Recently in Texas we had some elections, and I was very interested in the smears politicians hurled at each other. The worst thing a politician can be called here is a “Washington Insider” as the Federal Government obviously represents nothing but waste, incompetence, cronyism and assaults on freedom. Some of this contempt is undoubtedly deserved, but it’s not as if the Feds are entirely awful. For instance, Washington runs the military, which most Texans support very strongly.
Another common insult - “moderate”- is more intriguing. It’s best uttered with a knowing sneer, as if the accused is concealing a foul perversion. Now you might think that moderation is a good thing - not too radical or partisan, willing to change positions when presented with evidence. But in Texas, to be a moderate is BAD.
So is the opposite - “extremist”- good? Nope. In Texas, the opposite of “moderate” is “conservative”; a moderate is therefore a phony conservative; a donkey in elephant’s clothing; a fifth columnist waiting to sell out to the Feds!
But it’s not only in Texas that “moderate” is acquiring confusing new meanings. Politicians and media types abuse the word all the time, particularly when talking about the Middle East.
Trust me, he's just like Gandhi.
I first noticed this when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected prime minister of Turkey. Suddenly journalists were tossing around the new collocation “moderate Islamist.” Optimistic analysts declared that Turkey would demonstrate how to reconcile faith and tradition with Western-style democracy. Indeed, in 2009 President Obama held Turkey up as an exemplar of awesomeness, declaring that under Erdogan the country had become:
“…a modern nation state that respects democracy, respects the rule of law and is striving toward a modern economy."
All well and good, but I remembered reading that Mr. Erdogan had once compared democracy to a streetcar - "You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off." For a long period in his career he also refused to shake women by the hand, which is not liberal, or moderate, or even groovy. But Turkey is a complex country so I suspended judgment, even as lots of military men were subjected to what sure do look like show trials to me!
Then last week I read that the Turkish pianist Fazil Say had been charged with “publicly insulting religious values” after making some mildly irreverent gags about the Islamic Paradise and the call to prayer on Twitter. The penalty? Eighteen months in jail. That’s not moderate at all, unless your frame of reference is Saudi Arabia, Iran or Afghanistan.
The media and politicians have also assured us that the Islamist Ennahda party which leads Tunisia’s government is moderate. And indeed, Ennahda declined to enshrine Sharia law in the country’s new constitution, which is a genuinely moderate thing to do. On the other hand, this January a Tunis TV station broadcast the French cartoon Persepolis, which briefly depicts Allah as an old chap with a beard, and the local Salafists went wild, smashing things and issuing threats. Shortly thereafter, a newspaper editor published a picture of a German-Tunisian soccer player with his hands over his girlfriend’s boobies. Once again, the Salafists erupted in fury - and not because they couldn’t see her nipples.
The TV boss and newspaper editor were then put on trial and fined. A system that sides with angry fanatics who hate cartoons and boobies you can’t even see properly is not moderate - unless your frame of reference is Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan.
Which brings us to Egypt and its infinitely depressing revolution, which was supposedly going to result in a liberal democracy run by “Facebook kids” until the patently radical Muslim Brotherhood asserted itself. But not to worry, for Mr. Obama’s own intelligence chief James Clapper declared that the “moderate” MB was also “largely secular”- a statement of cosmic ignorance that shall surely resonate through the ages. The story is still unfolding of course, but over 30 percent of Egyptian voters abandoned the religious parties between the parliamentary and presidential elections, suggesting that they’re not that convinced by all this “moderate” malarkey either.
None of this is new. Members of the Carter administration variously described the Ayatollah Khomeini as “a saint,” “Gandhi-like” and a man of “impeccable integrity and honesty.” We all saw how that worked out; so why the obfuscation and gibberish today? Partly it’s diplomacy - governments have to do business with regimes they don’t like all the time. But I also think it’s a projection of desire - it’s what politicians and journalists would like to be true, combined with a natural human reluctance to face the ugly, difficult choices that lie in store for us.