A Radical Contranym

webradishI’ve been studying Italian, a language that gets me thinking about etymology even more than I usually do. The other day I learned that the word for root  is radice. “Funny,” I said to my husband as we were fixing dinner that night. “It’s like a cross between radish and radical.” I was — I swear to you — chopping salad as I said this. I held up a radish to examine. “Well, duh,” I said. “It’s a root.”

Linking radical to radice felt more complicated. In mathematics, it makes sense as the root, say, of a polynomial equation. Other meanings in fields like geometry (“having a relation to two intersecting spheres”), linguistics (“belonging to the root of a word”), medicines (“directed against the root of a disease”), and music (“belonging to the lowest note, or root, of a chord”) likewise reflect their etymology. But these aren’t the most common use of the word radical today.

More likely, you’ve heard the word as part of that phrase-that-supposedly-will-not-be-uttered-by-Democrats, radical Islamic terrorism. Or in terms of a process, as with the recent attack on the Ohio State University campus, which, in the words of Rep. Adam Schiff, “bears all of the hallmarks of a terror attack carried out by someone who may have been self-radicalized.” Most of the radicalizing, if we believe the press, comes from the outside, as when CNN reported on “a dark and growing underground world of jihadi rap that uses hip-hop culture to radicalize young men in the West.” Commonly, we think of radical, in the political sense, as the opposite of reactionary. Wanting to go back to old-fashioned ways, a reactionary opposes political or social liberalization or reform; a radical, per the Oxford English Dictionary, “advocates thorough or far-reaching political or social reform.” That same dictionary points out that radical thoughts or attitudes are “characterized by independence of or departure from what is usual or traditional.”

These qualities seem to have little in common with roots. Ditto the notion that a radical is “a (esp. left-wing) revolutionary,” a qualification to which Jack Hitt recently objected in The New York Times. As Hitt points out,

In current discourse, “radicalization” tends to limit unthinkable attacks to those carried out by anyone of Middle Eastern descent — but why? Micah Johnson, an African-American man in Dallas, murdered five police officers in the wake of new YouTube videos showing black citizens being fatally shot by the police — was he self-radicalized?

Hitt encourages us to think of the actions perpetrated by those who may have heard purportedly metaphoric calls for violence, like the cross hairs over Gabby Giffords’s Congressional district in Sarah Palin’s infamous map, as just as much the work of radicals as the attack on a Parisian nightclub:

Distant authorities talking in a deniably cryptic way contribute to the rationalization for violence. This shift toward violence can have an effect at just about every level — from the lone-wolf killer, to couples, to hidden cells. And although it’s a more esoteric field of study for policy-center professionals, radicalization of an entire nation is possible, too — typically after reckless innuendo from political leaders becomes acceptable and then routine.

I agree completely with Hitt, and at the same time I have trouble reconciling the original meaning of radical with a sense that radicalization means becoming extreme, on the edge, far from the roots of one’s culture or beliefs. It seems a contranym, similar to a word like sanction, which means both to punish and to reward.

Perhaps there is a way to reconcile radical and root, even in these troubled times. One of the OED’s examples of radicalization is the Radical Republican Party in the mid-19th century, a group that went beyond Lincoln in its opposition to slavery and its advocacy of action against the South. One of its official pronouncements stated, “The word Radical as applied to political parties and politicians … means one who is in favor of going to the root of things; who is thoroughly in earnest; who desires that slavery should be abolished, that every disability connected therewith should be obliterated.” In other words, the radicals’ own sense of themselves was that their ideology, while extreme compared with the norms around them, in fact represented a return to fundamental values. Islamic terrorists, rejected though they may be by all the mainstream branches of Islam today, make a similar claim of adherence to “pure,” fundamental values. And the so-called alt-right, with its white-nationalist manifesto, makes all kinds of claims about the European legacy in America, its founding as a white Christian nation, and so on.

These roots are rotten. But it may be important for those of us who worry about a radicalized political culture to remember that those at the extremes, whether they wield power or simply throw bombs from the fringes, believe they reach deeper into the soil than the rest of us. At the moment, it’s probably impossible to recover the sense of radical as it was used by the Puritan cleric William Whately, who said, “This grace of faith is the radicall grace, that upon which all other graces grow as on their roote.” But we can remove the label radical from descriptions of people or acts that diverge from or seek to destroy what we consider the fundamental principles of our society. We can call them toxic, extreme, dangerous, unhinged, fanatical. But rooted they are not; there’s nothing worth watering there.

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