You Don’t Win a Tug o’ War by Standing in the Middle and Trying Not to Move: The “Anti-Political” Nature of Centrism

For the roughly 5 million people on the dating site OKCupid.com, let me just say that saying you are “Centrist” politically pretty much aligns 90% of the time with also responding “No” to “Do you enjoy discussing politics?” From what I can see, a helluva lot of these people aren’t that familiar with or interested in how political policies can improve or ruin their lives. Nor do they seem to care. They just want to go bathe themselves in nature, competitively travel the world and take pictures of themselves in exotic places, go see a live show, dress “to the nines” at some swanky event, and possibly entertain their coterie of other Centrist friends at a backyard barbecue of vegetarian fare while scarfing down sophisticated martinis of chocolate and human blood.

I made that last thing up.

My discomfort with dating sites aside, I’m pretty sure my description above is a pretty good evaluation of the worldview of so-called “Centrists.” All that’s missing is that they work at “a high energy job for a big company” and they either “really enjoy how fulfilling it is” or “work to live, not the other way around.” That this amounts to a virtual wash isn’t at all inconsistent with Centrist thinking. Because Centrism is all about not having any actual ideas at all. It’s all about the ability to just sliiiiiiiide.

Like Fight Club, Centrism really doesn’t talk about itself a lot. If it did, it honestly wouldn’t have much to say. Someone in the group would probably say “It is what it is.”

In the film “Fight Club,” Edward Norten’s unnamed main character suffers from insomnia and ends up attending support groups for diseases that he doesn’t have. In one, attendees are asked to close their eyes, go into “their cave” and find their “power animal.” Norten’s character envisions a frozen cave in which he encounters a penguin. Upon seeing Norten, it tells him, “Slide!!” and dives giggling down a chute of slippery ice. Norten just stares in bewilderment.

If that isn’t the rallying cry for numbing oneself against the realities of the world, it certainly could be.

Now Centrism isn’t about drinking, drugging or fucking oneself into numbness. I mean, it might happen, but that’s not how they sell the non-ideology. Like Fight Club, Centrism really doesn’t talk about itself a lot. If it did, it honestly wouldn’t have much to say. Someone in the group would probably say “It is what it is.” Another would giggle and say “Sliiiiiide!”

If Centrists had a big organized get-together Scottish Games-style, the main event would be the Tug o’ War against a group of far right, capital-C Conservatives, frothing at the mouth, calling women sluts, bemoaning everything that didn’t kill the environment, minorities, poor people, taxes and free will. As the Conservatives dug their bloody cleats into the ground to gain traction in this battle of wills against the Centrists, the Centrists themselves would position themselves at the very center of the rope, muster up their most determined facial expressions, and then…try not to let the rope move in any direction.

Frederick Douglass, the former slave and famed writer, abolitionist and social reformer, put it best: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” 

The resultant instant victory for the Conservatives would bewilder the winners at first, but then, after realizing just what kind of abdication of human will they’d just been granted, they’d praise the Centrists for their cooperative bipartisanship. They’d clap them on the backs, get some pictures together, and head back to their southern border concentration camps without so much as a minor rope burn.

The Centrists? They’d feel superior, no sense of loss, no hurt pride, no human feeling at all really. Why? Because “partisanship” in their view is extremism. Why fight, even when the guy across the line from you is denigrating your compassion for the poor, your determination to provide affordable healthcare to every citizen in the country or your determined efforts to end the endless, pointless wars our country is engaging in? Fighting is unseemly, rude, and unnecessary to Centrists.

Oh, and it requires, well, a sense of right and wrong.

Contrary to the enervated Centrist non-point-of-view and the manufactured-to-get-you-addicted bombast and vitriol of corporate-owned media, the actual dynamic of political debate, discourse and action is nonetheless filled with necessary conflict.

Now Manichean dualities may be problematic, but for Centrists the concern isn’t about whether or not right and wrong exist, but whether or not we actually better ourselves by engaging in any energetic debate, argument, or exertion of breath over the issue. It’s about dignity, manners, and poise. It isn’t cool to get angry over politicians enacting policies that kill immigrant children being held in prisons on our borders. It’s simply gauche to raise one’s voice in the presence of one’s political adversaries.

Of course, in today’s political arena, circumscribed mostly by cable news, talk radio and corporate-owned newspaper conglomerations, it is true that Manichean duality is the rule. There are Conservative assholes (politicians, but just as often the news show hosts themselves) portending the end of all American values if we don’t ban all the brown and black people from within our borders, give billions to a right-wing Israeli government so they can occupy Palestine and needlessly kill Palestinian (also brown) children, etc. On the other side, there are…ummm, well, not really anyone who is the polar opposite of the bloodthirsty Conservatives.  Instead, the “counterpoint” actor is someone masquerading as a “liberal Democrat” but who wholly agrees with the cut-taxes/deregulate-everything/don’t-rock-the-yacht billionaires who own their networks (and who are moderate Republicans at best).

Matt Taibbi points out in his recent book, “Hate, Inc.”,  that corporate-owned media has successfully transformed news networks into rage-manufacturers pitting one false POV against another, and never really, ya know, reporting actual news. Actual progressive politicians, authors, pundits, entertainers, or just plain citizens are seldom if ever invited to be part of the “discussion” because – you’ve probably already guessed – genuine debate isn’t going to sell. It’s too depressing and doesn’t get you worked up and excited. Vitriolic flame-throwing with no sense of civility will, which means you’ll come back to it and keep consuming.

The point is, the good and bad of the world aren’t really the subject of discussion in Centrist circles, at least not in politics. (On OKCupid, finding an actual outspoken progressive woman has, in my experience, been rare. That boat remains steady, passionless, poised, polite, devoid of any kind of political or social dissatisfaction. Such things, it would seem, are unattractive to American men.)

The truth is that politics and fights for social justice, etc., aren’t as simple as right vs. wrong. That tug o’ war I mentioned is a flawed metaphor for the struggle among Americans who may want different social policies, different laws, different rights, different law enforcement, and so on. However, contrary to the enervated Centrist non-point-of-view and the manufactured-to-get-you-addicted bombast and vitriol of corporate-owned media, the actual dynamic of political debate, discourse and action is filled with necessary conflict.

Frederick Douglass, the former slave and famed writer, abolitionist and social reformer, put it best: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” During Douglass life, Centrists most certainly existed, and their devitalized approach to politics did virtually nothing to end slavery in our country. Even after the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, the static non-politics of subsequent eras’ early Centrists allowed untold horrors to continue in the name of white supremacy in the United States.

And race relations, as huge a set of issues as it is, is just one of tens of thousands of issues confronting our country and us as citizens.

As I said, that tug o’ war metaphor is inadequate, but not entirely inaccurate. Now, imagine your standard tug o’ war scenario, with grunting, straining folks on either side of that single rope, pulling either way with all their might. Now, tie another rope directly across that rope’s center, with two more teams of contestants on it. Do that a couple more times and you start to get a true idea of how progress is accomplished in the world, not just in the United States. Each of a multitude of teams is pulling in their direction, hoping the center will give and go their way.

Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t; but if you don’t pull at all on your rope, you have no influence on what kind of progress or regression is actually made.

At the risk of over-metaphoring things, consider it this way: Have you ever driven up to an intersection where you had to stop, encountered someone else in another lane with the right of way, and then noticed that the other person – out of some inexplicable and potentially dangerous courtesy – was waving you through and sitting perfectly still? Centrism is a lot like that. It bows to courtesy before logic, and disengages from simple rules of the road.

Polite disengagement is a heritage we must not give in to, yet it persists. On my admittedly ridiculous (but not irrelevant) bellwether of public opinion, OKCupid, another correlating response I frequently see from Centrists is to the question, “Do you go to great lengths to avoid conflict?” “Yes” is disquietingly common. Its ubiquity suggests to me that people are working far too hard to either have no coherent opinions about social and political issues, or to pretend that if they ignore them entirely they will be better off. Either way, they’re hoping for a world in which conflict isn’t a daily challenge, a daily necessity.

Life without conflict and resistance, to paraphrase Frederick Douglass, is surrender.

Oh, and dating sucks.

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