‘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.

Though most of the articles on pc lead with the McCarthyism issue, the real controversy is not over free speech but over the recent, still fragile, change in dominant attitudes that these changing habits of speech reflect and encourage. To the extent that the pc campaign’s nervously scattered volleys have a single target, it is the dominant attitude that, in the view of the attackers, translates an exaggerated respect for women, minorities, and Third World cultures into a militant disrespect for ‘Western culture’. The classics of Western culture are being eliminated from the curriculum, they charge, on the grounds that they were written by dwems—Dead White European Males. They are being replaced with texts whose only claim to consideration is their racial or gender origin. The common has given way to the particular. Western culture’s standards of rational inquiry and interpretation are being subverted in favour of a chaotic free-for-all in which no one can say that any idea, text, or interpretation is better than any other. At the same time, standards of admission to universities are being subverted by affirmative action to recruit minority students and faculty.

This caricature of the movement to reform the content of humanities education comes about as close to the reality as the charge of McCarthyism does. The argument that the Western tradition can be junked is generally considered as laughable in academic circles as the suggestion that all interpretations are equally valid. In spite of challenges to ‘Great Books’ courses at places like Stanford and Columbia, and a more general insistence that previously excluded cultures should be read and discussed alongside the work of the dwems, Plato is still being taught at least as much as before—which was not much. (When someone argues that the Japanese build better cars because they read more Plato, perhaps he’ll be read with more enthusiasm.) Black women writers are still assimilated into the canon in large part not for their real virtues but because they kill tokenism’s two birds with one economical stone. The routine work of interpreting and transmitting culture goes on; grades continue to be awarded. Minorities are still grossly underrepresented.