Published February 1, 2010
Two thousand ten marks the twentieth anniversary of the entry of the term “political correctness” — in its contemporary, “multiculturalist” sense — into the popular vocabulary. There is a splendid irony to the fact that this dubious boon to the language should have been conferred upon it by Newsweek, now a self-conscious pioneer of what it hopes will be a new, politically correct form of journalism, in a sensational cover story to its issue of December 24, 1990. The old, un-PC Newsweek, which raised in this connection the specter of an Orwellian “Thought Police” and “a new McCarthyism” of the left, was drawing on an article by Richard Bernstein (“The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct”) that had run in the old, less-PC New York Times a couple of months previously — which itself drew heavily on the work of this journal's editor, Roger Kimball. His book Tenured Radicals, first published in 1989 and now available in a handsome new edition from Ivan R. Dee, had identified the phenomenon as reaching out from politicized universities staffed by 1960s-era student radicals to the larger culture, where it has since made ever greater inroads, especially in the media, the law, and politics itself.
Politically correct politics, it might be objected, is a contradiction in terms. Political correctness is in fact the death of politics — politics, that is, of the democratic sort — which by definition presupposes difference, division, and partisanship. If only one side of the political debate is “correct,” and the other is therefore axiomatically incorrect, then there is no more debate. Indeed, cutting off debate is precisely the aim of the politically correct in seeking wherever possible to moralize political matters — such as health-care reform, global warming, or the war on terrorism — that are very ill-served by such treatment, at least from the point of view of civil society. When, as I noticed in this space last month (“It's Only Common Sense,” The New Criterion, February 2010), the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid characterized the Democrats' health-care reform bill as being “on the right side of history,” the end of debate so far as the majority was concerned was signaled in a sense much broader than that of the cloture he was forced by the Republicans to invoke in order to get the bill passed.
Senator Reid himself subsequently fell foul of the harpies of political correctness when, in early January, he had to issue a groveling apology for using the term “Negro” to describe a “dialect” he had once been incautious enough to express gratitude that Senator Barack Obama (as he then was) did not speak — unless he chose to speak it. “Negro” itself had of course been the politically correct term in Senator Reid's youth, but the progress of political correctness has since rendered it only less offensive than its vulgar cognate, now universally referred to by the media in awestruck tones as “the N-word.” You've got to keep up to date with the terminology, just as you did during Stalinist times when the first iteration of political correctness took a short and vigorous way with the incorrect. It was also, it appeared, offensive to describe the alleged dialect thus referred to as anything but a valid choice of the African-American community's linguistic heritage, and that fault was further compounded by the Senator's reference to the President as “light-skinned” — which I guess is only politically incorrect in a context implying that dark skin might be an electoral disadvantage.
The Republicans must take their politically advantageous scandals where they can find them these days, but in the case of Senator Reid they were more scandalized by the fact that the media and the Democrats — including President Obama himself — were inclined to be forgiving towards this particular thought-crime, as they had been when then-Senator Biden had described Mr. Obama as “clean” at around the same time and was subsequently invited to be his vice-president. No Republican, they kept insisting, would have been treated with such indulgence — as former senators Trent Lott and George Allen could testify. But what did they expect? The politics of scandal is never going to be ideologically neutral, dangerous alike to both sides of the political divide, since it owes its very existence to the progressive imposture that the political struggle is between good and evil, right and wrong, correct and incorrect, and not merely between competing interests, as it has at times in American history been supposed to be, between bouts of moralization.
That is what it means to be on the right side of history. Senator Reid's invocation of history's imprimatur for the Democratic and progressive cause only made explicit what has long been implicit in our political and media culture. It is implied by the very name “progressive” now most often favored by former “liberals.” The Senator would not have made his claim on history's sanction if he had not known that he could rely on the assent to it of at least his own side of the aisle and possibly of some on the other side as well to this frankly Marxist proposition. To be strictly accurate, I suppose, you'd have to describe it as neo-Marxist, since Marx's version of historicism allowed only for revolution, not reform. But the Republicans in the congenial role of the bourgeoisie were still being invited to acknowledge their own political irrelevance before the forces of history. That would have been unimaginable in the context of a political debate on the floor of the U.S. Senate without the progress made by political correctness over the last twenty years.
Yet I would prefer to mark the anniversary by noticing some of what I take to be the lesser-known ramifications of this new lease on life given to the ancient concept of forbidden knowledge. Once it was Gnosticism and other Christian heresies — or witchcraft, magic, and the scientific revolutions of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin — that were consigned to unofficial status by, where they were not persecuted for, the doubt they cast on an official mythology. The new forbidden knowledge, however, is that the exponents of human and scientific progress, having made the transition from unofficial persecutees to official persecutors, have not abolished and, maybe, cannot abolish that older, darker world of honor, violence, and superstition that we so desperately want to consign to the past. Islamic terrorism, for example, is on the wrong side of history by progressive lights, being doubly damned by religion and violence, and that is what makes its periodic recrudescence, as in the attempted terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines flight 253 on Christmas day by a twenty-three-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an insult to the assumptions on which our own official culture is founded.
There, too, the Republicans attempted to gain political advantage by treating Mr. Abdulmutallab's presence on the airplane as a scandal, presumably on the analogy of the missing Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, should have known, they thought. The intelligence services should have been able to “connect the dots” — which in this case included an explicit warning by the young man's father to the American embassy in Nigeria that his son had become a jihadi. And the media had been in that instance more accommodating to the Republican point of view — at least to the extent of forcing the administration to retract and revisit such early faux pas as the homeland security secretary's announcement that “the system worked” or the President's that Mr. Abdulmutallab had been “an isolated extremist.” These were such obvious falsehoods that even the compliant media could not stand still for them. When so reliable a Democratic cheerleader as Maureen Dowd compared the President's detachment from reality to President Bush's “H
eckuva job, Brownie,” in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he must have known he was in trouble.
But not, as it turned out, very big trouble. After not quite two weeks, the President went before the press, admitted fault in the failure to prevent the terrorist from getting on the airplane and invoked every Democratic president's second favorite predecessor, Harry Truman, with the now-meaningless statement that “the buck stops with me.” These days, of course, the buck is a gelding that nuzzles up to you like one of Santa's reindeer and gets you public sympathy and admiration instead of causing you to be sacked or turned out of office — which cannot have been an irrelevant consideration to President Obama in bringing him up. At any rate, the media immediately seized upon his handsome concession to connect a dot or two of their own and make the inevitable comparison with every Democratic president's first favorite predecessor, John Kennedy, and his admission of responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco three months into his term of office. The political culture has learned from the therapeutic one, apparently, that an admission of guilt is now to be treated not as a reason for punishment but for congratulation. Domino's Pizza, oddly, decided to test the truth of this proposition at about the same time by admitting in paid advertisements that its pies tasted like cardboard. We will keep you posted on how that strategy works out.
As for what was actually to be done about his failure, the President had no better suggestion to make than to call for yet further studies and reviews of the security and intelligence bureaucracies and to increase to even more absurd levels those bureaucracies' license to harass innocent air travelers and struggling airlines pointlessly by making commercial aviation an even more miserable experience than it already is. In his initial and now inoperative statement about the outrage, President Obama had thought to contrast the “isolated extremist” with “an alert and courageous citizenry” — presumably in the person of the Dutchman Jasper Schuringa, who seems to have led the successful effort by the vigilant (and vigilante) passengers which prevented Mr. Abdulmutallab from successfully detonating his explosive underpants. But, for some reason, President Obama (and the press) had forgotten about Schuringa by the time he gave his apology. It wouldn't have cost anything to have met Schuringa and given him a medal by way of encouraging emulators, but perhaps such congratulations would have interfered with the President's self-congratulations for his frank and ready admission of fault.
Having been goaded to it by former Vice President Cheney, the President did acknowledge for the first time that “We are at war,” though the statement was so qualified and hedged about with caveats, including a reiteration of his inaugural fantasy that there could be no tension between national security and the highest sort of respect for the civil liberties of terrorists, that it was almost as meaningless as his acceptance of responsibility. To say as he did that we are at war with al-Qaeda is not only to fail to account for either Mr. Abdulmutallab or Major Malik Hassan, the shooter in the Ft. Hood massacre a few weeks previously, neither of whom were members of that organization, but also to minimize the importance of the war itself and its natural place in the hierarchy of the nation's priorities to something little more than a police action. That would have been, had he chosen to make it, a more significant and accurate allusion to the vocabulary of Harry Truman who thus described what everybody else knew as the Korean War.
Any greater precision or frankness, however, would have fallen foul of political correctness and thus have been classed with the forbidden knowledge whose publication invites scandal. As Mark Steyn wrote:
Aside from the highly localized Tamil terrorism of India and Sri Lanka, suicide bombing is a phenomenon entirely of Islam. The broader psychosis that manifested itself only the other day in an axe murderer breaking into a Danish cartoonist's home to kill him because he objects to his cartoon is likewise a phenomenon of Islam. This is not to say (to go wearily through the motions) that all Muslims are potential suicide bombers and axe murderers, but it is to state the obvious — that this “war” is about the intersection of Islam and the West, and its warriors are recruited in the large pool of young Muslim manpower, not in Yemen and Afghanistan so much as in Copenhagen and London. But the president of the United States cannot say that because he is over-invested in a fantasy — that, if only that Texan moron Bush had read Khalid Sheikh Mohammed his Miranda rights and bowed as low as he did to the Saudi king, we wouldn't have all these problems. So now Obama says, “We are at war.” But he cannot articulate any war aims or strategy because they would conflict with his illusions. And so we will stagger on, playing defense, pulling more and more items out of our luggage — tweezers, shoes, shampoo, snowglobes, suppositories — and reacting to every new provocation with greater impositions upon the citizenry. You can't win by putting octogenarian nuns through full-body scanners. All you can do is lose slowly. After all, if you can't even address what you're up against with any honesty, you can't blame the other side for drawing entirely reasonable conclusions about your faintheartedness in taking them on.
This is all very true and well-said, but I think there is another and in some ways even more worrying failure to confront reality in the Obama administration's reaction to the underpants bomber. For the President's swift knuckling under to the demands of the media's scandal obsession by finding someone on our side to blame for what terrorists do, have done, and always will do — even if for once that someone wasn't his predecessor in office — was yet a further instance of the progressive utopianism that Harry Reid was also invoking along with the sanction of “history.” The ultimate article of faith of the new official culture, the one thing that can never, ever be allowed to be called into doubt by the forbidden knowledge of the unrespectable, un-PC lumpen-commentariat is that we have it within our own power to remake the world so that the things about it we do not like, including terrorism, can be eliminated along with poverty, disease, conflict, climate change, and all imperfection.
Hence the President's citation in connection with the terrorist hotbed of Yemen of the “crushing poverty” of that country. He clings to the belief that poverty is at least one significant cause of terrorism because poverty, unlike the warlike propensities of Wahabi Islam, is something that we might conceivably do something about. Hence, too, the weird fixation, as much on the part of the media and progressives everywhere as of the President himself, with closing the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay and moving its inmates — when they are not simply released to return to their terrorist ways — to Illinois. Progressives genuinely believe that Guantánamo is “a recruiting tool” for al-Qaeda, but they believe it not just because it is a recruiting tool, as it very well may be, but because they must exaggerate the importance of such poor recruiting tools so as to continue to close their eyes to other, better recruiting tools they can do nothing about. The focus on Guantánamo allows them to pretend that, by closing it, they are doing something meaningful to prevent terrorism. It's a way for the system to work, in short, however trivially or ineffectually.
For it is simply not credible to suppose that imprisoning terrorists in Illinois rather than Cuba is going to soften them, allay their hatred of America, and eliminate, or even reduce, their will to commit terrorist acts. There are too many other causes of those acts that are obviously outside any conceivable
function of our “system,” including the religious culture and the peculiar sense of honor and grievance of virtually the whole Muslim world. The utopian must focus to the exclusion of all else on those small and relatively insignificant things that are in our control — closing a prison here, ordering a full-body scanner, or forbidding bathroom breaks there — because to do otherwise would amount to a denial of his utopian faith. That is also why the heroic Mr. Schuringa will get no medal from the American President whose anti-terrorist bacon he did so much to save. Not being part of the government-designed system, he could have had no place in the calculations of those who put their faith only in such systems.
The real answer to the terrorist threat is to train and encourage hundreds, thousands, and eventually hundreds of thousands of Jasper Schuringas to constitute “an alert and courageous citizenry.” But that idea seems to have become something for Mr. Obama to apologize for along with his “isolated extremist.” Twenty years on, it appears that political correctness demands not only that we avoid the racialist implications of “profiling” Muslims at airports, but also that we avoid the anti-utopian implications of encouraging people to fight against terrorists where and when they find them. “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero,” wrote the Communist Bertholdt Brecht in Galileo more than seventy years ago, but I wonder if even he could have foreseen a land that, needing heroes as we so clearly do, found itself only embarrassed by them. As Brecht also wrote, “no one can be good for long if goodness is not in demand.” In the face of evil, goodness is always in demand, and we were far better advised to put our faith in it rather than the best-designed systems and the benevolent processes of “history” that are supposed to favor them.
James Bowman is the author of Honor: A History (Encounter Books) and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, also published by Encounter (2008).