Clint Eastwood recently plunged into the murky political pond with his statement, "Extremism is so easy. You've got your position, and that's it. It doesn't take much thought. And when you go far enough to the right, you meet the same idiots coming around from the left."
What is extremism, and is it easy to hold such a stance? Is the political scale truly circular, so that the "far right" clasps hands with the "far left"? Finally, does the left-right continuum serve as a constructive paradigm upon which society can be structured?
If someone screams, "I am a moderate; we should all be moderates" at the top of his lungs and flails around like a lunatic, would he be considered an extremist? An "inappropriate" display of emotion could be "extreme," even when devoid of "extreme" content.
Today's "extremists" are in good company: Jesus, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Baruch Spinoza all bore this label at one time. Jan De Witt and his brother Cornelius—17th Century Dutch politicians—were hacked to death by the populace, largely due to their "radical" and "unsavory" political perspective. Their crime? They were proponents of democracy. Their body parts were displayed in storefronts all over town.
Who shall we call extreme? The vigilantes who did the lynching? The shopkeepers who showcased the body parts? Or the De Witts with their pro-democracy stance?
Do "extreme" beliefs emanate from a mechanical thought process, as Eastwood suggests, rather than an intense philosophical journey? It arguably requires reflection and hypercritical analysis to defend ones theories against the cloned, echoed and mass produced opinion of the common folk; it requires conviction to risk social ostracism and other forms of retaliation.
The "approved" or popular view is more likely to be perfunctory. Why think when one can plagiarize? Why go out on a limb when one can cling onto the tree or never climb in the first place?
And who are these "far right" and "far left" "idiots" to whom Eastwood refers when he makes his own arguably "extreme" comment? Perhaps he perceives those on the edge as moralistically shrill, as manifesting a tone level of fear and anger. Perhaps this is how the "right" and "left" overlap or come full circle in his mind. But this is a gross generalization, since the "extremes" are subjective and the political continuum fallacious.
The left-right distinction began in France to indicate nothing more than where the political parties sat during Parliament; soldiers were positioned in the center to prevent disagreements from resulting in bloodshed. It has morphed into a Democratic-Republican or liberal-conservative scale.
There is no objective definition for "Democratic," "Republican," "liberal" or "conservative." Real Democrats and Republicans, for example, do not necessarily reside on one particular side of the divide; they move in divergent directions on assorted issues.
In addition, political spectrums vary. One could say, for example, that all governments—democracy, fascism, communism—inhabit the "left" while anarchy or a lack of control rests on the "right." One could argue instead for an up-down continuum with free-market capitalism at the top and communism at the bottom.
Suppose we accept the flawed, but commonly accepted paradigm of a left to right political continuum, as Eastwood offers. If we define the "left" as the group that protects the voiceless, the powerless, and the forgotten, then the natural progression would be to protect the truly voiceless – animals and nature.
Nonhumans are excluded from our political system, without representation. They have no standing in court; yet corporations do. In fact, nonhumans are virtually omitted from the conversation in our anthropocentric and speciesist society.
A move "left" arguably means to move away from Democracy – which is really just a rule by the elite (humans) – to an Omniocracy (which I describe as a government of, by and for all living beings). The European Union has added nonhumans to their Constitution, as have Switzerland and Germany. New Zealand, India and Reggio Emilio, Italy have outlawed using animals in ways we normally think acceptable in the U.S. (boiling lobsters alive, keeping fish in small bowls, vivisection, etc.).
We are trailing behind other nations, but it might be difficult to amend our Constitution in our What's the Matter With Kansas? country at this time. It might be easier to start with certain states. You may be wondering what would stuffing a few extra words in a state Constitution really do. Well, words are a powerful tool and an important start.
Lastly, does this move to the left spit us out on right? Probably. One could argue that traditional "right" politics/economics prompts a gap between the rich and poor, thus culminates in the rule by a few, such as corporations. To implement policies that foster the idea that nonhuman species have value "in and of themselves," a "top down" government or rule by a few (although not corporations) again seems required.
People are self-interested (as are all species) thus cannot be expected to vote against their desires. Legislators, however, are different (or should be) because they attain self-worth from helping others, being fair and inclusive, and consulting the "big picture." Plato got this part of his Republic right in my estimate.
Omniocracy requires abolishing the left-right continuum and forming a new paradigm to balance pragmatic concerns with the needs of all. It would be similar in structure to the representative government upon which we now rely. There will naturally be conflicts of interest between species and individuals; but government's job will be to mediate and arbitrate these "disputes."
We are taught democracy is the most inclusive, just and beneficent political system in the world. It is time to re-evaluate, without letting "extremist" labels scare us. Successful ideas advance through three stages: first ridicule, then discussion, finally adoption. I say we start the discussion to which Eastwood's words have provided a starting point.
The Clint Eastwood quote is posted on Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown's blog
and is taken from Feb 28, 2005 issue of Time Magazine.