Andrew Sullivan Books

Book Review: The Extreme Centre: A Warning, by Tariq Ali

Friday, January 30, 2015 Rob Samuelson

It's fitting that I read Tariq Ali's upcoming book, The Extreme Centre: A Warning, the week political blogger-public intellectual Andrew Sullivandecided to walk away from blogging for the first time in 15 years. My years of reading Sullivan's work, centered mostly on the concept of finding grace within a constantly changing, chaotic world and applying it to our public discourse with plenty of humility and self reflection, weighed heavily on me – as they always do, for I count Sullivan as one of my biggest influences in how to approach the task of thinking in general – as I read Ali's words. For all the reams of research and his desire for social progress behind them, those words rang increasingly discordant as they continued. 

Ali's book is what would happen if the leftist id shouted impotently into the void. This is no policy paper, for he doesn't have policies to offer. He admits as such in the conclusion. He doesn't know where the solutions to his diagnosed problems will come from, but he's hopeful they will come from somewhere.

It is in those diagnoses where Ali is most adept. He spends large chunks of time explaining the history of the post-Thatcher United Kingdom and post-Reagan America and the political race to recapture what made those leaders palatable to their respective publics. He expresses profound disappointment in those leaders' opposition parties often moving closer to their policies than previous generations of liberal parties would have dared. This activity is what provides the book's title, wherein Ali posits that the parties of left and right meet in the middle to form a giant, amorphous ruling class blind to the needs of the lower classes while catering to the wants of the privileged. The politicians of the formerly left-leaning Labour and Democratic parties are now more concerned with amassing private fortunes than helping their constituents. A large section highlights the highly lucrative post-governmental “consultant” positions entered into by Tony Blair's Cabinet and closest political allies that could very well have been agreed to as longterm bribery for pushing policies favorable to their future employers while still in office. He provides background on the European Union, the rise of anti-immigrant fury during the Great Recession of 2008, the beginnings of NATO and related imperial adventurism of the United States, and most cogently, the increase in recent decades of wealth inequality with more and more money going to the already rich while wages stagnate or recede for the middle and lower classes.

The thing is, Ali might be correct on some of these counts, and he has done a massive amount of research to back himself up, but he proves himself incapable of convincing anyone to stop doing these things because of his rhetorical tactics and inclination toward sensationalism. Bankers are all swindlers and hustlers. The centrists and right-wingers posing as liberals are “rap[ing] the public sector” to make a buck for themselves and their money men friends at the expense of the masses. He falsely assumes at every turn that current economic conditions will continue exponentially until oblivion is reached. He loses sight of the goal of politics, convincing others to advance your preferred goals, in order to take potshots to delight those who already agree with him. He removes humanity from people in the financial sector, who have definitely done damage to the economy, but probably not (only) because of raging, unchecked greed or a planned attack on those lower down the totem pole than themselves. They made choices they thought would benefit people, of course including themselves, and those choices were the wrong ones. The choice from there is whether to work with those people to find a solution to make sure such mistakes are not made again, not to employ the (excuse my less-than-family-friendly language) “assholes and idiots” argument for anyone who disagrees with you. When you go to that rhetorical well, it leaves those on the other side in a spiteful mood, not really looking to help you – the “I'll show him!” response in which they do exactly the opposite of what you want. The “more flies with honey” approach at least gets you to the table with these bankers, or rival politicians, or defense contractors, or those against Scottish independence, or whatever disjointed target Ali is raging against on every other page.

Because, guess what, you might be wrong. Examine yourself constantly, your preferred policies even more often, test them, make them work, explain their tradeoffs and complicated uses in one-on-one meetings, win over people, examine again, create change, repeat. It's a lot harder than just being mad at people. Channel it. Do something with it. You might still get nowhere, but at least you'll get to the bargaining table, where anything can happen.

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