I disagree with Hightower.

What you will find here is: a centrist's view of current events;
a collection of thoughts, arguments, and observations
that I have found appealing and/or amusing over the years;
and, if you choose, your civil contributions which will make it into a conversation.

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Friday, June 1, 2012

How Can the Center Be Found—and Will it Hold?

            Yellowarmadillos is dedicated to the proposition that a political center can be found and that such a center can bring great social and economic benefits (not the least of which is that we can avoid disaster) to our society, nation, and perhaps even, by implication, to the rest of the world. 

            This note is an attempt to test that proposition. A famous Roman thinker (probably Cicero) once said that virtus stat in medio (“virtue is found in the middle”)--with the dead armadillos I presume.  Is this true?  Many of us, and not just me and the founder of this blog, would like it to be.  It seems so sensible that virtue should not be found on the extreme ends of any spectrum, philosophical or political.  Further, shouldn’t virtue be more or less equivalent with truth or even Truth of the ultimate sort that religions and religious seekers pursue? I may be stepping on a host of philosophic toes by equating these two, but I will beg your indulgence to continue in this existential vein. Besides, unless we are followers of Machiavelli, we wouldn’t want to equate virtue with dishonesty or untruth, would we?

            Yet history might give us reason to wonder about the possibility and value of being a centrist—and some of the statements made recently on this blog also muddy the waters surrounding political centrism. Perhaps we need to ask some questions. Is my center the same as yours?  Is there an essential place to stand in the center or does it the center shift with time, issues, and personalities?  Most Americans, for example, would agree that Martin Luther King pursued justice and truth? Was he a centrist?  What would a centrist do in Nazi Germany, especially after 1938?  Are there some situations where truth is not to be found in the middle?

            To say this—to question the value of centrism—is to locate ourselves in the mainstream of Western thought.  It was Aristotle who said that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time.  His thinking was, generally speaking, of the “either-or” variety and this is has remained the primary way of approaching problems in Western history. Indeed, it helps explain the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, the 18th century Enlightenment (which stressed rationality over emotion and “superstition”), and the Industrial Revolution.  Eastern thinking in India and Chinese are more given to “both-and” ways of coming at truth, a path that has earned them much credit for their spiritual insights, but left them at the mercy of Europe and the United States in science and technology—until recently at least.

            Perhaps it is because of the limitations we now see in Western thinking and ways of living, in the damage our lifestyles have done to the planet, our arrogant assumptions that we deserve far more than our share of planetary resources, that makes some of us see the value of a return to the center, both in a political and socio-economic as well as in a spiritual sense?

            When I was young, we had a teeter-totter and quickly learned that it was impossible to keep the board horizontal unless we had equal weights on each end. Maybe we can learn something about the political center from this device.  Can we find the center without having some weight on each side, that is, some folks on each side who want there to be a center?  Do we have that today in this country?  If not, what should we do? It is almost as if, instead of the pendulum (to now mix metaphors) that travels from one side to the other and then back, we have two pendulums, each coming from a different direction and destined to clash in the middle. Surely that wouldn’t be a good thing, or would it? After the destruction, we might go back to a single swinging pendulum?

However, we are not living in a mechanical world in which teeter-totters can be built to balance, but in an unbalanced human one in which neither virtue nor truth can always be found in the middle.  It might be there on occasion, but only if there are forces that seek balance. And at times, that balance, that truth, may be found somewhere else—on one side or the other, even (and likely) in the midst of error. As a friend once said: “You can find the best things in the strangest places.”


  1. My first thought in response to KW's post is:

    "Well sure, you can find tricky arguments against anything." (Thank you, Tommy Smothers.)

    If I can, I will do better shortly.

  2. Aristotle (“a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time”) had obviously never heard of Schrödinger's cat.

  3. Not surprisingly, I will go on record as agreeing with KW's thesis. It seems to me that virtue can be found in the center, but is not exclusive to the center. It may be found anywhere along the continuum.

    I am taking a cue from the President and "evolving on this issue".

    I keep thinking of this "center" as a kind of mathematical center equally distant from the left and right extremes. And if that were the case, how far from the center, and by what measurement, are you allowed to wander before you are no longer in the center (i.e., how wide is the center)?

    But, maybe I am misundertanding and the concept is not about mathematics or measurements, but about being willing to admit that there can be virtue on either side of the center. If that is the case then I think KW is saying the same thing.

  4. Great post KW, very thought-provoking! I think I basically agree with you, but I'm still sorting that out.

    Here's my take, which is surely an idiosyncratic understanding of the semantics and probably too general to mean much: It seems to me that "centrism" is not so much a location on some continuum of positions as it is an approach to understanding social/political issues.

    To me, a centrist mindset is rooted in humanistically-informed reasoning rather than ideological affiliation. In that sense the centrist is not especially motivated by appeasement, consensus, finding middle ground, etc. The middle of the road for the centrist is really a middle way of recognizing reflexive ideological attachments (in oneself or others) and exchanging them for mindful understanding. (OK, I'm pretty sure that last part was from an episode of the old 1970's TV show Kung Fu.) Of course, this is not to say that two centrists will automatically agree on everything, but they have a fair chance of really understanding where the other is coming from and, you know, gettin' along.

    I do think that MLK was, in this sense, a centrist, and likewise the German anti-Nazi Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Their mindfulness was not some mere mental exercise -- for them, it meant martyrdom.

    What's sometimes called "hyper-partisanship" has much to do with what seems to me to be a real crisis in national governance, a crisis that could lead to our undoing. Those who play the game of national politics on strictly ideological grounds are not (necessarily) rascals, because the rules of the game seem to incentivize this strategy. As the kids would say, "Don't hate the player, hate the game."

    Centrism seems particularly important right now because it can serve as an antidote to some of the ill-effects of hyper-partisanship. My hope is that more centrist-oriented dialogue -- like we're having right here on yellowarmadillos! -- might help neutralize the kind of paralyzing partisanship we seem to be experiencing but still retain the "weight on each side" (as KW put it) that so valuably contributes to collective wisdom. Such dialogue might also contribute to a culture where people are more willing to examine the game rather than the players and consider instituting some structural changes (open primaries? reform in redistricting? revising the filibuster in the Senate? etc) that might circumscribe hyper-partisanship. Without some movement in these directions, it's hard for me to imagine us being successful in managing some of our most serious and long-term national problems.

  5. I am getting close to a general statement, but I did want to answer some of KW’s questions.

    Is my center the same as yours?
    I don't think that the center is observer-dependent. We could disagree about where it is in a given situation. As Bruce has noted, a lot of people who are not in the center think they are. Also, some people could have ulterior motives for their claims of what the center is (duh). Right now it is fashionable to claim the center. That is because the BP(body politic) is so fractured and everyone is so sick of partisanship that both sides would like to convince you that it is the other side that is the extremist one.

    Is there an essential place to stand in the center or does it the center shift with time, issues, and personalities?
    The center shifts as the BP (body politic) shifts. If the center is (roughly though not necessarily) the geometric center, then it has to shift as the BP shifts.

    Most Americans, for example, would agree that Martin Luther King pursued justice and truth? Was he a centrist?
    Not at the time. His positions then are center/ left now.
    The abolitionists were far left in 1850. That position is universal now.

    Are there some situations where truth is not to be found in the middle?
    Yes. (See examples above.) For another example, try Jackson’s defiance of the SC decision about the Cherokees. That was a pretty centrist position at the time (I’ll defer to a historian if I am wr-wr-wrong.) It is off the charts on the right now.

    In revolutionary situations or with tyrannical regimes I do not believe that the notion of centrist is very meaningful. It seems similar to lifeboat ethics. What would a centrist do in the French Revolution or if he had been in the Senate the day they murdered Caesar? So for the last question:

    What would a centrist do in Nazi Germany?
    Get the hell out.