I distrust extremists.
I distrust all extremists — right-wing cranks, left-wing wackos, militant atheists and obsessive Christians. I distrust Communists and Ayn Rand disciples equally. I distrust protestors who burn our flag and self-appointed patriots who wrap themselves in it.
Monday, we’ll celebrate the high holy day of American democracy, July Fourth.
We could not mark that day any more reverently than by pledging to restore to our cultural conversations a middle path of common sense, by which I mean a willingness to agree that not every issue can be delineated in stark blacks and whites, that facts outrank ideologies, and that the wisest course of action usually involves listening to our opponents, learning from them and perhaps discovering points on which we can compromise.
A child of the 1960s and ’70s, I grew up when radical ideologues from the left had flanked the country’s mainstream. They torched ROTC buildings and kidnapped heiresses and trusted no one over 30.
At least those cuckoo birds were entertaining. They were tie-dyed and disheveled and funky. Some displayed an enviable wit, when they weren’t blowing up things. They advocated for sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, all of which I favored myself, albeit for hedonistic reasons rather than philosophical ones.
Eventually, though, they grew up and melted into the workaday middle class, and that was that.
In their wake arose a sustained, multi-pronged counterattack from the far right: voodoo economists (2 plus 2 doesn’t equal 4!), Newt Gingrich and his congressional mafiosi, neo-vons, objectivists, Kochs and Tea Partiers.
As impervious to facts as the most egregious acid-dropping hippie, the righties were, as a whole, better organized, better funded and less stoned, and thus they wreaked more lasting injury to American ideals.
That damage continues to reveal itself: the economic instability that has followed the 2008 stock market crash, the destruction of Iraq and the resulting rise of ISIS.
Now, the right is itself being usurped by two newer, competing systems of weirdness.
One is the rise of Donald Trump, who utters nearly nothing that makes sense or is even doable, and whose sole ideology is himself. The man is his own belief system.
Yet millions follow him, including a great many Christians, who ought to know better, given their founder’s warnings against ego, greed and falsehood. To where the hordes will follow Trump remains to be seen.
The second movement is a transmutation of liberalism so illiberal it befuddles even the few 1960s lefties who remain among us. Think of this movement as the philosophical love child of an overwrought, politically correct anthropology major and Salvador Dali.
It assumes, as its starting point, that everyone who isn’t a straight white male is oppressed, because most institutions were created by straight white males.
It’s not necessary for the oppressed to supply evidence of a specific crime or sin; they’re oppressed whenever they feel oppressed. The feeling is the fact. It’s possible, then, to victimize someone without knowing you’re doing it or intending to do so, simply by, say, telling a bland anecdote about your privileged upbringing, even if that privileged upbringing took place in a Letcher County trailer park.
A recent article in The New Yorker online, “The Big Uneasy,” by Nathan Heller, examined how this movement is affecting college campuses.
At Emory University, Heller wrote, “students complained of being traumatized after finding ‘Trump 2016’ chalked on sidewalks around campus. The Trump-averse protesters chanted, ‘Come speak to us, we are in pain!,’ until Emory’s president wrote a letter promising to ‘honor the concerns of these students.’”
College presidents fall all over themselves to avoid crossing oppressed students. If administrators don’t acquiesce, they risk their jobs, because anyone — student, faculty or president — who questions protestors is hounded as a homophobe, a racist or a misogynist. Free speech and due process vanish.
An Oberlin College professor said, “Part of me feels that my leftist students are doing the right wing’s job for it.”
So, back to Monday’sholiday.
I doubt extremists on the left have ever made up more than 10 percent or 20 percent of the population. Extremists on the right are probably another 10 percent or 20 percent. Meanwhile, between those two poles live 60 percent to 80 percent of us who are fairly reasonable.
The problem is, we mainly don’t pay attention. We’re shuttling our kids to Little League games and tending our vegetable gardens and trying to enjoy life.
We’re not driven by the paranoia that propels radicals. We’re conflict-averse.
Generally, we’ll entertain ideas that contradict our own, because we hope we might learn something. We also try to follow facts more devoutly than ideology. If it turns out that something we’ve dearly thought is wrong, we adjust what we think, not the facts.
On controversial subjects, we assume the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Too often, we assume everybody else sees the world as we do.
Well, extremists don’t. And if we don’t speak up, they could create a world we can’t live in. That’s not my paranoia talking.
So, to the usually easygoing, silent majority (oh Lord, am I starting to sound like Richard Nixon?), I suggest we honor this Fourth by lifting our own voices.
Let’s pledge that the next time a maladjusted birdbrain starts foaming about some ridiculous notion, we’ll listen, politely — we’re good at politely — and then politely but firmly respond:
“Friend, I hear you. Now, please, take off your tinfoil hat, go rest in a quiet room and let everyone live in peace.”
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.