It is difficult to pick up any left-leaning newspaper, magazine or journal in the weeks since Donald Trump stunned the world, without finding another wounded progressivist warrior licking his or her wounds. For some – without stretching the analogy too far – the scene is reminiscent of that in Book I of Paradise Lost where Lucifer is trying to pull his forces together to devise a strategy for a new war on the victorious Enemy.
For the American Democratic Party and its faithful it is imperative that they now do this. But prior to taking such action an exercise of self-examination is called for. What must we now do, they ask each other, to get their long revolution back on track. Some are still at the scapegoat stage – who among ourselves has done this? Why? Others are calling for an assessment of the tactics of the enemy. How did the Right win this battle? What nefarious trickery did they use to vanquish us in such a humiliating way?
A writer in The Guardian last week goes down this road, setting the whole thing in a wider context of what she sees and the Right’s general chicanery. Moira Weigel’s long article, Political correctness: how the right invented a phantom enemy, purports to take us through the history of this monster and show us that no such phenomenon really exists.
The line of argument really misses the point. It may be true that, as she says, “most Americans had never heard the phrase ‘politically correct’ before 1990, when a wave of stories began to appear in newspapers and magazines.” She traces the progress of what then became an explosion of awareness. As far as she is concerned it all began in that year with New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein’s article, “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct.”
Following the publication of that article, in the remainder of that year, the term is used more than 700 times across media. The next year it makes 2500 appearances and 2800 in 1992.
So what? Phrases that catch the imagination are nothing new. Just because they hit the media jackpot does not mean that they are phantoms – that they do not represent something inimical to a culture. A phrase is just a phrase. The deep and all-pervasive cultural reality behind this little phrase is what matters. This reality is something that has been in the cultural mix of America and the West for more than a century.
As a phrase, the earliest use of the term came in 1936, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. POLITICALLY CORRECT: conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.
But forget the label. Cut to the chase. Political correctness is just one weapon in the armoury of a broader movement which launched itself on the world in a new incarnation at the beginning of the 20th century. Political correctness as we now know it embodies nothing more or less that then the Ten Commandments of the New Morality, manifested in the libertarian antics of 1920s in America. It also represents the cultural Marxist’s approach to ethics in the earlier decades of the 20th century. The influence of Freud was also a powerful factor in the evolution of this new code of behaviour for the human race, a subversion of existing Judaeo-Christian moral standards.
What started then is still going on in those strands, libertarian and Marxist, interlocking more than ever after the fall of the Soviet bloc.
Throughout most of the 20th century the progress of the New Morality was marked by consolidation and subversion. Then, in the 21st century, the offensive against the rival morality began in earnest. Conservatives responded to this offensive and in doing so identified many of the fundamental tenets of the movement with those already labelled as ‘politically correct’.
But in the end who cares what they are called? The substance of the morality is what matters – on both sides. Both sides offer radically different visions of the good life, the purpose of life and the nature of the society which will best serve it.
Weigel dates the conservative kickback to the late 1980s, when, she maintains, a well-funded conservative movement entered the mainstream with a series of improbable bestsellers that took aim at American higher education. The first, by the University of Chicago philosophy professor Allan Bloom, came out in 1987. “For hundreds of pages, The Closing of the American Mind argued that colleges were embracing a shallow ‘cultural relativism’ and abandoning long-established disciplines and standards in an attempt to appear liberal and to pander to their students. It sold more than 500,000 copies and inspired numerous imitations.”
Were they really fighting a phantom menace? Hardly, if you give any credence at all to the Marxist, neo-Marxists of the New Left, and the libertarian warriors of the early and mid-tweentieth century.
Professor Robert George of Princeton, in a recent post, recalled the words of the Italian communist and cultural Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, in 1915:
Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity. … In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.
Who can say he was wrong, Professor George asks? What are kids being taught (formally and informally) in schools and universities about sexuality, marriage, the taking of life in the womb? What messages on these and other social issues do the mainstream media send in a thousand subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—ways? In which direction have the mainline churches gone? Is there any doubt that a ‘transformation of consciousness’ has occurred? Whose moral doctrines are preached by liberal religious organizations, those of traditional Christianity and Judaism? Or those of secular liberalism or socialism, now dressed up in the garb of religion?
For Raymond Williams, doyen of the New Left in the 1960s – with his scholarly and beguiling books, Culture and Society and The Long Revolution – culture was the whole gamut of ways in which people thought, felt and acted. In terms of the Marxist’s ambition, culture was what had to be transformed and its transformation would bring about the transformation – or as they would see it – the freeing of man from the multiple slaveries to which he had been subjected, the slaveries articulated by feminists like Kate Millet in that decade.
Millet’s younger sister, Mallory, in her later years recalled: During my junior year in high school, the nuns asked about our plans for after we graduated. When I said I was going to attend State University, I noticed their disappointment. I asked my favorite nun, “Why?” She answered, “That means you’ll leave four years later a communist and an atheist!”
What a giggle we girls had over that. “How ridiculously unsophisticated these nuns are,” we thought. Then I went to the university and four years later walked out a communist and an atheist, just as my sister Katie had six years before me.
A chastened Mallory Millet wrote of this two years ago in an article entitled, Marxist Feminism’s Ruined Lives in which she recounts the horror she witnessed inside the women’s “liberation” movement. In 1969 she was invited by her sister to a “consciousness-raising-group” – in the language of the opposing morality this would doubtless be a “conscience-forming group. Present were 12 university educated women. The chair opened the meeting with a back-and-forth recitation of the Catechism of this new religion:
“Why are we here today?” she asked. “To make revolution,” they answered.
“What kind of revolution?” “The Cultural Revolution,” they chanted.
“And how do we make Cultural Revolution?” “By destroying the American family!”
“How do we destroy the family?” “By destroying the American Patriarch,” they cried exuberantly.
“And how do we destroy the American Patriarch?” “By taking away his power!”
“How do we do that?” “By destroying monogamy!” they shouted.
“How can we destroy monogamy?” “By promoting promiscuity, eroticism, prostitution and homosexuality!” came the plain, unvarnished and shocking answer.
Western society was to be deconstructed and to do that, they argued, they needed to invade every American institution. All must be permeated with ‘The Revolution’.
That included the media, the educational system, universities, high schools, school boards, etc.; then, the judiciary, the legislatures, the executive branches and even the library system. The Gramsci programme was well and truly under way.
Millett’s books captivated academia and soon ‘Women’s Studies’ courses were installed in colleges across the nation. Some phantom!
Weigel protests that the growing opposition, “these crusaders against political correctness” are every bit as political as their opponents. She quotes Jane Mayer’s book, Dark Money: the Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, published earlier this year, which asserts that Bloom and others were funded by networks of conservative donors – particularly the Koch, Olin and Scaife families – who had spent the 1980s building programmes that they hoped would create a new “counter-intelligentsia”.
How dare they, is the implication. It is just not fair. But surely every revolution deserves its counter-revolution?
Weigel accuses the conservatives of committing the fallacy of cherry-picking anecdotes and caricaturing the subjects of their criticism. They complained that other people were creating and enforcing speech codes, while at the same time attempting to enforce their own speech codes. Their writers designated themselves the arbiters of what conversations or political demands deserved to be taken seriously, and which did not. They contradicted themselves in the same way: their authors continually complained, in highly visible publications, that they were being silenced.
Clearly they were not being silenced, but that was not, is not, for want of the Left’s efforts – and these efforts continue unabated. Robert George has just had to come to the defence of Professor Anthony Esolen, a colleague in another university.
I have always thought highly of Providence College, he writes. But the College has recently brought shame on itself by its shocking mistreatment of one of its most accomplished scholars and finest teachers: Professor Anthony Esolen.
Professor Esolen’s crime? Sharply criticizing identity politics and the “diversity” ideology it has generated at Providence and at colleges and universities across the country. The administration, faculty, and students should be thoughtfully considering and engaging Professor Esolen’s criticisms. If, upon reflection, they do not find them to be sound, they should respond in the currency of academic discourse—reasons, evidence, arguments—not by attempting to isolate, stigmatize, and marginalize him for stating dissenting opinions.
What we have here is a clash of cultures within Western civilization which is ultimately far more important than the clash being fought out in the Middle East. Are lives being lost in this clash? Yes they are; millions of them in the persons of the unborn being deliberately killed in the wombs of their mothers. Millions more are being wounded in the persons of the victims of the war on marriage and the destruction of the family.
This is no phantom; this is hard and bitter reality. Two moralities are locked in deadly combat and if those on the side of Judaeo-Christian civilization may ultimately see themselves at one with the Magi as imagined by T. S. Eliot, while they live in this dispensation they have no option but to engage in combat with the menace confronting them.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.