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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Extremism in the Defense of Liberty"

Fifty years ago today, Barry Goldwater accepted the Republican presidential nomination with words that have become extremely controversial:
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
The lines originated with scholar Harry V. Jaffa.  In a 1980 appearance at Rosary College, Jaffa answered a question about how he regarded the wording in hindsight:
I would say "imprudent." I wrote the whole paragraph in which it was encapsulated or incorporated as a memorandum when I was attending the hearings before the Platform Committee in the week before the Republican National Convention. I was with a group of people who were being shepherded around under the auspices of John Rhodes. (We were therefore known as "Rhodes Scholars," and that's the only way I could ever become a Rhodes Scholar.) I wrote that statement, in part, as a repudiation of the critique of extremism that was made by Rockefeller and Scranton witnesses before the committee. Sometimes these things get out of hand. They are like letters you did not intend to send. But they blow out the window and somebody picks them up and they are delivered. And this one was delivered to the Senator, who fell in love with it and ordered that it be incorporated in his Acceptance Speech, which in turn led to my becoming the principal drafter of the speech. And, there it was. It was not my political judgment that the thing be used in the speech at all, although I must say that I was flattered at the time and didn't think too much of what the consequences would be. I couldn't make a political judgment myself because I was isolated from the Convention and had no contact with the political currents on the floor. The Senator liked it because he had been goaded by mean-spirited attacks through the long months of the primaries. Nothing in the political history of the country surpasses in funda­mental indecency the kind of attacks that were made on Goldwater by Nelson Rockefeller and his followers.
Jaffa also explained the meaning of the phrase:
Those are two extremes which one ought, as a good Aristotelian, to avoid. Extremism in defense of liberty is not extremism in defense of extremism. Rather, it is extremism in de­fense of moderation-that moderate regime in which people are not subject to the kind of censoriousness we associate with, say, the city of Geneva at the height of the regime of John Calvin. On the other hand, we don't want to live in Sodom and Gomorrah either.