The irony of p.c.
From The New Criterion.
March 31, 2015.
The other day I received an e-mailed advertisement for a production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Washington National Opera. Prominently included above the title of the opera was a blurb from The Toronto Star that read: "Wonderful psychological complexity . . . a hymn to the powers of sisterhood and the strength of female solidarity." There was no mention there or elsewhere in the ad that the females in question were nuns or that the cause of their "female solidarity" was joint refusal of a demand by the Legislative Assembly of Revolutionary France that they renounce their faith in a certain patriarchal religion. We may put to one side the apparent lack of "powers" in this particular sisterhood, since that refusal resulted (spoiler alert!) in their being guillotined, but surely any less obvious power attributed to the martyrs hymned by Poulenc and his librettist, Georges Bernanos, can have had little or nothing to do with their sex.
Anyone who didn’t already know the opera’s subject might naturally suppose that the "sisterhood" mentioned by the blurbist was of the feminist sort, and that may well be what he — or she — is meant to think. There is no reason to suppose that the politically correct would have any scruples about claiming the heroes of their enemies as their own in this way. More likely, however, the WNO publicist was simply guided by caution. Some people nowadays, particularly if they are among the consumers of high culture, might be scandalized at the idea of an overtly "faith-based" opera — particularly if the faith were Christian and Catholic. And besides, looked at in a certain way, this one is about sisterhood and female solidarity: things which, if it is not yet quite so imprudent to question them as it would have been to question the Revolution in 1790s France, it would have to be reckoned, nevertheless, as imprudent to question.
This is how political correctness works most of the time, not in the ways cited by Jonathan Chait of New York magazine in an article that was getting a great deal of attention in the rest of the media at about the same time that the WNO’s e-mail pinged into my in-box. Mr Chait was naturally concerned about the sort of political correctness which is confident enough of its own cultural strength, particularly on university campuses, to try to silence those who are still bold enough to disagree with it. He was apparently unaware of or unconcerned with the more subtle sort which happens once vocal disagreement has been silenced or has disappeared into the nervous consensus that appears to prevail in parts of provincial England. For a week or so after he wrote, the British government published an independent report on the Labour-dominated Metropolitan Borough Council of Rotherham in South Yorkshire which found that an official culture of "bullying, sexism, suppression and misplaced ‘political correctness’" had allowed a gang of mainly Pakistani men to operate a sex-trafficking ring exploiting white girls as young as eleven for a dozen years or more, unhindered by the local authority.
The word "misplaced" and the quotation marks around "political correctness" are of course themselves examples of political correctness — which, unmisplaced, presumably must still be reckoned a force for good in the world. The author of the report, Louise Casey, did not think it necessary to explain the protocols of proper placement to the politically correct, apart from her use of the word "sexism," which I guess is a pretty broad hint. Rape and sex-slavery would once have been considered damning enough in themselves, but that was before we knew they were also sexist. Like Louise Casey, Jonathan Chait would not be understood as opposing political correctness per se, only the misplaced sort. Yet he, too, appears to have some difficulty with the problem of placement. Though his ostensible purpose was to criticize attempts by the politically correct to silence those who disagreed with them, he himself had written in the virtual pages of the same magazine that those deemed guilty of "Climate-Science Denialism" should be barred from holding public office — and he had written it only five days before his celebrated (and, to be fair, also execrated) counterblast to political correctness.
I am not the first to have noticed this blazing contradiction. It and other examples of Mr Chait’s own energetically p.c. rhetoric against those to his right, most of which have characterized the critics of President Obama as racists, were noticed by critics who are also to his right — though, oddly, not by those on the left, of which there were also many. The latter tended to concentrate on what they regarded as his self-pity, as does the loopy but prolific feminist Jessica Valenti of The Guardian, whose piece was amusingly titled: "‘PC culture’ isn't about your freedom of speech. It’s about our freedom to be offended." At the risk of being accused of "mansplaining," I might point out that, as she so often does, Ms Valenti has a bit of a problem with logic when she writes that "Chait conflates real incursions on speech — a University of Michigan student who was harassed and intimidated after he published what was seen as an offensive newspaper column, for example — and simple forms of activism like signing a petition to keep a speaker off campus." How, you may ask, are attempts to keep speakers off campus not "real incursions on speech"? Ah, it’s because
most of the acts that Chait says are "perverting liberalism" are acts of free speech themselves: discussions of racial microaggressions, hashtag campaigns, and even complaints from women of color about racism on a Facebook group. It seems the only kind of speech Chait thinks should be "free" is the kind he agrees with.
You know, just the same as herself. She has a point, too. But at least she is open about her belief that every time bad people (which is to say those who are presumptively guilty of "racism, misogyny and transphobia") are silenced, "that’s not stopping free speech; it’s making our speech better."
Here, I think, her piece illustrates the real problem with his, which is that it attempts to reason with people whose whole political purpose is to rule reason out of bounds when applied to any of their ever expanding universe of moral absolutes. The comedy comes from the fact that he, J. Chait, is the same kind of person himself without realizing it. An honest and clear-sighted leftie, like Dan Hodges of The Daily Telegraph, for example, would have the grace to acknowledge that "the abused children of Rotherham were not the victims of political correctness. They were the victims of racism." Mr Chait, by contrast, clings to the whole "diversity" and "sensitivity" agenda and objects only to what he sees as its excesses, as if he felt he had to believe any such excesses redeemed by its political good intentions.
Of course liberals are correct not only to oppose racism and sexism but to grasp (in a way conservatives generally do not) that these biases cast a nefarious and continuing shadow over nearly every facet of American life. Since race and gender biases are embedded in our social and familial habits, our economic patterns, and even our subconscious minds, they need to be fought with some level of consciousness. The mere absence of overt discrimination will not do.
There speaks the policeman of "diversity" who is not fundamentally different from the man who, when told he would not have made a particular, presumably racist, remark if he were black, replied: "But I’m not bloody black, you fool." We are fools, too, if we think that the p.c. revolutionaries are ever likely to care about the the accusation that they don’t live by their own rules.
But Mr Chait is only a poor fellow-traveller of the reverse-racists (if you like) of the left. I was particularly struck by the fact that he began his analysis with the historical observation that "after political correctness burst onto the academic scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it went into a long remission." Those of us who find such a statement one to raise an eyebrow at might point out that the alleged period of "remission" seems to have coincided more or less exactly with the years of Mr Chait’s journalistic career to date. During that time, I believe there to be few who would have wished to challenge the claim, were he so minded as to have made it, that there was no writer making regular appearances in the public prints who was more politically correct than himself. What has changed? Could it be no more than that the public prints themselves are becoming increasingly irrelevant?
"The internet has shrunk the distance between p.c. culture and mainstream liberal politics, and the two are now hopelessly entangled," he writes.
Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.
In other words, it’s not "the new p.c." at all but the old p.c. in lots of new places — something which might seem to bear out the left-wing critique of Alex Pareene from Gawker (an Internet site) that
Chait, like many liberal commentators with his background, is used to writing off left-wing critics and reserving his real writerly firepower for (frequently deserving) right-wingers. That was, for years, how things worked at the center-left opinion journalism shops, because it was simply assumed that no one important — no one who really matters — took the opinions of people to the left of the center-left opinion shop seriously. That was a safe and largely correct assumption. But the destruction of the magazine industry and the growth of the open-forum internet have amplified formerly marginal voices. Now, in other words, writers of color can be just as condescending and dismissive of Chait as he always was toward the left. And he hates it.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, when Mr Chait took to the New York website to answer his critics, this criticism was ignored, as were most others not based on the charge against him of self-pity (which he hotly denied) and all those coming from the right except one from Kevin Williamson of National Review and this journal — which he saw as having been discredited in advance by its author’s racism. You can’t, as they say, make this stuff up.
That such a once-fatal irony-deficiency has left Jonathan Chait apparently unscathed and unembarrassed would be reason enough, if there were no other, to make the case for a failure of rational argument on a culture-wide scale. In that context, he really does sound self-pitying. Why should he be spared the marginalization everyone else has had to endure? Increasingly, there are nothing but margins, though some manage to echo more loudly than others across the great black hole in the middle where reason and moderation used to be. Had he just a little more self-awareness, he might have asked himself how, once you have adopted the premises of the politically correct, do you expect to avoid their conclusions? How, once you have acknowledged the need for "diversity training," do you not prescribe it, as one British home office official did in 2002, for someone attempting to blow the whistle on the Pakistani sex-traffickers in Rotherham? Back in the days of what Jonathan Chait would call the old p.c., Richard Bernstein wrote that
for me, at any rate, the biggest objection to diversity training is not even its content, but the fact that it exists at all, adding yet another coating of mandatory sanctimony to a society that already has trouble talking about things frankly and honestly. It is, quite simply, an attack on freedom and autonomy for people to be pressured, or required, to attend chapel and told what it is proper to think, to feel, and to believe. The whole point of the liberal revolution that gave rise to the 1960s was to free us from somebody else’s dogma, but now the very same people who fought for personal liberation a generation ago are striving to impose on others a secularized religion involving a set of values and codes that they believe in, disguising it behind innocuous labels like "diversity training" and "respect for difference."
It ought to tell us something that this argument has had exactly zero effect in the twenty years since it was made. Nor has any other. You’d think that by now we’d have realized that the Enlightenment principle that we must live by our own universalizable maxims means nothing to those who oppose, among other things, Enlightenment principles — which, in the view of the new tribalism, are white, male and hegemonic in origin and therefore white, male and hegemonic in effect. Richard Bernstein could claim to have had an excuse for not realizing this, but we can have none.
The title of his book, The Dictatorhip of Virtue, was taken from Robespierre, though he was also at pains to stress that "we are not reexperiencing the French Revolution, and we are not in danger of the guillotine or rule by a national-level Committee of Public Safety." But he was not so alert as we should be to a more salient parallel to the Revolutionary French, which is also the lesson of all the revolutions since: namely the ease with which Enlightenment principles are perverted and adapted to merely factional and tribal ends. That’s also why Mr Chait’s criticisms of political correctness turn out to be essentially tactical, since (as he writes) "politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree" and "the historical record of political movements that sought to expand freedom for the oppressed by eliminating it for their enemies is dismal." Besides, "it is easier to conceal racism or sexism behind complaints about political correctness when political correctness is real."
He doesn’t see any irony there either. For political correctness is always real, just as every demythologization is a re-mythologization and every liberation but a new set of chains to bind us to the latest forms of intolerance. Happily, we are not yet in the position of the Carmelites of Compiègne who had to renounce their faith or lose their heads — at least not unless we have the misfortune to have fallen into the power of one of those diverse cultures for whom the beheading of infidels has lately become a public relations exercise. True, R.R. Reno of First Things has written of the left’s demonization of the right as a "reign of terror," but I think he was just indulging himself in an ironic version of the left’s own hyperbole, out of which political correctness emerged in the first place. But there is no doubt in my mind that the members of the Revolutionary tribunal who condemned the Carmelites had at least two big things in common with Jonathan Chait — an implict belief in political virtue and a complete absence of self-irony.