“Extremism,” or The Art of Smearing

by Ayn Rand
From Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
Buy the Book: Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
All Editions
This essay was originally published in the September 1964 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter and later anthologized in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966 and 1967).
Among the many symptoms of today’s moral bankruptcy, the performance of the so-called “moderates” at the Republican National Convention was the climax, at least to date. It was an attempt to institutionalize smears as an instrument of national policy — to raise those smears from the private gutters of yellow journalism to the public summit of a proposed inclusion in a political party platform. The “moderates” were demanding a repudiation of “extremism” without any definition of that term.

Ignoring repeated challenges to define what they meant by “extremism,” substituting vituperation for identification, they kept the debate on the level of concretes and would not name the wider abstractions or principles involved. They poured abuse on a few specific groups and would not disclose the criteria by which these groups had been chosen. The only thing clearly perceivable to the public was a succession of snarling faces and hysterical voices screaming with violent hatred — while denouncing “purveyors of hate” and demanding “tolerance.”

When men feel that strongly about an issue, yet refuse to name it, when they fight savagely for some seemingly incoherent, unintelligible goal — one may be sure that their actual goal would not stand public identification. Let us, therefore, proceed to identify it.

First, observe the peculiar incongruity of the concretes chosen as the objects of the “moderates’” hatred: “the Communist Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and the John Birch Society.” If one attempts to abstract the common attribute, the principle, by which these three groups could be linked together, one finds none — or none more specific than “political group.” Obviously, this is not what the “moderates” had in mind.

The common attribute — the “moderates” would snarl at this point — is “evil.” Okay, what evil? The Communist Party is guilty of the wholesale slaughter of countless millions spread through every continent of the globe. The Ku Klux Klan is guilty of murdering innocent victims by the mob violence of lynchings. What is the John Birch Society guilty of? The only answer elicited from the “moderates” was: “They accused General Eisenhower of being a communist.”

The worst category of crime in which this accusation could be placed is libel. Let us leave aside the fact that libel is what every anti-welfare-statist is chronically subjected to in public discussions. Let us agree that libel is a serious offense and ask only one question: does libel belong to the same category of evil as the actions of the Communist Party and the Ku Klux Klan?

Are we to regard wholesale slaughter, lynch-murders, and libel as equal evils?

If one heard a man declaring: “I am equally opposed to bubonic plague, to throwing acid in people’s faces, and to my mother-in-law’s nagging” — one would conclude that the mother-in-law was the only object of his hatred and that her elimination was his only goal.

If one heard a man declaring: “I am equally opposed to bubonic plague, to throwing acid in people’s faces, and to my mother-in-law’s nagging” — one would conclude that the mother-in-law was the only object of his hatred and that her elimination was his only goal. The same principleA principle is “a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend.” Thus a principle is an abstraction which subsumes a great number of concretes...
The Anatomy of Compromise, 144View Full Lexicon Entry
applies to both examples of the same technique.

No one truly opposed to the Communist Party and the Ku Klux Klan would take their evil so lightly as to equate it with the activities of a futile, befuddled organization whose alleged sin, at worst, might be irresponsible recklessness in making unproved or libelous assertions.

And more: the Communist Party as such is not a campaign issue, neither for the Republicans nor the Democrats nor the electorate at large; virtually everybody is denouncing the Communist Party these days and nobody needs the reassurance of a formal repudiation. The Ku Klux Klan is not a Republican issue or problem; its members, traditionally, are Democrats; for the Republicans to repudiate their vote would be like repudiating the vote of Tammany Hall, which is not theirs to repudiate.

This leaves only the John Birch Society as a real issue for a Republican convention. And it was the real issue — but in a deeper and more devious sense than might appear on the surface.

The real issue was not the John Birch Society as such: that Society was merely an artificial and somewhat unworthy straw man, picked by the “moderates” as a focal point for the intended destruction of much greater and much more important victims.

Observe that everyone at the Republican Convention seemed to understand the implicit purpose behind the issue of “extremism,” but nobody would name it explicitly. The debate was conducted in terms of enormous, undefined “package-deals“Package-dealing” is the fallacy of failing to discriminate crucial differences. It consists of treating together, as parts of a single conceptual whole or “package,” elements which differ essentially in nature, truth-status, importance or value...
The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made, 24View Full Lexicon Entry
” as if words were merely approximations intended to connote an issue no one dared to denote. The result gave the impression of a life-and-death struggle conducted out of focus.

The same atmosphere dominates the public controversy now raging over this issue. People are arguing about “extremism” as if they knew what that word meant, yet no two statements use it in the same sense and no two speakers seem to be talking about the same subject. If there ever was a tower-of-Babel situation, this is surely it. Please note that that is an important part of the issue.

In fact, most people do not know the meaning of the word “extremism”; they merely sense it. They sense that something is being put over on them by some means which they cannot grasp.

In order to understand what is done and how it is being done, let us observe some earlier instances of the same technique.

A large-scale instance, in the 1930s, was the introduction of the word “isolationism” into our political vocabulary. It was a derogatory term, suggesting something evil, and it had no clear, explicit definition. It was used to convey two meanings: one alleged, the other real — and to damn both.

The alleged meaning was defined approximately like this: “Isolationism is the attitude of a person who is interested only in his own country and is not concerned with the rest of the world.” The real meaning was: “Patriotism and national self-interest.”

What, exactly, is “concern with the rest of the world”? Since nobody did or could maintain the position that the state of the world is of no concern to this country, the term “isolationism” was a straw man used to misrepresent the position of those who were concerned with this country’s interests. The concept of patriotism was replaced by the term “isolationism” and vanished from public discussion.

The number of distinguished patriotic leaders smeared, silenced, and eliminated by that tag would be hard to compute. Then, by a gradual, imperceptible process, the real purpose of the tag took over: the concept of “concern” was switched into “selfless concern.” The ultimate result was a view of foreign policy which is wrecking the United States to this day: the suicidal view that our foreign policyWe do need a policy based on long-range principles, i.e., an ideology. But a revision of our foreign policy, from its basic premises on up, is what today’s anti-ideologists dare not contemplate...
The Wreckage of the Consensus, 226View Full Lexicon Entry
must be guided, not by considerations of national self-interest, but by concern for the interests and welfare of the world, that is, of all countries except our own.

In the late 1940s, another newly coined term was shot into our cultural arteries: “McCarthyism.” Again, it was a derogatory term, suggesting some insidious evil, and without any clear definition. Its alleged meaning was: “Unjust accusations, persecutions, and character assassinations of innocent victims.” Its real meaning was: “Anti-communism.”

Senator McCarthy was never proved guilty of those allegations, but the effect of that term was to intimidate and silence public discussions. Any uncompromising denunciation of communism or communists was — and still is — smeared as “McCarthyism.” As a consequence, opposition to and exposés of communist penetration have all but vanished from our intellectual scene. (I must mention that I am not an admirer of Senator McCarthy, but not for the reasons implied in that smear.)

About the Author
Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand
Learn more about Ayn Rand’s life and writings at AynRand.org.