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Political Correctness and All That

ISSUE:  Autumn 1996
The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked By Cultural Wars. By Todd Gitlin. Metropolitan Books.$25.00.

In recent years there has been a plethora of books that have addressed the issue of multiculturalism and political correctness on college campuses. Works ranging from John Leo’s Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education to Richard Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue have chronicled the horror stories associated with the zealous enforcement of P.C. regulations on college campuses as well as the attacks on the “canon” of Western culture in the name of the multicultural curriculum. More recently Mary Lefkowitz, who teaches at Wellesley, has published an attack on Afrocentrism in her Not Out of Africa and we can be certain that the publication of additional works on academia’s version of the “culture wars” is far from exhausted in what has virtually become a cottage industry.

Todd Gitlin’s contribution to the controversy tracks the circumstances that diverted multiculturalism from its promise to make society more tolerant of diversity to one which threatens to “balkanize” not just the university but American culture as a whole. His other theme is a lament for the Left which historically fought for a diverse and inclusive society but now finds itself superceded by a new Left who negate the idea of a common nationality and promote an America consisting of groups who celebrate their separate identities. For Gitlin, this is not only a betrayal of the universal values of the Left but also the promise of what made America different. The author notes that what distinguished the American experience from other countries was our freedom from ethnic definition. Whereas the Germans marked their identity by blood and soil and the French through their language, the American definition of identity was a compound of ideals ranging from attachments to the social equality of the individual, to the preeminent value of personal freedom, to the official symbols of union such as flags and the celebration of secular holidays such as July 4th and Thanksgiving Day. The history of the United States, therefore, is the story of the struggle to become in reality what the nation’s credo often failed to accomplish in practice. The historic role of the Left was to work for an America where everyone was judged on the content of their character rather than on their skin color, religion, gender or sexual preferences. For Gitlin, America was a nation always in the state of moving in the direction of the universalist principles of the Declaration of Independence whose promises would eventually be applied to all races, creeds and colors.

Gitlin argues that both the Cold War and a rising standard of living contributed to the fostering of a national community in the years following the Second World War. The gains made by the Civil Rights Movement for African-Americans, as well as for women and other groups who were victims of discrimination, seemed to promise the fulfillment of the American promise. Similarly, although the nation was brought together by a common enemy, the Soviets, it nevertheless enjoyed an unprecedented prosperity that seemed to benefit large numbers of Americans. Together, the security provided by American military power and the economic progress that benefitted so many were proof that Americanism worked. Centrifugal forces, such as the “black power” movement and the Nation of Islam, were lone voices preaching the language of cultural and political separatism in an America that appeared to be on the verge of fulfilling its ideals. All of this, however, came to an end with the Vietnam war. As the war escalated, growing numbers in the civil rights and antiwar movements went from rejecting America’s role in the war to rejecting American ideals. Gitlin explains this political evolution when he writes:

The early New Left rejected the American political consensus as hypocritical: the country was in default on its promise to recognize equal rights. The later New Left and the black liberation movement rejected the promise as well: the American political consensus was cursed by original sin.

The charge that America had always been a racist and imperial society was joined by revisionist historians who argued that Vietnam was only the latest battlefield in the Indian wars. Here, according to Gitlin, was one of the roots of the multicultural impetus of later decades. White America was fighting people of color in Vietnam just as in an earlier century it had fought the Indians and in both cases it was to expand the base of Western imperialism at the expense of non-white peoples.

Some activists conjured images of a popular front of Third World nations unified in revolution against the white world. Thus in the aftermath of the Vietnam war activities of the New Left began to attack not only American policies abroad but also the belief that America could ever eliminate racism and create a common nation.

The New Left attack on a common America took many forms. One of them was in their criticism of the Enlightenment premise that there is a common human condition on the basis of which progress, if not perfection, is at least possible. The New Left rejected the liberal legacies of both the American and French Revolutions as well as the universalist implications of Marxism. They eschewed the promise of universal human emancipation which was embodied in the Declaration of Independence as well as Marx’s classless society. Instead, they called for the emergence of specialized sub-societies which would control their own future. In the late 1960’s the principle of separate organizations on behalf of distinct interests raged through the “movement.” On college campuses, following the model of black demands for African-American studies programs, came similar claims from feminists, Chicanes, American Indians, gays, and lesbians. One group after another insisted on the recognition of their differences and the protection of their separate and distinct spheres. As Gitlin tells us, the very language of commonality came to be perceived by the new movements as “a colonial smothering,” an ideology to rationalize white male domination.

The separatist impulse, which initially was based on race and prominently espoused by black nationalists, soon spawned an identity politics rooted in ethnicity. Instead of a common American culture, identity politics celebrated “cultures.” Accordingly, the basis for public life is membership in a group that has been stigmatized. Unique qualities that were once viewed as proof of inferiority were now celebrated as the basis for positive distinction. This demand for the right to be different parallelled developments in the university. According to Gitlin, within the academic professions, the civil rights generation revolted against a scholarship that consigned American racism to the margins of history and took male power for granted. The new social history examined the humanity and resistance of the oppressed and showed that the “flaws” in American freedom were, in fact, at its core. The result was a demand for ethnic studies programs that fueled the forces of separation and fragmentation. The emergence of African-American, Chicano, women’s, Asian, and gay—now “queer”—studies proliferated on college campuses during the eighties and nineties.

Gitlin does not deprecate the value of a multiculturalism that leads to respect for diversity and imparts knowledge about the non-Western world. Where Gitlin draws the line is with those programs that emphasize the victimization of the group and have as their agenda the fragmentation of society:

. . . the recognition of a collective hurt, followed by the mistaking of a group position for a “culture”, followed by the mistaking of a “culture” for politics . . . Identity politics aimed to turn necessity to virtue. The demand for the respect for Difference—for what came to be called multiculturalism—often swerved into the creation of parallel monocultures. Since the demands of identity politics were far more winnable in the university than elsewhere, the struggle of identity groups flourished there.

Although Gitlin believes that the furor over political correctness is exaggerated, he nevertheless believes that it has become a useful weapon in the hands of the proponents of identity politics. As Gitlin views it, having intimidated university administrators into issuing laws and administrative rulings on their side, the advocates of identity politics were subsequently successful in getting some universities to promulgate on-campus speech codes, formulas regarding politically correct dating procedures, and the monitoring of appropriate language in regard to their opponents. On campuses where they were successful in silencing opponents by accusing them of racism or other manifestations of politically incorrect speech or behavior, the proponents of identity politics raised the stakes of making the demand that only members of the group were qualified to teach subject matter that pertained to their experience; thus only African-Americans should get jobs teaching African-American studies and the claim made by many feminists that men have no place in women’s studies.

For Gitlin, the necessary condition for the reversal of these unfortunate tendencies is the emergence of a vital Left. But it is the Left which is obsessed with group differences and, ironically, it is the conservatives who have become the champions of a common culture. As Irving Kristol wrote, in regard to the Left’s preoccupation with identity politics,

There is no after the Cold War for me . . . my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. . . . We are far less prepared for this cold war, far more vulnerable to our enemy, than was the case with our victorious war against a global Communist threat. . . . Authentic American identity would draw a line in the sand against “the liberal ethos.”

It was in this spirit that Pat Buchanan in 1992 declared a war for the “soul of America” and continued to make it a part of his campaign for president in 1996.Thus Gitlin’s lament. The Left that once stood for universal values now speaks for select identities and the Right, associated with privilege, bigotry and special interest, now claims to defend the common good. Gitlin has written a provocative book that will not endear him to many of his former comrades on the Left. The volume, however, is one of the better books on the subject of the “culture wars” and for this reason should be read by as many people as possible who are interested in the issues raised by the author.


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