Saturday, October 13, 2012

The wings stabilize the center

kw: sociology, extremism

My father's friend Henry was probably the most brilliant doctor I've known. He was a radiation oncologist who practiced in the 1940s to 1990s. I got to see his "cobalt bomb", which was the state of the art in radiation sources in the late 1950s; I was probably 11. But Henry had a fatal flaw, and I mean this literally. He allowed himself to hate. In my father's opinion, it shortened his life. At the very least, it blighted his waning years. From the day the 2000 Presidential campaign began until his own death, Henry hated George W. Bush. He hated him even after Barack Obama was elected, frequently ranting that all the nation's problems were "Bush's fault." Dad tried to tell him, "Henry, you are saddening yourself without reason. Do you think all your anger bothers Mr. Bush? Not a bit. It just makes you waste your days in fruitless worry and fury."

A few days ago I was at lunch with some people in Washington, and one person mentioned he'd met Sean Hannity. One woman, a prominent scientist, practically jumped, "Oh, now you have ruined my lunch!" A few people snickered, but I saw the mingled fury and disgust on her face. I decided I'd wait for a better opportunity to tell her about Henry. It would be a pity for her to burn her energy in the politics of hate.

If I wanted to, I could hate a few people. Some years ago, I knew Tom Daschle when he was a Senator from South Dakota. A true snake, who believes all the "excess" money should be taken from the rich and spread around (of course, not any of his excess money). Then there is the quite un-Revered Al Sharpton, chief exponent of the politics of revenge. Another Tom, this one Carper, a vicious in-fighter for every cause I detest. I don't know the names of any of the environmentalist wackos who think "humans are the problem" and that animals are superior. Anyone who has a dog knows that dogs know much more about unconditional love than any human, but no dog will ever invent penicillin or the telephone (wired or not). I could almost muster up some hate for those wackos, but I realize they are shortening their own lives with their own hatred of humanity, so I just leave 'em to it.

But we need them. We need wackos of all persuasions. They have the energy, and many are willing to spend their own resources, to ferret out abuses by whatever "other side" they are against. So they tend to keep the rest of us honest (but Congress is beyond even their powers). We need our vocal radicals, and vocal reactionaries, and vocal whatever they may be. It is all part of the political Bell Curve, also called the Gaussian Distribution, discovered by Carl F. Gauss in 1809.

It is an amazing bit of mathematics that so many phenomena really are distributed in this way, symmetrically distributed about an average value, with 68% of cases inside a boundary called "one sigma", and 95% within "two sigma" ("Sigma" is statistician's shorthand for Standard Deviation). Ah, but in political sociology it is that other 5% that I am talking about. Half make up the extreme Left Wing, and half make up the extreme Right Wing. Henry was one of those 2.5% on the far Left, so far Left that he thought centrist GW Bush was equivalent to John Birch or Sean Hannity.

The middle 68% are the Moderates, from mildly Left to mildly Right. Further to the Left and Right, but inside "two sigma", are the Liberal Base and the Conservative Base. I am Conservative, but pretty close to the "one sigma" point on the Right. Two of my brothers are pretty close to the "one sigma" point on the Left. That means we often disagree, but can argue without rancor. My youngest brother, a small business owner, is probably a bit to the Right of me. He once said to me, "I can't afford to be anything but conservative if I want to keep my business afloat."

The political "conversation" in this country has become dominated by people near and beyond the "two sigma" points at either end. These are people who cannot imagine how any opinion of their opposite number could be correct. They do not even allow for Churchill's Maxim: "Even a fool is right once in a while." Fortunately, the "wingers" seldom have what it takes to gain sufficient popularity to be elected to anything. To those who think Ronald Reagan was a Fascist, I place him near "1.5 sigma" on the Right. Fascism is at "three sigma"; Hitler and Mussolini were at or beyond that point. To those who think President Obama is a Socialist, I place him near "1.5 sigma" on the Left. True Socialism is at "three sigma" and beyond; that is where Lenin and Mao were. By the way, Communism is Socialism with cynical leaders.

The United States of America as defined in the Constitution is Centrist. The separation of powers articles contain provisions that keep extremists from getting many of their pet projects approved. The bicameral legislature keeps both populist and elitist elements from dominating for long periods of time. The two-party system that has arisen is actually more stable than the multi-party Parliaments of most European nations, and it provides further balance. The Constitutional Commission of 1787 didn't foresee a two-party system, but I suspect that most of them would grudgingly approve. Even the more, they would approve of the continued power of the First Amendment to allow gadflies of all persuasions to vex and goad the rest of us into noticing abuses that perhaps we'd rather ignore. The examples of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and other totalitarian states shows us the brilliance of a system that has (so far) not allowed the gadflies to get any power, but has not stifled them, either.

Let us rejoice in our gadflies. Let us continue to permit them their forums. When one occasionally draws blood, it shows where something needs to be corrected. That is a good thing.

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