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Is Extremism Eroding Western Civilization?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-05-14 07:50:16
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There is something menacing and ominous within present day Western Civilization whose most visible symptom is the resurgence of good old rabid nationalism, xenophobia and extreme views on opposite sides of the political spectrum. It is going on as we speak in Italy, Holland, Greece, France, just to mention a few countries.

To be called a moderate nowadays is politically equivalent to the kiss of death. In philosophical circles, the Aristotelian idea that virtue lies in the middle of two extremes is anathema. What seems to prevail are extreme “self evident” views and positions perceived as principles written within nature itself, to be used as powerful weapons with which to demonize the opposition, to hell with the common good,  compromise, harmony, or, for that matter the greater good of one’s country.

To stay with philosophy, as described in the last article I contributed to Ovi, the Straussians on the right demonize the post meta-physicals on the left and vice-versa. Vico, who while not rejecting Plato’s philosophy is in the middle as the originator of historicism and therefore quite modern, is transmuted into a conservative anti-modern neo-Platonist and is subsumed, all to insure that one’s pet philosopher and philosophy prevails. Vico himself had four colorful descriptive words to describe such a state of affairs portending the imminent end or the dissolution and decadence of a whole civilization which always arrives at the end of the third cycle of history: “e alla fine impazzano” [and at the end they go crazy]. He meant it for the Romans specifically but they would be appropriate for present day Western Civilization as well. A Fellini would have a great time describing it as a gigantic circus, clowns and all.

To come closer to our dire existential situation,  a situation habitually not grasped very well by  conservative philosophers residing in the eternal abstractions of Mount Olympus where they consort with the gods (the academic dons of Ivy League universities perhaps?), consider the latest in the parade of follies which the US presidential campaign has become with more on their way: a potentially damaging and unflattering secret of the conservative candidate (Mitt Romney) has been dug up by some zealous journalists, namely that Mr. Romney as a high school student, a preppy in a school for those born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth, was a bully who once forcibly cut the hair of a fellow students whose appearance and behavior he did not approve of. The incident was confirmed by a minimum of four witnesses still alive (the victim is now dead). When confronted with this fact, Romney has a sudden bout of amnesia and says that he does not remember the incident, but he remembers that the victim was not gay or at least he did not think he was…, he then offers a half assed apology beginning with an “if”: if I hurt anybody (which he does not remember of course) I apologize for it. Then he characterizes the incident as a foolish prank he did when he was young and foolish and even chuckles about it.

Aristotle would say that such a posture is not courageous in the least, not worthy of somebody who respects democracy and free speech, it belongs to one extreme or the other. Which in effect means that Mr. Romney has no intention whatever of sincerely apologizing or show any regrets. He detects nothing wrong. It is a mere youthful indiscretion for which he got caught some forty years later and now what remains to be done is simply mitigate the political damage. No apologies are necessary. The question arises, are we dealing here with people living in a bubble disconnected from the world of ordinary people, or worse, with “civilized sociopaths” wearing  the eminent toga of political office?

Romney’s defenders and apologists on the extreme right of American punditry, the likes of O’Riley, Hannity, Limbaugh, undaunted, not only have not offered any apologies or comments on the issue, but rather they have promptly counter-attacked by digging up and advertising from a biographical book by President Obama (The Audacity of Hope) that as a young man he experimented with drugs. In their moral myopia they have utterly failed to perceive and mention that while their pet candidate Mr. Romney got caught and is not now man enough to acknowledge and offer regrets and apologies for his unwise youthful acts which appear more vicious than the designation pranks would suggest, President Obama has publicly acknowledged his youthful indiscretions in a published book and has expressed regrets.

This spectacle, I would submit, does not augur well for the health and vibrancy of American democracy and indeed the whole of Western Civilization. What concerns our visionless politicians is simply not to get caught and remain in power. Any Machiavellian means are good for the achievement of those ends.

I’ll close with a relevant albeit sad anecdote. There is an e-mail message from the conservative Tea Party side making the rounds recently. It begins commendably with a eulogy to the Holocaust and how a brave woman in Warsaw would sneak at night in the Jewish quarters to smuggle some two thousand babies out of the besieged ghetto. For this she was nominated as a candidate to the Nobel Prize for Peace. Regrettably she never received the prize. But this commendable remembrance is a mere ploy to make a politically partisan point, namely that the prize should have been awarded to her not to a peddler of a slide show on the environment (vice President Gore) and to the speeches of a community organizer (President Obama).

Never mind that what caused the Holocaust were the nefarious policies of an extreme right wing party called the Nazi party. I informed the person who sent me the message of that simple fact. He wrote back that I was misinformed. The Nazi party was not on the right, it was after all dubbed Socialist, and therefore it was a moderate party in the middle of two extremes. In other words, Hitler by implication was a moderate of sorts. Wow!

Now, if we have reached this sorry stage when Hitler is considered a moderate, it means that somebody like Reagan would have no chance to be nominated by today’s Republican party, as dominated as it is by intolerant extremist political fanatics. It also means that when good old fascism returns to Western Civilization, as seems to be the case in the above mentioned countries (one of them paradoxically being the very cradle of Western Civilization) where  extremism has captured parliamentarian seats and keeps growing by the day, it will indeed make Hitler and Mussolini’s brand of fascism look moderate and a pick-nick in comparison. “E alla fine impazzano” Vico writes. Cicero would exclaim on the other hand: “ o tempora, o mores.” Both of them must be turning in their graves!


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Leah Sellers2012-05-14 15:45:48
Dear Brother Emanuel,
Sir, various forms of Extremes will always exist within Human Sociologies and Human Psychologies.
The Key to avoiding certain Insanity and ensuing Chaos is Compromise - finding Middle Ground from which all Extremes get fed from the National and Global Trough.
It's an Age Old Pattern, and one which We Human Beings, sadly, have not outgrown.

Emanuel Paparella2012-05-15 03:19:09
Indeed Leah; as Thomas Jefferson put it: eternal vigilance is the price of freedom; but of course freedom only for a privileged few leads to extremism. The common ground leading to harmony is the recognition that we are equal because we all have a common humanity. It took a civil war to settle that one.

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