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The Unhappy Medium

The militant center and the alt-whatever

In every society of every kind, there is a simple technique available to reasonable moderates wishing to prove that the left and the right are actually the same, and therefore discredit the seriousness of their politics by association. The exercise relies on tautological reasoning, but it’s enough for those who overwhelmingly accept what passes for common sense at any given point in time.

It’s easily executed. The centrist surveys the range of beliefs shared by his peers and usually the state and major institutions like the media, the education system, the police, etc. Inevitably, people pushing to move society in any direction are bound to reject some of these beliefs, so the centrist locates the space where their rejections overlap, points to it wildly, and there you go, bada-bing, bada-boom. Communists are Nazis. Civil rights groups are Jihadists. If a man and a woman avoid the same bar, they must be going out together.

In a theocratic society, a centrist close to the establishment can argue that the secular activists are dangerous radicals, just like the conservative elements who want more beheadings and more brutal application of scriptural law. In Khrushchev-era Russia, he can easily prove that dissident poets with Western support are the same as anti-revisionist Hoxhaists. Whatever.

Of course, of course, the well respected centrist says, smoking a pipe in his tasteful library after a long, successful career in the public sphere, they aren’t exactly the same, but they are equally wrong and dangerous.

If a man and a woman avoid the same bar, they must be going out together.

The groups he seeks to link don’t need to actually have any goals in common. They just need to reject or critique some of the things that he stands for at the moment. It matters not that most people on Earth, and surely most people in history, reject the very specific set of things that he stands for right now. It’s a deviously self-centered position, which is often grasped for when society fragments, but it’s durable because these principles seem so obvious to his tribe that they could only be rejected as a part of some dastardly or delusional conspiracy.

For example, he can point out that “alt-right” and the hard left in the United States are the same, since both did not like Clinton, both are disdainful of centrist politics and sometimes mean to its representatives online, neither are too enthusiastic about Hollywood liberalism, and both have expressed some reservations about a new strategy for dealing with Russia.

On Friday, this is exactly how a Vanity Fair text desperately tried to make “alt-left” happen. Then over the weekend, Sam Harris offered an example of the kind of empty assertion that is possible in the militant center.

What he is really saying is, “Weird, the further people get from my good, correct views in the center, the less and less I agree with them,” or “Our society is good and the center is in the right place.” And maybe he’s right! But let’s not pretend that “I agree with myself” is a useful statement. 

Even John Harris, a very astute observer of politics, came close to the militant centrist fallacy recently:

Of course both the hard left and the alt-right want to change the media. Almost every fringe group in history does. If they liked the dominant ideology, they wouldn’t be called things like “hard left” and “alt-right.” They’d just be normal. They may not always be correct to—and Brexit-era Britain may be a good example of a time when it would have made sense to listen to mainstream prestige journalism—but radicals attack the press by definition.

“The Workers’ Party of Korea reflects the true will of the people,” reasonable centrists have claimed.

I have no skin in the center v. left fight. My job is to report for the mainstream media (yes, the centrist MSM) and as a foreign correspondent, so I have worked in places where the Reasonable Center is now, or recently has been, quite far away from my own. On Twitter in Brazil, where I lived for the last few years, if I made some kind of bland liberal assertion like “it’s weird that a minority-white country almost exclusively features white people on its television and in fashion magazines,” I would be accused of proposing a radical racial agenda that flew in the face of common sense. The thing is, my accusers were right. Common sense there on this issue was not what I personally would consider obvious at all. And Brazil is a vibrant democratic society very similar in culture to the United States. Imagine what people from actually different societies think.

You know who else had a Reasonable Center? That’s right, every society that has ever existed or will ever exist. This includes the worst regimes in history (don’t make me say it), where rational moderates presumably wanted some genocide, but not too much. Societies which were mostly liveable but obviously had some serious flaws had one—let’s say, Brazil and Indonesia in the second half of the twentieth century, when reasonable centrists accepted the generals running the countries were doing OK, and brutal actions taken against leftists were just the price paid for stability. So did the best communities humans have ever created. In those, the center may have been the right place to be.

“The free market is preferable to state intervention when possible,” reasonable centrists have argued. “The Workers’ Party of Korea reflects the true will of the people,” other reasonable centrists have claimed. “Race should not be taken into account when assigning citizenship.” “Healthcare is a right.” “Voting is the best system for choosing leaders, but should not be extended to women.” “Religion is poison.” “Bombing seven countries is about the right amount at the end of eight years of liberal presidency.” “The Roman gods are the true gods and Christianity is a dangerous threat.” “All men are created equal.” “The fact that the richest country on Earth fails to provide health care to its poor and mass incarcerates its black population is the best we can do.” And so on.

Maybe the militant center emerges when what is accepted as common sense starts to shift in troubling ways. That’s when it starts jumping on its plush chairs and saying, “Are you people all crazy? This is common sense!” They could be right, maybe it should be. But in the urgency of this moment, everyone outside the tent, however small, can look the same. Maybe, as Elizabeth Bruenig recently pointed out, it’s become easy after years of liberal ideological hegemony to forget that there are actually other ways to organize society. If centrists want to understand what’s really going on in politics, they have to understand that some people really, truly want to change things. It won’t work to shout that they’re violating the rules of common sense. They already know.