Sunday, October 14, 2012

What is the true center?

A quick memo from the Cleveland airport, where we have just learned of the death of Arlen Specter, the former United States Senator from Pennsylvania.  (Ji Jang Bosal.)

A piece in the Washington Post,  written by Paul Kane, opens with this accolade:

Specter, the five-term ex-senator who died Sunday, occupied a space in the Senate that no longer fits the current political environment: raging centrist. From the day he was first sworn in in January 1981, Specter spent his career finding ways to enrage both ends of the ideological spectrum, throwing his always sharp elbows at liberals one month only to do the same to conservatives the next month.
This praise emanates from the school of thought that often says, "You're doing something right if you've pissed off both sides."  I take some small issue with this.  Being in the "center" is not a virtue any more than aiming to be on the "right" or the "left." We make too much of our opinions and preferences -- we turn them into identities, and we then go to war with each over them.  These wars include literal wars.  We partition countries over them.  It's bloody awful and it's absolutely taboo to mention that this arises from confused thinking:  we attach to our opinions, instead of using them to help see the world more clearly.

The people who say, "You're doing something right if you piss off both sides" are often missing something. The point they might be making is that nobody has a monopoly on the truth, yes. And some of them do have the wisdom to see that point.  But this doesn't mean taking turns contradicting either side for the sake of being "balanced."

The only balance is to do our best to see the truth, tell the truth, and act on the truth. None of us get that right all the time, but our job is to try. Not be "in the middle."


Anonymous said...

You describe the passage by Paul Kane as an “accolade,” yet I’ve read it twice now and I can’t figure out how this paragraph constitutes praise. He calls Specter a “raging centrist” who often “enrage[d] both ends of the indeological spectrum.” You’re assuming Kane meant that as a compliment. Yet others might interpret it as a criticism. It all depends on the mindset of the reader. The passage seems to me like a factual description of Specter’s Senate career, neither complimentary nor critical.

Algernon said...

Yes, the paragraph by itself can be read as a criticism rather than an accolade, but in the context of the piece as a whole it is presented as a positive. The article contains a link to the piece.

A main theme in Kane's piece is the courage of being a moderate, in contrast to the more timid politics of pleasing the base ("base" in more than one sense). I read the article again and while I would not describe the article as fawning, it does seem to be choosing this ideology of living in a "center" as one of his strengths. (The headline of the piece, after all, equates him to a principled cartoon here.)