What is it About Extremes?



What is it about extremes that draw us so irrevocably toward our doom? For four years, we were ruled by a man whose love of power and belief in his own greatness took him, and us, to the verge of insanity. Now we watch Putin pull the world with him toward the same madness, and Putin, unlike Trump, has long since crossed the line into violence. We’re scared, as well we should be. The oceans no longer protect us from attack.

Is power the irresistible attraction? Anyone who has been on an athletic team knows the exultation of winning. Anyone who has marched for a cause knows the same feeling. That is power, and in both cases the euphoria comes from uniting with others as well as from victory. The combination is intoxicating and celebrated. It’s the power to do good—to change laws, to build nations, to win elections—and to do evil—to trample the rights of others, to fire that gun, to go to war.

We seem to long for that euphoria, that sense of power, especially if it is done in the name of A Noble Cause. If a little is good, more is better, and we seem willing to follow that to the edge of derangement. What drives masses of men to conquer their enemies by blowing themselves up? What serves the Fatherland more than exterminating the racially different? We used to believe only crazies somewhere in Africa would commit mass suicide. No longer. America’s neglected working class has come to believe irrational nonsense to the point of attacking the Capitol and with willingness to die for their convictions.


At the extremes, rationality becomes disabled and the way back to normalcy difficult or impossible. We had a friend who had flown with Chennault’s Flying Tigers during World War II. The success of this death-defying group of fighter pilots in downing Japanese planes during the low-point of the war made them heroes with a permanent place in history. But our friend could not readjust to civilian life and became an alcoholic, left school and disappeared. No one talks of war as being intoxicating. It is, and it gives humans the ability to perform acts of greatness beyond their individual power. Coming down from that high has crippled many a soldier.

But the destructiveness of war is old news. The anti-war, liberal side is equally guilty of driving themselves into excess—though on that side it more often appears as absurdity. Applying today’s standards to the American leaders of the past in the name of racial justice is surely an example. As is defunding the police. Outlawing the eating of beef is another. The greatest harm done by such excesses is that it devalues their own cause.

Despite the draw and intoxication of the extremes, Americans have managed to remain moderates through most of their history—until today. What is new is the Internet, which hugely facilitates our ability to find others—fellow writers or woodworkers, fellow diabetics or paraplegics, fellow singles—or gun-lovers. Others who share the loneliness of these hyper-individualistic times. It is capable of giving huge comfort, constructive ways of coping—or affirmation of desires that make us misfits, like molesting children or building bombs. And it is addictive. It satisfies any need we are unwilling or unable to give up. It is both powerful tool and powerful weapon, and like nuclear power before it, we need to understand and cope with its power over our souls.

I don’t know of another technologic change that has reached so deeply into the individual human psyche unless it was the printing press. Humans have found ways to channel the effects of that invention to the positive, and we must do the same for the Internet. I pray someone will discover the way to stop Putin. I hope the economy and the end of the pandemic erode Trump’s base. But even if good fortune and human genius can perform those feats, the attraction of extremes and the boosting power of the Internet are still with us. We need to hold it accountable, but that won’t be enough, either. We need to go back to training citizens in self-government. The power of our reason to talk to our passions. The ability to question what we find out there in space. To judge. To listen to the judgment of others. For sixty years, liberals have celebrated the emotional side of humanity, ignoring its dark dangers and decrying the cold, impersonality of reason. Enough. And to far right conservatives who worship taking care of number one, debunking the legitimacy of everyone else’s condition or complaints—enough also.


One Response to What is it About Extremes?

  1. Patricia Bloom March 23, 2022 at 5:51 pm #

    This really should be submitted to the Huffington Post or the New York Times. A brilliant analysis..

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