No Country for Moderation

Oh boy, it’s getting harder to write about this election. As I mentioned last night, I have a pretty good sense of how this Supreme Court fiasco is going to play out. I guess I’m being a bit too confident that, once the Republicans have a clear Supreme Court majority in place, they won’t use it to outright steal the Presidential race. I shouldn’t discount the possibility. Theres’s a great deal of desperation in the air right now.

Rick Perlstein, who has written a series of history books about the modern Republican Party and conservative movement, had a very striking Tweet this morning about Joe Biden’s speech yesterday regarding the Supreme Court. Perlstein wrote:

It’s so patronizing and counterproductive for Joe Biden to implore Republicans to “follow your conscience,” as if they’re not already — as if they don’t sincerely believe liberalism will lead to the ruin of civilization, and that conscience dictates giving it no safe habor.

He added later:

“If conservatives really sit down and think about it, they’ll agree with me” is not respectful to conservatives. It’s insulting to conservatives. Want conservatives’ respect? Fight with every fiber of your being to defeat them.

Perlstein is very much a man of the left, so what he writes here should not be taken as advocacy for the Republican position, just a clear interpretation of their actions and motives. This is where we are as a country in this moment and I hope Joe Biden understands that. We’re in a fight for the heart and soul of this country and there’s no reasoning it away.

This highly immoderate time provides me an opportunity to bring, guess who, Michel de Montaigne back to the discussion. It’s been awhile. Both on the blog this year and in my old Montaigne project, I’ve written quite a bit about Montaigne and his views of moderation. This essay is probably the most extensive and in it I write quite a bit about how Montaigne’s pitch for moderation in all things isn’t terribly persuasive.

Earlier this year, I also blogged about Montaigne’s view that the edges of life should be avoided, or as the Jungians might say, we shouldn’t overidentify with the archetypes that might drive us towards more extreme action. In Montaigne’s view:

You can indeed, using artifice rather than nature, make your journey more easily along the margins, where the edges serve as a limit and a guide, rather than take the wide and unhedged Middle Way; but it is also less noble, less commendable. Greatness of soul consists not so much in striving upwards and forwards as in knowing how to find one’s place and draw the line. Whatever is adequate it regards as ample; it shows its sublime quality by preferring the moderate to the outstanding.

This seems to be the path that Joe Biden is staking out now. Don’t try to strive upwards and forward (isn’t that the very definition of being a progressive?), take the wide Middle Way. Be noble. Be sublimely adequate.

I admit that there is some appeal to this philosophy for me, I’m not a terribly extreme person and get very anxious when I see the guard rails come off society. However, there are times when a leader needs to step out of his personal comfort zone and stand up for the people who have placed their trust in him.

Montaigne had a special fear for those frenzied times when people seemed to get out of control. Here’s what he said about one such historical incident:

There have been fantastical and baseless humours which have driven not only individual men but whole peoples to do away with themselves. I have already cited some examples; we can read in addition of those maidens of Miletus who conspired in their frenzy to hang themselves one after another until the magistrates considered the matter and commanded that any found hanging should be dragged by the same rope naked through the city.

This horrific story that Montaigne recounts is from Plutarch, in his essay “On The Bravery of Women.” Here it is in full:

Once upon a time a dire and strange trouble took possession of the young women in Miletus for some unknown cause. The most popular conjecture was that the air had acquired a distracting and infectious constitution, and that this operated to produced in them an alteration and derangement of mind. At any rate, a yearning for death and an insane impulse toward hanging suddenly fell upon all of them, and many managed to steal away and hang themselves. Arguments and tears of parents and comforting words of friends availed nothing, but they circumvented every device and cunning effort of their watchers in making away with themselves. The malady seemed to be of divine origin and beyond human help, until, on the advice of a man of sense, an ordinance was proposed that the women who hanged themselves should be carried naked through the market-place to their burial. And when this ordinance was passed it not only checked, but stopped completely, the young women from killing themselves. Plainly a high testimony to natural goodness and virtue is the desire to guard against ill repute, and the fact that the women who had no deterrent sense of shame when facing the most terrible of all things in the world, death and pain, yet could not abide nor bear the thought of disgrace which would come after death.

I am pretty certain that if this same affliction had led young men to commit suicide en masse, the people of Miletus would have searched far and wide for a root cause to the event and solved it rather than coming up with a way to shame girls into social compliance. This story should scare the hell out of everyone, because this is where we are heading culturally. When the time comes to “restore order” amid the chaos, it will not be in the form of solving problems that lead to the chaos. It will come in the form of a boot to the neck.

Replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court before the election is held — potentially naming a replacement before she’s even buried — is nothing more subtle than dragging the dead, naked bodies of women through the streets. It’s a way of Republicans saying “oh, we’ll solve the chaos and disorder problem all right … we’ll give you no more dignity in death than you deserve in life.” There’s no moderate way to respond to this. You either surrender to it or fight for your life.