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Extreme voices can drown out the center

By Terry Golway

When most of us hear about political extremists, we immediately think of the Middle East or other areas of the world where fanatics have hijacked politics and/or the government.

But if you've been paying attention, you know that extremism isn't confined to any single region of the world. Heck, it's all around us, and it's getting worse.

Extremists in the north of Ireland are saying all sorts of crazy things because the Union flag has gone missing from Belfast City Hall. The other day the BBC interviewed a couple of angry, dour lads who insisted that it was time to rip up the Good Friday Agreement.

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Really? So, the only alternative is a return to war? Has it come to that?

Over on this side of the Atlantic, extremists are calling for the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts because he apparently plans to go through with administering the oath of office to Barack Obama on Inauguration Day.

According to a fellow named Craig McMillan, Roberts should not administer the oath because Obama is not eligible for the presidency. Ah, you've heard this one before, right? It's the whole Obama-is-a-Kenyan conspiracy, right?

Wrong - it's far more extreme, if you can believe that. McMillan and his fellow militants are now making the argument that Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the United States not because he was born in Kenya - they've apparently given up on that one - but because his father was not born in the United States.

McMillan and other sad, angry extremists across the nation have now come up with a new argument that even the Know-Nothings of the 1850s didn't make: A person whose father (but not mother - it's the father's "line" that matters, they say) was born in another country is not a "natural-born citizen," even if that person was, in fact, born in the United States.

So those of you who were born in the USA but whose fathers were born in Monaghan or Dublin or Tipperary, remember this: you may think you're a natural-born citizen of the United States, but you're not, at least not according to the extremists out there.

And if you're not a true natural-born citizen, well, if the extremists have their way, you'll be sent back to where you came from - rather, where your father came from.

The folks who want to bring back the bad old days in Belfast may not seem to have much in common with the birther extremists of the United States, but they do. It's called anger.

Extreme anger.

And while they may represent fringe points of view, they need to be taken seriously, because extremists have ways of influencing politics and government out of proportion to their numbers.

The extreme wing of the pro-choice movement, after all, drowns out the voices of those who are far more ambivalent about abortion, just as the extremists of the National Rifle Association are far more likely to control the debate over gun violence than more-moderate gun owners.

What is the source of all this anger and vitriol? In both Ireland and the U.S., it surely is the residue of change. When you hear loyalist anger in the North, you're hearing an echo of the laments of Lord Beresford, a member of parliament who lost his seat in the historic by-election in County Waterford in 1826.

"When I was a boy," his lordship wrote after he was defeated by the forces of Catholic emancipation, "the Irish people meant the Protestants; now it means the

Roman Catholics."

The dramatic changes which Daniel O'Connell achieved in Catholic Ireland in the 1820s are now unfolding in the loyalist bastions of the North. Catholics, long treated as second-class citizens, are finally exerting power in proportion to their numbers. Some people in Belfast are as befuddled as Lord Beresford was. They want to go back to a time when they were in charge.

Similarly, the extreme birthers see power slipping out of the hands of what Bill O'Reilly called the traditional white establishment (a group that was never particularly keen on people with names like O'Reilly).

They may well have honorable differences of opinion with Barack Obama, but at the end of the day, they simply can't stand the thought of a black man in the White House. So they see him as an interloper, as not a "real" American.

Worse yet, they are making the provocative argument that nobody whose father was born elsewhere is a legitimate natural-born American citizen. That sort of nonsense can lead to all kinds of mischief as the nation begins, once again, to debate immigration reform.

So don't simply dismiss the extremists. They have ways of making their power known.