Iris the radical?

I recently enjoyed the company of one of my Many Tens of Loyal Readers™ over dinner and cocktails. At one point during our wide-ranging conversation, he said to me: “You are a radical.” Not a “radical feminist.” Not a “radical leftist.” Not “a radical atheist and anti-clerical zealot.”

Just… a radical.

I laughed. Not because I found the charge insulting by any means, but because I had never really considered before whether that particular term accurately described my political views. If it did, I would gladly identify as such, and update my professional resume accordingly.

I am not particularly fond of labeling people—especially political animals—because labels necessarily paint with a broad brush and thereby oversimplify exceedingly complex realities. Humans are wildly complex creatures, our priorities are as fluid as they are diverse, and none of us are always perfectly rational—and this may be particularly true in the case of political orientation. But labels do make for useful shorthand, at least sometimes. For example, it can be meaningful to say that someone leans left (or libertarian) on certain issues (e.g. drug legalization, same-sex marriage), and right-wing conservative on others (e.g. abortion, and funding a social safety net). And so, since that pleasant conversation I’ve been wondering whether or not the term “radical” (noun) is an apt description of Your Humble Monarch™.

Readers are strongly cautioned that what follows is an epic, self-righteous, self-indulgent screed: all sound and fury, signifying nothing.


Loyal Readers™ will not be surprised that I approached the question of whether I am a radical methodically, starting with the definition. Unfortunately, Step One did not exactly turn out to be an exercise in clarification. (Wikipedia was of no help at all here: see if you can glean from that page any coherent, consensus definition of a radical.)

We’re pretty much stuck with crap like this:

radical [rad-i-kuhl]

  • a person who holds or follows strong convictions or extreme principles; extremist.
  • a person who advocates fundamental political, economic, and social reforms by direct and often uncompromising methods. Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2013.

Wait a minute. For one thing, “a person who holds or follows strong convictions” applies to nearly everyone I know, from family and friends to run-of-the-mill partisans. Ask any American adult about their views on religion, reproductive rights, Wall Street, taxes, drugs, Fox News, Syria, the Second Amendment, health care, Sarah Palin, affirmative action, Israel, criminal law, feminism, assisted suicide, etc. and I can pretty much guarantee you will discover at least one (and probably more) convictions the person holds strongly. Further, the U.S. Constitution itself is absolutist in much of its language and intent, and surely the major principles embodied therein can be correctly characterized as “strong”—although perhaps not strong enough to survive the bipartisan attacks of the early 21st century. In any case, its framers can accurately be described as radicals under this definition. So I will concede that I am a person who holds strong convictions (else, why blog?). But really, this definition is fairly useless. I may be a radical by this definition, but then, nearly everybody else is, too.

The second part of the definition, “a person who holds or follows … extreme principles; extremist,” is equally useless—not for being too broad but for being too vague. “Extreme” is a relative term. Extreme, relative to what, exactly? I suspect many readers here would view, say, neo-Nazis as extremists. Catholic bishops. Eco-terrorists. Take your pick/fill in the blank: you probably have some idea of an “extremist” in mind.


  • Not even 20 years ago, legalized same-sex marriage seemed all but a pipe dream; now, the feds, the states and the courts are dismantling same-sex marriage prohibitions (due in no small part to advocates bolting from Democrats to Republicans in droves after Dems failed to act). Were same-sex marriage supporters extremists or radicals 20 years ago? Are they today? Likewise, how about their opponents, then and now?
  • It took women’s suffrage advocates almost 150 years to secure for American women their right to vote. At some point were they radicals? At what point did they cease to be radicals? I have similar questions regarding American abolitionists. Were they radicals or extremists? Everywhere, or only in the South?
  • An astonishing number (46%) of my fellow citizens believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old and that some god created humans in their present form around the same time. Are they extremists? Radicals?

If extremism is only a numbers game confined to a particular geographic area and time—that is, if enough people in one place share a view, no matter how demonstrably false it is or how much evil results from holding it—are they by definition not extremists? Because if that is true, then the concept of “extreme” is entirely subjective. I don’t think anyone would disagree that a whole lot of people at almost all times and places fervently believe a whole lot of stupid, wrong and vile shit, consciously or not. We probably all do. So I’m afraid “extreme” (and “extremist”) are far too slippery for our purposes here.

Finally, there is this alternative definition: “a person who advocates fundamental political, economic, and social reforms by direct and often uncompromising methods.” Now this seems somewhat more promising. Let’s see:

“a person” -CHECK.

“who advocates” -CHECK.

“fundamental political, economic, and social reforms.” If you think that a more socialist democracy, i.e., less economic and political inequality, single-payer universal healthcare and advances in social justice for women and minorities, are fundamental reforms, then -CHECK. But we run into the same problems we did with “extreme”: fundamental is equally slippery and subjective. And I would strongly urge you to consider that your judgement on this “fundamental” matter may depend on how far down the right-wing rabbit hole you’ve fallen.

Take a look at these quotes:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
~Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republican President, WWII General

“I believe that there should be a very much heavier progressive tax on very large incomes, a tax which should increase in a very marked fashion for the gigantic incomes.”
~Theodore Roosevelt, Republican President

“The tax which will be paid for the purpose of education is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”
~Thomas Jefferson, Democratic-Republican President, Founding Father, principal author of the Declaration of Independence

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
~Abraham Lincoln, Republican President

“Today’s so-called ‘conservatives’ don’t even know what the word means. They think I’ve turned liberal because I believe a woman has a right to an abortion. That’s a decision that’s up to the pregnant woman, not up to the pope or some do-gooders or the Religious Right. It’s not a conservative issue at all.”
~Barry Goldwater, Republican presidential candidate

“The supreme duty of the Nation is the conservation of human resources through an enlightened measure of social and industrial justice. We pledge ourselves to work unceasingly in State and Nation for … the protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age through the adoption of a system of social insurance adapted to American use.”
~Theodore Roosevelt, Republican President

“The divorce between Church and State ought to be absolute. It ought to be so absolute that no Church property anywhere, in any state or in the nation, should be exempt from equal taxation; for if you exempt the property of any church organization, to that extent you impose a tax upon the whole community.”
~James A. Garfield, Republican President

“While I am a great believer in the free enterprise system and all that it entails, I am an even stronger believer in the right of our people to live in a clean and pollution-free environment.”
~Barry Goldwater, Republican presidential candidate

“As Mankind becomes more liberal, they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protections of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations of justice and liberality.”
~George Washington, first President of the United States, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War and Founding Father

“We establish no religion in this country. We command no worship. We mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are and must remain separate.”
~Ronald Reagan, Republican President

“Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.”
~Ronald Reagan, Republican President

“I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.”
~Oliver Wendell Holmes, Supreme Court Justice (Republican appointee)

“We all agree that neither the Government nor political parties ought to interfere with religious sects. It is equally true that religious sects ought not to interfere with the Government or with political parties. We believe that the cause of good government and the cause of religion suffer by all such interference.”
~Rutherford B. Hayes, Republican President

“We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security.”
~Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republican President, WWII General

There is nothing there that I disagree with. You?

For comparison, and with that context in mind, I posted in the lead up to the 2012 presidential election a (non-exhaustive) list of things a political candidate could do to earn my support:

At the time, I noted:

This is not fringe lefty stuff. I really isn’t. There is nothing here that is not standard, mainstream liberal fare.

Much of it was mainstream Republican fare, for most of our nation’s history.

It sure seems to me that something like the 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall would qualify as a “fundamental” reform. Dismantling the provisions of the 1933 Banking Act enacted in the wake of the crash that led to the Great Depression that separated commercial banking from investment banking predictably led to the 2008 crash, from which much of the world is still reeling (with the exception of America’s Owners, of course)—and the unprecedented taxpayer bailouts that followed. That seems rather…um…hmmm…what’s the word I’m looking for here? Oh right: radical. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a century of settled law in the Citizens United case, granting corporations First Amendment rights and thereby unleashing the floodgates on corporate money in elections. That is radical. The president’s assassination of American citizens without due process: what could possibly be a more radical “fundamental reform” than that?

These are all recent, rapid, fundamental changes, and I want them changed back. Christ, now I sound like a fucking reactionary.

Anyway. Putting aside whether the reforms I support are “fundamental” or not, the final clause in the definition of “radical” that we are working with requires that I advocate for these reforms “by direct and often uncompromising methods.” Do I?

Well, I do strongly advocate voting, especially in primaries. And I strongly advocate supporting lefty candidates, financially or otherwise—again, especially in primaries, and even more especially in primaries against conservative Democratic incumbents. I further advocate not voting for conservative Democrats (including Barack Obama), both as a tactical strategy and on principle. Finally, I advocate peaceful protest and non-violent civil disobedience. There is a long and grand tradition of Americans doing precisely the same, from slavery abolition to women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement to Vietnam war protests, and history has looked back and smiled kindly at every one of them.

I absolutely do not concede that any of these methods are “direct and often uncompromising” in an ostensible democracy. Indeed, citizens have the right (if not the duty) to advocate for and against candidates, platforms, causes and initiatives that they believe are important.

I am not directly advocating for a revolution, although I do believe that one is inevitable if our current trajectory as a country is not significantly altered—politically, economically and socially—and soon. No one can claim to have any idea what will spark it, where or when, and there is a grave risk that things will turn out very, very badly for large swaths of humanity (almost certainly including America’s Owners themselves). I would like to have some influence on the shape it will take, and the way that it will play out. It is my fervent hope that this revolution will be nonviolent, that diverse coalitions will seek and find common cause in restoring our democracy from the ravages of endless war and corporate greed, and that we will not fall prey to the tactics of an elite which seeks to divide and conquer us. To that end, I will do what I can to advocate peaceful protest and civil disobedience, as well as coalition-building with multiple constituencies, including with those whose political perspective is radically (hahaha) different than my own.

But if I change my mind about all of that, and start directly advocating for a revolution, I would still probably eschew the label “radical.”

Instead, I would be a revolutionary.

2 thoughts on “Iris the radical?

  1. Dear Ms Monarch,
    I wish I still lived in NYC because if I did I would invite you out for drinks, a sumptuous dinner and general good time. Your thoughts and positions on the state of things so acutely echos my own that it is uncanny. We are truly fellow travelers. You have the skill and drive to publicly proclaim in a way that I and many do not. Keep up the good work, Iris.

    An old ’60s lefty, fully expecting a revolution.

  2. Dear Ms Lefty,

    It is an honor to make your acquaintance, and I would be fortunate indeed to share drinks, dinner and conversation in New York with such a fellow traveler as yourself. Alas, we must make do with the Palace, where the food and drinks may be virtual, but at least the conversation is as honest and real as I can make it.

    Many thanks for your encouragement,
    -Your Humble Monarch™

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