Applauding the extreme

A thoughtful E.J. Dionne editorial this weekend lauds Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Obviously, that’s nothing new – outside of Klansmen and contrarians,  there aren’t a lot of people writing anti-MLK op eds.  What’s striking about Dionne’s piece is that it points out King’s radicalism:

This focus on calling out injustice — pointedly, heatedly, sometimes angrily — is what the people of King’s time, friend and foe alike, heard. It made many moderates (and so-called moderates) decidedly uncomfortable.

Anyone tempted to sanitize King into a go-along sort of guy should read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” from April 1963. It’s a sharp rebuke to a group of white ministers who criticized him as an outsider causing trouble and wanted him to back off his militancy…  And recall King’s response to being accused of extremism. Though “initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist,” he wrote, “as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.” Jesus, he said, was called “an extremist for love,” and Amos “an extremist for justice.” The issue was: “Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

For a shorter version of that last quote, thumb over to Barry Goldwater‘s page in Bartlett’s: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

In fact, Dionne’s characterization of King invites comparison to the coverage of the movement for smaller government.  (To his credit, Dionne has shown he recognizes this parallel to a degree; he’s one of the few left-leaning columnists able to discern the tea party from Republican politics.)

It deserves mentioning that there are plenty of differences: Tea party rallies aren’t being broken up with fire hoses, rubber (or real) bullets, tear gas, or the releasing of any hounds.  King and his allies risked life and limb to make a stand for their big idea.

But they did have that big idea, and believed in it so much that compromise was unacceptable.  People were either equal, or they weren’t; they were either allowed to attend the same schools and drink from the same water fountains, or they weren’t.

With that in mind, let’s look at our policy landscape here in 2011.  There’s a snowballing debt thanks to a governing culture that allows government to spend lavishly to help build a society and direct an economy.  The debt puts at risk the stability of our currency and by extension things like houses and other long-term investments.  More important, the services financed by that debt are generally sub-par and fail to accomplish intended goals.

Either that governing culture changes – reigning in spending, allowing people to make their own decisions about health care and retirement, and eliminating waste – or it doesn’t.

The casualties of this movement include moderate and Washington-centric politicians – such as Mike Castle and Bob Bennett in 2010.  It makes “moderates and so-called moderates” (to borrow Dionne’s term) like Sen. Orrin Hatch uncomfortable.

But if you believe strongly that the government was biting off more than it could chew to deliver failing policies, and that the promises of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and other public assistance programs are a bad check which will be sent back marked “insufficient funds,” you should be fighting.  And supposed allies who favor a “wait-and-see” approach while continuing to conduct the business of government the same way it has been conducted for 80 years aren’t really allies.

That isn’t “extremism,” it’s political advocacy – and as observers from King to Dionne have understood, it’s how policy making works.

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