America needs to stop growth of extremism

Turn on the news and you’re very likely to see it in action. Once mostly confined to reports from other, “less civilized” countries, it now runs unabashedly through our media and politics. It weighs the political establishment down like Justin Tylka trying to carry that massive flag at football games. It is extremism, and it is one of the biggest–and least-challenged–issues in America today. I define today’s extremism as political and social leaders expressing views and ideas that are far removed from that of the majority of people. It is dangerous because if extremist views are respected enough, they can become more accepted in the general populace. Take the recent fury over whether President Obama is a Muslim: figures in politics and media raised the question repeatedly, and before long, polls showed that around 15 to 30 percent of Americans believed that the (Christian) president is indeed a secret Muslim. (That such an accusation is an incriminating one is sad in itself; the charge labels all Muslims as anti-American al-Qaeda operatives.) While the ridiculous claim is not new, its recent support from important, visible leaders, such as Iowa RNC delegate Kim Lehman, has definitely pushed it from extremist to acceptable in the eyes of millions of Americans. The rise of extremism isn’t just hurting us at home, either. Take the recent threat of Florida pastor Terry Jones to hold “Burn a Quran Day.” While the media and the American people largely stood up to condemn the event, its heavy publicization led to widespread coverage of the situation by media in Middle Eastern countries, where their own extremist groups seized the opportunity to skew the story. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Taliban-controlled media institutions portrayed the event as supported by most Americans. Numerous reactionary riots were held in the streets there, with angry citizens burning effigies of Obama and chanting “Death to America.” The extremist actions of a single, insane preacher probably crippled US-Mideast relations more than months of aid could help. Back home, we find a view that doesn’t necessarily fit the above definition but can still be called extremist: the now-popular line among Republican politicians that global climate change is either nothing to worry about or just a complete hoax. Despite findings of “unequivocal” change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (made up of, you know, scientists who actually study climate), two rounds of interviews in the Des Moines Register with Republican primary candidates for Congress, asking their opinion on various issues, included the finding that almost all candidates said to the effect of “there is no evidence whatsoever for global warming.” Not an eye was blinked. As to why making a greener world wouldn’t be positive remains to be figured out, but the fact that it is perfectly acceptable for someone running to represent Iowa in Congress to state opinions that are impossible to back up represents a scary move of extremism to the mainstream. Ignoring “the truth,” whether it is evidence for climate change, the straight facts about what is in the health care reform law (40 percent of those surveyed by the Kaiser Foundation last month still believe that the law sets up bureaucratic ‘death panels’), or the true intention of the Park51 community center in lower Manhattan (I’m tired of repeating its “real name,” fill in the blanks: G____nd Z__o M_____e), allows distorted views to pervade the voting population and fuel the fire. Luckily, there is hope for the quiet moderates who have been largely ignored with the recent wildfire of the Tea Party, coming from an unlikely source. Begun in September by a gallant patriot in the nicer neighborhood of the Internet as a plea for comedian Stephen Colbert to hold a satirical rally in Washington, D.C., a movement grew which has ended up with Colbert’s lesser half, Jon Stewart, holding a “Rally to Restore Sanity” on October 30th on the National Mall. Despite its being held by a comedian and overtly mocking extremist commentator Glenn Beck’s “Rally to Restore Honor,” Stewart’s rally holds an important message, one echoed by the moderate “Coffee Party” political group: the nation needs more civility and factual reasoning in its politics, not just the fear and ambiguity wrought by today’s Spin City. In his announcement of the rally, Stewart spoke of the imbalance in modern political discourse: "We live in troubled times with real people facing very real problems; problems that have real, if imperfect, solutions that I believe 70 to 80 percent of our population could agree to try, and could ultimately live with. Unfortunately, the conversation and process is controlled by the other 15 to 20 percent." It’s time for the majority, those who think clearly and with caution, to speak up, or be drowned out by the angry mobs on either side of them.