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Centrism is an activity

Notecards saying "democracy," "citizens" and "action"
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Anderson edited "Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework" (Springer, 2014), has taught at five universities and ran for the Democratic nomination for a Maryland congressional seat in 2016.

I was motivated to write recently about an insight into the concept of political "centrism," as it relates to politics in the Middle East, the United States or anywhere. One of my areas of speciality has always been creating frameworks for understanding disputes between rival camps, and it occurred to me that the old comparison/contrast charts of left, right and center are misleading. That's because they purport, incorrectly, to be comparing and contrasting three different takes on political perspective.

The centrist, like the person trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, must be engaged in an activity, indeed a struggle. The purists are engaged in a struggle too, but they are not struggling to understand each other or what they should believe. They know what they believe and don't really care that much what the other side thinks and feels. Their struggle may actually become a struggle to the death since they may ultimately engage in violence in an effort to resolve their conflict. Victory would be their objective, not compromise.

In American politics, the struggle may be one to advance your candidacy or a political agenda in a system that basically favors two parties and the loudest voices in each party. Or you may be on one of these two sides.

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The ambitious centrist in American politics — or what I have called the "sentrist" — is engaged in a struggle of understanding and reconstruction. Thus it is misleading to contrast the centrists with the purists in terms of what they believe and hold to be important. That characterizes the life of the centrist in terms of who and what the opposing camps are, presenting a biased account of what it means to be in the middle.

The leading 20th century Western philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein maintained that philosophy was not a doctrine, as most philosophers in the West always took it to be, but an activity. Descartes, Hume and Kant, tradition says, have rival views of knowledge and reality — epistemology and metaphysics. They do have different methodologies as well as different doctrines, yet their philosophy is driven by the goal to arrive at general theories.

Wittgenstein held, especially in his later work, that philosophers had to practice their trade on a regular basis, analyzing the use of language as it concerns meaning, knowledge, value, existence — most everything. There are no general theories of knowledge or reality or ethics to be justified, no doctrines to be articulated with great clarity and certainty. We must, Wittgenstein insisted, overcome our "craving for generality." Instead, we must accept the fact that there is only case-by-case analysis and interpretation based on our understanding of the many faceted ways that language is actually used in the real world.

In the context of political battles, the centrist is also always engaged in an activity, namely the activity of finding a middle ground, a common ground, that can hold the body politic together. The centrist must overcome the cognitive and emotional conflicts between the opposing sides to reach a state of justice and peace. This is not a static place. Rather, it is an evolving social situation which keeps the opposing tensions not only in check but working with each other in a dynamic way.

All political parties, politicians and political movements are always engaged in activities, as opposed to political philosophers who, Wittgenstein's thoughts to one side, are engaged in thinking, research and writing (and many, admittedly, in the public activity of teaching). But political parties, politicians and political movements that are pitched to the right or the left are primarily focused on implementing their platforms (their theories, policies and ideas) through activities that support the platform.

The ambitious centrist, on the other hand, has the reverse emphasis. The ambitious centrist is primarily focused on arriving at a platform — concepts, policies, language — through activities designed to create compromise and synthesis. These activities involve listening, empathizing, talking, deliberating and negotiating. They must of course arrive at a point of view, a platform. But the ambitious centrists come at politics from a completely different direction from the purists.

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Our question about the price of freedom received a light response. We asked:

What price have you, your friends or your family paid for the freedom we enjoy? And what price would you willingly pay?

It was a question born out of the horror of images from Ukraine. We hope that the news about the Jan. 6 commission and Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination was so riveting that this question was overlooked. We considered another possibility that the images were so traumatic, that our readers didn’t want to consider the question for themselves. We saw the price Ukrainians paid.

One response came from a veteran who noted that being willing to pay the ultimate price for one’s country and surviving was a gift that was repaid over and over throughout his life. “I know exactly what it is like to accept that you are a dead man,” he said. What most closely mirrored my own experience was a respondent who noted her lack of payment in blood, sweat or tears, yet chose to volunteer in helping others exercise their freedom.

Personally, my price includes service to our nation, too. The price I paid was the loss of my former life, which included a husband, a home and a seemingly secure job to enter the political fray with a message of partisan healing and hope for the future. This work isn’t risking my life, but it’s the price I’ve paid.

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Given the earnest question we asked, and the meager responses, I am also left wondering if we think at all about the price of freedom? Or have we all become so entitled to our freedom that we fail to defend freedom for others? Or was the question poorly timed?

I read another respondent’s words as an indicator of his pacifism. And another veteran who simply stated his years of service. And that was it. Four responses to a question that lives in my heart every day. We look forward to hearing Your Take on other topics. Feel free to share questions to which you’d like to respond.

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