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Jensen: I am an extremist, sort of


I am a mild-mannered (a polite term for “boring”) white Christian man, born and raised in North Dakota, who teaches college. But beware — I may be an extremist.

I am not extreme in the way politicians and pundits typically throw the term around these days. I don’t advocate violence to establish a theocracy, and I’m not much of a threat to anyone (except to students on days I drone on too long).

But I hold what are considered extreme political beliefs in today’s mainstream political dialogue, even though the conclusions I’ve reached are not only sensible but strike me as essentially conservative, though not in the way that label gets used today.

I believe that the United States should be held accountable for its past and current violations of international law and basic moral principles. I believe that capitalism is incompatible with democracy and basic moral principles. I believe that the high-energy/high-technology fundamentalism of the modern industrial world is unsustainable and, therefore, unacceptable if we want to live in a world in which basic moral principles are possible.

These political positions are not really extreme; they are measured and cautious, reflecting an essentially conservative view of the world.

On international affairs: A commitment to the rule of law and the international organization that the United States played a central role in constructing, the United Nations, is crucial for building a stable world order. When the United States ignores that law, I believe we should be accountable. Such honesty would help us acknowledge that the current chaos in the Middle East is a direct result of the unlawful U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, along with decades of morally indefensible policies. A conservative position would support a rigorous application of the law to avoid the threat of unchecked power.

On economics: While capitalism is the most productive economic system in history, it also puts extraordinary economic power in the hands of relatively few people. This distorts the equality principle at the heart of democracy, as well as creates social divisions that undermine the dignity principle at the heart of any decent moral system. That’s why, in the world’s richest country, the influence of the wealthy on public policy grows along with the need for homeless shelters and soup kitchens. A conservative position would advocate a distribution of wealth that makes real community possible.

On ecology: Capitalism has been so wildly productive in large part because of the cheap energy available in fossil fuels, which at the start of the Industrial Revolution offered great promise for progress. Drunk on that energy and the short-term materialism it has encouraged, we live now with the dark side of progress — the cascading ecological crises that undermine the ability of the ecosphere to sustain large-scale human life. A conservative position would be to conserve the ecosystems on which our lives depend.

I believe that the cautious, sensible response to these challenges is to recognize that we in the United States don’t own the world, and humans don’t own the earth. This obsession to own should be replaced by a focus on what we owe each other and the larger living world.

We can most effectively oppose the reactionary forces arising in other parts of the world when we hold ourselves to the standards we attempt to impose on others. It’s appropriate to condemn the blatant cruelty of others, but even more important — albeit more difficult — to self-reflect about our failures.

Inevitably we use labels to describe ourselves and others, but we should beware of how labels can derail the careful analysis needed to come to defensible judgments. And I think Barry Goldwater would agree.

This current political terminology got me thinking about the late senator, whose best-known line came from his acceptance speech for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination: “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.”

Because I define “liberty” and “justice” differently than Goldwater did, I rarely agreed with him on policy questions. But it’s hard not to agree with his plea prefacing that famous line, that our politics “not be made fuzzy and futile by unthinking and stupid labels.”

When we can’t tell the truth about ourselves, our political dialogue is bound to be fuzzy and futile, marked by unthinking and stupid labels that replace reasoned argument.

Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas and the author of “Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully.” Email: rjensen@austin.utexas.edu


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