In a democracy, moderation is an important virtue. One of the central purposes of democratically constituted procedures is to provide a means by which wide differences in belief and practice may be negotiated without tearing apart human societies. And for that reason, we become wary about anything that may appear to be extremist.
But a curious development is under way by which this noble democratic term and other concepts close to the heart of the democratic spirit are being turned into instruments of cultural revolution.
Abortion, as usual, is playing a large role in this process. “Moderate” politicians, like the reelected governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, accept the current culture of abortion. “Extremist,” of course, designates anyone who wants to restrict abortion. The telling fact in this media taxonomy, however, is that the moderate position is not in the middle because, at least for the media, there is no corresponding extremist pro-abortion element in society. Hard-core abortion rights advocates have simply been redefined as moderates.
A similar sleight-of-hand is taking place on all the neuralgic social issues. Whether you look at homosexuality, lesbianism, condoms in schools, or the attempt to bring traditional religious, moral, and social principles into greater prominence, moderation has come to mean accommodation of radical positions while middle America has been banished to the edges of American society.
Just this fall, for example, the Washington Post informed its readers that in Colorado Springs, which had led the movement to amend the state constitution to remove special gay-rights legislation from the books, “moderation is making a comeback.” By the time-tested method of selective use of sources and unsupported assertions that even the business community is seeing the light, the Post made it appear as if, in the still mountain airs of Colorado Springs, only evangelical Christians are extremist.
In an unconscious revelation of bias that only a certain kind of liberal cannot see, the publisher of an “alternative weekly” is interviewed and his comment that “moderates are mobilizing to reclaim this community” is taken at face value. The lesbian director of a multimillion dollar foundation in Colorado Springs is similarly allowed to opine about her sufferings at the hands of wicked Christian conservatives and to describe the foundation’s efforts to achieve moderation.
Quite often science is now being enlisted in this ideological redefinition. Also this fall, Steven Pinker, a highly regarded professor of psychology at MIT, has argued in the pages of the New York Times Magazine that the recent spate of teenagers who have killed their newborns at proms, in their homes, and so forth—though still mildly immoral—remind us of our uncertainty about “whether a neonate is a full person.” Leniency toward these teenagers reflects a moderate approach in light of complexities.
Pinker pointed to moral philosophers who have asserted that to be truly human, we need “a unique series of experiences that defines us as individuals and connects us to other people. Other traits include an ability to reflect upon ourselves as a continuous locus of consciousness, to form and savor plans for the future, to dread death and to express the choice not to die . . . our immature neonates don’t possess these traits any more than mice do.”
Socrates said the unexamined life was not worth living; for thinkers like Pinker, apparently, unless we can jump a series of philosophical hurdles our unexamined lives are not worth saving—a moderate position neither absolutizing bare life nor giving teen mothers an unrestricted license to kill.
The late Russell Kirk wrote eloquently of what he called the degradation of the democratic dogma. Among the phenomena Kirk included in that development was the base political ploy of pandering to people’s impulses to the detriment of the very virtues that democracy demands. A democratic people must show temperance and prudence in private life, for example, if it is to be prepared to exercise those virtues in public.
But perhaps even more foreign to our current political discourse is the notion that basic justice cannot be overlooked in a democracy without rendering democracy itself null and void. The king was God’s anointed in pre-democratic times, but only so long as he acted under the law that God had established for all his creatures. Similarly, democratic regimes give proper respect to human freedom and moral responsibility, but only so long as they do not make the idolatrous claim vox populi, vox Dei.
In the heat of the present culture wars, it is still possible to make reasonable arguments on weighty matters and get them a democratic hearing, but only barely. If our public discourse becomes corrupted further by the cultured despisers of religion and their media collaborators, so that moderation itself becomes not a reasonable accommodation between conflicting views, but the subtle imposition of radical positions throughout the culture, it’s all over.