When is Extremism Justified?

It was him they’d come for, not only Jabez Stone. He read it in the glitter of their eyes and in the way the stranger hid his mouth with one hand. And if he fought them with their own weapons, he’d fall into their power; he knew that, thought he couldn’t have told you how. It was his own anger and horror that burned in their eyes; and he’d have to wipe that out or the case was lost.” – The Devil and Daniel Webster, by Stephen Vincent Benet

This excerpt from Stephen Vincent Benet’s masterpiece offers a critical perspective on the nature of extremism. It is altogether justifiable to have an extreme reaction to an extreme problem, but if one descends to the same level of hatred and evil that inspires their oppressors, their fight loses its virtue. But can fate be reasonably expected to deliver a positive outcome merely because the good guys were more eloquent? Daniel Webster knew he could not overcome hatred with hatred, but his ability to persuade a jury of the damned to spare a man’s soul, while a powerful moral fable, is nonetheless fiction.

In the year when The Devil and Daniel Webster was written, 1937, ideological hatred was exploding into violence and war across the world. But unlike in Germany, where an entire population succumbed to the exhortations of a fascist demagogue, in America, the growing extremist militancy was attenuated by the calm leadership of FDR. The point here isn’t to […] Read More