There are some good quotes -- a variation of a quote from the Roman politician Cicero, and a quote from the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. -- that deal with this accusation:
"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is not a virtue."(In 1964, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), repeated Cicero's words when he accepted the presidential nomination at the Republican convention.)
"But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love ... Was not Amos an extremist for justice ... Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel ... Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." ... And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ..." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"The above quote from MLK comes from his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail.
Cicero and MLK make essentially the same point, and it is very apt: Extremism is sometimes right.
Not always, of course. Extreme selfishness is bad. But there are things that we should have a strong commitment to, a commitment that might be described as extreme.
Often times in life, we face a choice between two different, morally good things, where we can't achieve both and have to pick one over the other (in other words, we face moral dilemmas). When we do this -- when we pick, say, justice over peace, or maybe peace over justice -- we may be accused of being "extremists" for the one over the other. But, since we're forced to choose, there's no way for us to avoid being extremists, is there?
As MLK says, the questions is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Whether we or someone else has chosen the right kind of extremism is something that has to be argued for, not simply asserted.
More, the words "radical" and "extreme" are used frequently by opponents to describe one another. How are we supposed to know which side is describing their opponent accurately? Anyone who uses these terms should be expected to define them, to provide a reasonable definition of the term so we can figure out who it truly applies to.
Otherwise, these words become empty epithets.
EXAMPLES AND ANALYSIS
When it comes to Hillary Clinton's pronouncement earlier Monday that "radical Islamism" and "radical jihadism" are "the same thing" in discussing the Orlando, Florida, terrorist attack, the White House is sticking with its current terminology.-- White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, June 13, 2016, as related in a story by Nick Gass of Politico. Earnest was referring to the Orlando nightclub shooting by Omar Mir Seddique Mateen.
"Listen, I think the president has been quite clear why we choose the language we use to define our enemy. And we have defined the enemy, our adversary in this war as a terrorist organization that perverts Islam," press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. "And the president's been blunt about that and the president has been blunt about why exactly we use the terminology that we do. And it is to make crystal clear we're not going to give those extremist organizations the legitimacy of claiming legitimate Islam."
President Barack Obama is "not going to give into them," Earnest said, because those groups and people "want that legitimacy."
"They want to further this narrative that they represent Islam in a war against the West. That narrative is false. It is empty. It is a myth. In fact, most of the victims of these terrorist organizations are in fact innocent Muslim men, women and children," Earnest continued, adding, "Many of the -- many of our most important partners in our counter-ISIL effort are our partners in the Muslim world."
That should suggest that the "extremist organizations do not represent the Muslim faith," Earnest said.
Comment: Earnest is making the argument that Obama won't call the shooting "Islamic" because it would be saying that such violence is a legitimate part of Islam, which a derisive distortion of Islam and a false justification of the shooter's actions. But is that really what such language commits us to? If I call Adolf Hitler a "German supremacist" or a "white supremacist", does that mean I'm saying his rhetoric and violence is a legitimate part of what it is to be German or white? Or, if I say that Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong were socialists – or "radical socialists" – am I therefore saying their violent, oppressive behavior is an essential part of socialism, and that all socialists are committed to the same? The same question goes to phrases like "right-wing violence", "left-wing violence", 'environmental terrorism", "Christian militants", etc. Do they all amount to a false portrayal that demonizes these wider movements as being represented by extremists? Do these phrases all give unearned legitimacy for the people doing the violence?
While Republican presidential candidates were debating each other on Thursday night on CNN, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was blasting her GOP colleagues in the Senate as "extremists" over on MSNBC.-- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), as related in a March 10, 2016, story from Politico by Eliza Collins.
“So, look, what's the problem with the two guys they've got at the top right now with Donald Trump and with Ted Cruz? These are both people who basically deny the legitimacy of their opponents. They go on the attack. They demean millions of Americans,” Warren told MSNNC's Rachel Maddow. “That's what identifies them as extremists and why Republicans -- man, Republicans in the Senate are breaking apart over this.”
But Warren said the election wasn’t the only reason the Republican Party was extreme; she said the GOP had moved sharply right since Obama's election.
“They have given in to their extremists. In fact, they have nursed their extremists along, so that there have been fights and delays over, what, over the basic things that happen in government,” she said. “All I can say is that's what constituted extremism in the United States Senate. That's what has nursed what's going on now in the presidential primaries.”
"But I do know this: They are paying the price for their own extremism. It has now taken them by the throat. And so, when they stand up in the Senate and say, 'Oh, my gosh, what's going to happen to us? We now may have a presidential nominee who is so extreme that he will pull us over the edge electorally and cause us a disaster in November.' The answer is: Guys, this is what you did to yourselves. If you really want to stop it, stop it right now. Stand up and do your job."
Comment: This is "extremism" rhetoric.
Of course, Democrats also sometimes campaigned outrageously, and some Republicans scorned the politics of hate. There was a marvelous scene in 2008 when John McCain was running against Obama, and a woman at a McCain rally suggested that Obama was an Arab who couldn’t be trusted. McCain corrected her and then praised his rival: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” Political nastiness and conspiracy theories were amplified by right-wing talk radio, television and websites — and, yes, there are left-wing versions as well, but they are much less influential. Democrats often felt disadvantaged by the rise of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, but in retrospect Limbaugh and Fox created a conservative echo chamber that hurt the Republican Party by tugging it to the right and sometimes breeding a myopic extremism in which reality is irrelevant. … So today the leading candidate for president in the party of Lincoln is an ill-informed, inexperienced, bigoted, sexist xenophobe. And he’s not a conservative at heart, just a pandering opportunist. Donald Trump is the consequence of irresponsible politicking by Republican leaders, the culmination of decades of cultivating unrealistic expectations within the politics of resentment. It’s good to see leading Republicans standing up to him today, but the situation recalls the Chinese saying, qi hu nan xia — when you’re riding a tiger, the hard part is getting off.-- Pundit Nicholas Kristof, February 11, 2016.
Comment: Kristof is accusing much of the Republican Party of being "extreme", and Trump of being a bigot. He is also claiming that is mostly Republicans who resort to the "politics of hate", though he doesn't offer any rigorous data to support this claim, so it amounts to the "only my opponent" caricature.
Other than being an old-ish white guy who likes a nice suit, Alec Baldwin doesn't have much in common with billionaire blowhard Donald Trump.-- Actor and pundit Alec Baldwin, as related in a December 11, 2015, story by John D. Sutter of CNN.
But when I met Baldwin here at the U.N. COP21 climate change conference (more on why he's here in just a minute, and, no, it doesn't entirely make sense), the bassoon-voiced actor told me he thinks we all should be listening more to Trump for one reason: His views are so extreme they might finally convince world leaders to sign a climate change accord.
"If we had Donald Trump come here to Paris and make a speech and give his views on climate change, we'd have an agreement tomorrow," Baldwin told me.
"All you need is for these extremists in business (like Trump) to talk about what they need. You say, 'How do you get Americans to care?' I think we are on the road to caring because we've got some pretty extremist views coming back home. And Americans are wise to that. The climate denial thing in America is (at a low), and most Americans know we need some climate change policy."
Comment: This is "extremist" rhetoric.
"It's not just Donald Trump that has said that Muslims are unacceptable for admission to this country … Marco Rubio after the Paris attacks said not only that we should be considering internment, he actually suggested that maybe we should close down cafes and diners where Muslims gather, and in fact, compared them to the Nazi party."-- Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, December 9, 2015, referring to remarks by Republican presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).
Comment: Wasserman-Schultz is distorting Rubio's comments in a way that makes him appear bigoted. Rubio did not "compare" Muslims to Nazis in the sense of saying they were the same: rather, he said avoiding saying we're at war with "radical Islam" because we don't want to offend non-radical Muslims would be, "like saying we weren’t at war with Nazis because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi party but weren’t violent themselves". Also, Rubio said any place where people are being inspired to violence should be shut down, he did not specify that it should only apply to Muslims.
Anyone who follows U.S. political debates on the environment knows that Republican politicians overwhelmingly oppose any action to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, and that the great majority reject the scientific consensus on climate change. … More important, probably, is the denial inherent in the conventions of political journalism, which say that you must always portray the parties as symmetric — that any report on extreme positions taken by one side must be framed in a way that makes it sound as if both sides do it. We saw this on budget issues, where some self-proclaimed centrist commentators, while criticizing Republicans for their absolute refusal to consider tax hikes, also made a point of criticizing President Obama for opposing spending cuts that he actually supported. My guess is that climate disputes will receive the same treatment. But I hope I’m wrong, and I’d urge everyone outside the climate-denial bubble to frankly acknowledge the awesome, terrifying reality. We’re looking at a party that has turned its back on science at a time when doing so puts the very future of civilization at risk. That’s the truth, and it needs to be faced head-on.-- Pundit Paul Krugman, December 4, 2015.
Comment: Krugman is accusing Republicans of rejecting science. He also claims that it's wrong to say that both sides are equally at fault when it comes to being "extreme", but he offers no rigorous evidence to support the claim that one side does it more.
At the moment, Republican rhetoric is spiraling out of control. Donald Trump, for example, is open to a “database system” to track Muslims. “There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases,” he said. And in an interview with Yahoo News, Trump said that “we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago,” with regards to surveillance of Muslims. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, likewise, wants a religious test for refugees: We’ll accept the Christians and reject the Muslims. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio isn’t as extreme — although he’s open to monitoring any place that spreads “radicalism” — but he believes the Western world is in a fight against “radical Islam,” and is bewildered by those who don’t follow his labeling. “I don’t understand it,” said Rubio when asked about Hillary Clinton’s pointed refusal to use the term in the last Democratic presidential debate. “That would be like saying we weren’t at war with the Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren’t violent themselves,” he said, comparing Islam — a vast religion with 1.6 billion adherents — to Nazism.-- Pundit Jamelle Bouie, November 20, 2015, criticizing Republican presidential contenders Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Donald Trump for their remarks on Syrian refugees.
Comment: Bouie is accusing Cruz and Trump of being "extreme". He is also accusing Rubio of comparing Islam to Nazism, but this is a distortion: Rubio is saying radical Islam stands to Muslims as Nazism stands to Germans. As such, he is comparing Nazism to radical Islam, not to Muslims in general.
"Now, extreme views about women, we expect that from some of the terrorist groups, we expect that from people who don’t want to live in the modern world, but it’s a little hard to take from Republicans who want to be President of the United States, yet espouse out of date, out of touch policies. They are dead wrong for 21st century for America. We are going forward. We are not going back."-- Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, August 27, 2015.
Comment: This is "extremist" and "out of touch" rhetoric. In addition, in comparing Republicans to terrorists or those who "don't want to live in the modern world", Clinton is demonizing Republicans.
Normally, when your main geopolitical rivals are shooting themselves in both feet, the military manual says step back and enjoy the show. But I take little comfort in watching China burning money and Russia burning food, because in today’s interdependent world we’re all affected. I also find no joy in it because we Americans, too, have started burning our most important source of competitive advantage — our pluralism. One of our two political parties has gone nuts and started following a pied piper of intolerance, named Donald Trump. … America’s greatest advantage is its pluralism: It can govern itself horizontally by its people of all colors and creeds forging social contracts to live together as equal citizens. But right now we’re messing around with that incredible asset. Yes, we must control our borders; it is the essence of sovereignty. It has been a failure of both our political parties that the Mexican-American border has been so porous. So I am for a high wall, but with a very big gate — one that legally lets in energetic low-skilled workers and the high-I.Q. risk-takers who have made our economy the envy of the world — and for legislation that provides a pathway for the millions of illegal immigrants already here to gain legal status and eventually citizenship. In June 2013, the Senate, including 14 Republicans, passed a bill that would do all that. But the extremists in the G.O.P. House refused to follow, so the bill stalled. And now we have Trump shamelessly exploiting this issue even more. He’s calling for an end to the 14th Amendment’s birthright principle, which guarantees citizenship to anyone born here, and also for a government program to round up all 11 million illegal immigrants and send them home — an utterly lunatic idea that Trump dismisses as a mere “management” problem. Like lemmings, many of the other G.O.P. presidential hopefuls just followed Trump over that cliff. This is not funny anymore. This is not entertaining. Donald Trump is not cute. His ugly nativism shamefully plays on people’s fears and ignorance. It ignores bipartisan solutions already on the table, undermines the civic ideals that make our melting pot work in ways no European or Asian country can match (try to become a Japanese) and tampers with the very secret of our sauce — pluralism, that out of many we make one. Every era spews up a Joe McCarthy type who tries to thrive by dividing and frightening us, and today his name is Donald Trump.-- Pundit Thomas Friedman, August 26, 2016.
Comment: "Gone nuts" is "stupid" rhetoric. Friedman also engages in "extremists" and "exploiting" rhetoric. Friedman demonizes Trump's immigration plan as being racist (i.e., "nativism"), which is a distortion, given that it doesn't end legal immigration. Friedman also engages in "fear-mongering", "bipartisan", and "divisive" rhetoric.
It's said ONLY 5-10% of Muslims are extremists. In 1940, ONLY 7% of Germans Were Nazis. How'd that go?-- From a meme retweeted by ESPN analyst Curt Schilling, August 25, 2015. CNN's link to the story was titled, "ESPN analyst compares Muslims to Nazis".
Comment: First, the meme uses "extremist" rhetoric. Second, CNN used "comparing" rhetoric in describing the text of the meme. Technically, the meme isn't comparing Muslims to Nazis; rather, it is comparing extremist Muslims to Nazis, and comparing Muslims in general to Germans. (Whether the percentages cited by the meme are accurate is a separate issue.) In likening extremist Muslims to Nazis, the meme is describing them as a group that should be opposed by violence.
.@HillaryClinton Wrong. Being more-anti energy than Obama is extreme. We should embrace energy revolution to lower prices & create US jobs.-- Republican presidential candidate former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL), August 18, 2015. Bush's tweet was referring to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's opposition to drilling for oil in the Arctic, a policy that President Barack Obama had supported.
Comment: Just because Clinton opposes drilling for oil in the Arctic doesn't mean she is opposed to energy, that's a straw man. Even allowing for the brevity required on Twitter, "anti-energy" is demonizing. Bush is also using "extremist" rhetoric.
Think about how the Democratic presidential race is lining up. According to the Washington Post, “Hillary Rodham Clinton is running as the most liberal Democratic presidential front-runner in decades, with positions on issues … that would, in past elections, have put her at her party’s precarious left edge.” Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is running to her left. And Bernie Sanders is running to his left. And yet despite this, Democrats and liberals continue to act as if it’s Republicans and conservatives who are extreme, radical, revolutionary, on the fringe. Progressives have created an alternate reality in which they are moderate, temperate, centrist, the very model of reasonableness. They are blind to their own zeal and dogmatism, their own immoderation and intolerance. The Democratic Party was once a great party. It may be a great party again. But for now, it is a radical party — and growing more radical by the day.-- Pundit Peter Wehner, June 2, 2015.
Comment: Wehner is using "extremist" rhetoric, essentially saying that Democrats are ideologues who are divorced from reality.
HARWOOD: Have you seen some of the quotations from people on Wall Street, people in business? Some have even likened the progressive Democratic crusade to Hitler's Germany hunting down the Jews.-- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), posted May 26, 2015, during interview with CNBC's John Harwood.
SANDERS: It's sick. And I think these people are so greedy, they're so out of touch with reality, that they can come up and say that. They think they own the world. What a disgusting remark. I'm sorry to have to tell them, they live in the United States, they benefit from the United States, we have kids who are hungry in this country. We have people who are working two, three, four jobs, who can't send their kids to college. You know what? Sorry, you're all going to have to pay your fair share of taxes. If my memory is correct, when radical socialist Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, the highest marginal tax rate was something like 90 percent.
HARWOOD: When you think about 90 percent, you don't think that's obviously too high?
SANDERS: No. That's not 90 percent of your income, you know? That's the marginal. I'm sure you have some really right-wing nut types, but I'm not sure that every very wealthy person feels that it's the worst thing in the world for them to pay more in taxes, to be honest with you.
HARWOOD: It came out in disclosure forms the other day that Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton, in the last 16 months, have made $30 million. What does that kind of money do to a politician's perspective on the struggles you were just talking about? Does it make it difficult for recipients of that kind of income to take on the system?
SANDERS: Well, theoretically, you could be a multibillionaire and, in fact, be very concerned about the issues of working people. Theoretically, that's true. I think sometimes what can happen is that—it's not just the Clintons—when you hustle money like that, you don't sit in restaurants like this. You sit in restaurants where you're spending—I don't know what they spend—hundreds of dollars for dinner and so forth. That's the world that you're accustomed to, and that's the world view that you adopt. You're not worrying about a kid three blocks away from here whose mom can't afford to feed him. So yes, I think that can isolate you—that type of wealth has the potential to isolate you from the reality of the world.
Comment: First, there's no citation provided for Harwood's claim that today's progressive movement has been compared to the Nazis hunting down Jews, but such a comparison would require clarification at the very least, given that people on Wall Street aren't being sent to concentration camps. Second, Sanders engages in "out of touch" rhetoric. Third, Sanders believes it's unfair to call his tax policy "radical" given that it is no different from the tax policy in place under President Eisenhower. But he does think it's fair to disparage opponents of his tax policy "nut types". Lastly, Sanders engages in "you don't know what it's like" rhetoric.
Anyone who has watched Obama’s genteel response to his Republican tormentors shouldn’t be surprised at his delicacy about Islam. He resists generalizations and looks for common ground, whether the context is terrorism or domestic politics. No matter what Republicans do—heckle his speeches, impugn his patriotism, shut down the government, threaten a credit default, stage countless votes to repeal his health care law—he refuses to categorically condemn them. … Republicans, determined to block his immigration agenda, were withholding money for the Department of Homeland Security. But Obama said these saboteurs didn’t represent the true GOP: “A large percentage of Republicans agree that we need comprehensive immigration reform.” Instead of using the fight for partisan advantage, Obama spread the blame to his own party. “Republicans and Democrats in Congress should not be playing politics” with the department’s funding, he warned. … That’s how Obama treats his domestic adversaries. He doesn’t take the bait. He doesn’t define the whole opposition party by its worst elements. He rejects polarization. He emphasizes shared values. He reminds his own partisans that they, too, are sinners. For Democrats, this can be exasperating. It’s especially exasperating when Republicans refuse to take responsibility for, or even disown, outbursts from their colleagues, such as Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” or Rudy Giuliani’s “I do not believe that the president loves America.” … Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana backs up Giuliani’s insinuation that Obama favors the enemy over his own country: “[Giuliani] is understandably frustrated with a president who, as I said before, is fully willing to lecture the people of this country about the Crusades but is unwilling to call Islamic extremism for what it is.” Please. If we’re going to start calling out religious and political groups for extremism, we could start at home with Republicans. Too many of them spew animus. Too many foment sectarianism. Too many sit by, or make excuses, as others appeal to tribalism. If Obama were to treat them the way they say he should treat Islam—holding the entire faith accountable for its ugliest followers—they’d squeal nonstop about slander and demagogy. They’re lucky that’s not his style.-- Pundit William Saletan, February 24, 2015, in an article entitled, "Go Ahead and Say It, Mr. President: Republicans are your true enemy".
Comment: This is the "only my opponent" caricature. Contrary to Saletan's description, President Barack Obama has a long history of derisive generalizations that demonize his opponents (for instance, accusing Republicans of "Social Darwinism", saying that they put party ahead of country, and declaring President George W. Bush to be "unpatriotic" for ringing up $4 trillion in debt). And Obama has routinely failed to condemn fellow Democrats for demonizing Republicans (for instance, Teamsters' President Jimmy Hoffa's "son of a bitches" remarks about the Tea Party movement at a 2011 Labor Day rally at which Obama also spoke). Again contrary to Saletan's account, Obama has also singled out Republicans in Congress (as opposed to Democrats) for blame on any number of issues. In addition, Saletan is using "extremist" rhetoric (in response to Pence's use of it). Finally, Saletan is accusing Republicans of wanting to treat all Muslims as terrorists. Perhaps there are some Republicans who want this (Saletan should name them), but it's certainly not the case that all of them do. Rather, that's an unfair generalization and a straw man, if not outright demonizing.
"This man is a nihilist and a narcissist and an extremist. … What Obama is saying and doing is the lowest of the low now. He really is not a leader of a great people. He's not a leader of a great nation. He is stuck in his own ideology."-- Pundit Mark Levin, February 5, 2015, responding to President Barack Obama's speech earlier that day at the National Prayer Breakfast.
Comment: First, Levin is indulging in "extremist" and "ideologue" rhetoric. More, however much Levin may disagree with Obama's speech — he warned against denigrating Islam on the basis of recent terror attacks by pointing out the history of violence in Christianity — is Obama really behaving on par with the "lowest of the low"? Obama's speech was as bad as Hitler and the Holocaust? Of course not, so Levin is exaggerating at best, if not just outright demonizing Obama.
Examples from 2013.
Examples from 2012.
"I always use the word "extreme", that's what the caucus instructed me to do the other week. "Extreme cuts" and all these riders. And, uh, [House Speaker John] "Boehner's [R-OH] in a box". But if he supports the Tea Party there's gonna inevitably be a shutdown."-- Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), March 2011, talking to other Democratic senators about how to describe the position of Republicans on budget negotiations.
"I must remind you, Lords, Senators, that extreme patriotism in the defense of freedom is no crime, and let me respectfully remind you that pusillanimity in the pursuit of justice is no virtue in a Roman."-- Roman consul Marcus Tullius Cicero, 63 B.C., during the Catiline (or Catilinarian) conspiracy.
(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)