The Personal Is Not Political

I have been traveling on the East Coast all week, and will be for a while longer, which is why blogging has been light, except for my definitive statement on postcolonialism, the literary canon, and Newt Gingrich, rendering the first two no longer necessary subjects of discussion and, with any justice, ending the puny political career of the latter. What then, to blog about while filling the anticipatory moments before my next social engagement?

Juan Williams?

Let’s see if we can say something a little different.

Aristotle is often quoted from his Politics as having said that “Man is by nature a political animal.” This is not an entirely accurate rendering of the original Greek (as I have studied the issue – I do not myself have ancient Greek). Aristotle said it was man’s nature to live in a polis – a city-state – according to which other translators find it better to choose the word “social” rather than “political,” though the polis does suggest political organization. However, this language does not suggest various more modern connotations of the word political, as we might better understand it, from the influence of Sun Tzu to Clausewitz, to, ahem, Rove.

In any event, Aristotle is very far from “the personal is political,” with is the essential totalitarian idea. Williams described his feelings when boarding a plane. If, as they say, I had a dollar for the number of people who these days at least take note (I’ll come back to that) that there is a Muslim (identified by appearance) on their plane over the number who are completely oblivious to the appearance, I could fund NPR instead of Soros and crush Fox. To begin, then, Williams only honestly stated what very large numbers of people feel. Is it an irrational feeling? Jeffrey Goldberg reasonably argues that it is: Muslim terrorists, in order to ensure the success of the terrorist act, have not, understandably, dressed in such a manner to draw attention to their Islamic faith.

But feelings are not, by definition, rational. Some may be more understandable than others, easily connected to their causes, while other feelings, for those who do not have them, may hide more tenuous cause and effect relations, but in either case they are not arrived at rationally – especially fears. In addition to the obvious fact, if one views the videotape or reads the transcript, that Williams was not advocating any action based upon his apprehensions, neither did he express dislike or disapproval. He even went on to issue the kind of generic liberal warnings against prejudicial behavior one would expect from him. He merely acknowledged an emotion, as understandable, or not, as any of us care to judge it, but certainly not without an objective correlative. I believe Juan Williams revealed himself to be human.

The totalitarian purpose is to form our personal feelings, ideas, and commitments according to the public program. In contrast, the liberal ideal is to regulate our passions and behaviors, whatever they personally, perhaps privately be, in order to ensure or mutual liberty and rights. I do not have to think you my equal – I must only treat you as if you are. You do not have to like me – you only may not tread on me because you don’t. To move beyond these parameters is to enter the realm of the personal, where you gain my respect and I earn your favor. But this is between us and our own selves and no business of anyone else.

Now, though, it seems people want to know – are you afraid? Goldberg, having viewed the story in more than one dimension, found himself asked that question by a reader. The question may be understandable curiosity, and Goldberg might have been feeling an opiner’s obligation to reveal himself on that about which he opines, but there is nonetheless something unseemly about the exchange. The relevant subject is not what anyone feels – which is why Williams’s comments were pointless in addressing O’Reilly’s stupid and misleading generalization (an almost tautological characterization) about Muslims on The View. The subject that should draw our attention is what people advocate, and Williams advocated nothing to make unhappy any liberal who can live five minutes without a bigotry to bemoan. Goldberg said he does not worry when he sees a Muslim. Later, he noted that

I don’t assume for a second that any individual Muslim on my radar screen is a terrorist.

However, “to worry,” perhaps for an instant, to the slightest degree possible even – maybe no more than the flit of a human thought against the ungovernable mind, as little, maybe, as simply to take note – is very far from assuming some one individual is a terrorist. The distance between those two experiences is a human space, a personal space, a space we begin to judge if we wish to crush all that is human in us.

Beyond that, it was Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, who, at the Sixth Congress of the Russian Leninist Young Communist League in 1924, said,

One has to know how to merge one’s life with the life of society….You, young people, are only just starting out on your lives, and you can build them so that there is no gap between your personal life and that of society….

Not yet, let’s hope.

There are other questions raised by this incident – the sense in journalistic firings and the opining of those who once only reported – but a Bombay Sapphire martini awaits, very dry, and with as many olives as can be fit on the pick.


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