Events over the past week provide a case study in extremism.
In three off-year elections around the country, voters rejected candidates and initiatives that had staked out the most radical positions. In a recall election, Arizona voters tossed out the state’s Senate President Russell Pearce, author of draconian immigration laws. Ohio voters defeated their governor’s harsh anti-union initiatives. And that personhood amendment in Mississippi, which would have granted everything short of a driver’s license to an egg and a sperm, also went down to defeat.
Each loss followed a period of attraction, when voters had seemed to be smitten with these divisive people and their far-out ideas. Extremism is, for lack of a better word, hot — it’s that alluring face and shapely body holding court in the corner of the bar.
But it’s one thing to be turned on, another to date and something else altogether to get married. That truism should help us keep our perspective when extremism comes calling, and help us confront it.
It’s one thing to present a crazy new idea to the world. You get accolades and attention for the purity and boldness of your vision. When people are disillusioned and feel their problems are intractable, you get points just for having a different idea. But, at some point, you have to get people to not just dither, or even fall in love with, your idea, but to actually live with it. They have to experience its downsides and wake up each morning to its lesser attributes. That’s when the honeymoon is over.
“I thought I understood it,” Anna says of her hot-and-heavy romance in the new movie “Like Crazy.” “But I didn’t. I knew the smudgeness of it. The eagerness of it. The idea of it. Of you and me.”
Yes, the smudgeness. The reality-blurring pureness of all-or-nothing, simple positions. We see that happening not just around the country, but around the world. Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain were instant hits until people lived with them for a while. Their utterly simplistic pronouncements, like Cain’s proclamation this week that “a majority of Muslims share the extremist views,” eventually proved a turn-off.
In fact, even in the Middle East, where crazy often plays better, extremism has proven to have a half-life.
In Gaza, dissatisfaction with the ruling Hamas has only grown since the terrorist group took power. Hamas received a popularity bump for getting more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for one Israeli soldier, but the most recent Shikaki polls shows its approval rating still in the 30s.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, religious parties like the Muslim Brotherhood have found they have to either become more moderate or splinter in order to appeal to the mass of voters.
Two weeks ago, we published a brilliant op-ed by Reuven Firestone, a fluent Arabic-speaking professor who has spent years working and traveling in the Middle East.
“The old guard running the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is failing to keep discipline among young members who are creating new break-off parties,” Firestone wrote, “and, as of this writing, the Islamist Tunisian Renaissance Party (called Hizb al-Nahda in Arabic) is negotiating with secular parties to try to form a coalition government as a result of its winning 41 percent of the vote in a fair and democratic election. … Whatever happened to the static, unchanging, ever-rigid iceberg of Islamic backwardness?”
Over breakfast last week in Westwood, I ran Firestone’s thesis by Dr. Marwan Muasher, the former Jordanian Ambassador to Israel who was visiting Los Angeles. He agreed that while progress will not be quick or simple in the Middle East, extremism will now have a harder time gaining a foothold.
“I might be naive, but I don’t think Arabs will accept the replacement of one autocracy by another,” he said.
You can see the same phenomenon at play in Israel’s history. The new book “Sharon: The Life of a Leader,” a biography of Ariel Sharon by his son Gilad, details the former prime minister’s journey from adamantly opposing withdrawal from one inch of the territories to the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
“My father only cared about what he thought was best for Israel’s security,” Gilad Sharon told me during a Nov. 4 conversation at American Jewish University. “That was the reality that mattered.”
Reality matters. When people get a chance to see extremist views in the continuously cold light of reality, they will reject them, given the chance. We fall in love with love, and we are all-too drawn to all extreme, simple emotions and actions —hate, bigotry, violence. But we know, deep down, they can do us in; they can destroy us.
“While from behind, a voice shall sound in your ears,” the prophet Isaiah warned, “ ‘This is the way; walk in it,’ though you would turn to the right or the left.”
Notice that the mavens finally have heeded the prophet: In the past months, columnists David Brooks, Matt Miller, Tom Friedman and others have praised nascent movements, like Americcans Elect 2010, to create a solutions-oriented third party in the United States, as the caf/decaf/full-fat/non-fat/Fox/MSNBC Manichaeism of our current politics has brought this country to its knees. On Monday, I logged on and joined americanselect.org.
The best hope for those of us battling extremism is to reveal the extremists for what they ultimately are — like, crazy — and to create a home in the radical center.
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