Political Correctness in the Time of Terror

Today in burying the lede: It’s politically correct to respond to your constituents, which is sufficient reason not to change your policy position? Are you kidding me, Chris Christie? 

The attack on Paris on Friday November 13th provoked a backlash against the ‘Islamic’ State: Hollande was swift to declare war on Daesh; the US began bombing oil trucks for the first time; and, the House of Commons voted yesterday to extend the bombing campaign in Syria. The attack also intensified the anti-Muslim rhetoric in Europe and the US, and perhaps one of the most perplexing manifestations of this anti-Muslim bigotry appeared in the immediate declaration by (to my knowledge) all Republican presidential candidates that the US should stop relocating Syrian refugees to the US for fear that there might be terrorists in their midst.

Of all the candidates Chris Christie’s remarks are especially striking. Firstly, as my Governor here in Jersey I find myself particularly attuned to him over other also-ran candidates, like Rick Santorum. Secondly, his refugee remarks have been peculiarly harsh, notably including the claim that we should deny the entry of orphans under five to the US. Finally, these harsh words are especially notable as they are in deep tension with the Governor’s previously progressive attitude towards Muslims — or, I should say, his previous refusal to cow to anti-Muslim bigots. So, for example, in 2011 Christie appointed Sohail Mohammed, to a Superior Court in Jersey, and when asked about the threat of Sharia Law he replied that Mr. Mohammed, is an “extraordinary American,” and that, as the Times reports

“The alarmism about Shariah... was “crap.” “It’s just crazy,” Mr. Christie said at an outdoor news conference in July 2011. “And I’m tired of dealing with the crazies. It’s just unnecessary to be accusing this guy of things just because of his religious background.”

So, Christie vociferously pushed back against “the crazies” in 2011, but now refuses to allow even five year old orphans into the country because of the possibility of 'Islamic' terrorism. It sounds to me like the Governor is some kind of chicken hawk and my letter to his office conveyed that sentiment: we’re supposed to be Jersey Strong, and to me that means doing the right thing, even if there are some nefarious few who would try to take advantage of our humanity. 

The Times yesterday published a piece on Christie’s changing attitudes towards Muslims, and in it revealed that the Governor seems to have received my letter and/or many others like it:

“He said that he was aware of the reaction against his remarks [on accepting refugees to America], and acknowledged, “I’ve seen the emails I’ve gotten since I said what I said and the Facebook posts and all the rest.” But to shift his views on national security policy based on that backlash, Mr. Christie said, would be “politically correct,” and a mistake.”

Of course Christies’ brand is as a brash, hard-nosed, common-sense thinker who is not afraid to — as the title of his Presidential tour is called — “tell it like it is.” Although I am skeptical of the whole notion of ‘telling it like it is,’ and I doubt the prudence of several of Christie’s particular ‘harsh truths’ (e.g. that we need to raise the age of Medicare eligibility), it’s astonishing that Christie doesn’t defend his tough line on Syrian refugees merely as the correct choice. To be sure, he says it would be a mistake to allow refugees in, but also that it would be politically correct to change his views on national security based on the backlash from his constituents. This is astonishing! Since when has representative democracy been “politically correct” in the toxic sense in which he uses it? What account of “political correctness” eschews representing the interests and convictions of one’s constituents? Who supports an interpretation of “political correctness” that precludes changing one’s policies positions in light of the ‘backlash’ from the populace? So, why should we think more highly of Christie for not changing his position on this issue? I can think of a couple of reasons, but because it would be politically correct to respond his constituents is certainly not one of them. Indeed, that counts in my mind as reason to think less of him.


Now, let me say that I don’t want my federal level representatives to make national level decisions based upon the parochial interests of their local constituents. Indeed, a large part of the dysfunction that we currently see in Washington can be attributed to the fact that a handful of representatives in especially the House were elected on back of a Tea Party far-Right Wing campaign, who are therefore willing to stymie any possibility of cooperation or bipartisan collaboration. The appropriate response to this problem is to sacrifice some of the interests of one's constituents in order to achieve greater goods both for one's own constituents, but sometimes also just for the greater good of others. Quite simply, when in federal office it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice the interests of one's local constituents to do the public good.

On this point Harlow Giles Unger points to Henry Clay as politician who, as Speaker of the House, put aside the interests of his constituency and instead acted in the interests of the whole nation, and in turn saved the United States from disintegration. Importantly, though, the virtue of Clay isn't because he was "politically incorrect" to establish the Missouri Compromise, as if political incorrectness were some sort of free-standing virtue. Instead, we applaud him because the Compromise was the right thing to do. If this was the tack that Christie wanted to take, then I would be supportive. But the opposite seems to be the case: I’m willing, as his constituent, to risk my parochial interest in not being subject to terrorism, in order to do the greater good and fulfill our American obligation to do right by this population of Syrian refugees. So, whose interests is Christie protecting by taking this hard line and acting "politically incorrectly"? I think probably his own.