Notes for a moderate’s manifesto
GIG HARBOR, WASH.—”Things fall apart,” poet William Butler Yeats famously wrote, “the centre cannot hold.”
Written just after World War I, Yeats’s lines suggest themselves now—with the fourth anniversary of 9/11—when the “center” in America seems incapable of holding against the extreme. Politically, the far right has forced us into militarism abroad that risks what Yeats called the “blood-dimmed tide” of anarchy. Culturally, the far left entertains us with excess such as “The Aristocrats,” a film proudly featuring variations of “the dirtiest dirty joke ever told.”
These extremes combine in a toxic mix imperiling our security, making us spiritually ill, and gaining us the contempt of the world. Has moderation ever looked so good?
And now, hurricane Katrina. As our hearts break at the sight of our countrymen’s suffering and dying in part because of some initial government stumbling, we brace for the back-to-basics debate coming at us. This debate—about roles, priorities, basic premises—will be titanic, and will invite extremist responses. Never has the moderate voice been so vital to coherence of the whole. We’re on the cusp of chaos—or maturity.
About a moderate’s utility, however, Yeats was famously discouraging. He used “best” and “worst” to denote what I term moderate and extremist: “The best lack all conviction,” he wrote. “The worst are full of passionate intensity.”
But we can amend Yeats: We moderates most definitely do not lack conviction. But, being moderate, too often we’ve kept our convictions to ourselves, especially since 9/11, not wishing to exacerbate the country’s polarization. It’s time—high time—for moderates to contend, to reset the balance to the political and cultural “center,” a good place to go after things have fallen apart, as the Yeats poem implies—and where traditionally Americans have always stood. It’s not conviction moderates lack, it’s venues and traction.
To address these matters, herewith some notes for a manifesto:
The political argument. Many grave matters sparked by 9/11 cry out for the moderate’s moderating influence, notably America’s excessive militarism and the far right’s assault on the constitutional separation of church and state—the latter unsettling moderates as it did Jefferson and Madison for the “persecutorial tendencies” of a “clergy armed with power.” Apart from 9/11, also demanding rebalancing is the administration’s extreme favoring of the wealthy over the (growing) poor and the (disappearing) middle class. At the same time, in the wake of Katrina, we need to guard against far-left demands for an enlarged, paternalistic government role.
Moderates must argue these and other matters, and in some cases reargue premises—for example, the premises of pre-emptive war (from the right) and abortion (from the left).
How to exert the moderating influence? The best formal venue is bipartisanship—Democrats and Republicans uniting to unite the country. Support the moderates in office, including those of the opposition, especially if they break with party hard- liners. Support bipartisan organizations, like the new Partnership for a Secure America (www.PSAonline.org), which calls for a return to a bipartisan foreign policy.
The cultural argument. Coincident with political extremis deriving from the far right, we have cultural extremis deriving from the far left, wherein elements once on the fringe—notably pornography—have been played into the mainstream as “cool.” Antiheroes elbow out heroes, “edgy” is pursued over core. While this decline began before 9/11, it has accelerated since; thus, in a time of terror, when we need transcendence, we get trash. (The right contributes with “entertainment” of extreme violence, like caged wrestling.)
Producers claim they deliver what the public wants, but it’s a public aged 18-34, titillated and pumped. We must demand elevation, beauty, the “good clean fun” that got us through the Depression and World War II. The far left will allege infringement of free speech, but culture is not just about free speech—it’s about what we say. Use your freedom of speech—with producers, artists, critics—and argue for a new Renaissance.
Arguing the moderate point. Much is made above about arguing, an activity moderates by temper find distasteful. But argue, we must. Next time we encounter an extremist point, political or cultural, in public, print, on air, or—most scary—in our own circle, we must override the doubt that defines a moderate. Think “forceful” and respond, “I’m not persuaded by your argument.” If more force is needed, think Katharine Hepburn—and then argue.
Arguing the point moderately. Avoid shrill language and firecracker terms, even though inwardly you may want to deck the extremist who’s in your face. In Drama, an extreme reaction to an extreme action makes for high theatricality—and, often, Tragedy. Moderate language and argument, delivered soberly, provide best traction—and in chaos, tonic.
Arguing the point organizationally. In addition to the above venues, donate to moderate think tanks, organize your own group, create blogs, websites. For staff, recruit early retirees who want to “give back” to society.
Lest all this arguing and contending seem grim, recall what lawyer Joseph Welch said about going up against the extremist Joe McCarthy: “Tell them it was fun.”
At a moment when things are falling apart, with moderates working passionately, the center will hold.
Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is author of ‘The Washington-Sarajevo Talks’ and is at work on a new play, ‘Prodigal.’