The signs and portents are now unmistakable. In the accelerating saga of political correctness on American college and university campuses, this season has brought a significant shift in the strategy of the academic Left to secure and expand its political hold on teaching and administrative appointments—and thus on the whole system of policy, promotion, and preferment—in the humanistic disciplines.
What we are witnessing is a public-relations campaign designed to deny that the phenomenon of political correctness even exists. And it is very much a part of this strategy of denial to claim that the widespread discussion of political correctness that has recently taken place in the media is simply the result of what a headline in The Washington Post last month called “right-wing disinformation.” According to this disingenuous scenario, there is no such thing as political correctness either on the campuses or in the classrooms of our colleges and universities. The contention that efforts to enforce politically correct attitudes and behavior are rampant in the academy are nothing but a vicious invention of what, in the Post’s account of this season’s meeting of the Modern Language Association, was described as “misinformation propagated by right-wing scholars, think tanks, and commentators.”
The same Post report offered some prime examples of this new strategy at work. For instance, the incoming president of the MLA—Houston Baker, a professor of African-American literature at the University of Pennsylvania—was quoted as follows on the subject of political correctness: “It is someone else’s invention. I’d have to send you to someone else to understand it. It is not something I understand.” Catharine R. Stimpson of Rutgers University, herself a past president of the MLA, provided us with an even more egregious example of denial. Long a vociferous champion of politically correct orthodoxy at innumerable forums, conferences, and panel discussions, Professor Stimpson blithely confessed to the Post that “I’m about as left-wing as Barbara Bush.” Now, for anyone familiar with Professor Stimpson’s record of political advocacy, this would be hilarious, indeed a prime example of political camp, were it not such a flagrant denial of the truth.
As this well-organized campaign to induce a kind of historical amnesia about political correctness unfolds, it is more important than ever to recall the precise origin of the term, which emerged in the later years of the 1980s to describe a new political development. Far from being the product of “right-wing disinformation,” PC was in fact a spontaneous coinage of the undergraduate students who were its first victims—a response to the new prohibitions on speech and thought that were initiated by administrative edict and classroom rule. One of the first widely recognized expressions of this rebellion came to us from Brown University, itself a citadel of political rectitude, in the form of the satirical cartoon strip “Thatch.” Created by Jeff Shesol, then an undergraduate at Brown, the strip featured the absurd divagations of a character called “Politically Correct Person.” “Thatch” can hardly be called a project of conservative “misinformation.” Neither can the official catechism of politically correct speech that the Smith College administration handed out to all incoming students. This extraordinary document, entitled “Specific Manifestations of Oppression,” warned the entire Smith community against a wide range of unacceptable prejudices, including the prejudice of “lookism,” i.e., the reactionary belief that some people are more attractive than others. Such developments—the one critical of the rising PC orthodoxy on American campuses, the other a blunt instrument designed to enforce it—were, each in its own way, an accurate measure of the thought-control mechanisms that had already become commonplace in our colleges and universities by the end of the 1980s.
Why, starting around 1990, did the media finally awaken to the effects of this devastating political movement, which has drastically curtailed freedom of speech and debate on American campuses? It was certainly not because of any “right-wing” conspiracy. On the contrary, the outcry against political correctness—now openly allied with the ideology of multiculturalism that is sweeping our schools and universities—occurred primarily because the intolerance it signified had become so blatant that its discussion could no longer be contained or controlled by the academic radicals who were responsible for its existence. Once the news got out, it was inevitable that it would be argued about and resisted. Conservative critics, including some contributors to The New Criterion, were the first to sound the alarm about what was happening on the PC front, and their record on this issue is something to be proud of. But recent coverage of political correctness has included reports from such bastions of liberalism as The New York Times, Newsweek, The New York Review of Books, “The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour,” and the Public Broadcasting Service. To suggest, as the academic commissars at the MLA and elsewhere are doing, that the media have been duped in this matter by a tiny band of conservative writers is not only a denial of the truth but also the most cynical attempt at disinformation we have witnessed in years. What this development undoubtedly means is that the leaders of the academic Left in this country have now abandoned open debate on the question of political correctness in favor of a strategy of Big Lie propaganda and slanderous scapegoating.
It was the English conservative writer Paul Johnson who last year called the movement for political correctness an example of “liberal fascism.” The signs are now numerous—not only in this strategy of denial but also in the increased intolerance of dissenting views in the academy—that the leaders of the movement are more than ever determined to live up to this description.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 6, on page 1
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