Letter to a Friend who Bandies this Term
I think that you would strengthen your case (whichever one it happens to be) if you refrained from using the ridiculous phrase ‘political correctness’. I know that I’m not the only person whose first feeling on seeing this is that I will not bother to read whatever text contains it. Because the use of that phrase usually signals a voice which, comically, echoes that victim-stance of which it so often complains and whines that ‘white, het, middle-class men can be victims too’. This usually boils down to the speaker pretending to feel oppressed because of disapproval of sexist comments re women, and use of words like ‘nigger’ and ‘shirt-lifter’. Its use is so often prefaced by ‘I’m sorry, but …’; followed by something like ‘I know it’s politically incorrect to say so, but there was slavery in Africa long before Europeans got there’ – as if the speaker were being a brave heretic, whilst actually mouthing a commonplace (which also obscures the main point). I choose this example for you because of your odious apologetics for slavery. However, I do feel somewhat as you do regarding this sensibility which this phrase tries to capture – what follows is a first attempt to try to work this out.
What seems not to be noticed by people who use the phrase is the bizarre fact that ‘politically correct’ is the only political label which is solely used pejoratively of someone else. All of the following may be used neutrally, pejoratively, or accepted as self-identity: liberal, socialist, communist, stalinist, trotskyist, nationalist, anarchist, fascist, national-socialist, racist, feminist, masculinist, conservative, reactionary, pacifist … and doubtless others which don’t come to mind at present. But no-one will say, except ironically: ‘I’m Politically Correct’. There is surely something very strange about this asymmetry.
It might be worthwhile considering the genealogy of this term. The entry in Wikipedia is useful here :
The term “political correctness” is said to derive from Marxist-Leninist vocablary [sic] to describe the “party line”. By the 1970s this term, re-appropriated as a satirical form of criticism, was being used by some on the Left to dismiss the views of other Leftists whom they deemed too doctrinaire and rigid. It was in this sense that the popular usage of the phrase in English derived
One of the references in this is to an American conservative who claims that ‘Political Correctness’ is a form of ‘cultural marxism’ , on the basis that it derives from the work of the Frankfurt School. I won’t go into this, other than to note that ‘Political Correctness’ would be comprehended by anyone who stands on the shoulders of the giants of Critical Theory (as I attempt to) as a nuance within that cultural hegemony whose core position that the societal order structured around the wagelabour/capital relation is the final form of human association.
However, this remark is on to something very important in seeing that the origin of ‘Political Correctness’ is in the culture of Euro-American Stalinism. This was a culture which interwove with a seemingly very different culture – that which would now be called the ‘alternative culture’. I’m really at a loss as to how to adequately characterise this, my gut instinct uses phrases like ‘do-gooders’, ‘knee-jerk liberals’ – both of which I’m uncomfortable with as they come from a conservative voice. But then conservatives do so often see things far more clearly than liberals. There is a very perceptive account of this ‘structure of feeling’ in an essay by R.A.D. Grant on Edmund Burke. Grant discusses the prescience of Burke’s portrayal of ‘the revolutionary and his radical fellow-traveller’:
restless hyperactivity, as though to sit still were to concede one’s insignificance; the hidden scorn for those one pretends to act for; … the bogus humanitarianism; the exploitation of genuine distress; … the clamour .. for the most truckling appeasement of one’s country’s known and professed enemies.(Conservative Thinkers, ed. Roger Scruton)
It is no accident that one of the most savage pictures of this early ‘alternative culture’ as ‘vegetarian, sandal-wearing, fruit-juice drinkers’ (I quote from memory) came from the author of one of the most powerful denunciations of the culture of British Stalinism – George Orwell. Though I think we must accept many of the reservations about him which deepened in successive assessments of him by Raymond Williams, we should respect the central fact that Orwell did fight in a civil war as a revolutionary communist. Part of his contempt came from the fact that it was the ancestors of today’s ‘politically correct’ who refused to publish his dispatches from Spain exposing the treachery of the Stalinists – this was done in the name of ‘unity’. The will to unity and to obliterate in rhetoric real contradictions (now carried out in the name of ‘multi-culturalism’) is really central to this sensibility which is so poorly characterised as ‘political correctness’.
The accusation of racism
However, you – and those like you – so often construct yourselves as victims. Regarding the funding by Oxford Council of the Asian Cultural Centre, you write in one of your e-ms ‘To oppose these politically correct policies would be universally seen as racist’. Now this is self-evidently absurd: You object to this, but do not regard yourself as racist. You should know that I do not regard this as a racist statement (which does not preclude the motive behind its utterance being racist – though that does not concern me here). What you are doing is setting up a straw man, which actually gets in the way of coming to terms with the phenomenon it refers to.
I myself take any opportunity to declare my opposition to state funding of mossie schools; I regard rap and hiphop music as barbaric thuggery and – as an ex-private tutor – have no doubts that a major factor in the scholastic under-achievement of black britons is parental behaviour. Admittedly, it is easier for me than for many others to do this (though, inconsistently, I argue that a person’s biography is irrelevant to the authorial voice) due partly to having sustained a permanent, though minor, disablement in a street fight with the National Front some years ago. More recently, I was the only person at Ruskin College to denounce its proselytising nazis. Indeed, it was my experience with the scum there who espouse the attitudes which you characterise as ‘politically correct’ which fuels my detestation for them.
If you wanted a sit-com to satirise ‘political correctness’ then – lest you were a new Dickens – you could not better that stew of jaded teachers who have read nothing new in the last twenty years and their semi-literate students who barely read the photocopied course handouts, secure in the knowledge that if they fail their assessments they need only go to the nice ladies at ‘Learning Support’, be found to be ‘dyslexic’ and have their marks magically levitated.
The Land of Ruskania
The very quintessence of Ruskania (google <nairn+musil+kakania> if that is obscure) is sociology lecturer (indeed, a lecturer, not a teacher), Mavis Bayton, who looks like a character out of Viz, habitually dressed like Ronald McDonald, with culottes and horizontally striped socks, attempting to state in her dress a difference which is denied in her practice. Like so many of her kind she is a health-freak, once berating a student (not me) for daring to come into her class after having been smoking outside in the open – he still had some atoms of smoke on his breath. The door of her room was covered with ‘right-on’ posters, and adverts for whatever was the cause-of-the-month; one of her icons was the Stalinist gangster Nelson Mandela.
She was favoured by some students because of her promotion of the shamradicalism of Peter Berger’s Invitation to Sociology – A Humanistic Perspective : an intellectually shallow legitimisation of the relativism which is now the commonsense of the Hegemony, and actively promoted by the discourse of the Propaganda Apparatus. It offered back to these morons, tarted up in bad academese what they anyway took for granted. The students she specially favoured were the most semi-literate who she could patronise. Many of the rest she bored with her tales of the ‘good old days’ of the 60s and 70s when she lived in communes (here she was rivalled and complemented by the tales of ex-Trot Bob ‘Preacher’ Purdy of his days with the bourgeois nationalists of the IRA).
In the first year course she taught she would tell her students as a fact that Sociology had discovered that the reason for the disproportionate number of young black men in prison was ‘institutionalised racism’ (not obviously congruent with Berger’s thesis that ‘all reality is socially constructed’). Several of her students (some of the few who actually cared about such matters) dared to suggest that just perhaps this was because young black men actually committed (relative to their numbers) a disproportionate number of crimes. Some actually referred to their experience, on the street, and in estates, of the behaviour of young black males. These guys were dismissed as ‘racists’ and told that ‘hundreds of studies’ confirmed her view. She was beyond parody as an exemplar of that liberal type who tolerates any position except one which contradicts their own (again, it is a conservative writer who, to my awareness, best captures this: Peter Hitchens in his The Abolition of Britain). There is something about her which reminds me of the comic character Parsons, in Nineteen Eighty Four : Not very bright, but gushingly enthusiastic for whatever nonsense the Party enjoins him to believe in, always ready with a handy slogan and on the look-out for ‘thoughtcrime’.
I was briefly a representative of my course (History, not Sociology) on some consultative council or other. Maeve (like so many shamradical teachers she enjoyed the diminutive as showing how right-on she was) was always the most assiduous to brown-nose the college dean in promoting any new initiative to both bureaucratise teaching and be nondiscriminatory to those students who, on any reasonable basis, should not have been there at all. One comic incident was a directive that hand-outs be printed on coloured paper because this was supposedly helpful to those ‘suffering from dyslexia’. I intervened to say that our class had discussed this and decided that puce was the best shade. This nonsense was, of course, taken seriously.
There is a fine characterisation of the real attitude of Bayton and Ruskin to academic work in Geoffrey Hawthorn’s Enlightenment and Despair (Cambridge University Press, 1976): he remarks that in 1909 the American Sociological Association explained the rise in interest in sociology as being the need for ‘instruction of practical use in reform. Most students were uninterested in theoretical matters’ (191). Bayton’s teaching was entirely third-hand, parotting canards such as Hegel’s ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’ and that Weber used the phrase ‘iron cage’ – stuff she picked up from textbooks by writers who had never read the originals, regurgitated by students and marked as correct by equally ignorant examiners.
Like all the other shamradicals she was silent over the outrage of a student playing the marching music of the Liebstandarte SS at a student union disco and his friend publishing in the student journal an article calling for a new Shoah. She, nor any of the rest of those wankers, offered me any support when the college issued me with a ‘final written warning’ for ‘having brought the college into disrepute’ by denouncing the nazis, the silence of the student body, ‘union’ and staff at Burford Leveller’s Day. (see http://david-murray.livejournal.com/8960.html?mode=reply)
The Dean of Ruskania defended the publication of the article on the grounds of ‘free speech’ . In other words: free speech for Nazis, but not for communists. She also offered me the daft argument that it was logically impossible for anyone now to be a nazi because this term referred to members of the NSDAP, which was liquidated with the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945. Whether we should see this nonsense as being in spite of or because of her having an Oxford Philosophy degree is another question.
The reponse of students to the pro-Hitler article was to deny its plain meaning. I pointed out that the phrase ‘international web of abstract finance’ was nazispeak for ‘the world Jewish conspiracy’ and that therefore the following passage was a call fro a world ‘free’ of Jews and that meant a new Shoah:
the whole point of Hitler’s philosophy is that we are running out of space for men and women to live as their ancestors lived; free from credit, debt and interest, free from the international web of abstract finance (Dominick Heriz, ‘Thus Spoke Adolf the Great’, The Trumpet, No 2, February 2004)
The typical response to this was the banality that ‘I’d like to live without debt’ , folllowed by ‘that’s only your interpretation, you can’t say that it means that, differernt people read things differently’. These words were uttered by Debbie Hollingsworth, then ‘president’ of the ‘student union’ which published this. I pointed out that because Ancient Greece was a culture based on slavery, the following was a call for the institution of slavery.
Somewhere, there is a parallel universe where a non-racist Hitler has turned the Earth back into a classical paradise, where it is everyone’s duty to perfect themselves and where culture is more valuable than money. (ibid)
She responded with: ‘Well, that’s only your interpretation, “classical” could mean anything, you have classic cars and Shakespeare was a classic. I mean, if someone went on “blah! blah! blah! with racist stuff then of course I’d say something, of course I’m anti-racist” ‘. This was just so emblematic of ‘political correctness’: a knee-jerk (there’s another phrase from the conservative lexicon which I cannot better) anti-racism, coupled with a complicity with the basic assumptions of fascism. Given this, we should not be surprised at the pro-Palestinianism of the alternistas. Nor should we be surprised at their imbecilic calls for a ‘local economy’.
The real nature of that sensibility which you call ‘political correctness’ is elided by the way in which you, and those like you characterise it (google <campaign against political correctness> to see more of this). To grasp this sensibility we need to return to its roots in the culture of the CPGB. The most interesting account of this is by, appropriately, Ruskin’s most respected and famous author, the late Raphael Samuel. His three-part study published in New Left Review in the mid 1980s was a fine illustration of Hegel’s remark that a world can only be comprehended when its creative potential is finished – the shades of night were well down upon that culture. His study was both an evocation and obituary for that tradition he grew up in. His central insight into the real dynamic of the sensibility institutionalised in the CPGB was summarised in a quote from a character in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook:
The Communist Party is largely composed of people who aren’t really political at all, but have a powerful sense of service
(Raphael Samuel, ‘The Lost World of British Communism’, New Left Review, No 154, November/December 1985, p 46; Quoting The Golden Notebook, 1977, p177)
In other words, the political culture of Stalinism was not at all about the taking of state power to effect the transition to a new order, it was of the same kind as that which formed the Labour Party. Confirmation of this was given in a TV programme a few years ago which showed the outrage of CPGB and Trotskyist activists that their rhetoric had actually been taken at its face-value by the Brit state – they had been targeted by the secret services (SHOCK! HOOROR! OUTRAGE!).
Samuel himself made a remarkable statement at a conference in 1987 to reflect on the New Left of thirty years earlier. He commented that:
I’m a lifelong socialist, but I actually lost faith in socialism about thirty years ago, in the sense that I haven’t wanted to live in a socialist society since sometime about the mid fifties. If I thought we were about to have a socialist Britain, I am not at all sure what, as a socialist, I would feel about it .. What I care about is a socialist movement. What I care about is socialism as a metaphor for solidarity, for opposition and for collectivism.
(Raphael Samuel, ‘Then and Now’, in Robin Archer et al, Out of Apathy: Voices of the New Left Thirty Years On, Verso, 1989, p149) (for more on this, see http://david-murray.livejournal.com/1451.html)
This really is the core and the dynamic of that which is so poorly characterised as ‘political correctness’: A sham solidarity which denies the reality of class order. Emblematic of this is the (so far as I know) painless shift of Peter Tatchell from the avowedly anti-cap Labour Left to the avowedly pro-cap Green Party.
What is remarkable is that the denial of class-struggle is common both to the proponents of that which is called ‘Political Correctness’ and those who so tediously diss it. I’m aware as I look back over this how far I am from really grasping what ‘Political Correctness’ is about. Here may be another clue: For another characterisation of this sensibility, at the level of the State, see Correlli Barnett’s ‘Decline and Fall’ series of historical studies of the Brit state in the mid of the last century. His major claim is that the possibility of national regeneration after the defeat of the Third Reich was thrown away by the softy lefty policies of the Attlee administration, continuing the anti-technological and idealist pacifist policies of the League of Nation folk (ie the “Politically Correct” of their day). When I first read it I was gripped by this claim (as were many others). However, it has been shown (just about as conclusively as such things can be) by David Edgerton that every one of Barnett’s claims are false: that since at least the Dreadnought programme the Brit state has pursued a policy of ‘liberal militarism’, preparing for hitech warfare. The really remarkable thing about Barnett’s thesis (and its more general form, the Barnett/Weiner thesis) is how and why these became so popular and rapidly became such a part of political commonsense. Part of the answer must be because the Brit state has for so long adopted the camouflage of being nonmilitarist (as against those Continental johnnies) when in fact it has not lost a major war since 1783.
The analogy I am suggesting is that the Barnett/Weiner Thesis is like those who diss ‘political correctness’, and that what they both fail to realise is that what they set themselves up against is actually another form of their own conservatism, but masqueing itself as being oppositional.
The Attlee administration has for long been the lost land of Cokaygne for those who live in Ruskania. But that government was actually quite the opposite of how they constructed it. It continued the policy of high-tech militarism by commencing the A-bomb programme; its NHS was a policy of Bismarck’s; its nationalisation policies were actually an aid to capitalism. The pieties of those who valorise that government, far from being remotely subversive are actually an important part of the Hegemony. It’s worth noting that the apologist for Nazism, Debbi Hollingsworth, mentioned above is a Labour leftist and training to join the social-worker arm of The Police.
That which is called “Political correctness” is not remotely subversive. Anti-racism is now the commonsense of the Hegemony; Capital does not care what the colour of its ‘hands’ are. You, and those like you, who take on ‘political correctness’ are actually helping its self-legitimation. ‘Political Correctness’, aka the culture of the alternistas, is actually part of the shamshow of opposition – a vacuuous charade whose members will always refuse the moment of decision.
The world is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than (some of us) can imagine.