The crusade against “political correctness”

December 8, 2015

Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History looks back at the well-planned and well-funded origins of the right's campaign against "political correctness."

IT'S BECOME a ritual by now. As soon as news of a campus protest against racism or sexism emerges, you can count on the media filling up with outraged commentaries against "political correctness" run amok.

Rather than address the substance of the protests themselves, well-paid pundits fulminate against "coddled" students who can't accept a little real-world unpleasantness and who want to police everyone else's "free speech."

Of course, you can always count on the likes of Bill O'Reilly and his cohorts at Fox News to denounce this creeping "totalitarianism" on campus. But the media now have their go-to liberals like Jonathan Chait or Michelle Goldberg to wag their fingers at today's protesters.

The rhetoric against "political correctness" has found its way into the Republican primaries, with racists like Donald Trump wearing it as a badge of honor. Trump calls Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers and says the government should register Muslims in a database. And when anyone objects, Trump congratulates himself for his courage to dish out insults at oppressed people rather than cave to the conventions of "political correctness."

Dinesh D'Souza (to the right of Ronald Reagan) poses in the Oval Office
Dinesh D'Souza (to the right of Ronald Reagan) poses in the Oval Office

When ABC News' George Stephanopolous confronted Trump with the fact that there was no evidence for his claim that hundreds of people in New Jersey celebrated the September 11 attacks, Trump responded: "I know it might not be politically correct for you to talk about it, but there were people cheering as that building came down."

GIVEN HOW pervasive these set-piece confrontations over "political correctness" are, it's easy to forget that this wasn't always the lens through which the media viewed campus protest. In fact, the campaign against "political correctness" (PC) was established as a conscious effort on the part of right-wing ideologues in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This campaign hit a high point in May 1991 when President George H.W. Bush, addressing the University of Michigan commencement, warned that "political extremists roam the land, abusing the privilege of free speech, setting citizens against one another on the basis of their class or race." As Bush continued:

The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. Although the movement arises from a laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudices with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expressions off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.

By today's Trumpian standards, Bush's speech seems almost genteel. But there was nothing genteel about the campaign that pushed the anti-PC crusade onto the president's agenda.

In late 1990 and early 1991, cover stories like "The P.C. Front," "The Victims' Revolution," "The Storm Over the University," and "Thought Police" appeared in Time, Atlantic, Newsweek, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic and a host of other publications. According to these reports, U.S. campuses had been overrun by PC "thought police," who were conducting a witch hunt against people with whom they disagreed: conservative students, right-wing lecturers or professors who upheld the "canon" of Western literature and thought.

This was before the widespread use of the Internet, 24-hour cable news shows and even before Fox News, but the rhetoric around PC escalated rapidly anyway. Conservative columnist George Will penned a tribute to Lynne Cheney, then chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who played the role of culture warrior for "traditional values":

Lynne Cheney is secretary of domestic defense. The foreign adversaries her husband, Dick, must keep at bay are less dangerous, in the long run, than the domestic forces with which she must deal. Those forces are fighting against the conservation of the common culture that is the nation's social cement.

BEFORE THE anti-PC crusade, the term "political correctness" had been part of the jargon of the left. It took on a number of meanings, from assuming an "orthodox" position on all political questions, to conforming one's personal and interpersonal behavior to one's political ideals.

Max Elbaum's description of the late 1960s-early 1970s Maoist-influenced "new communist movement" gives a feel for the time:

Their high level of commitment made movement cadre willing to engage in self-criticism, not only to learn better organizing skills but to unlearn conduct that reflected narrow individualism or race, class or (less frequently) gender privilege. Self-transformation was seen as an integral, if subordinate, aspect of social transformation.

New York Times columnist William Safire, the conservative who for years wrote a column on English language usage, cited Black feminist Toni Cade Bambara, who wrote in 1970's The Black Woman: An Anthology that "a man cannot be politically correct and a [male] chauvinist, too."

Later, as the New Left movements declined, the term took on a more ironic tone, as activists poked fun at what they perceived as their comrades' overly zealous or dogmatic stances or wondered if it was "politically correct" to make certain career or personal decisions.

Whatever its exact origin or shortcomings, "political correctness" emerged from a milieu of people and groups dedicated to changing the world and fighting oppression. The term was definitely not used, as it is today, to excuse racist or sexist behavior.

UNTIL THE mainstream media began to promote the anti-PC crusade, it generally had been the concern of right-wing ideologues like University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom. One of the opening shots of the PC war, Bloom's 1987 best seller The Closing of the American Mind blamed 1960s radical movements for undermining the quality of scholarship and university life.

Then in 1989, William Bennett, the Reagan administration's former Education Secretary and the Bush Administration's "drug czar," gave Bloom's ideas concrete expression when he attacked Stanford University for revising its core reading list for freshmen.

Suddenly, right-wing academics and pundits were vying with one another to condemn "multiculturalism" and to report tales of anti-imperialist and anti-European bias on campus.

A steady stream of books and articles, funded by conservative think tanks such as the Olin Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Scaife Foundation, pounded away at these themes. One of these, Roger Kimball's 1990 Tenured Radicals, proclaimed, "What we have witnessed is nothing less than the occupation of the center by a new academic establishment, the establishment of tenured radicals."

Of course, the lurid tales of PC tyranny and charges of radicalism were figments of the PC bashers' imaginations.

In 1987, the American Council on Education noted a 20-year upward trend of undergraduates majoring in business--hardly the work of Marxist radicals! The 1990 Higher Education Research Institute survey found that only about 5 percent of faculty members identified themselves as "far left," compared to the 18 percent who identified themselves as conservative. And a 1992 Modern Language Association study noted that in the previous decade, only four college English departments had dropped courses in Shakespeare--compared to 18 that eliminated altogether courses in Black or ethnic literature.

In one of his more honest moments, conservative pundit John Podhoretz, who cut his teeth with the conservative newspaper at the University of Chicago, granted that universities became more conservative in the 1980s. "There's a fundamental redirection going on," Podhoretz said in 1985. "The world is a more hospitable place for conservative ideology today in a way it certainly wasn't in the 1970s. My friends and I no longer have to consider ourselves an embattled minority."

None of this really mattered to the anti-PC crusaders. They were after bigger targets. In particular, they wanted to roll back the gains of the 1960s and 1970s movements: affirmative action programs, open admissions policies, abortion rights and LGBT rights. The anti-PC crusade became an all-purpose front behind which the right wing attacked any opinion that got in the way of its attempt to turn back the clock.

Dinesh D'Souza made this clear in his 1991 Illiberal Education, where he linked multiculturalism to affirmative action and women's and minority studies programs. All of these were part of a "victim's revolution," he argued, that produced a "grievance industry" concocting allegations of racism and discrimination to hide the inability of women and minorities to keep up with college-level work.

D'Souza became the star of the anti-PC crusade. Unlike the cranky old white men like Bennett and Bloom, D'Souza was young--he turned 30 when Illiberal Education debuted--and a person of color. He made a name for himself earlier in conservative circles as a collegiate editor for the right-wing Dartmouth Review in the 1980s and as a "domestic policy adviser" to the Reagan White House.

D'SOUZA WAS the product of a "farm system" of young conservatives that right-wing foundations created during the 1980s.

When the Reagan era began in 1981, a network of conservative student publications and organizations appeared on major campuses around the country. Sustained by grants and technical support from the Institute for Educational Affairs and other conservative foundations, the number of those publications hit 50 by 1989. Support from wealthy conservatives put young conservatives in contact with the larger orbit of conservative foundations, advertisers and supporters--which reached as high as the White House itself.

The right-wing journalists "sit around some pretty significant dinner tables," said Dartmouth College's public affairs director at the time. "There are any number of U.S. senators and congressmen they can call and get their calls returned." Many of these conservative "activists" made an easy transition from campus to positions at conservative Washington think tanks, congressional and White House staffs, and, later, the conservative media.

The most notorious of the right-wing campus rags was D'Souza's Dartmouth Review, founded in 1980.

During D'Souza's tenure as editor from 1981 to 1983, the Review printed such quips as "genocide means never having to say you're sorry" and advertised a story on the Ku Klux Klan with a staged picture of a Black man hanging from a tree. In 1981, the Review published an article by D'Souza outing officers of the Dartmouth Gay Students Association and printed excerpts from confidential personal letters of GSA members. D'Souza's articles were based on documents stolen from GSA files.

Even after D'Souza had decamped to Washington to write a biography of far-right Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Review kept up its antics. In 1986, people associated with the paper destroyed an anti-apartheid shantytown with baseball bats and sledgehammers. Two years later, two Review staffers physically attacked one of the two Black professors on the Dartmouth campus.

The Dartmouth Review's provocations were the most extreme of the 1980s campus right, but they weren't the only ones. In 1984, a Northwestern Review staffer, on a field trip with the counterrevolutionary forces fighting the left-wing Nicaraguan government, published gruesome pictures of a contra execution of a "communist."

In 1990, University of Iowa Campus Review editor Jeffrey Renander led a counterdemonstration to the Iowa City LGBT pride parade. Mocking the AIDS Quilt, Renander and his cohorts carried a "gerbil quilt" that purported to memorialize gerbils "[that] die every year" from "certain sexual practices."

Those outrages were just a few examples of the sort of filth that so-called conservative "activists" and "journalists," using corporate and alumni money, brought to U.S. campuses. The whole aim of the operation was to shift the general political climate to the right, and to make racism, sexism and anti-gay prejudice "respectable" on campus.

The attack on PC was the work of ideologically committed conservatives who worked through networks like IEA. It was not the work of disinterested scholars, but of a small core of right-wing ideologues. With corporate money and the mass media at their disposal, the PC bashers were no embattled minority. They were well-paid hired guns for those who hold power in Washington and Corporate America.

LOOKING BACK over this history in light of recent controversies on campus, it becomes clear just how successful the anti-PC crusade was. Not only does the "political correctness" canard emerge just about every time a campus mobilizes against racism or sexism, but now liberals like Chait try to beat conservatives into print.

Plenty of prospects from the 1980s conservative collegiate farm system have made it to the majors. They aren't a persecuted minority, but fixtures in the conservative opinion establishment.

Laura Ingraham, one of D'Souza's partners in crime at Dartmouth, is a conservative media star, with a national radio show and a slot on Fox. Podhoretz is the editor of Commentary and a columnist for the New York Daily News. Ann Coulter, editor of the Cornell Review in the mid-1980s, is a best-selling author known for her steady patter of consciously offensive statements against Blacks, immigrants, Muslims, liberals and other targets of conservatives.

One-time Harvard Salient editor Ross Douthat speaks out against attacks on the conservatives' free speech from his bunker in the New York Times editorial page. Peter Thiel, first editor of the Stanford Review, is a libertarian billionaire who founded PayPal.

Of all of them, D'Souza has probably had the worst run of bad luck. After re-grabbing the spotlight with his ridiculous 2010 book The Roots of Obama's Rage and a 2012 documentary film based on it, he pled guilty in 2012 to making illegal contributions to a U.S. Senate campaign. He's now on probation after serving eight months in a halfway house in San Diego.

More seriously, the bitter fruit of the early 1990s ideological campaign against political correctness can be seen in its more tangible, material results.

After a series of Supreme Court decisions and referendum results, affirmative action on U.S. campuses is hanging by a thread. Cases of sexual assault on campus are still met with victim-blaming and bureaucratic incompetence.

And as much as conservatives prattle on about attacks on free speech, the real attacks on campus free speech have come from their side. Witness the outlawing of Chicano studies in Arizona or the "Palestine exception" to on-campus debate about Israel and Palestine.

In the neoliberal era, higher education has become increasingly transformed into an expensive commodity, sustained by underpaid and precarious labor and onerous levels of student debt. It's a system that's more attuned to "educating for austerity" than for encouraging critical thought about society or the economy.

That's just fine with the purveyors of the line about the "closing of the American mind."

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