11 September 2011

On Physics and Political Correctness

In my comments on Naomi Klein's invocation of "physics" to explain this summer's riots in Great Britain, I may have left the impression that the moralist tendency to deny the physics of a situation -- that is, the inevitability of a reaction to an oppressive provocation -- is a particular feature of the right-wing mentality. All it took to correct that impression for myself was to pick up a copy of Juan Williams's Muzzled, his account of his firing from National Public Radio for admitting, while appearing on The O'Reilly Factor, that he worried whenever he shared passage with people in Muslim garb. Williams's own experience is a jumping-off point for attempts to explain the absence of "honest" political debate in the U.S. and the general thinning of the national skin when it comes to critical discussion. I'll address his theses at another time, but in the context of his own scandal it seems clear that the political correctness that demanded his removal from NPR is based on a denial of "physics." In this case, the physics involved is the inevitable anxiety many Americans will feel in the company of sartorially observant Muslims, given the terrorist war being waged against the U.S. by groups dedicated to the defense of traditionalist Islam. From left or right, "physics" is denied when someone says, "No matter what, you must not..." A right-winger will say: no matter how poor you are, no matter who you blame for not having work, you have no right to riot or steal. A "politically correct" liberal will say: no matter what Muslims have done in the name of Islam, you must not fear Muslims, and you certainly must not admit fearing Muslims in public. In each case, moralism insists that free will and free choice make no bad conduct or bad thought an inevitable matter of Kleinian physics. But can political science determine the truth of that assertion? Can people be so well trained morally -- brainwashed, to use right-wing terminology, or hegemonized, to borrow from the left -- that they will always be able to check impulses exacerbated by adversity? Regardless of the answer, it probably is inevitable that any ruling class or clique will try to train the masses to resist the impulse to resist. Nor are such efforts always unreasonable or morally suspect. On the politically correct side, for instance, even if you concede that most Americans won't be able to help feeling anxiety at the sight of a traditional Muslim, you can still deny vehemently that people can't be expected not to attack Muslims who appear suspicious. As a rule, none of us should want any of us to behave impulsively when reason is an option. But is reason always an option? I'd like to think so, yet not as a check on the impulse to resist but as a channel that directs resistance and makes it more effective. Resistance is inevitable, I presume, but whether the form it takes is just as inevitable, whether resistance to austerity must take the form of selfish looting, for instance, requires a more sophisticated political science to determine.

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