that benefits the people as a whole. Given constant change, the concept of the sovereignty of a country needs to adapt. If it is to the benefit of the country to enhance free trade and cooperation with other countries, traditional concepts of sovereignty (closed borders, own currency, own military) may actually limit the sovereignty of its citizens.

  3. Insistence on Patriotism as identical to nationalism: Healthy patriotism is a positionality towards your own country in which you see yourself in service to the benefit of all its people, to its wellbeing, to its future. Like sovereignty, this may well include honoring international and supranational treaties, cooperation and connections. Patriotism should always be a positive position (supporting your own country and its allies) and not define itself in the negative (against other countries).

  4. Insistence on a static National Identity: National identity is complex, historically grown, and always changing. Multiculturalism is the historical norm; mono-ethnic states almost always the result of ethnic cleansing or forced assimilation. Immigration is a constant historical presence, and while it is always important to integrate immigrants successfully into your society, this integration needs to be limited to the adherence of laws and common standards, and cannot mean the rejection of all cultural traditions (as long as they are not in conflict with sensible laws of the new country).

  5. The claim to represent the true majority, the “base” or the “forgotten people:”
    There are no citizens “first class” or “second class.” The insinuation that some of the people in the country are not really representative of it and must be silenced in favor of an assumed “silent majority” has always been an excuse used by dictatorships to shut out undesired populations.

  6. The elites are all corrupt: Corruption is a mainstay of all societies, sadly, and it needs to be fought. But the insinuation that all so-called elites would be corrupt is a typical strawman argument typically used to delegitimize all democratically elected officials of a country, as well to discredit teachers, professors, scientists, doctors, lawyers, and whoever else may have enjoyed higher education. It also is used to dismiss any possible legitimacy to the claim personal wealth or influence. This is another typical tactic of demagogues.

  7. There are secret powers directing our fates: In a highly networked world, it is completely normal that ideas flow from person to person, from country to country. The almost infinite interplay of institutions and people from around the globe is what constitutes civilization and society itself. Some of these influences are transparent, some are not. This is normal. Conspiracies typically do not work out, and if they do so, only on a small scale. People talk, have divergent interests, and governments change. Nothing will stay secret forever. It is virtually impossible that in a global context, there could be organizations of people thinking in complete lockstep. The insinuation that there could be secret powers that control our politics is simply ridiculous. It is another strategy to delegitimize democratic governments.

  8. These secret powers form a hidden international network: This accusation has been used to demonize populations that due to their diasporic spread and their minority status – frequently a result of discrimination – can be found in many countries and had to struggle to adapt to the majority culture while still maintaining traces of their own. This accusation is a core component of Anti-Semitism, but also of any xenophobia against immigrant groups, and has been leveled against Jews, Muslims and Catholics (under the assumption that religious beliefs systematically would pit them against their countries of immigration), or any sizable ethnic minority.

  9. You cannot speak freely anymore, there is an official dictate of opinion (“Meinungsdiktatur” in German): Free speech is a core component of any democratic society. It must be seen as absolute. Without it, democracy cannot survive. However, speech always means counter-speech, and if you want to participate in the national discourse, you will also need to appreciate critique and debate. Should that critique be too excessive and endanger your employment or even your life, that is of course something that cannot be tolerated in society. This point mixes legitimate critique of cancel culture with a naïve and illegitimate expectation to be allowed to say whatever you like without critical counter-speech. This point is also frequently mentioned to insinuate that we are living in a dictatorship in which drastic speech codes are enforced. Sometimes this critique is also used in order to defend speech that some might consider deliberately insulting, demeaning and hateful.

  10. You cannot trust the established media / the press is lying / all news we don’t like are fake news:
    If you have built your world view on believing that the world is controlled by powerful forces outside democratic control, then the purveyors of information that are trusted by the established system cannot be trusted. What is typically agreed upon as real becomes fake, what is believed to be reliable becomes suspicious, and the media that transport that which everyone else believes to be true needs to be seen as fake. It is no coincidence that the primary vehicle for disinformation and alternative reality in the United States is called “Infowars.” Facts need to be countered with alternative facts, truth becomes lies, and journalists are seen as the enemy. Fear of an Orwellian system leads to the creation of an Orwellian counter-reality in which doubt is celebrated as patriotic only if it criticizes the other side, never your own.

  11. Reality itself is not what you think it is. We know better and can educate (red-pill) you about the truth.
    You basically believe in The Matrix, and need to see the truth. Only we can tell you. This is Brainwashing 101.

From there, it is all down the rabbit hole. To be continued.

#58: Question Everything; But Also Yourself

It is important to not take everything for granted. The dangers of authoritarianism are always real, and simple answers to complex questions should never satisfy the curious mind. There is a reason dictatorships always want to limit free speech and even thinking itself, and any attempts at limiting free thought and free expression need to be countered.

The biggest advances in human thought and endeavors have been made by those who were willing to question the status, quo, to think outside the box, to deviate from dogma. The institutionalization of this questioning is called science. Sure, science has an orthodoxy, but it encourages questioning the very orthodoxy it allegedly protects. It is not perfect, but its methodology encourages and is built on curiosity. Still, sometimes it needs outside thinkers to make advances, and that has routinely happened.

The arts, as well, thrives on newness, on deviating from known patterns, on surprising new ways of interrogating human existence. Wherever the arts and the sciences are thriving, society will be healthy, and the very act of questioning everything that exists is welcome as a necessity.

If you question everything though, you also need to question yourself. There will be many situations in your life during which you may see yourself as the only one that knows the answer, or that there are only a very few that think like you, and that the majority of society is set against you. These moments can happen. I grew up in a brutal dictatorship, and I know how that feels. But you learn that oppression can be overcome, even if it takes forever. You also learn that, despite all the efforts of a dictatorship not to have you express yourself, you are not alone. Most people who live under an oppressive system know that, and they will find little ways of resisting and pretending to conform. Even in the worst of societies, be it Nazism, Communism, religious extremism, or any other totalitarian attempt to control the way you think and feel, even in those systems, you will know that even the oppressors know that this is wrong.

If you do not live in such a system, but you still believe that you do, this is a tough spot to be in. You will feel that everyone is against you. Your allies seem to be fewer than you think. Your friends and family will seemingly be against you. You are the only one to see the truth, and you see only a tiny proportion of society willing to share your point of view. You can still be right in your suspicions. But you will need to question yourself. Nobody is an expert in everything, and if you feel especially vulnerable, your judgement may not be leading you down the right path all the time.

Question yourself. Sometimes, you are headed in the right direction while everybody is heading the other way. That can surely happen. But there is also the possibility that everyone is heading in the right way, and you just took a wrong turn and are driving on the wrong lane against traffic. There is such a thing as paranoia, and to quote Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” but sometimes, our drive to question everything can make us become unable to trust that when almost everyone around you disagrees with you, you might not be the rebel, but you might actually be wrong. Recognizing that is the truly revolutionary act. We all can be wrong sometimes. Only the truly free thinkers can recognize that about themselves.

Only if we truly think freely, and truly question everything, will we be able to communicate nuances, problems that others are not recognizing or unwilling to discuss. Things are never black and white, they are always shades of grey. Just because one problem may dominate society does not mean that that problem does not need to be addressed in nuanced ways, neither have all other problems gone away. Staying in conversation with others means that your voice will get heard on the issues you care about. Setting yourself against everyone means that eventually, you will be ignored even when it matters the most. If you follow Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, it is not about questioning everything at all: it is about loving everything, and caring deeply enough to affect positive change.

It is important to not take everything for granted. The dangers of authoritarianism are always real, and simple answers to complex questions should never satisfy the curious mind. There is a reason dictatorships always want to limit free speech and even thinking itself, and any attempts at limiting free thought and free expression need to be countered.

The biggest advances in human thought and endeavors have been made by those who were willing to question the status, quo, to think outside the box, to deviate from dogma. The institutionalization of this questioning is called science. Sure, science has an orthodoxy, but it encourages questioning the very orthodoxy it allegedly protects. It is not perfect, but its methodology encourages and is built on curiosity. Still, sometimes it needs outside thinkers to make advances, and that has routinely happened.

The arts, as well, thrives on newness, on deviating from known patterns, on surprising new ways of interrogating human existence. Wherever the arts and the sciences are thriving, society will be healthy, and the very act of questioning everything that exists is welcome as a necessity.

If you question everything though, you also need to question yourself. There will be many situations in your life during which you may see yourself as the only one that knows the answer, or that there are only a very few that think like you, and that the majority of society is set against you. These moments can happen. I grew up in a brutal dictatorship, and I know how that feels. But you learn that oppression can be overcome, even if it takes forever. You also learn that, despite all the efforts of a dictatorship not to have you express yourself, you are not alone. Most people who live under an oppressive system know that, and they will find little ways of resisting and pretending to conform. Even in the worst of societies, be it Nazism, Communism, religious extremism, or any other totalitarian attempt to control the way you think and feel, even in those systems, you will know that even the oppressors know that this is wrong.

If you do not live in such a system, but you still believe that you do, this is a tough spot to be in. You will feel that everyone is against you. Your allies seem to be fewer than you think. Your friends and family will seemingly be against you. You are the only one to see the truth, and you see only a tiny proportion of society willing to share your point of view. You can still be right in your suspicions. But you will need to question yourself. Nobody is an expert in everything, and if you feel especially vulnerable, your judgement may not be leading you down the right path all the time.

Question yourself. Sometimes, you are headed in the right direction while everybody is heading the other way. That can surely happen. But there is also the possibility that everyone is heading in the right way, and you just took a wrong turn and are driving on the wrong lane against traffic. There is such a thing as paranoia, and to quote Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” but sometimes, our drive to question everything can make us become unable to trust that when almost everyone around you disagrees with you, you might not be the rebel, but you might actually be wrong. Recognizing that is the truly revolutionary act. We all can be wrong sometimes. Only the truly free thinkers can recognize that about themselves.

Only if we truly think freely, and truly question everything, will we be able to communicate nuances, problems that others are not recognizing or unwilling to discuss. Things are never black and white, they are always shades of grey. Just because one problem may dominate society does not mean that that problem does not need to be addressed in nuanced ways, neither have all other problems gone away. Staying in conversation with others means that your voice will get heard on the issues you care about. Setting yourself against everyone means that eventually, you will be ignored even when it matters the most. If you follow Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, it is not about questioning everything at all: it is about loving everything, and caring deeply enough to affect positive change.

#39: Free Speech is Absolute

The dividing line between a just society and barbarism is whether free speech is valued or not. With “free speech” I mean any speech, no matter how offensive. With protected, I mean that the only answer to speech you do not like shall be counter-speech. The truth will win out in an equal, peaceful, respectful exchange of ideas.

  • Equal, because we are all living beings on this planet, and in a dialogic situation, equality of discourse needs to be maintained by fostering equity. Free societies understand this principle – we will all be different, but in our most impactful moment of speech, our vote, we are all (ideally) the same.
  • Peaceful, because only an attitude of peacefulness will allow you to listen to somebody else, and also to your true self. Peace is non-aggression, love, true freedom, true strength; only by being at peace can you achieve it. Peace is absolute also: you are only peaceful if you talk in a soft voice, allow for rational arguments be exchanged, do not hurt other beings or things. Be the peace you seek.
  • Respectful, because you cannot pretend to be all-knowing, and need to realize that someone else may hold a different piece of the truth that you may disagree with, but it may still be true.
  • Exchange means that speech flows from person to person after each has been given ample time to make the best argument possible for their case. It also means that you should not mistake a person’s utterances for their true and steadfast opinion; it may just be an argument that needs to be discussed, whether heartfelt or not; also, people’s opinions change over time depending on the availability of convincing facts and interpretations.

Only week societies shut out other people for expressing ideas, holding beliefs, or for simply being obstinate to what may be considered acceptable or correct opinion. Strong societies relish the open exchange of ideas, right or wrong, offensive or inoffensive, in order to correctly gauge the political and cultural imaginary of the state, and to design policy accordingly, democratically, representatively, cautiously, and sustainably.

Only if everyone has a voice, and knows their voice will be taken seriously, and they will not be harmed for voicing it, will they be in a state of mind to listen to your arguments, if you have some, and give you a change to convince them otherwise. Or, you may be convinced by them. And so it will go, in an eternal circle of discourse; true democracy; true humanity; true utopia. (I think Habermas may be sighing somewhere).

The path of disallowing free speech, even in increments, and even if it starts with just a few things that are somehow seen as “offensive” by the few or the many, will lead further and further down the road, where new categories of offensiveness will be invented, and as a result, all speech will become unfree. The logical end point of the banning of speech has many names: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, in fact all Socialist/Communist states, especially currently the so-called “People’s Republic” of China. In such countries, there cannot be any criticism of injustice, intolerance, inequity, inequality, inhumanity.

Those of us in the West fighting against what we see as injustice should never look to become like that, but the road is very slippery. The fight for freedom and improvement cannot be won by curtailing the freedoms and limiting the paths to improvement of those you disagree with. Freedom of Speech is always the Freedom of the Speech of those we clearly disagree with – otherwise, we would need no such commandment.

But in its wisdom, all of democracy, all of justice, all of peace-building work is contained within the demand that freedom of speech must always be absolute.