Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Lunatic Fringe

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 28, 2013

Have you ever asked yourself where the lunatic fringe really comes from and how someone becomes part of the lunatic fringe? To find those answers, it’s important to understand that people who are fanatical, extremist, or irrational are oftentimes said to be part of the lunatic fringe. Where did this term come from originally?

On 9 May 2009, Jonathan Curling, Executive Secretary for the Birmingham Faith Leaders Group wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Birmingham Post and Mail newspaper in which he discussed the diverse community in Birmingham, and the good relationships between faith communities with the community. The letter was entitled, “Diversity Too Good To Waste By Apathy” and included this comment:

Over the next three weeks, you will hear these voices as the local and European elections approach, questioning the kind of community we seek to build.

It is easy to dismiss such forces as a lunatic fringe that will never gain ground. Such a view would be a serious error. In a time of economic trouble, some claims of the extremists can appear beguiling. In fact, they will lead us down a road towards a bitter, divided, society.

The first step is that we should all vote.

On 1 September 1994, the Middle East newspaper posted an article that was republished in a number of other mainstream media newspapers. The article was entitled, “Believers and Belligerents: Muslims In The UK.” Midway through the article, the following was written:

The third event which raised the hackles of traditionally tolerant British society was a gathering of an estimated 8,000 Muslim fundamentalists at Wembley Arena, avenue more usually associated with rock groups that religion.

Organised by a group known as Hizb-Ut-Tahrir, or HUT, the event typified what many westerners have come to regard as the lunatic fringe of extremism.

Journalists and photographers were banned from attending the conference and some were threatened with violence when they tried to speak to delegates as they left the conference which attracted many Muslim dissidents from the Middle East.

Jumping back 40 years, the New London Day newspaper of New London (CT) published a news article on 10 May 1954 reported on an address given to the National Press Club by the former president that dealt with the need for unity and bipartisanship, and the claim that Republicans were undermining those two issues.

Harry S. Truman urged President Eisenhower today to use vigorous action rather than pious phrases against “political assassins” and a GOP “lunatic fringe” which he said are destroying unity and the basis for a bipartisan foreign policy.

Politics seems to be where most news stories mentioned a lunatic fringe, so it comes as no surprise that in the March 13, 1935 edition of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix that the word figured prominently in the headline as well as in the story itself. Entitled, “General Johnson and the Lunatic Fringe” the story began by stating the following:

When a few weeks ago, General Hugh Johnson “cracked down” on Senator Huey Long and Father Coughlin as being demagogues appealing to “the lunatic fringe,” he started something which is likely to last for a while.

It would have been comparatively easy for the general to dispose of the Louisiana dictator and the radio priest by themselves. They are both very vulnerable. But, unfortunately, his reference to the “lunatic fringe” hits the hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens who have been following the great promiser from the south and the powerful non-office seeking cleric from the north, who have been sending telegrams and letters to their representatives at Washington.

In reading the archives of the New York Times, I found this passage in an article entitled, “We Can Have Sing Sing And Reform, Too” that was published on February 15, 1916:

Unfortunately there is around this modern conception of crime that “lunatic fringe” to which Colonel Roosevelt once referred as the unavoidable adjunct of every advanced movement and cause, including his own. Sentimentalists have taken it up, as well as men of sense and practicality, and the result has been a somewhat widespread feeling that the tendency of the reformers was toward an offensive, even a disgusting, coddling of criminals, and the complete transfer from them to “society” of all, or nearly all, of moral responsibility for their acts.

Now many sources attribute the phrase to former U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), who is citing as having coined the expression in the book “History as Literature” published in 1913.

There is apt to be a lunatic fringe among the votaries of any forward movement.

Apparently, he liked the expression so much, he used it in a number of magazine articles as well as in his autobiography wherein he wrote:

Then, among the wise and high-minded people who in self-respecting and genuine fashion strive earnestly for peace, there are foolish fanatics always to be found in such a movement and always discrediting it — the men who form the lunatic fringe in all reform movements.

The fact of the matter is that the expression wasn’t something he coined at all, but rather a unique use of an expression that already existed. What Roosevelt appears to have done was take an expression that referred to a specific kind of hairstyle that was considered unconventional at best, and eccentric or bizarre at worst, and modified somewhat.

In a Letter to the Editor published in the New York Times edition of March 21, 1880, a defense of the lunatic fringe was written by someone known only as S.E.K.

“Your article on “Montague” curls this morning is very one-sided, and, to say the least, exceedingly short-sighted; it proves also beyond a doubt that you are very unobserving. In the first place, the much-abused adornments are “flat, odious, hideous, and disfiguring” only when in course of preparation: as soon as the bandoline is dry the curls are combed out into soft, pretty, and graceful rings, making by far the most becoming way of wearing the front hair that young ladies have adopted for years. Every man made a dreadful “fuss” when “bangs” first came in fashion. I am sure “Montagues” are a vast improvement on those straight abominations, or if you prefer a more complimentary and man-like name, “lunatic fringe.” Please may I ask why you do not attack the mode young gentlemen have of wearing their hair and whiskers a la footman, combing them on each side toward their nose as though they designed a happy meeting when the “prolific side-boards” shall have attained their growth. Audi alteram partem.”

First side note:  Audi alteram partem is a Latin phrase that means “to hear both sides.”

Second side note:  Bandoline was a glue-like hair preparation used from 1840 through to the 1880s that was used to smooth, gloss, or wave hair.

In Oliver Optic’s Magazine For Young And Old” edited by Oliver Optic, in Volume 15, No. 247 published in February 1874, the story entitled “Four Days” by Sophie May made mention of the lunatic fringe. This passage appeared under the chapter heading “Independence Day.”

“Well, now, I am glad if Adelaide has been improving her time for the last few weeks in the kitchen; it speaks well for her,” said Mr. Waters, with such an insinuating smile that his niece knew something more was coming. “You have had quite a rest from the store since Jimmy got back — haven’t you Addie? But what think wife? I’ve got an order from Pinkham & Co. to supply a couple of thousand jewelry boxes! ‘Twill be a pretty profitable job, and I shall have to set both the girls at work. Think you can spare ’em for a while?”

“The girls!” exclaimed Miss Lizzie, lifting her eyebrows till they met the “lunatic fringe” of hair which straggled uncurled down her forehead. “The girls! As if I could stop to fuss with that old paste-pot! Why, father, I’m making my black silk polonay, nine flounces, hand-stitched, and puff trimming up and down in front. Of course it’s Addie’s business to help you if you want her to; but you needn’t count on me. Now, mother, can’t you make him understand?”

The reason it’s important to understand the use of the phrase as it pertains to hairstyles, is to better understand how the expression came to mean those who are fanatical, extremist, or irrational.

It’s easy to see why the “lunatic fringe” that was described so well by S.E.K. in her letter to the New York Times could be considered extreme. The name alone implies that those who favor a “lunatic fringe” may have suffered from some sort of intermittent insanity at the time the “lunatic fringe” rose to popularity with teenage girls across the country. And although the original article to which S.E.K. refers isn’t in evidence, based on S.E.K.’s Letter to the Editor, it can safely be assumed that the article didn’t speak well of the “lunatic fringe.”

Even Laura Ingalls Wilder (February 7, 1867 – February 10, 1957) sported a “lunatic fringe” back in 1881 and 1882, as the style was the rage even in the Dakotas. She wrote about it in her book “Little Town On The Prairie.”

While the current sense of the phrase cannot be attributed solely to Theodore Roosevelt, it can be said that he certainly popularized the expression in the 20th century. However, the sense of the phrase traces back to the hairstyle and how it was perceived by society as a whole which, it would appear, was not favorable with the majority of people.

Likewise, those who are considered part of the “lunatic fringe” in this day and age hold opinions that are not favorable with the majority of people.

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One Response to “Lunatic Fringe”

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