Passing Bull 48 – Slippery radicals


The word ‘radical’ is slippery.  Donald Trump, and people of comparable intellect in the Australian press, get upset when President Obama does not use the term ‘radical Islam’ in referring to people who are alleged to be Islamic terrorists.  What does the word ‘radical’ mean?  If you look at the Oxford English Dictionary, you won’t get much help.  In our context, the word means something like ‘extreme’ – far from the centre, or the end of the line.

We therefore get questions of degree.  Was Jesus of Nazareth a radical Jew?  Was Emperor Augustus a radical Roman?  Was Galileo a radical catholic?  Was Beethoven a radical composer?  Was Chairman Mao a radical Communist?  Was Nelson Mandela a radical terrorist?

You can get an idea just how slippery the word ‘radical’ is from Churchill’s account of the start of the American Revolution.  It began with what is still the American bête noire – tax.  The Stamp Act really upset the colonists.  It included a tax on newspapers ‘many of whose journalists were vehement partisans of the extremist party.’  Future ‘revolutionary leaders appeared from obscurity.’  ‘A small but well organised Radical element began to emerge.’  When cargoes of tea that would be subject to the tax arrived at Boston, the ‘Radicals, who began to call themselves Patriots, seized their opportunity to force a crisis.’  They dressed up as Red Indians and cast the tea upon the waters.  By the time that Paul Revere had written to Lexington, the radicals were being addressed as ‘rebels’.

Were the Tea Party participants ‘terrorists’?  They used extreme violence for political reasons, but no one was killed in this incident.  Is that enough to make them terrorists?  John Adams, the second President of the United States, said ‘that I cannot but consider it as an epoch in history.  This however is but an attack upon property.  Another similar exertion of popular power may produce the destruction of lives.  Many persons wish that as many dead carcasses were floating in the harbour as there are chests of tea.  A much less number of lives however would remove the causes of all our calamities.’  Well, John Adams was ready to embrace terrorism, and there followed acts of terrorism, and appalling terrorism, on both sides, as happened with the birth of the state of Israel.

The Boston Tea Party led Dr Johnson to say that ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’  The members of the Tea Party now see themselves as extreme patriots, just as Eichmann thought that he was merely doing his patriotic duty.  ‘Patriot’ is even more slippery than ‘radical’.  E M Forster is fondly remembered for the reflection: ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’

Poet of the month: Anna Akhmatova

Requiem: 9


Already madness trails its wing

Decisively across my mind:

I drink its fiery wine and sink

Into the valley of the blind.


I yield to it the victory:

There is no time, there is no room

Except to sue for peace with my

However strange – delirium.


I fall upon my knees, I pray

For mercy.  It makes no concession.

Clearly I must take away

With me not one of my possessions –


Not the stone face, hollow blanks

Of eyes, my son’s, through pain’s exquisite

Chisel; not the dead’s closed ranks

In the hour of prison visits;


Not the deer coolness of his hands;

Nor, dimmed in distance’s elision,

Like lime-trees’ shady turbulence,

His parting words of consolation.

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