If you wish to change the course of our country from radical swings back and forth from left to right, moderates need an animating principle. That principle should be social justice.
New York Times columnist David Brooks says the big idea that counteracts our core problems is “love your neighbor.” He ends “An Agenda for Moderates” with “When you listen to your neighbor, you see that deep down we’re the same and you hunger to deepen that connection.” But it should be just the beginning. When you deepen that connection, you take action to improve your lives together. You join your voice to theirs. You step beyond moderation. Our times do not afford us to be a moderate in love.
“Was not Jesus an extremist in love?” Martin Luther King Jr. asked in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be … Will we be extremists for the cause of justice? … Injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”
David Brooks used to understand this. Seven years ago, in “What Moderation Means,” he said, “Being moderate does not mean being tepid … The best moderates can smash partisan categories and be hard-charging in two directions simultaneously … It is not just finding the midpoint between two opposing poles.”
But in last week’s column, “An Agenda for Moderates,” he betrays himself. Brooks offers a false equivalency where moderates must avoid the left that offers ideas of social justice and tells stories of oppression as much as the Trumpian right that offers tribe and builds walls. Brooks says we must avoid the left story of class, racial and gender oppression and its mission to rise up and destroy the systems of oppression.
Brooks risks becoming what MLK described in grave disappointment as “the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.’”
Social justice must be the agenda of moderates and it should not be pursued in moderation. Listening is not enough. Finding the midpoint is not enough. When only 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women; when African-Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites; when the left’s stories of class, racial and gender oppression are in fact reality; then communal action must be taken to destroy systems of oppression. Social justice is the policy of “love your neighbor” in action.