Politics & Policy

“Extremism in Defense of Liberty…”

The Goldwater convention. From the August 4, 1964, issue of National Review.

If it had been anyone else who said it, it would have gone down as a pleasing rhetorical aphorism. But of course, not Goldwater. His famous words at San Francisco might easily have been muttered by Martin Luther King, or Hubert Humphrey, and have won direct passageway to the next edition of “Words To Live By”–but Goldwater does not have the same freedom expression that other people do in this country, because everybody is poised to jump him, and to misconstrue darkly anything he says.

”Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice when they experience the blackness of corroding despair.” “I have been greatly disappointed with the moderates.”

The first of these statements was of course Goldwater’s, denounced in the New York Times as a “jumble of high-sounding contradictions,” and by Governor Rockefeller as “shocking.” The succeeding three, which no verbal taxonomist would distinguish as from a different family, are from a single statement by Martin Luther King, uttered a few months before he was given a hero’s welcome at the White House, and named Man of the Year by Time magazine. Quo licet Jovi, the Romans used to say, non licet Bovi–what the gods can get away with, the swine cannot. Dr. King is a god in our society; Goldwater is a pauper. Talk about second-class citizenship!

A word about the philosophical content of Mr. Goldwater’s apothegm. His words are, concededly, dangerous to live by–because they do not accommodate the necessary distinctions. Notoriously, battle-cries do not. Patrick Henry did not say “Give me liberty–always understanding that liberty consists in a complex accommodation between the individual on the one hand, and the collectivity, plus objective reality on the other–or death!” By “extremism” Goldwater clearly meant “total dedication”–not bomb-throwing by native plastiqueurs, or bloody defiance of oppressive laws. There are, to be sure, occasions for extremism of that kind, as we are forcefully reminded on the fourth day of every July. Brazil saved herself a few months ago by taking extreme action. It is the context that counts, and every man is entitled to his context. In Goldwater’s case, the context leaves him with a free conscience, the conscience of a conservative.

There are two alternatives facing him, the one impractical, the other less so. The first is to inveigh loudly against the polemical opportunism of his enemies, which, as with the episode of defoliation in South Vietnam, deprives him of the freedom of speculative thought and now, as in the matter of the extremist statement, seems to deprive him of his right to theatrical political expression. The other alternative is to yield to reality and recognize, as Mr. Morrie Ryskind once remarked of him, that in his speech and behavior he must make Caesar’s wife look like a whore. We hope he chooses the latter course. We would choose the former, but we were brought up with the rhetorical and dialectical alley cats, and the Senator was not–he was presumably reared for greater purpose–so he had better do the cautious thing.

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