© 2015 By Bob Litton
“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice….Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
— Barry Morris Goldwater (1909-1998), U.S. Senator from Arizona (1953-65, 1969-87).
The remark above was part of a speech Barry Goldwater made during the 1964 Republican convention, when he was nominated the GOP’s candidate for President of the United States. It was one of several of his comments which caused his landslide defeat as well as the clearing-out of many Republican members of Congress. Other, similar comments included “sometimes I think this country would be better off if we just cut off the Eastern seaboard and let it float out to sea” and, speaking of tactical nuclear weapons (which he referred to as “small conventional nuclear weapons”), “Let’s lob one into the men’s room at the Kremlin.”
Goldwater became known as “Mr. Conservative” during the 1960s; and he was in fact very conservative for his day, vilified by the Democrats and not a few Republicans as a “reactionary…out of touch with his country”. Yet he was reportedly much saddened by John Kennedy’s death and he ushered Richard Nixon out of the White House, later describing Nixon as “the most dishonest individual I ever met in my life”. He was vehemently opposed to the New Deal and labor unions and he was virulently anti-communist, yet he opposed the rising religious right and their views on abortion and homosexuals. In his last years in the Senate he was respected by Democrats and Republicans alike, being viewed as a “stabilizing force”.
I believe the Republican Party could use more representatives of Goldwater’s sort. I doubt that I would vote for him unless the Democrats could not come up with a better choice. I view his naivety as comical now: his attacks on labor and the United Nations and his notion that tactical nuclear weapons are just very big grenades that field commanders should be able to employ without presidential approval. (The fellow seemed to be abysmally ignorant of the huge and long-lasting effects of nuclear weapons.) On the other hand, he took what nowadays would be termed liberal stances on some legislation. He was not as extreme as he advertised himself to be. Yeah, we need more Barry’s.
It is true, I believe, that many, if not most, of us would like to hold standfast to our principles, assuming we have any. As long as we choose to live in a society where everybody wants to tolerate each other, even like each other, we will continually find it necessary to compromise. Sometimes our side will win; sometimes we will lose. Principle is a very vulnerable ideal.
As for extremism in the present, I am really spooked by what I see in Sen. Ted Cruz. In contrast to Barry Goldwater, who was a strong believer in the separation of church and state, smarmy Cruz does not hesitate to sidle up to the religious right: he announced his presidential candidacy on the campus of Liberty University—the school which far right preacher Jerry Falwell founded.
On secular issues, Cruz came close to single-handedly shutting down the national government through his filibuster in the Senate over the Affordable Care Act. He and his fellow right-wing extremists appear willing to destroy the country in order to impose their reactionary agenda—which actually amounts to the same thing: eliminate every national department and agency except the military and possibly the post office. Even the roads and bridges are less important to them than their wars and church services.
These people—and to a lesser extent, I believe, Barry Goldwater—disavow “moderation” or “compromise”. They hold up the Constitution as a sort of modern Bible, the words of which are eternally true as they were written. They are textualists, unwilling to reflect on the fact that the Constitution was not considered totally adequate even by those who argued all of one summer before finally signing it…as a product of compromise. They view it as a piece of stone on which the new commandments have been inscribed rather than as a living document. They fail to recall that many if not all amendments to the Constitution came about only after marches and riots as well as much civil disobedience had ignited the public conscience. They cannot accept the facts of changing times.