Moderation in the pursuit of reason is no vice

Back on a thread yesterday, reader CW offered this:

Did you read Dana Beach’s recent [column] in the Post and Courier? He was lamenting Kathleen Parker’s label of Bob Inglis as a centrist. He saw Inglis more as someone who makes decisions based on his own judgment and that compromising shouldn’t be a virtue above all else. Good editorial and I’d like to hear your thoughts on it.

Well, now I have read it, and here are my thoughts…

There’s merit in what Dana says, but there are weaknesses as well.

He’s right that Kathleen’s use of language is inadequate, on a number of levels. For one thing, Bob Inglis’ problem is not moderation. He’s a very conservative guy who just doesn’t happen to hew to anyone else’s orthodoxy. Which means national commentators have trouble talking about him coherently, because they think in the binary terms of left-right. Kathleen at least is capable of breaking out of that.

And I understand what Kathleen is saying. “Moderate” has become shorthand (which Dana may call lazy if he likes) for people who refuse to play the absolutist right-left game in Washington. As imperfect as the term is, I’m just glad that anyone who writes from inside the Beltway (and yes, she lives in Camden, but she writes for Washington) even HAS a term for people who go their own way.

What Inglis is is INDEPENDENT.

As am I. I hold many views that are not moderate (one of the most vicious canards in our collective political consciousness is that independents are people who can’t make up their minds; on the contrary, we are people who DO make up our minds rather than buying prefab values off the shelf), but on the whole I’m not insulted when someone calls me that, because it means they know I’m not a ranting ideologue. And I take exception to Dana’s assertion that “The history of “moderation” in American politics is signified by moral cowardice and political irrelevance.” On the contrary, those of us who refuse to go along with either of the dominant ideological strains show considerable courage by charting an independent course. Frankly, I view most adherents of strong ideological leaning as sheep.

And his evocation of Chamberlain is entirely unfair, and lazy. History is replete with moderates who stood courageously against the ravages of absolutism or of “progress.” St. Thomas More, a most moderate man, comes to mind. So does Dwight Eisenhower. So does John Adams, a man with a distaste for ideology who did far more for the American cause than did his firebrand cousin Samuel. Abraham Lincoln was not some ideological extremist; his goal was to hold the Union together. And I’ve always regarded Goldwater’s famous dictum with some distaste: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Really? Let me introduce you to the Tea Party. “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” How do you figure? A belief in the moderate concept of rule of law is essential to justice; otherwise we are in a Hobbesian state.

So to my mind, the piece has good points and bad points.

By the way, here’s what I wrote on this topic back in my original UnParty column:

What a relief when “David” spoke for me by writing, “I am always intrigued by this argument that moderates aren’t passionate about anything…. I take every issue on its own merits and when I make up my mind, I am as passionate and diehard about that position as any conservative or liberal could ever be.”
Exactly. Why is it so hard for partisans and ideologues to understand that we might hold our own values and positions even more passionately than they hold theirs, for the simple fact that they are ours. We didn’t do what they did, which was to buy an entire set of attitudes off the rack, preselected and packaged by someone else, and chosen based on nothing deeper than brand name.
Is there anything wishy-washy about the stands taken by such “moderates” as John McCain and our own Lindsey Graham? Was Joe Lieberman being a fence-sitter when he helped push through the Iraq Liberation Act, which way back in 1998 made the overthrow of Saddam Hussein the official policy of this country?
These are the people who take the independent risks that make things happen, from campaign finance reform to banning torture. Without them as pivots, giving ideas credibility by virtue of their own independence, we’d be forever in a state of stalemate, unable to settle any difficult issue.
And those of us who support their like are the ones who decide elections — not the partisans, who can be taken for granted.

Oh, and by the way: Should Bob Inglis decide to stage a comeback, I’d be glad to see him try to do it on the UnParty ticket.

9 thoughts on “Moderation in the pursuit of reason is no vice

  1. Doug Ross

    Still think McCain is taking those independent risks? How the mighty (or maybe just the most grandstanding politicians) have fallen. Even Lindsey has retreatedfrom his so-called independent streak out of fear of losing his seat. Face it, all they are are good politicians who care more about keeping their power, prestige, and political warchests overflowing.

  2. bud

    I’ve read Brad’s stuff for many years and “Independent” is not the first word that I would use to describe your worldview. In fact I find that Brad follows a very distinct and consistent pattern. If there is a choice between a government solution and any other option by golly Brad Warthen jumps on the “let government get involved bandwagon” at least 90% of the time. That is far different to me than being an independent. But not too many people in this country subscribe to your philosophy so in Brad’s .

    As for Inglis, he’s a semi-normal politician trying to make it in a party of lunatics. There is really nothing quite like the tea party on the democratic side of the aisle. Liberals are a long forgotten group and sadly I find less and less to like about the Democratic party. Yet it is all we have.

  3. Brad

    Not to get on the merry-go-round again, but… Libertarians tend to perceive my approach as “let government get involved,” because they are so very much the other way, and I argue with them all the time, because I think their approach — “keep government out of it at all costs” — is extreme and unreasonable. I DO believe in human beings banding together to solve problems, and one of the terms for that is “government.” I believe in civilization. But civilization is a complex thing that involves many institutions — some public, some private — and many different levels of institutions (local, familial, national, international, etc.) And I believe firmly in the right sorts of institutions addressing the right sorts of issues. Libertarians, having a hammer, see everything I say as a “big government” nail to be pounded. But that says more about their philosophy than about mine.

    But let’s say my approach is exactly what Bud says it is. It means there is no party for me — certainly not the Democrats (with all their little libertarian sayings, such as “keep government out of the bedroom,” which I’ve always thought rather comical because it seldom has anything to do with the topic under discussion), and certainly not the increasingly libertarian Republicans. And absolutely not the Libertarian Party.

    So what does that make me? An independent, by definition. So I don’t see what you don’t like about that word applying to me. There aren’t many commonly-used terms to describe the way I look at thing (certainly not “liberal” or “conservative” the way we use them), but “independent” is one of the few that actually works.

  4. Ralph Hightower

    I like the idea of the UnParty ticket. It is apparent that the extremes of the Republican and Democrat parties want to take over and make it an “Us versus Them” mentality.

    The name, Independent Party, can be usurped to mean anything, such as when George Wallace ran.

    I like the UnParty ticket, or perhaps it should be called the Adult ticket since the extremist in the Republican and Democrat parties are acting like children.

  5. Doug Ross


    Just remember – as Brad has envisioned it, the UnParty is further to the right on abortion than the Republican Party. You okay with that?

    It’s basically a mixed bag of positions all going back to what Bud has suggested: turning over more and more control of every aspect of our lives to the government. More taxes, more military presence throughout the world, more rules and regulations (think Blue Laws seven days a week).

    It’s all the things that Brad wants other people to do based on his values.

  6. Brad

    Actually, Doug, you’ve got it completely wrong. You need to go back and read the manifesto again.

    Basically, you’re not required to believe in or advocate any particular thing in order to be welcomed into the UnParty. What you are citing (somewhat inaccurately, but whatever) is my OWN set of values that I would bring to the UnParty table, just as others would bring theirs. That is as it should be. The bit about “things that Brad wants other people to do based on his values” is your spin on it. What, pray tell, do you think people should bring to the mix other than the things they happen to believe in? Do you propose that I bring stuff that OTHER people believe in instead? THAT would defeat a major purpose of the UnParty, which would exist for people who THINK about issues rather than buying a prefab set off the shelf.

    Anyway, to save everyone from having to follow the link, here is my unequivocal assertion that there would be NO nonnegotiable tenets held by the party, along with a list of some of my own attitudes (which are deliberately provocative, in order to prove my point that people who do not adhere to the dictates of left or right nevertheless hold views that are not wishy-washy):

    Are there any fundamental, nonnegotiable tenets? Sure:

    • First, unwavering opposition to fundamental, nonnegotiable tenets. Within our party would be many ideas, and in each situation we would sift through them to find the smartest possible approach to the challenge at hand. Another day, a completely different approach might be best.
    • Respect for any good idea, even if it comes from Democrats or Republicans.
    • Contempt for any stupid idea, even if it comes from our own party leaders.
    • Utter freedom to vote however one’s conscience dictates, without condemnation or ostracism from fellow party members.

    Every Unpartisan would have his or her own set of positions on issues, having worked them out independently. But to banish the thought that Unpartisans don’t take strong stands, here would be some positions I would bring to the party table (and remember, this is just me, not the editorial board of The State):

    • Respect for life. Opposition to abortion, the death penalty and torture of prisoners.
    • Belief in just war theory, and in America’s obligation to use its strength for good. (Sort of like the Democrats before Vietnam.)
    • A single-payer national health care system — for the sake of business and the workers. If liberals and conservatives could stop driving a wedge between labor and capital for about five minutes, we could make this a reality.
    • Universal education — as a state, not a national, responsibility. Go ahead and shut down the U.S. Department of Education, and make sure you provide equal educational opportunity for all on the state level.
    • A rational, nonideological energy policy that will make us independent of despotic foreign regimes: Drill in the ANWR. Impose strict efficiency standards on Detroit. Build more refineries. Since we are at war and they are helping the enemy, build internment camps for Hummer drivers. (OK, scratch that; just make the Humvee like automatic weapons — banned for all but military use. In fact, what was wrong with the Jeep?) Launch a Manhattan Project to find something better than fossil fuels. Take the advice of Charles Krauthammer and set gasoline permanently at $3 a gallon — when the price of crude drops, raise the tax to keep the pump price at $3. Unlike Mr. Krauthammer (who’d use the proceeds for tax cuts), I’d make like a real conservative and balance the budget.

    Such ideas are not left, right or wishy-washy. Admittedly, in my zeal to debunk the myth that we “moderates” (an inadequate word, really, for independents) don’t take strong stands, I’ve deliberately chosen some ideas that are attractive to me but are too out there for my own editorial board. (Although the issues they address are similar to some set out by potential Unpartisan Paul DeMarco in comments on my blog.) But wouldn’t that make for some lively Unparty conventions? And wouldn’t they be more worth watching than those scripted, stultifying pep rallies that the Democrats and Republicans hold every four years?
    I certainly think so. In fact, that’s one point on which most of us Unpartisans could agree.

  7. bud

    Brad, that sounds like the Unitarian “Church”es approach to religion and God. They pretty much don’t care what you believe in so long as you’re a good and decent person.

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