Trigger Warnings

Jeff Sparrow


Political correctness never really existed — at least, not in the way that conservatives claim.

As we saw with Nick Adams, right-wingers portray PC as an Orwellian scheme to end freedom of speech, a deliberate strategy to impose a progressive orthodoxy. In reality, radicals coined the term as a joke. The phrase first emerged within the American New Left as an ironic homage to Stalinist rhetoric, adopted by progressives to mock censorious comrades and to chaff the overly earnest. In Australia and Britain, the preferred term was ‘ideologically sound’, but the gag worked the same way. When an activist declared a particular film or book or person ‘PC’ (or ‘ideologically sound’), she did so with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek. It was never serious. By describing a friend as ‘very PC’, a radical didn’t imagine herself to be identifying incipient tyranny. She was just suggesting that they might lighten up.

What was originally a satire on totalitarianism somehow became, for the right, a signifier of totalitarianism. The quite strange process by which this happened illuminates important trends in modern politics.

The story began in the United States in 1964, when, over the course of a year, thousands of Berkeley students embraced civil disobedience in massive protests for free political expression on campus.

‘[T]here’s a time,’ student leader Mario Savio said, in his iconic speech at the demonstrations, ‘when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.’

The campaign — a major win for free speech — and the rhetoric that accompanied it inspired a generation of New Leftists. Perversely, though, it also played a major role in the career of that doyen of modern conservatism, Ronald Reagan, and the eventual campaign against PC.

Originally a Hollywood liberal, Reagan had shifted to the right during the Cold War. His political career really took off, however, when he capitalised on the backlash against free speech at Berkeley in a run for governor. Campaigning in 1966, he denounced the ‘small minority of beatniks, radicals and filthy speech advocates [who] have brought such shame to … a great university’. Then, in 1969, activists tried to establish a free-speech area (‘People’s Park’) on vacant university land. Reagan duly placed Berkeley under martial law, and deployed helicopters, the National Guard, and riot police, who killed one man and wounded several others.

The governor showed no remorse. ‘Once the dogs of war have been unleashed, you must expect things will happen,’ he said.

In Retaking America: crushing political correctness, Adams explained his hostility to PC as support for freedom of speech. ‘[P]olitical correctness,’ he declared, ‘acts as a heavy blacksnake, whipping us into submission. Pushing us into line. Cutting us down. It squelches debate and polices speech.’

In reality, the campaign against PC began with the so-called ‘education wars’ launched during Reagan’s second term as president in the late 1980s. The Reaganite right who led that effort were not promoting free speech. In the wake of his confrontation with the Berkeley activists, Reagan believed deeply in censorship — and actively campaigned for more of it. The 1984 Republican National Committee platform, on which he ran for re-election, promised: ‘We will vigorously enforce constitutional laws to control obscene materials which degrade everyone, particularly women, and depict the exploitation of children.’

Adams also made the familiar claim that PC was ‘a disease of the elites’, something that he, a man of the people, instinctively despised. ‘You’ll never catch me eating kale, seaweed or tofu,’ he boasted. ‘When a waitress offers me a gluten-free menu, I decline almost immediately … [It] will be ribs, brisket, chicken fried steak, mac ‘n’ cheese, fries and onion rings, washed down with beer and soda, followed by pie, all the way.’

But the education reformers of the 1980s were not opposing elitism. On the contrary, they were angry that the universities weren’t elitist enough.

The key text of the ‘education wars’ was 1987’s The Closing of the American Mind, by the University of Chicago’s Allan Bloom, an idiosyncratic neoconservative philosopher. Bloom originally called his manuscript Souls Without Longing, a title that conveys something of the peculiarity of his project: a chatty, discursive summation of the ideas of Leo Strauss (Bloom’s teacher, and the inspiration for a generation of neoconservatives).

To analyse the America of the 1980s, Bloom looked back to the ancient world, where, he said, philosophy and reason developed in opposition to society and politics, in an antagonism exemplified by the execution of Socrates. The classical tradition showed that the university needed to resist the democratic and commercial imperatives of the modern world, existing ‘for the sake of the freedom of the mind’. That freedom was (or should be) an elite project, enabling select students to confront their own natures and grapple with eternal truths.

In Bloom’s presentation, philosophy involved eros as well as intellect, awakening in the best young people a love for learning and a love for virtue that enabled them to become complete people (‘souls without longing’, no less). But this project had been threatened by the social and intellectual levelling unleashed by the 1960s, with objective values giving way to rampant relativism and young people seeking erotic solace not in Plato but in rock music and MTV.

‘Nothing noble, sublime, profound, delicate, tasteful or even decent can find a place in such tableaux,’ Bloom sniffed.

Bloom’s publisher did not expect Closing — an oddball polemic by a man previously known mostly for translations of Plato and Rousseau — to do particularly well. To their astonishment, it became an international sensation, remaining on the New York Times bestseller lists for nonfiction for four months, and eventually selling over a million copies: a remarkable achievement under any circumstances, but particularly so for an eccentric meditation on the role of philosophy in the late 20th century.

More importantly, Closing sparked a prolonged and intense debate about the state of the modern university, a debate furthered by E. D. Hirsch (Cultural Literacy), Roger Kimball (Tenured Radicals), Dinesh D’Souza (Illiberal Education), and many others.

Why did such a book find such an audience? Whatever Bloom’s intentions, he was read less for his thoughts about philosophy than for his critique of academic leftism. A few years earlier, secretary of education William Bennett had announced that students were graduating from American institutions lacking ‘even the most rudimentary knowledge about the history, literature, art, and philosophical foundations of their nation and their civilization’. Bloom offered a similar argument, albeit on a more sophisticated (and slightly strange) basis.

For him, a liberal education identified those rare individuals capable of absorbing the dangerous and esoteric truths conveyed by classical philosophy — truths that, by their nature, bore no relationship to the whims of the populace. Not surprisingly, he judged the contemporary university to be largely bankrupt:

The university now offers no distinctive visage to the young person. He finds a democrat of disciplines — which are there either because they are autochthonous or because they wandered in recently to perform some job that was demanded of the university … Equality for us seems to culminate in the unwillingness and incapacity to make claims of superiority in the domains of which such claims have always been made — art, religion and philosophy.

If read carefully, Closing offered an argument directed against the free-market right as much as against the left. His demand that the university provide a place in which ‘scholars and students [could] be unhindered in their use of reason’ constituted an implicit critique of the commercialisation of higher education, a process subsequently far more important in destroying the scholarly contemplation that Bloom advocated than any machinations by the left.

But Closing wasn’t read carefully. Rather, Bloom’s critique was boiled down to a central claim: that the objective values embodied in the Western canon — the great works of European thought — were being menaced by intellectuals’ embrace of diversity, inclusion, and postmodernism. In particular, he condemned the aesthetic ‘relativism’ that, he said, led academics to elevate African-American or female writers in place of those they dubbed ‘Dead White Men’. What was needed was a return to ‘the good old Great Books approach, in which a liberal education means reading certain generally recognized classic texts’.

Expressed like this, the message was entirely compatible with the nostalgia underpinning the Reagan revolution. Reagan’s promise of ‘Morning in America’ invoked a vanished greatness, an Edenic period prior to the social and political excesses of the 1960s — excesses he particularly associated with the radical students he fought at Berkeley. For Reagan and Reaganites, Bloom added academic heft to the president’s own longheld belief that universities were (as he’d once explained) hotbeds of ‘communist sympathisers, protesters and sex deviants’. Ungrateful students needed to knuckle down and learn something; the university itself should abandon leftist fads and become, once more, an intellectual idyll where Great Men contemplated Great Ideas.

Bloom’s denunciation of populism became, for many readers, a kind of populism itself. When he mocked the postmodernism taught by radical professors, he did so by invoking the objective truths embodied in the philosophical and literary canon. Readers, however, judged the zany po-mo profs from the perspective of ‘sound common sense’ — a quite different position, but one that facilitated an emerging distinction, in the education wars, between, on the one hand, honest, everyday Americans and, on the other, overeducated and arrogant leftists.

As a result, the ‘mac ’n’ cheese’ anti-elitism of Adams derived historically from the classical elitism of Bloom. As Michael Berube put it: ‘Bloom’s odd book was the jab that allowed the right to set up the haymaker it’s delivering now.’

But Bloom himself didn’t mention ‘political correctness’. It wasn’t until 1990 — three years after Closing’s publication — that those words came to dominate the debate.

On 28 October 1990, Richard Bernstein published an article in the New York Times’ ‘Ideas and Trends’ section entitled ‘The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct’. The piece focused, in particular, on debates over the curriculum at the University of Texas, with conservatives making the Bloomite claim that the achievements of Western civilisation were under threat.

Bernstein, however, contributed a new vocabulary. His article began:

The term ‘politically correct’, with its suggestion of Stalinist orthodoxy, is spoken more with irony and disapproval than with reverence. But across the country, the term PC, as it is commonly abbreviated, is being heard more and more in debates over what should be taught at the universities.

Even though he acknowledged that ‘political correctness’ (and the associated ‘politically correct person’ or ‘pcp’) was ‘not used in utter seriousness’, Bernstein claimed that a certain cluster of opinions had come to define ‘a kind of “correct” attitude towards the problems of the world, a sort of unofficial ideology of the university.’

In digital databases of mainstream American publications, the term ‘politically correct’ barely featured prior to 1990. As the Guardian writer Moira Weigel noted, its usage exploded in that year. In 1990 it turned up more than 700 times; in 1991 there were more than 2,500 instances; and in 1992 it appeared more than 2,800 times. Bernstein’s NYT article prompted exposés of PC in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, New York Magazine, Time, and other influential American outlets. In those articles, journalists used ‘political correctness’ — with only a thin veneer of irony — to describe a radical creed, a new philosophy around which professors and activists and other intellectual types were rallying.

‘PC is, strictly speaking, a totalitarian philosophy,’ explained Newsweek on 24 December 1990. ‘No aspect of university life is too obscure to come under its scrutiny.’

By mid-1991, when the first president Bush addressed a commencement ceremony at the University of Michigan, the old, ironic meaning of PC had largely vanished. For Bush, ‘political correctness’ was no joking matter but a:

movement [that] replaces old prejudice with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits. What began as a crusade for civility has soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship. Disputants treat sheer force — getting their foes punished or expelled, for instance — as a substitute for the power of ideas. Throughout history, attempts to micromanage casual conversation have only incited distrust. They’ve invited people to look for an insult in every word, gesture, action. And in their own Orwellian way, crusades that demand correct behavior crush diversity in the name of diversity.

Bush’s intervention illustrated how and why the new coinage — the redefined ‘political correctness’ — made such a difference.

The Reaganite opposition to campus radicalism stemmed from old-fashioned Red-baiting. The president’s hostility to liberal professors and their protesting students was akin to his derision of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography and the other manifestations of the ‘obscenity’ that conservatives wanted to ban. Whatever sophistication Bloom brought to the education wars, the argument was still deeply and obviously reactionary — an overt attempt to roll back the legacy of the 1960s and the social movements.

But by the 1990s that rhetoric was tired, precisely because of what those movements had achieved. The diverse reading lists so reviled by Bloom and others reflected a genuine shift in the sensibilities of Americans, the result of decades of activism. Reagan, after all, had championed South African apartheid — but, in 1991, Nelson Mandela was free and almost universally recognised as a hero.

That was why the discovery — or perhaps construction — of ‘political correctness’ mattered. It allowed conservatives on campus to make the old arguments against equal opportunity statutes, anti-discrimination codes, attacks on the literary canon, and inclusive language. But it also enabled them to position themselves not as opponents of racial or gender equity, but as advocates of equality. By opposing PC, they said, they weren’t being sexist or racist; on the contrary, they were battling a new, authoritarian doctrine espoused by (in George Bush’s words) the ‘political extremists roam[ing] the land, abusing the privilege of free speech, setting citizens against one another on the basis of their class or race’.

That recalibration rested on a particular conjunction, as Bush made clear. The students were, he told them, graduating at a ‘historic moment’, with their commencement coinciding ‘with this nation’s commencement into a world freed from cold war conflict and thrust into an era of cooperation and economic competition’.

For Bush, the West’s triumph over the Soviet Union demonstrated the virtues of the market. That victory proved that ‘our free enterprise system’ could be trusted to deliver equality, since ‘no system of development ever has nurtured virtue as completely and rigorously as ours’. Indeed, any attempt to improve on freedom (‘say, by picking winners and losers in the economic market’) was destined not only to fail, but also to oppress, since ‘no conclave of experts, no matter how brilliant, can match the sheer ingenuity of a market that collects and distributes the wisdom of millions of people, all pursuing their destinies in different ways’.

In the Reagan era, the fight against the campus left had been pitched as a battle against African Americans, feminists, gays, and other advocates of inclusion. Bush now flipped the script entirely. For him, the struggle against political correctness was akin to the struggle against the Soviet Union, a crusade for the economic liberty that would, in and of itself, free women, African Americans, and other minorities.

This rhetorical identification of anti-PC with freedom rather than with old-fashioned bigotry was crucial, allowing ‘political correctness’ to creep into the vocabulary of those who wouldn’t have traditionally associated themselves with the right.

But to appreciate just how the war against political correctness spread so widely, it is also necessary to understand the history of the left.

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Trigger Warnings Jeff Sparrow