Not exactly a foreign policy post, though it overlaps. I have made a point before of knocking rote extremest and complacent ideological thinking. But I never got to the most irritating form of ideological thinking to the trickster: centrism. Let us start with a list.
Famous Moderates/Centrists of History:
Low level Vichy collaborators
British Loyalists in Ireland and America
The Anglican Church
American Indian Boarding Schools
President Bill Clinton
President Andrew Johnson, President John McCain-oh wait
President John Kerry-oh wait, President Joe Lieberman-oh wait
President Hillary Clinton-oh wait (so far)
Pro-democracy Burmese who also love genocide.
Any Saudi monarchs who only hates women and infidels *half* the time.
Any North Korean who does not believe Dear Leader is from celestial lineage upon a mountain top but still believes said Dear Leader to know best.
Syrian rebels. Ha!
What an illustrious intellectual and cultural lineage!
Such are the measly scraps of moderation and centrism contributing to any kind of interesting discourse. Namely, they do the opposite of contribute. This is not to say that it is always wrong to not agree with various wings in an argument. In fact, I greatly encourage it. This is a blog about unorthodox thinking towards the boring and rigid confines of the humanities almost as much as it is about foreign policy issues. I find issues of right and left, authoritarian and libertarian, to be infinitely boring if simply taken straight on face value.
And yet, none of that changes that it is above all the centrists who I reserve the most disdain. If a person has a variety of unorthodox views and you simply appear to be in the center when all of them are averaged together, well, it happens, not your fault. So long as you have reasons for your views and on a case by case basis they remain interesting, it is all good. Take myself. Simply speaking I am a libertarian on social issues, a moderate hybridized socialist on economic issues, conservative but only slightly on second amendment issues, quite radical if open minded on environmental issues, and a realist who (in the US anyway) is closest to the paleoconservative position of foreign affairs. Surely you cannot get more unorthodox than that. These are however part of a world view based on an intense and life-consuming study of world history, and they came about by the very process centrists claim to uphold: critical inquiry. All of these seemingly divergent views of mine only seem bizarrely diverse if you suffer from the disease of rote-thinking that thrives in our neoliberal order-and in so doing assume that the centrism that lurks as the singularity inside our (temporary and situational) system is inherently reasonable. And therefore that only the people in close orbit-the moderates-are rational actors.
This naturally rests upon the assumption that the center is reasonable. But the center of any society, no matter where it lies politically, is a product of circumstance and a quest for legitimacy on behalf of whoever rules a nation. It is the epicenter of uncritically accepting the dictum of one’s rulers with just enough waffling to keep one’s distance from their mistakes. See, it is all well to come to a moderate version of a position through internal and external debate and reconciling different arguments that work for you, but this process should have nothing to do with splitting the difference and equivocating, as if by averaging all points together in a blender and drinking the thin beige gruel that comes out is in any way sensible or original. It is not. An idea from one end of a spectrum might compliment another, but they can also clash. If your default position is to assume they can always be made to compliment, or that that is some glorious ideal, you may have a problem.
Henry Clay made a career out of trying to do this, but it just ensured a coming civil war by delaying an actual struggle long enough that total war became inevitable. The Tokugawa Shogunate, a government I have a lot of respect for that I feel is often maligned by western historians, tried to straddle an awkward line between retrenchment and embracing the foreign world in its final decades. It would have been better to go in whole hog. Even the reactionary (and wrong) position adopted by Satsuma and Choshu domains ended up being a better path in the end than centrism, as to fight against the odds for what they wanted forced them into government and a total reversal of their previous positions. See, it isn’t not so much about right and wrong, but motivation. Centrists motivate no one but themselves…when they talk to each other…about their supposed nuanced superiority.
It is something they share with extreme nationalists and patriots actually. Their country is the center of the world. Their country’s most centrist parties are the center of their country. This is the fountain from which they just so happened to have won the lottery of life to be born into. And with this miracle of being born amongst the elect, they are now more enlightened than everyone else. Through their own will and exertion, of course.
It cannot be a coincidence that protestant majority countries are most attracted to this way of thinking. Indeed, centrism shows its true nature as a die hard fundamentalist position for ideologues-especially lazy ideologues-precisely because its intellectual lineage in any society can be easily traced in whatever country you are looking at’s historical experience. It is, like so many other things, a product of external forces. From geography to ecology to the nature of the political system, the very nature of Sensible Serious Centrism (SSC from here on out) and Meticulous Moderation is simply an excuse not to look too critically at the most mainstream of assumptions which exist. Hell, even stodgy old Edmund Burke at least acknowledged that different societies are marching in different directions, an admission which is too extreme for most theocracies and neoliberal nations to even fathom, believing as they do (sensibly of course) in some linear, rational world order.
I can guarantee you, as a former doctoral student in academia, that whatever their flaws might be, finding a self-declared centrist amongst people who actually have a depth of knowledge in the humanities is like finding an intelligent and articulate statement on policy from Donald Trump. I mean, sure maybe you can find a couple, but they are outliers, and the topic they are focused on is probably stupid or boring anyway.
There is nothing Sensible nor Serious about being a SSC. It is simply being a tool who has reams of psychological validation to bolster their position from the media and whoever rules at the time.
It is only by acknowledging that times change that one can be serious, and it is eminently sensible to see that a present day and geographically situational ethical fad is not some window into an eternal political truth.
So the next time you meet a SSC, play a little game with them. Ask them a series of questions and watch the answers.
What is a centrist in Saudi Arabia?
What was a centrist during the inquisition?
What is a centrist in a genocide-someone who advocates only exterminating half of a minority group instead of all of them?
Does a centrist Khmer Rogue labor camp commander only want racks of jaws rather than entire skulls?
If you are in a western nation, I guarantee you the response will be that centrism only applies to their own country and those like it. A fascinating bit of chauvinism that, so bring up the immense unlikeliness of them being born in said country. Also bring up the divergences in policy between developed countries.
Actual critical thinking can indeed be sensible and serious. But if it is nearing those things we can assume it is not in fact centrist. To actually engage in critical thought one must never be a slave to fashion.