PC: A New McCarthyism?

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

Ellen Schrecker

CONTRARY TO THE claims of such experts as George Bush, the so-called movement for “political correctness” on campus does not threaten to become the new McCarthyism.

For the past year conservative intellectuals and journalists have been charging that, in the guise of encouraging diversity and protecting students from racist or sexist, language, powerful groups within the academic community are challenging traditional values and repressing individual freedom in a manner disturbingly reminiscent of the worst excesses of the McCarthy era. In fact, however, it is these opponents of “PC” who have the real power, and who are exaggerating the alleged dangers of political correctness in order to divert attention from more serious social and political problems. Let us look at how they do this.

Superficially the PC issue is about education. But it is really about economic opportunity. The well-paid, low-skilled entry-level jobs in the unionized sector of the mass production industries that could once support an entire family have largely disappeared. As a result, the only way a young man or woman can realistically aspire to anything more remunerative than becoming a short-order cook is to go to college. The main function of higher education, thus, is to credential people, to provide socially acceptable criteria for the allocation of decently paid managerial and professional jobs.

The movement to enhance the cultural diversity on the nation’s campuses is an attempt to make those institutions, and the economic opportunities they present, more accessible to all students, including those who for reasons of race, gender and/or other disabilities, had previously been excluded. In its crudest terms, multiculturalism is a variant of the traditional American dream.

Politics of Declining Opportunities

But as the economy slows down and the prospects for individual advancement decline, the competition for access to the credentials that guarantee economic security heats up. Moreover, the state, so crucial to the enhancement of educational opportunity, has opted out of the struggle: Not only has it pulled back from its admittedly limited commitment to opening the nation’s colleges and universities to economically disadvantaged students, but even tries to deny a problem exists.

There is, so George Bush assures us in the same University of Michigan commencement speech in which he trashed PC, no competition over the allocation of economic resources. “Free enterprise liberates us from the Hobbesian quagmire.” (George Bush, “The Challenge to Build a Good Society,” Michigan Alumnus, Vol. 97, No. 5, 42.) As a result, since the market will supposedly eliminate the need to compete for economic success, there is no obligation to revise the traditional ground rules that once gave certain groups—mainly white men—a near-monopoly on the best jobs.

Here is where the PC debate enters. By drawing attention to what is essentially a non-issue, it deflects pressure from demands for greater access to higher education and for an elimination of the racism and sexism that, among their other functions, limit the pool of applicants for economic and social advancement.

At a time when budget crises are forcing the nation’s public colleges and universities to cut back in all areas and raise tuitions (often by as much as thirty or forty per cent), criticizing PC offers political conservatives a way to evade such real life problems, and to continue their attacks on affirmative action and compensatory education by disguising them as a defense of toleration and free speech.

Worse, by seizing upon a few extreme examples and creating stereotypes of rampaging feminists and wild-eyed Afro-centrists, the opponents of PC pander to the racism and sexism that still pervade much of American society. They dolt, of course, in a suitably academic manner, disguising their tolerance for oppression as the more politically acceptable defense of intellectual standards and Western values. Recognizing the connection of the movement to expand and diversify the canon with that to expand and diversify the university, the opponents of PC have concentrated their fire on the former as an indirect way of attacking the latter.

Canons and Politics

Such mystification makes racism and sexism respectable, and lets political opportunists and the mainstream media exploit the increasing polarization of American society while posing as the defenders of great books. There is an almost hysterical quality to some of the debate over “the canon” that belies its alleged rationality. It is, quite frankly, ridiculous to charge that opening the canon to non-traditional works will lower standards and destroy the cultural cement holding American society together.

The curriculum has always been subject to revision. More importantly, however, the furor about the canon ignores the fact that the crucial element in any course is not the text, but the teacher. The readings that professors assign matter much less than the way in which they are taught. Sectarianism and narrow-mindedness are the real threats to intellectual freedom; and Aristotle can be taught just as dogmatically as a slave narrative.

Nor, contrary to the fears of the anti-PCs, does revising the curriculum mean abandoning academic standards. There is an automatic assumption that only professors who approach the traditional curriculum in the traditional way can challenge their students intellectually. No doubt, some multiculturalists do give gut courses; but so too do traditional professors.

In any event, from the perspective of a college classroom, the whole controversy seems unreal. As any teacher knows, most students care about the canon only insofar as it will appear on the exam. Compared to all the other forces shaping the American psyche, to believe that reading lists could undermine national values gives professors power far beyond their wildest dreams.

Diversity, Power and Speech

That, of course, is the real issue. For some reason, the anti-PCs seem to assume that the proponents of cultural diversity have power. It is an assumption that governs their concern about the supposed suppression of free speech on campus. For the anti-PCs, the culprits here are those universities that have either punished students for making racist, sexist or otherwise demeaning statements, or have adopted disciplinary codes that may do so.

Free speech is too important an issue to let the anti-PCs define its parameters. Yet overstated as it is, we cannot ignore the conservatives’ argument, largely because it is extremely difficult to defend the use of coercion against any kind of language.

While it would be both naive and dangerous to portray the academic community as a stronghold of freedom, it is nonetheless true that the nation’s campuses do offer comparatively more space for political dissent than the rest of society. It is space that requires constant protection, especially by those of us on the left who usually need it the most.

In this sense, therefore, even the most well-intentioned hate-speech regulations are dangerous. A punishing person for what they say, no matter how hurtful or disgusting, sets a disturbing precedent. It fashions a tool that can all too easily be turned against its original advocates. If the past history of academic freedom is any guide, it is not difficult to imagine a situation in which a procedure designed to discipline drunken fraternity boys for harassing women, gays, and people of color can be used against African-American nationalists and supporters of the PLO.

The Real McCarthyism

During the McCarthy era, when there was indeed a witch hunt within the academic community, the nation’s universities, for all their stated concern about intellectual freedom, did not defend political diversity. But—and this is crucial—the purges that took place did not originate on campus; they were the universities’ response to the demands of outside authorities for the elimination of politically undesirable professors.

In every case, an official agency like the FBI or a congressional investigation committee initiated the action. Academic McCarthyism was a matter of state. Many academic administrators collaborated because they were patriotic; they sincerely believed that national security was at stake. In the process, over a hundred educators were fired, mainly because they refused to purge themselves politically by naming names. At the same time, many other scholars abandoned academic life voluntarily or censored themselves in order to keep their jobs or fellowships.

There are no such victims today. For all the media hype about PC as the new McCarthyism, no one has been fired for sexist remarks or racial insensitivity. References to faculty purges or terrorized professors seem to recycle the same old anecdotes. Moreover, at least within the mainstream political correctness is now a pejorative term. Ideologically as well as politically, the proponents of cultural diversity are on the defensive—while their opponents thrive.

The greater sensitivity towards women and minority groups and the willingness to grant them a larger role within the university that marked the PC movement is disappearing as the academic community comes under attack from the Bush administration and the media. Contrary to the demonology of the anti-PCs, there are few feminists, Marxists, or African-Americans in control of the nation’s academic institutions. Lacking power, they cannot protect themselves or their constituents, once the universities’ authorities sense which way the political winds are blowing.

The Bush Agenda

George Bush’s entry into the PC debate escalates the conflict. Since he can hardly be accused of sensitivity toward freedom of speech, we must assume that his agenda lies elsewhere. Opposing political correctness allows Bush to address educational issues without having to talk about money.

It also lets him appeal to racism without doing it openly. He can even claim to be combatting it; for the conservatives have structured the PC debate in such a way as to transpose the roles of victims and victimizers and make it appear as if feminists, gays, and people of color are oppressing unprotected, underrepresented, and ineffectual white men. For all its absurdity, the reiteration of such a charge makes it possible for someone like George Bush to present the preservation of privilege as if it were the righting of wrongs.

Bush’s concern with political correctness brings up the prospect that CCNY professor Leonard Jeffries may become the Willie Horton of 1992. Just as Horton was a not-so-subtle vehicle for appealing to the worst prejudices among the U.S. electorate, so the racial extremism of Jeffries and his widely publicized attacks on Jews and other people could also transform him into a symbol. Attacking him could offer Bush a way to inject racism into his presidential campaign in a respectably anti-racist posture.

Of course, other politicians may preempt the issue; demands for Jeffries’ ouster grow daily. Though the CCNY faculty has been relatively steadfast so far in protecting Jeffries’ academic freedom, the institution is being severely pressed. One wonders, will those journalists and politicians who have been so concerned about the rights of anti-Black students be quite so protective of the fate of an anti-Semitic African-American?

November-December 1991—ATC 35