Extremely put out

Repeatedly called an “extremist” by Democrats during the 1964 Presidential campaign, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) felt the need to channel Marcus Tullius Cicero and remind America, during his acceptance speech as the Republican nominee, that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice;” also that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

In Your Guts...

Perhaps we can assign to the late senator some of the blame for our current besottedness with the “extreme.” What was, in 1964, a slur against one’s judgment and probity is now a superlative precisely as inane as “radical” or “awesome.”

“Extreme” has since become the crypto-representation of all things decisive, potent and exciting. Skiers are shoved aside in lift lines so snowboarders can scuttle forward for another “extreme” stunt.

Nobody wants to be a plain ol’ army doggy anymore. It’s not “extreme” enough. Now we all have to claim we ate off our own toes on a mission with SEAL Team Six.

Dirt biking, once something kids (and grown-ups) did for fun on weekends, has given way to peristyle jump kiddie supercrosses and full-house prep for the X-Games.

A decent cuppa joe doesn’t get it for us anymore. Now we require sugar-lit energy drinks and — on the other extreme — diet concoctions so “extreme” they can drop a football player dead in his tracks.

This is good why?

Let’s think this through for a minute. “Extreme” doesn’t mean something that looks exciting when it shows up on a bright and shiny commercial, backed by a driving bassline. It means behavior or items that are out of the ordinary, close to off the charts (not off the charts — we’re dealing with actual meaning here, dammit), maybe even… beyond the Pale.

Guess what? You ain’t that.

“Extreme” behavior is what happens at the edge of the bell-shaped curve, way out by the points. If you’re “extreme” — in your politics, your sports activities or your personal beverage choice — you don’t have many peers.  Most of us, by definition, hang out somewhere in the fatter part of the curve. The edges are explored by artists and crazies, serial killers and defectives.

Here’s how it works: when the first guy (or maybe it was a gal) decided to hike to the top of a hill so he (or she) could ride a mountain bike bombing down an ungroomed ski slope, that was legitimately extreme.

Mom, look! I'm EXTREME!

When you drive your shiny clean, plushly suspended “downhiller” to Whistler on the rack of a Volvo, ride to the top of the mountain in an enclosed tram, then go shooting down a slope specially prepped for you by people who very much don’t want to be sued, you’re just not that “extreme,” Sport.  What you are is a mainstream quasi-hipster piggy-backing on someone else’s idea of fun.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Real extremists tend to be assholes.

The Tea Party’s critics may think it “extreme,” but it’s not even unusual. Populism and demagoguery are hoary political traditions. When Teabaggers look around their rallies to see a thousand like-minded malcontents, they’re not spearheading “extremism.” Not even “in the defense of liberty.” They’re sharing a piss-warm jacuzzi of co-dependency. Like an AA meeting, if AA participants would submit to the indignity of calling themselves “extreme.”

Sugar & Fizz in the Pursuit of Extremism May be a Vice


Sucking on an energy drink available at every gas station from here to Bulgaria? Revolting, but hardly “extreme.” Please write this down for later reference: that which is popular is not “ex-treme.” It is “main-stream.” We understand that the rhyming nature of the word may confuse folks.

Look, don’t take this too hard. While “extreme” is a word oft-misused by the gullible, that’s actually pretty understandable in light of the feverish way it’s been marketed. Opinion leaders at J. Crew and Red Bull poured major advertising dollars into researching what might have stimulated people half a generation older than you.

Why wouldn’t you go along to get along? I know, anything to get laid… but misconstruing “extreme” is so yesterday. And so damned common.

Allowing the tastemaker panel at an ad agency to dilate your pupils just isn’t “extreme” behavior — unless you find yourself the only wild-eyed one in the room. If everyone else thinks you’re being a jerk, your behavior is authentically extreme.

Poster boy for "extreme"

Who’s truly extreme? People like Kim Jong-Il, Anders Behring Breivik and Johnny Walker Lindh. The extreme are psychopaths, schizophrenics and sociopaths. Being “extreme” never made them cool.  You’re not gonna get to Cool that way, either.

Okay, so grailing for the “extreme” is maybe kinda dumb. So what, mang? It’s just ad copy and childish bravado. Don’t mean nothin’, right?

Yeah, actually it does. Society is driven by prevailing thoughts. Those thoughts can only be articulated by available lexicon. I don’t want to live in an “extreme” society, and neither (unless you’re still puerile enough to long for a black anarchy t-shirt) do you.

Why do Eskimos have 14 words for snow? Because they need to describe their environment accurately. Vocabulary and syntax allow us to communicate, but they also limit our thought. You cannot describe a world you can’t articulate — and you will inevitably describe a world of some sort. You will help to form society in some way, large or small. Build it or break it, but know that the beat of your little butterfly wings will have some effect, somewhere.

There’s an old carpenter’s maxim about visualization. It’s very blunt. “If you can’t draw it, you can’t build it.”

If we can’t describe a reasonable, centrist society based around shared, basic ideals, we don’t deserve — nor will we be able — to live in one.

Why do words matter so much? And why pick on this one?

Extreme: it ain't always pretty.

Because it puts gut reaction ahead of contemplation, and that leads to foolish damage. “Extremism in the defense of liberty” led us straight to the extremely dualistic war prescription, “You’re either for us or against us.”

Timothy McVeigh and Anders Behring Breivik may well have characterized themselves as “extremists in the defense of liberty.” Johnny Walker Lindh and John Allen Muhammed were extremely caught up in the rectitude of their causes.

And their body counts.

Extremists are so compelled by their causes, so wrapped up in themselves, that they can justify doing anything they want to you. To your daughter. To your neighborhood. To your dog.

Armored police SWAT teams employing “extreme” tactics to serve simple warrants are just doing their jobs. In a less “extreme” social mindset, maybe they could just have a detective knock on the door in a sport coat, the way it used to be done. If we showed a little more of that so deftly demonized “moderation in the pursuit of justice,” maybe we wouldn’t bear the extreme costs of incarcerating our fellows at six times the median worldwide rate.

Can you imagine that Americans so extremely suck that we’re six times more criminally minded than the rest of the world? I always thought we were pretty cool — or at least, fairly decent. Of course, we were moderates back when I formed that datedly non-extreme opinion. The right wing of today would kick St. Reagan and Sen. Goldwater to the curb for the collaborative moderates they proved to be.

So, to the late senators (both Roman and U.S.), I would say this: yes, extremism in the defense of your particular vision of liberty is an extremely deadly vice, readily forged into the hammer of a tyrant. Soaring political rhetoric and adrenalized commercials don’t appeal to our ideals; they stroke our seeping glands, much in the way of a zealous preacher or a knowing stripper.

Democrats in 1964 countered Sen. Goldwater’s slogan (“In your heart, you know he’s right”) with, “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” It’s about time we leave our hearts, guts and nuts out of the equation and think things through. The blind extremism of enemies brought down the World Trade Center. The blind extremism of our countrymen leaves us without an operating budget to run our own country.

That doesn’t sound extremely cool to me.

Here’s a thought, not just for “defenders of liberty” but for all of us: try being extremely polite. Treat the people around you decently and with respect, even (and perhaps especially) the ones who aren’t as “extreme” as you. In other words, quit acting out the fantasy of a beer commercial and behave in a way that would make your grandparents proud. They were around (hopefully) long enough to perceive the warp and weft of the world, perhaps to bind up some of its tatters and to quit shredding the fabric around them in their struggle to rise above the pattern.

Then demand the same centrist decency from your leaders, your fellow citizens… even your soft drink producers. Let the rock stars laugh at you for ignoring the extreme. Rock stars die young and ugly.

You can work your way up from there. When you capture that Nobel Prize, I’ll be the first to say I’m extremely proud of you.


  1. When you capture that Nobel Prize, I’ll be the first to say I’m extremely proud of you.

    And when you nab the Nobel for literature, I’m buying the champagne. Because, damn.

    Of *course* it is inextricably a part of the human condition to want to excel. To shoot expert. To stick the triple-ollie. To quaff the quad mocha, munch on the uber-mealbar, and generally kick ass and chew through entire cases of bubblegum. BUT. As you said, most of us are a bit further back on the bell curve.

    You read the lyrics I posted yesterday. I liken all these advertising campaigns, whether for politics or pop, to that same Evil Dude. They’re starting rumors that if you vote for this guy, if you drink that stuff, if you use that anti-stink goop, that babes will flock, money will fall from the sky, and you’ll look like Charles freakin’ Atlas.

    It ain’t that simple. But a sucker is born every minute, and soulless corporations are legally bound to try to separate you from as much of your hard-earned dead presidents as they can.

    F*** that s***. The world is not all “go big or go home.” For every rock star out there wailin’ on an axe, there’s two or three or five guys playing behind him, and anywhere from two to a couple dozen folks offstage shoving boxes, stringing wires, running lights, and swiping credit cards at the merch table. And personally? I *like* being the dude shoving boxes, and standing in the back watching my people making music. I don’t have to make sure my makeup is on right, hope my voice holds, or be “on” for two hours after the show before I go collapse. Yeah, I’m bustin’ my buns from the second the lights go down until the last tailgate is closed, but it’s a good sweat. Honest work. And damn, what a show I helped put on.

    Honest work. America was built on that. We seem to have forgot what that is… not you and I, but as a country. I don’t know how to get’em to … aw, hellyeah, I do.

    It’s that same music. Country, folk, protest songs… not the myth of rock or about half of rap, but gritty songs about gritty people making it – and sometimes screwing up.

    Working on getting you that chord chart, my friend. I’d love to see some of that old music get back out there. We needed it then, and we still do.

  2. Go big Jack. You know you always do. (Comment made completely tongue in cheek.)

    Again you hit the pointy metal thing-a-ma-bob with the doo-hicky, exactly where it needed hitting.

    Good job.

  3. + (extreme – 1)

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