Barry Goldwater in 1962, two years before reminding the world of Cicero’s advice that “Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice.” (Photo: Marion S. Trikosko)

Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Cicero said it, but Barry Goldwater — defending his 1964 presidential candidacy from charges he was a fascist who would bring about nuclear holocaust — popularized it as a handy subtext to the worst excesses of conservatives’ ongoing American insurgency: Watergate, Iran-Contra, Whitewater and the Clinton impeachment, the Swift Boating of John Kerry and the endless assaults on President Barack Obama and his policies.

Cambridge got its own example in October with the successful petition drive against a law saying how corporate branding would be handled atop the city’s buildings. Whether it was purely environmental concerns or dislike of his neighbor, Microsoft, millionaire software company exec Terry Ragon spent an undisclosed amount of money hiring a Boston publicist and Brookline political operative and flying in up to 20 professional signature gatherers to fight the law.

They got their signatures. The “Save Our Skyline” initiative was a success. The City Council rescinded its vote and decided against a special election. Ragon won.

But the testimony of councillors and reported e-mails, letters and telephone calls by signers of the petition revealed how: by misleading the public. By talking about “neon billboards” and “secret meetings” and the threat to local wildlife, all things that give Cantabrigians fever and palpitations. By lying.

“Neon billboards” was the “death panels” of the Cambridge sign law. The latter term polluted debate about Obama’s health care reform law despite being invented and baseless, and the former encapsulates the hypnotizing approach employed by Ragon and Save Our Skyline as deployed at the laws’ more than half-dozen hearings and public comment periods.

The shallowness of opponents’ thinking on the matter was similarly revealed when late in the process they still stood at the lectern facing councillors and professed not to understand why the revised law was needed — a mystifying approach to dissent given how many times its need was explained and accompanied by real and concrete examples of the arbitrary, “wink and a nod” way the current law is applied. Even councillor Craig Kelley used a form of this why-this-why-now approach immediately after the drawn-out explanations of supporters, but at least he applied the rationale of wanting a broader set of reforms; audience members simply acted as though they hadn’t heard anything.

Save Our Skyline and Kelley credited opponents of the revised law — which was, to be fair, pulled together poorly and presented with confounding amateurishness — with being smart and caring. But their mesmerized performances make them seem merely ignorant or gullible.

Or prone to extremism in the defense of their perceived liberty?

In casting a rightfully skeptical eye on councillors’ financial support from developers, Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods leader Mark Jaquith also forgives Ragon’s excesses as an example of what’s good for the gander (presumably the same waterfowl saved from the neon billboards Microsoft planned to install in the drained and defoliated basin of the Charles River).

Ragon was “wealthy, clever and motivated enough to get a piece of legislation, which he found offensive, removed,” Jaquith writes in the Cambridge Chronicle.

Now, Jaquith is a keen watcher of Cambridge politics, the kind any city is lucky to have involved in public life, and that’s what makes his take on this issue as instructive as Ragon’s on how far freedom fighters will go. This is how Jaquith describes what Ragon wrought:

It’s true that the professional signature gatherers were paid by the signature, and did not usually give an accurate description of the zoning in question. However, one object of the drive was to publicize the issue and give the voters a chance to consider the issue and decide for themselves. That would have assured a much more thorough and factual discussion of the provisions of the zoning change.

“Did not usually give an accurate description” is the polite way an opponent of the sign law agrees lies were told by, or to, those whose names brought it down. Since there are only 20 days to gather petition signatures to overturn a law, flying in professionals is regrettable but arguably within bounds. Lying to get names at $2 a pop isn’t.

While the petition may result in a more “factual discussion” of the zoning changes, so far the facts seem to be on the side of the council. The misguided passion, lies and ignorant zeal is owned by the opponents.

Cambridge is filled with rich and passionate people, and Ragon has either raised or lowered the bar for them, depending on how you look at it, on using extreme tactics in pursuit of whatever they see as righteous — just as post-Goldwater conservatives will do whatever they must in defense of their higher goals. Residents such as Jaquith have signaled their approval.

But Goldwater also often fought his fellow Republicans — on abortion rights, on allowing gays in the military and other gay rights, for instance — and would likely be appalled by how his principle has been applied over the years to subvert the U.S. Constitution and smear people for the sake of politics. Whatever you think of his politics, he wasn’t a liar. He’s been extolled as the sort of nut who believed a win based on lies wasn’t worth the victory.

The people of Cambridge should understand that. Most people think they’re nuts and extremists.

But they would do well to at least identify lying as the point where extremism goes too far.

Update: Most allusions to Cicero’s aphorism were changed to “defense” from “pursuit” Dec. 5, bringing them in line with the far more common translation, at the suggestion of reader Robert Winters, as seen in the comments below.