Why There’s No Such Thing as Being “Apolitical”

Occasionally, I will hear from people who appreciate my writing, or my scientific work, or my qualities as a person, but who have little use for my politics. They invariably ask some variant of the question: “why do you have to be so political?” To which the only real answer is: “Because I am a Human Being who exists in society with other Human Beings.”

There is a tragic misconception that politics is something that you can opt out of: that, indeed, only people who discuss government, or partisanship, or various “hot button issues” of the day are in fact engaging in politics. It’s this kind of attitude which leads people to be so completely blindsided when politics, out of the blue, starts “participating” in them. To cite an example near and dear to my heart, in the decades following World War II, a consensus held in the industrialized democracies that Science was a public good, which should be well-supported and used to inform public policy. This consensus held for long enough that an entire generation of researchers lived under it for their whole professional careers, and so it came to be seen not only as normal, but “natural,” rather than being seen as a result of the confluence for some very specific politico-economic factors. Many scientists began to see their role as being inherently above politics, whereas the generation of Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer had lived under no such delusions. Now, as is plain to see, this consensus appears to be evaporating, and “apolitical” scientists now have to relearn skills that were allowed to atrophy.

The same holds everywhere: one can recall all of the silly editorials following “The End of History” in the 1990s with names like “Do Women Still Need Feminism?” and “Are Unions Still Relevant?” Now, predictably, we have found that the answer is an absolute and unequivocal “YES,” and that if people had acknowledged this twenty years ago, we would not be in so deep right now.

To put it in terms of a physics simile, claiming to be apolitical is like claiming that you’re not bound by the laws of thermodynamics*. The fact of the matter is that, if you exist in this world, then you are automatically part of the game, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. Oh sure, a rock may not actively engage in energy transfer the way that, say, an animal or a star does, but it still has to deal with the circumstances of its environment, just as do those who claim to be above politics.

Not engaging is nothing more than a tacit endorsement of the status quo, and if the status quo is rotten, then that is a serious problem.


*Note that this simile only really applies to the third law of thermodynamics, as stated in Ginsburg’s theorem. I don’t mean to say that participation in politics is a ridiculously nihilistic endeavour that can only end in defeat.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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