‘Watch What You Say,’ warned the cover of Newsweek in December of last year. ‘There’s a “Politically Correct” Way to Talk About Race, Sex, and Ideas. Is This the New Enlightenment—or the New McCarthyism?’footnote1 Answering this question in a blurb for Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education (1991), the latest in a string of recent books purporting to unveil the horrors wreaked upon American universities by the grown-up leftists of the sixties, old New Leftist Eugene Genovese testified for the prosecution: ‘Academic freedom and indeed the very soul of American education are succumbing to a sinister McCarthyite assault of unprecedented proportions.’footnote2 When President Bush weighed in on the subject in May, denunciations of ‘political correctness’ had already raced like wildfire through the American media, claiming front-page columns in dozens of newspapers and lavish blocks of prime-time television debate.footnote3 The abbreviation ‘pc’ had become a household word.
What is going on here? Why a revival of fifties motifs and fifties hysteria now that the Cold War is over? If there really is a ‘Red Menace’ prowling the corridors of American universities, shouldn’t the Left know something more about it?
The immediate excuse for the pc flap came from a series of cases in which students were disciplined or expelled for racist and homophobic attacks, and in which professors were criticized in public by students (but not disciplined) for racial and sexual insensitivity. Some of these cases, like the fraternity at the University of Wisconsin that held a mock slave auction, were very ugly. Others, where the intentions were clearly better, can only be blamed on the old dogs/new tricks rule: the sluggishness with which certain scholars have assimilated the fact that
This is not how it is. Accusations of a ‘McCarthyism of the Left’ (the phrase comes from Stephan Thernstrom, a Harvard historian whose ‘case’ has received a great deal of publicity) ignore what McCarthyism was and did.footnote5 Who has lost a teaching job for alleged racism? When has the us government subpoenaed gay-bashers or their drinking companions? On today’s campuses, as Catherine Stimpson writes, ‘no books have been burnt. . .No professors have been marched through a quad wearing dunce caps. No us Senator has stood up holding a list of “racists” and “sexists” in higher education.’footnote6 Much of the backlash against women and minorities today not only goes undisciplined, but is generously funded by rightist foundations—as The Dartmouth Review was funded while Dinesh D’Souza (described by Alexander Cockburn as ‘the Ahab of the pc hunt’) was its editor-in-chief. In that period, an interview with a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan was illustrated with a staged photograph of a lynching on the Dartmouth campus; the slogan ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian’ ran on the back page; and documents were stolen and printed which revealed the homosexuality of Dartmouth students who did not want it made public. Where are the pc police when you need them?footnote7 As for the lighter charge of humourlessness, it may be worth pointing out that the phrase ‘political correctness’ was revived in us leftist circles as a piece of preventive irony, gently jesting away any temptation to a holier-than-thou purism. Until the Right picked it up and ran with it, I myself had never heard it used in anything but an ironic sense.
But the joke is now at the expense of the Left. By focusing the fight on ‘freedom of speech’ versus codes of ‘correctness’, the term ‘pc’ has enabled the news media to forget their own craven surrender to the