PC-Bashing: A Vicious Frame-up

Against the Current, No. 35, November/December 1991

The Editors

SINCE THE LATE 1980s, a nasty and unscrupulous ideological campaign has been fomented by the hardline right against reform movements on university campuses in the United States. This offensive grew to a crescendo and found a number of allies during the Gulf War in early 1991. At that time a barrage of new voices, including those of some one-time liberals and even a renowned “Marxist Scholar” who used to know better, decried what they claim is a new “liberal orthodoxy” at colleges and universities.

With a focus mainly on elite schools (Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, Duke and Michigan), these critics seek to arouse public outrage by charging that “left-wing storm troopers” and “thought police” are terrorizing naive students, moderate faculty and cowardly administrators into silence by threatening to stigmatize them as sexist, racist and homophobic; that is, for not being “P.C.” (Politically Correct).

These polemics are based on a tiny number of poorly-documented horror stories and worst-case scenarios. Still, the gist of the frame-up has caught on and is widely believed. A plethora of hyperbolic articles in national and local newspapers, combined with National Enquirer-type cover stories in Newsweek and The Atlantic, have perpetuated the hoax. Many people who don’t regard themselves as racist or reactionary are gulled into accepting false assumptions and perceptions by the right’s clever manipulation of the media and its ability to exploit a popular (and not entirely unjustified) skepticism about the waste, opportunism and pretentiousness that goes on at elite universities.

Columnist George Will and other demagogic ideologues of the right have obtained a new lease on the life of their careers. They promote images of well-paid and pampered professors, nurtured by the New Left of the 1960s and now tenured in the Ivy League, imposing on students a variety of incomprehensible nihilistic philosophies, and guilt-tripping their young dupes into rampages against a “white male curriculum.”

These sensational “revelations,” that a new generation of “corruptors of youth” is conning students into turning their backs on a racist and sexist “Western tradition,” seem to sell newspapers and books. But there is a real cost in terms of lowering the cultural level of the country—not to mention the violence done to understanding the reality of university life today.

Among other things, these pop images of life in the Ivy League ignore the fact that most college instructors, especially in the beleaguered humanities, may have certain privileges but often receive salaries below that of skilled workers and many secondary teachers; that as graduate students and teaching assistants they pay heavily for many long years of schooling with no guarantee of employment in the end; and that most work far beyond the forty-hour week for no compensation other than helping the students or the satisfaction of resolving an intellectual or artistic problem. While a few radical scholars have made the bi-time, the vast majority—especially women—remain in the “marginal” positions (in the lower ranks, often part-time and untenured).

In our view it would be a mistake to regard PC-bashing as a mere tempest in a teapot, an esoteric argument among eggheads, or a case of fanatics of left and right trying to outdo each other that deserves only a “plague-on-both-your-houses” response. This campaign against the alleged enforcement of “politically correct” orthodoxy on university campuses has all the marks of a full-fledged frame-up. Many of its key ideological components were formulated in the pages of neoconservative magazines such as Commentary and the New Criterion, and bankrolled by the Heritage and J.M. Olin Foundations.

Some of the behind-the-scenes theorists are the very men who brought you liberal McCarthyism in the 1950s. In the last decade they have fought even the most minimal reform efforts to alleviate discrimination against women, people of color, lesbians and gay men.

The focus of this attack on the elite campuses is to some degree a publicity stunt, in the same way that the “Inquisition in Hollywood” in 1947 was an early publicity-mongering stage and something of a distraction from the real objectives of the anti-radical witch-hunt that moved into full swing shortly after The widely disseminated images of prosperous screenwriters and directors, relieving their boredom by subverting the public via the movie screen, was the cover for a brutal drive to displace progressive ideas and activists from the union movement, anti-racist committees, public schools and community organizations.

In the present drive to “clean up” our campuses, the hardliners are already setting their sights on broader arenas of culture than the elite schools; collateral campaigns are under way against efforts to bring quality programs to public television and to open public museums to more complex stories of United States history.

If these reactionary cultural pogroms turn out to be successful, we can only expect more. The foray of the president of the United States into the battle against the “politically correct,” in a widely publicized Spring 1991 commencement address at the University of Michigan, is a sign that this purge drive might next become a powerful club against the left in the national presidential elections—that is, unless we can mobilize the forces to expose the lies of the hardliners and explain the authentic objectives of the reformers.

Confusing the Issues

One problem in formulating an appropriate response is that the hardliners’ smear campaign confuses a wide range of issues, each of which has its own set of complications and problems. Close to the heart of the ideological right is a fear of the consequences of the changing demography in the United States, as people of color from non-European cultural backgrounds increase their percentage of the population, comprising a majority on some campuses.

An underlying purpose of many of the attacks is to roll back affirmative action programs which, while hardly a satisfactory solution to U.S. racism and sexism, are slandered for allegedly allowing “unqualified people of color and women access to education and jobs.

Beyond this, the right-wing smear campaign conflates many aspects of the university reform movement so that it is hard to understand what solutions the reformers are suggesting in each case The hardliners’ charge that the reformers want to cast out books written by “dead white men’ refers to the efforts of reformers to enrich and complicate the curriculum by placing traditionally taught texts and historical episodes in a broader context—a context that considers neglected and non-elite sectors of society and that restores many of the non-European dimensions to what in recent centuries has been called “Western Culture.”

Another much-maligned concern of reformers is to create a campus environment in which vile hate epithets (especially ones that are racist, anti-Semitic, sexist and homophobic) are not tolerated because, when used threateningly, these epithets interfere with their targets’ right toan education. In some cases this has involved the institutional invocation of rules prohibiting the use of “Fighting Words” in the university environment (This specific controversy is the topic of an ongoing symposium in the pages of this magazine, most recently addressed by Professor E. San Juan, Jr. in ATC 34.)

A third and separate concern of the reformers has been fostering—usually through memos that make friendly suggestions—language that may minimize chances for misunderstanding and discrimination (such as using the expression sexual orientation” instead of “sexual preference”). In the hardliners’ appeal to the public, they frequently give the false impression that proposals to regulate “Fighting Words” are also intended to control what is read and discussed in the classroom, as well as to monitor the language of everyday communication.

Of course the left has its sins and weaknesses. But an important part of our tradition is self-criticism and periodic reevaluation, not to mention a long history of intra-left disagreements that renders ridiculous any talk of widespread “orthodoxy” or “monolithism.” No doubt there have been times when, angered by racism, sexism and homophobia, the left has behaved “rashly” and perhaps with inadequate information.

A Self-Critical Left

Moreover, living in the real world, the left has no hope of transcending self-righteousness and occasional tendencies to vulgarize. Nevertheless we think that, as the campus reform movements grow, the activists will learn ways to give criticism—especially in the touchy areas of racism, sexism and homophobia—that are increasingly constructive and less likely to antagonize potential allies.

Moreover, we think the left has erred in its tactics from time to time, as when sections of the Latin America solidarity movement succumbed to the understandable temptation to shout down and drown out the campus lectures of reprehensible spokespersons of imperialist death squads, such as Jeane Kirkpatrick At that time some on the Left felt proud that they had successfully made known their anger and contempt; but now we see that an image of intolerance was created that plays nicely into the hands of the hardliners.

We also recognize that some of the new professorial advocates of deconstruction, post-modernism and post-Marxism, and the more promising movement of Afrocentrism, are promoting versions of these theories that are unsound, obfuscatory and far from socialist Moreover, the careerist pressure on faculty to abandon the social movements, which forced space at the university for radical cultural critique in the first place, remains as much a feature of academic life as ever.

The reform movement can most effectively deal with issues such as its own immaturity and its charlatan currents in a context that we define, certainly not according to terms, categories and an agenda set by the hardliners. Nevertheless we must admit that, despite its spurious and cynical character, the cam-by hardliners to depict the diverse of campus reforms as part of the pattern of totalitarian thought control has been successful in creating a kind of ideological “crisis on the campuses.”

Officials administering affirmative action programs, scholars in Women’s Studies and African-American Studies, and many radical faculty and teaching assistants are regularly harassed by right-wing externally funded tabloids that are distributed free on campus, caricaturing the reformers’ aims and objectives.

Conservative organizations send agents to monitor classes, try to catch faculty offguard in interviews by making provocative statements, and successfully channel outrageous stories with misleading “quotations” to the news and opinion pages of the public press.

The hardliners campaign serves as a smokescreen to obscure a more profound “crisis on the campuses.” The latter consists of budget-slashing destruction of funds and programs necessary for the enrollment of working-class students and students of color; threats to the survival of campus unions; and the persistence of the omnipresent racist, sexist, homophobic and class-biased aspects of the environment and curriculum.

Joining the Battles

This special issue of Against the Current, and part of the forthcoming January-February issue, aims to be a unique clarification of the terms of these “crises on the campuses” and to the development of a widespread resistance.

There have been a number of special issues of journals, mostly on the left, containing point-by-point refutations of the most scurrilous charges of the PC-bashing, and that seek to defend the vision of a university teeming with debate and discussion rather than serving as an instrument of big business and its government allies. To our knowledge, however, none of these symposia have adequately linked the effort to democratize the campuses to broader U.S. social movements, the less elite components of college and university life—working-class colleges, campus workers, part-time faculty—and the labor movement in particular.

In these two issues of ATC we are bringing together a series of articles and reviews that we hope will promote such a coming together and cross-fertilization. Some of these contributions defend the contemporary critiques of Western culture and discuss the right-wing ideological offensive in such areas as “cultural literacy.” Others focus on campus union organizing the potential relation of students to the union movement, the struggle against racism in a highly complex situation such as Hawaii, the impact of the budget crisis, and the contested terrain of multiculturalism on a working-class campus.

Our selection hardly exhausts the topic, but it seeks to ground the analysis in a broader and more complex socialist perspective than has been the case. We think that the set of articles assembled here may be especially useful for discussions in classrooms, radical study groups, and educational activities sponsored by campus unions. Future issues of ATC will contain additional perspectives, and we will follow the efforts of both the PC-bashers and the resistance movements as the conflict continues to unfold.

November-December 1991, ATC 35