The Myth of Moderation

I really dislike rallies. I've never participated in one—and I have no plans to start—but the idea turns me off. I'm always told of the value of social assembly in a democratic society, yet I'm challenged to find the meaningful results of peaceful demonstration (at least since 1980). But regardless of the method's efficacy, it's just not my scene.

So maybe I'm biased, but I really wasn't impressed by last weekend's "Rally to Restore Sanity." Jon Stewart announced the proposed rally on the September 16th episode of his Daily Show, in response to the August 28 "Restoring Honor rally" hosted by Glenn Beck.

The stated purpose of the rally was to give a voice to the politically disenfranchised centre, those without extreme political views. However, this goal requires further examination. I'm always sceptical of those who claim to be moderates, or above the political fray.

I'm not saying Stewart himself is intentionally malicious, and I entirely agree that the American political discourse is controlled by loud-mouth entertainers, but Stewart fails to realize that he is part of that very problem.

To quote Dick Armey, "I was quite amused at watching the national comics stand up and decry with such sincerity that which they do every day on their shows. I thought it was so remarkable: 'I want you all in America to stop acting like we do on our show every night with our militant vilification of everyone with whom we have a disagreement.' "

Furthermore, the title of "moderate" can occasionally act to disguise ulterior motives, be they merely partisan or actually dangerous. For example, Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), performed a rendition of "Peace Train" at the event.

It's quite fitting that they chose a man like Islam to perform, because he perfectly demonstrates the threat posed by the guise of political moderation. For all his songs about love and peace, he is a man who has demonstrated a devotion to hatred and violence.

Here's a video of Islam on British television in 1989 voicing his support for the assassination fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie.

The best part is where he says he'd prefer to burn "the real thing" than merely an effigy of Rushdie.
And here's a collection of related statements from Islam and Rushdie since that event.

Of course, this is not to say that everyone at the rally was evil, mean-spirited, or dangerous. Only a very small portion of them were deranged, I'm sure. But that doesn't diminish the danger posed by the myth of moderation.

And that's what it is: a myth.

Most figures in history, from tyrants of antiquity to hot-air buffoons of modern times, have fancied themselves to be moderates. The political spectrum is a social construct, and as such, individuals have license to construct it as they please.

So saying you're a moderate is at best meaningless, and at worst illusory. There are many "moderates" who harbour views way outside the political mainstream, who've been able to hide behind their chosen label.
It's a disingenuous label, and it allows its adherents to claim immunity from criticism. This is a legitimate threat.

We all know to fear the guy yelling about tax slavery and holding a placard of President Obama with a Hitler-stache, but at least he's honest about his views. We also need to fear the guy who tells who he's a "moderate," sings you a song about peace, and then goes on to talk about lynching "blasphemous" authors and stoning adulterous women.

Worse still are those who inflexibly cling to the label so to draw others into their field of gravity.
Think about it, because you probably know somebody like this. I'm talking about the guy who rationalizes all his political views, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum, as "moderate." That's Jon Stewart.
So why does he cling so adamantly to the idea of political moderation?

I have a theory I'm fleshing out: the political left would prefer a convivial system of cooperation and discussion, while the right would prefer an adversarial system of disagreement and forced compromise. The left like to call theirs the "moderate" approach, because it gives the appearance of civility. Given this assumption, we can see why most, if not all, of those calling for a "restoration of sanity" are tacit, if not vocal leftists.

Jon Stewart's disdain for adversarial politics is well documented. Take, for instance, this famous clip which led to the eventual cancellation of the CNN program "Crossfire:"

He tells the hosts their show is "hurting America." His complaints about the show's vapid and reductionist nature is entirely justified, but watch closely and you'll see that his concern is not merely with the nature of the game, but the game itself. That is, he doesn't like the idea of the left-right divide.

Unfortunately, he's winning the battle. His ideal of a convivial, cooperative system appeals to many people disillusioned with the current state of affairs in the American political discourse. But they're merely trading one flawed system for another.

In all my affection for the adversarial system of government, I realize that it's not without faults, but it's still the best system ever devised, and I have no confidence in a non-adversarial system. And the adversarial system doesn't have to be dominated by the Glenn Becks or Keith Olbermanns of the world.

Call me an idealist, but I believe in an adversarial system that works within a framework of civil discourse; a system that doesn't rely on taking to the streets, burning effigies, or painting vile caricatures to discern sound governance. It's a system to which any other would pale in comparison.

Jon Stewart's version of moderation only serves to remove all the substance from the political discourse. I don't mean to say that he doesn't have a role to play in that discourse, but we must realize Stewart's rhetoric about moderation is often as empty as that from those on the left or the right. This self-styled messiah of the American political system, isn't.

Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with the "sanity" he's talking about: the thoughtful evaluation of conflicting ideas in a civil context, but trying to push everybody to the "centre" causes more harm than good.

Making everyone a moderate doesn't solve anything; it takes the essence out of the political milieu and reduces the debate to the lowest common denominator. I sympathize with the message of sanity (or Stewart's conception of it), but he loses all credibility to me by melding it with political moderation.

I think we should take seriously Stewart's message about raising the discourse of politics, but we must jettison the empty rhetoric about moderation and moving beyond partisan politics, because the concept of political moderation is at best a misnomer and at worst a guise for ulterior motives.

Or maybe I'm wrong about everything I just said. But if you think I am, you should tell me so. Don't be afraid to disagree, to tell me I'm wrong. In short, don't be a moderate.
How else will we ever know if I'm right or wrong?

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.