‘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 various groups they are used to talking about are now represented in their classrooms and must henceforth be spoken to. To pc’s attackers, however, all of these cases are symptoms of the same deep malaise that has led to pressure for a multicultural curriculum. In a bid to split the Left and represent a humane centre, the anti-pc campaign has summed up the whole in the image of a tense, humourless ‘thought police’ (the phrase appears on Newsweek’s cover), backed up by new university statutes and zealous administrators, that is supposedly ruling all aspects of university life with an iron hand. Syndicated columnist George Will speaks characteristically of ‘a war of aggression against the Western political tradition and the ideas that animate it. The aggressors, having been trounced in the real-world politics of the larger society, are attempting to make campuses into mini-states that do what the Western tradition inhibits real states from doing: imposing orthodoxies.’footnote4

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 information control of the military during the Gulf War while also mining a rich vein of populist irritation at what seems to be hyperspecialized jargon broken loose from its academic enclave and running amok in public places. Under the headline ‘Are You Politically Correct?’ in New York Magazine, readers are menaced with a flood of newfangled misdemeanours and shibboleths: ‘Am I Misogynistic, Patriarchal, Gynophobic, Logocentric? Am I Guilty of Racism, Sexism, Classism? Do I Say “Indian” Instead of “Native American”? “Pet” Instead of “Animal Companion”?’footnote8 Hearing the term ‘animal companion’, who will stay to discover that ‘logocentric’ actually belongs to a critique of the race-and-gender essentialism of which pc stands accused? If ‘pet’ is dead, then everything is permitted. To denounce pc is to mobilize a visceral Orwellian wrath against the supposed violation of ordinary language, identifying the status quo with a reassuringly familiar vocabulary, and inducing resentment and ridicule toward anyone trying to change either the words or the things.