Michael Kazin has an article in Dissent doing something that is rarely done, praising extremism. Yes, extremism is often very dangerous and very unhealthy for society. But sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes what seems radical and unthinkable at one point in time is the overwhelming consensus in later years. An example:
Sometimes, those who take an inflexible, radical position hasten a purpose that years later is widely hailed as legitimate and just. Extremism is the coin of conviction, whether virtuous or malign. It forces middle-roaders to crush the disrupter or adapt.
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?
All good examples. So when is extremism good and when is it bad? The examples above all have one thing in common: They were movements to correct great injustices. Barry Goldwater famously said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” He was right, even if some of the things that he considered a threat to liberty were quite the opposite and some of the things he thought were justice were not.