Episode 72: Portrait of a Right-Wing Extremist
This is a special edition of “Consider This!” I wrote an essay back in 1996, when the label “right-wing extremist” was being slapped on anyone who leaned conservative. With a few edits, this essay still has something to say to us today. See if you can figure out who this “right-wing extremist” is or was, and consider how his or her view may be more “mainstreamist” than you think. (No fair reading the show transcript below before listening to the episode.)
Original 1996 essay, “Portrait of a Right-Wing Extremist” (includes footnotes)
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[Note: Not all of this made it into the episode. Hey, I still tried to keep to my 10 minute time limit.
This is a version of the original essay updated for today. The link above is the original, with footnotes.]
In the 1988 Presidential campaign, Michael Dukakis noted that George Bush seemed to make the word “liberal” a dirty word. Dukakis was, in Bush’s words, “a card-carrying member of the ACLU”. In these days of the Clinton presidency, liberals have taken to crafting their own dirty word, or phrase in this case, for conservatives. Apparently, too many people, to different degrees, consider themselves conservatives for liberals to simply give “conservative” bad connotations, so they’ve coined the phrase “right-wing extremist”. Now, that may sound like they’re only describing the very fringe of society, but in practice they use this moniker on conservatives as a whole. In doing this, they are dishonest with the American people, since their words refer to a fringe, but they use those words against the entire spectrum of people who disagree with them.
This over- and mis-use of the word “extremist” dilutes its meaning, much like the definition of the word “starve” was diluted by Democrats during the school lunch debate. So to put things into perspective, I’d like to paint a portrait of a person who, by this watered-down definition, would probably be considered a “right-wing extremist”, and I’d like you to see if you can figure out who it is. This is a real person who wrote a public letter that was both published and read in the House of Representatives. This letter defined his beliefs on a host of issues. I’ll enumerate those issues, and see for yourself if they don’t match what liberals these days are decrying as “right-wing extremism”.
In this letter, this person stressed that the name “American” is what we should all primarily identify with, rather than with any other sort of geographical identity. This was in reference to American geography (e.g. Southerner, etc.), but since we are mostly sons and daughters of immigrants, where our ancestors came from is even more removed from us than where we currently hail from. Therefore, to him, it sounds like we should consider ourselves “American” first, and then perhaps by the national origin of our lineage. In fact, he pointed out that compartmentalizing people in this manner serves only to split us apart by making it appear that there are substantial differences among us when there may not be.
Liberals seem to be putting down patriotism and nationalism these days. This person said that the love of freedom would preserve our country, and that the love of our country would preserve our freedom.
Classic Conservatism looks to the past for aid in making decisions in the present that will enhance the future. This is because knowing how well certain institutions fared over the centuries can give us a bearing on what works and what doesn’t. Also, since traditions are refined over the course of generations, they, too, can be called upon for guidance. Liberals tend to make decisions based on what ought to work in theory. This writer cautioned against allowing the “spirit of innovation” to affect the principles this country was founded upon, and that time, habit and experience are the best ways to determine policy, and that hypothesis and opinion subject a government and its citizens to perpetual change due to the sheer volume of hypotheses and opinions.
He called for each branch of the government to restrict itself to it constitutional spheres. I wonder how this rather obvious sentiment has been lost. States are petitioning the federal government that they be given their constitutional rights, and that Washington stay within its confines. Smaller government would go a long way to resolve this, though the writer did not express this.
In a tone often branded as belonging to the “Religious Right”, our writer dared to say that religion and morality are required for our country’s political prosperity. In fact, he questioned the very patriotism of anyone who would undermine these values that are essential for human happiness. He said that both the politician and the priest should respect them. He questioned whether our life, our property, or our reputation is at all secure if religious obligation is removed from the criminal system.
Further, our writer declared that neither individual nor national morality can exist outside of religion, in spite of the best efforts of education. He stated that this morality is the foundation of a government by the people–of any free government–and that anyone who tries to alter that foundation is no friend of free government.
This spills over into foreign policy as well. The letter went on with a call to the cultivation of peace with all nations because religion and morality, let alone good policy, require it. He said that America should give mankind an example of a country guided by an “exalted justice”. He goes on to suggest that God would repay the virtue of a country with stability, but that the country’s vices would make that stability impossible.
Finally, with respect to monetary concerns, this person called for a balanced budget, but with provision for a small amount of debt. He said that we should not burden posterity with things that we ourselves should bear.
OK, there you have it. It was a rather long letter, and this analysis doesn’t do it justice at all. However, these issues I’ve picked out of it show that the writer, on balance, certainly put him in the same company with those the liberals call “extremists”. His views on religion’s and morality’s roles in government ally him with the so-called “Religious Right”. When the Republicans tried to make government make the hard choices to balance the budget, they were called “extreme”. People resisting multi-culturalism in favor of the American culture get labeled that way by the Outcome-Based Education crowd. And our writer’s allowance for religious influence in foreign policy would get the “separation of church and state” crowd in a tizzy.
So who is he? Is he a Republican? No. Is this some sort of Limbaugh-esque turnabout, like when Rush showed how a Democrat, John F. Kennedy, called for lower tax rates in order to raise revenues? No, our man is not a Democrat, either. A Libertarian then? Nope. In fact, he had no party affiliation whatsoever.
Our mystery man is–or rather, was–President George Washington, and these points are gleaned from his farewell address which was published 200 years ago on September 19, 1796 and read to the House of Representatives. You can see the actual letter and read the full text at earlyamerica.com. It has a lot to say to conservative and liberal alike, and it needs to be read with an understanding of its historical context. Nevertheless, if this glimpse into the mind of one of the most outstanding of our founding fathers leaves you trying to make excuses for what he said, or discounting his opinions out of hand, then perhaps you don’t really understand the real foundation of this country.
One of the most notable things, to me at least, that he says is, “With slight shades of difference, you have the same Religion, Manners, Habits, and Political Principles.” This, then, was in general a Christian nation when it was founded, according to Washington, who played a major role in that founding, from the battlefield to the Presidency. If anyone of the founding fathers had the knowledge of what the common man thought and felt, it was George Washington. This is not to say that we as a nation should ignore, repress or persecute any religion other than Christianity, but it does show that those who believe that all religious influence in government, especially Christianity, should be removed would do well to realize that Christianity itself was, in fact, one of the primary reasons this country became as great as it did. Washington certainly gave Christianity that credit.
Was George Washington a right-wing extremist? I don’t think so. He was a mainstream-ist. “With slight shades of difference” his views were those that made this country great, prosperous and free. That is precisely why liberals have to scare people away from those views by calling them “extreme”. If you have any respect for the founding fathers, I urge you to read the full contents of the letter, face the truth (if you don’t already) that these views are directly responsible for the success of the “American Experiment”, and ask yourself which candidate for any political office best puts these views into action.