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Listening to centrists -- and to the fringe

To defend and expand the 'vital center' of society, it is important to understand what the extremes are saying and doing.

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    A WOMAN SHOUTED SLOGANS DURING A PODEMOS (WE CAN) PARTY MARCH IN MADRID JAN. 31.
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The word of the day – arguably the word of our still young century – is “extremism.” On all sides, mainstream society is being challenged by groups that beg to differ with the prevailing order and want to overturn it quickly and, if necessary, violently. Muslim extremists have shocked the world with their graphic violence. Ultranationalists are a worrisome force in Russia. And as a cover story by Monitor Europe correspondent Sara Miller Llana details, extremists on both the left and right are growing more vocal and attracting more followers in Europe.

 
Meanwhile, in the United States ... well, this is where talking about extremism gets tricky. The farther away from a situation you are, the easier it is to use the term. Extremism is a word centrists use. Centrism tries to be reasonable, to see all points of view and strike a balance. Centrism is usually the best policy, but not always. It is a belief in the status quo, and there are times when the status quo must be challenged. Abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights, environmentalism, and a hundred other causes that become mainstream began at the fringes.

You and I likely consider today’s extremists alarming. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, writing at a time when communism seemed on the march as some extremist movements today seem to be, argued in his book “The Vital Center” that centrism is the “group which [holds] society together” by defending civil liberties, the rule of law, and the democratic determination of political and economic policies. Without the center, civilization falls apart.

Still, the extremes cannot be ignored. In Europe, their voices represent growing concern about economic hardship on the left and the preservation of European culture on the right. It is too easy to dismiss them as socialists or xenophobes. Even if their views don’t predominate, they are at least a warning that the center is not currently including everyone. When the center is healthy, it incorporates the best ideas and best people from the extremes, and civilization moves on.

* * *

On March 1, just days after Islamic State vandals destroyed priceless objects in a museum in Mosul, Iraq, the country reopened its national museum in Baghdad. In the fall of 1990, as storm clouds gathered for the first Gulf War, I visited an earlier version of the National Museum of Iraq. I was one of the only guests that day, probably all that week. The guides gave me a private tour of the human-headed winged lions and other priceless treasures, delighted to show a Westerner around.

Iraq has been mismanaged and manhandled by extremists – despots like Saddam Hussein and death cults like Islamic State – for far too much of its rich history. More than anything, it needs a vital center. Its national museum is one part of that. It is an ark that carries some of the earliest relics of Western civilization. It is a living rebuke to today’s most intolerant extremists. They may be smashing things. They may be barking at us, but our 10,000-year-old caravan moves on.

John Yemma can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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