The second time as farce: the Right's "new McCarthyism." - public criticism of political correctness
Monthly Review , Oct, 1991 by Christopher Phelps
Suddenly, it seemed, a deluge was upon us: a torrent of magazine articles, newspaper columns, books, talk shows, even a presidential speech, all claiming that "political correctness" (PC) has run amok on campus. The university, if we are to believe these sources, is dominated by tenured radicals. Guided by "well-intentioned" aims of eliminating bigotry, PC faculty and their student allies are zealots in charge of a repressive and censorious culture stifling investigation and discussion. Students and faculty who say the wrong thing, however innocently, are branded racist, sexist, or homophobic and sent packing. It requires real courage to speak out against the "tyranny of the left," and a massive violation of free speech is underway in higher education. The campus, in short, is afflicted with a "new McCarthyism."
One of the earliest and most vehement attacks of this sort came in December 1990, when Newsweek emblazoned the phrase "THOUGHT POLICE" across its cover in ominous block letters. Rhetorically, the subtitle asked, "Is This the New Enlightenment or the New McCarthyism?" Curiously, however, the article inside made almost no mention of McCarthy. The sole reference came in an assessment of comments made by Duke University literary critic Stanley Fish about the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a conservative faculty organization backed at Duke by political scientist James David Barber: "Fish called NAS, and by implication its members, 'racist, sexist and homphobic.' 'That,' notes one of Barber's allies, 'is like calling someone a Communist in the McCarthy years.'" Despite the dubiousness of this passage--its anonymous attribution and its assumption that Fish meant his assessment of NAS as an organization to apply to its members as well--others have rushed to raise the sensational cry of a "McCarthyism of the left." Invoking the memory of her father, who as a Hollywood screenwriter was blacklisted after refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), a Sarah Lawrence College student wrote, "I am a senior in college at a time when the freedom to voice, indeed even to think, controversial thoughts is under assault in American universities. One can't ignore the similarity between those accused in the 1950s of being disloyal and those accused today of failing to be politically correct."
Others dare to go even further. When ABC's Nightline took up the issue on May 13, reporter Jackie Judd opened an introductory piece on "political correctness" with a clip from an interview with Yale University Dean Donal Kagan:
Kagan: When I was a student back in the 1950s, in the days of Joe McCarthy, there was some such thing, but it was infinitely less effective than now. I don't think anybody was really afraid to speak his mind, even from a very unpopular, what would be thought to be an unpopular, point of view.
Judd: Are you saying that there is more intimidation today . . .
Kagan: Oh, sure.
Judd: . . . than there was during the McCarthy era?
Kagan: Oh, sure. No contest.
Kagan has been topped in rhetorical forcefulness only by the eminent historian Eugene Genovese. Shortly after announcing his departure from Marxism, Genovese wrote in a recent issue of the New Republic, "As one who saw his professors fired during the McCarthy era, and who had to fight, as a pro-Communist Marxist, for his own right to teach, I fear that our conservative colleagues are today facing a new McCarthyism in some ways some effective and vicious than the old."
McCarthyism and the University
Anyone attempting to investigate the theory of a "new McCarthyism" runs into a problem: there is, properly speaking, no such theory. None of those who see a new campus McCarthyism can define the term. Nor do they compare historical McCarthyism to the contemporary university in any systematic way. This neglect of intellectual responsibility is curious, since opponents who cry "leftist tyranny" invariably compalin that the modern academy is marred by a decline in the quality and standards of scholarship. No wonder, though, that the critics of a "new McCarthyism" neglect proper inquiry. While it is powerful as epithet, their phrase makes for weak history.
McCarthyism was the high point of Cold War anticommunism, a pervasive force that swept repressively through a series of institutions before settling on the university. The term is commonly used today to recall all aspects of the wide-ranging repression that was undertaken to contain or defeat global Communism, a threat greatly inflated by paranoia and self-serving interests in the years after the Second World War. Defined in this vernacular sense, McCarthyism preceded and outlasted the period spent in the spotlight by its namesake, Senator Joseph McCarthy. It first took hold in 1947, when President Harry Trauman's Executive Order 9835 authorized the FBI to conduct loyalty and security checks on all current and prospective federa; employees. Security probes were conducted through interviews with family, friends, neighbors, teachers, professional acquaintances, and former employers--who all remained anonymous. People under investigation had no right to cross-examination and could do nothing about damaging allegations in their dossiers. Since guilt, not innocence, was presumed, neither illegal nor even radical activity was required to justify dismissal. Mere "sympathetic association" with "subversive groups," as specified by the Department of Justice, was sufficient to cast aspersion on one's character. The probes culminated in the coerced signing of an oath pledging fidelity to the Constitution and government.
The repression took varied forms. Truman's loyalty program signaled the legitimacy of anticommunism, setting off a wave of related actions by state legislators. The House Committee on Un-American Activities grew powerful, passing beyond its reputation as a congressional backwater of southern segregationists, antisemites, and right-wing opponents of the New Deal. After HUAG spent 1947 pursuing radicals in Hollywood, the ten stars and directors who invoked the First Amendment in refusing to answer questions about their political pasts were censured for contempt by congressional resolution and imprisoned. After their release from jail, they found themselves blacklisted from employment by the film industry. Headline-grabbing cases of alleged Soviet espionage fed the myth that the Communist Party was a nest of spies. After ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss of espionage, the former Roosevelt administration official was convicted for perjury in 1949, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed after their conviction in 1953 for conspiring to pass atomic secrets on to the Soviets. In 1949, the top Communist leaders were convicted of violating the Smith Act, which forbade speech advocating the violent overthrow of the government. Although the repression thus centered on the Communist Party, no radical was safe. The assault on political liberty also damaged the few liberals who refused to collaborate with investigative bodies in the belief that speech and association should not be subject to government regulation.
Though shaped primarily by the global dynamics of Cold War, the domestic campaign to eradicate Communism was fed by standard bourgeois political opportunism and electoral rivalries. For Truman and other leading Democrats, anticommunism was a means to retain control of the White House. When the Republicans won both houses of Congress in the 1946 election, it appeared that right-wing anticommunism was making inroads on the electorate. Truman responded in kind. In 1947, he announced a new doctrine promising U.S. aid to any government threatened by Communism. Soon afterward he instituted the loyalty oaths. And he perfected redbaiting in the 1948 election, when he accused Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace (formerly Roosevelt's vice-president) of sheltering Communists in his campaign.
Anticommunism went beyond the normal limits of party politics, however, when Wisconin Senator Joe McCarthy slandered Truman as Truman had Wallace. In a 1950 speech, the Republican senator accused the Democratic administration of harboring fifty-seven Communist agents within its State Department. As McCarthy's fantastic charges won him a hearing, he began to blame the 1949 "loss" of China and the 1952 stalemate in the Korean conflict on Communist infiltration of key government posts. McCarthy kept changing the number of names on his list of "State Department Communists": 57, 205, 81, 10, 116. But he nonetheless received the tacit support of more respectable Republicans because of the damage he was inflicting on the Democrats. While speaking of his "excesses," many elites saw McCarthy as an errant but basically just and successful opponent of "totalitarianism." Although some liberals criticized McCarthy, it was often on the grounds that he was discrediting the campaign against Communism--an argument that only served to reinforce the legitimacy of official anticommunism. It was not until the televised army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 that his belligerent, absurd course became intolerable to most elites, ending in his congressional disgrace and, in 1957, his death in alcoholic oblivion. Even after McCarthy's downfall, however, the suppression of Communism remained the cornerstone of American foreign policy, domestic politics, and bourgeois consensus. Government exclusion, investigation, and persecuation of suspected radicals continued, even after the culture of anticommunism fissured during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
McCarthyism had a chilling effect on the academy, as historian Ellen Schrecker painstakingly documented in her book No Ivory Tower. The first major university to get caught in the Cold War was the University of Washington in 1948, when a state legislative investigation prompted the firing of three tenured professors. This decision, which set the pattern for the national curtailment of academic freedom, justified firing Communists on the ground that Communists as such advocate the overthrow of the government by force, carry out policies of concealment and deceit, and adhere to dogma rather than scientific experimentation. The first ground implied a commitment to undemocratic ends and illegal means, the second a conspiratorial tendency inimical to academic community, and the third a penchant for ideological indoctrination rather than the education of students. Furthermore, Washington officials claimed, the Communist Party was part of a global movement that abolished academic freedom wherever it took power. Thus the campus witchhunt was conducted in the name of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and free scholarship. On principle, not out of cowardice, intellectuals argued that Stalinist Communism ought to be eradicated from American life, even at the expense of restricting the civil liberties of "loyal citizens."
This was flawed logic. Although it benefitted from the party's terrible record of political zig-zags, apology for dictatorship, and undermocratic internal politics, it also relied on a one-sided view of the motives and activities of the rank-and-file radical, a blindness to the usual reluctance of Communist professors to carry their politics into the classroom, an inaccurate characterization of party members as spies and security risks, and a false charactization of the U.S. party as violent and revolutionary when it had long been electoral and regormist. Furthermore, it held individual members of a political association, regardless of their specific actions, responsible for the believed crimes of their groups. Still, the hundt for campus Communists spread. Mandatory loyalty oaths for teachers and professors became common. Many state legislative committees began to scrutinize higher education. When civil libertarian or radical professors failed to answer the questions of the committees, they were fired by administrators, mostly with the approval of their colleagues. Some were prosecuted.
Congressional investigation hit the universities in the middle of 1952, just before the presidential election, when the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (to the Senate what HUAC was to the House) undertook to examine the Institute of Pacific Relations, a think-tank central to China studies in the 1930s and 1940s. Republicans and ex-Communist witnesses sought to demonstrate that Communist China experts in the Truman administration had caused the "loss" of China. The SISS concluded that Owen Lattimore, a Johns Hopkins professor who in the 1930s had edited the IPR's journal Pacific Affairs, was a "conscious articulate instruments of the Soviet conspiracy," even though he had never been a member of the Communist Party and his writing contained not a trace of Marxism. The gate swung open to congressional investigation of higher education. McCarthy himself hailed the exposure of "Communists and Communist thinkers" as an example of the new spirit of "trying to promote freedom of thought and expression in college." In February 1953, HUAC began hearings on subversion in higher education, issuing subpoenas to a number of professors who had been at Harvard in the 1930s. Despite reservations, the first witnesses--Robert Gorham Davis, Daniel Boorstin, and Granville Hicks--named those who had been in their Communist "cells."
Other faculty refused to cooperate with investigating committees. Some met the fate of Chandler Davis, a University of Michigan mathematics instructor who cited the First Amendment to claim that legislators were overstepping their authority, lost his job, and was jailed. Often professors who refused to cooperate with government investigation kept their jobs only by submitting to internal university investigations asking the same questions. In only one instance, the case of Reed College philosophy professor Stanley Moore, did a faculty refuse to administer political tests in evaluating a colleagues under government pressure. The Reed faculty assessed Moore solely on the basis of his scholarly competence and teaching ability and judged him outstanding. But Reed's president and trustees fired Moore anyway, in the belief that Communist Party association was "beyond the scope of political beliefs and associations and also beyond the scope of academic freedom." Other faculty were purged more quietly, often without a hearing, by institutions desiring to rid themselves of potential sources of embarrassment before they were discovered. Those who were fired faced a blacklist. Some left the academy or country forever. Others found temporary income to tide them over until the blacklist faded in the 1960s, but the personal too was great. Friends fell away, divorce and family strains were common, and at least three professors committed suicide. The respected Harvard literary critic F.O. Matthiessen, for instance, who was gay and radical, jumped out of a hotel window in 1950, leaving a note of personal and political despair.
Schrecker found that universities, for all their intonations on behalf of "academic freedom," did not defend free thought on principle during the McCarthy period. Administrators and trustees, the key powerbrokers, were mainly interested in avoiding negative publicity and had no sympathy for professors and graduate students who refused to cooperate with legislative inquiries. The American Association of Universities, a body of thirty-eight leading university presidents, issued a statement in 1953, at the height of the repression, stating that membership in the Communist Party "extinguishes the right to a university position." Refusal to cooperate with investigative committees was unacceptable to the AAU, even if it was legal. Unapologetically, it laid bare its loyalties: "Free enterprise is as essential to intellectual as to economic progress." Though such capitulation by trustees and adminsitrators might be expected, one would hope for more from faculties. Most faculty did not actively hunt Communists, Schrecker found, but they failed to organize to stem the tide of dismissals. Often the respectable, moderate elements of the faculty, not committed reactionaries, were most culpable, because they sat on important committees. The most common faculty action, Schrecker found, was to resolve to study the problem.
Schrecker estimated that almost 20 percent of the witnesses called before state investigating committees were college teachers and graduate students, and that most of those who did not clear themselves with the committees were subsequently fired by their institutions. David Caute, author of a comprehensive book on McCarthyism, estimates that the political purges of the Truman-Eisenhower years cost more than six hundred high school teachers and university professors their jobs. It is against this legacy that we must weigh the claims of "a new McCarthyism."
McCarthyism of the left?
Since the essence of McCarthyism is opposition to radicalism, the very idea of a "McCarthyism of the left" is nonsense. The traits of "reversed" McCarthyism, moreover, simply do not exist on campus today. Conservative faculty are not having their tenure revoked, finding themselves called before congressional committees, being queried secretly by federal agents, or discovering that their friends, coworkers, and relatives have been interrogated. They aren't being denied due process or blacklisted from jobs. The effort to create a campus free of bigotry, in short, does not constitute a new McCarthyism.
Presumably, the charge of a "left-wing McCarthyism" is meant to disembody the name from history, to erase the memory of the right's legacy of repression and reaction while a new attack is waged against progressive social movements. Paradoxically, the term only draws attention to itself. The assertion of an imposition of "political correctness" similarly raises the specter of the right's own authoritarian past. If there is a new McCarthyism, it comes from the right.
Like the old McCarthyism, the new charges of campus tyranny paint all left-leaning thought "totalitarian." The very phrase "political correctness" is classic redbaiting, conjuring up images of a Stalinist party line. Through the theory of "totalitarianism"--developed during the Cold War to grossly conflate fascism and Stalinism--the new attack on campus progressives makes disparate phenomena appear identical. Newsweek's story reads like a crude McCarthy tract: "PC is, strictly speaking, a totalitarian philosophy"; "Politically, PC is Marxist in origin, in the broad sense of attempting to redistribute power from the privileged class (white males) to the oppressed masses"; "It's the dictatorship of the proletariat, to be followed by the withering away of the state." Since all of this falls under the roof of the "new McCarthyism," we are apparently to conclude that McCarthy was a Communist. Fascism, Stalinism, Marxism, McCarthyism, the deplorable state of higher education--all heads of the same hideous beast! Like McCarthyism, the current campaign targets liberalism as much as radicalism, treating them as though they were essentially alike. Academics who trade in deconstruction, postmodernism, and other literary philosophies are often seen by the right as a greater threat to Western civilization than Marxists. Debates within and between different academic fields are conflated, so that such literary theories as semiotics and psychoanalysis appear completely harmonious and left-wing; Afrocentrism appears as though it were the only viewpoint in African-American studies; radical, liberal, and socialist feminism are conflated; the debates within and between these perspectives are ignored. Such reductive assessment is necessary to sustain the fiction of a singular "political correctness" pushed by the left.
The idea of a "tyranny of the left" has achieved its greatest definition and promotion in the wake of war, during a period of aggressive U.S. imperialism. In this way it parallels not only McCarthyism but also the "red scare" of 1918-1919 and the Nixon administration's public bombast and covert terrorism against the New Left. The difference is one of context: the absence of Bolshevism. As the Cold War wanes and Soviet Communism flounders, conservatives are conducting their attack adeptly. Their claim that they are opposing a new McCarthyism anticipates the accusation that would otherwise be made against a campaign aimed at the academic left--that of revisiting the Cold War. As someone (no doubt a deconstructionist) once said, history repeats itself: the first time of tragedy, the second as farce.
Opportunism fuels the anti-PC push. President Bush is a good example of the manner in which "political correctness" is rapidly becoming a catch-all term to batter liberalism. In their 1988 debate, he assailed Dukakis as a "card-carrying member of the ACLU"--a phrase that rings with McCarthyism and a hostility to civil liberties. More recently, Bush tried to outlaw flag burning and pushed for political checks on federal funding of "obscene" art. Nonetheless, Bush audaciously complained in his commencement speech at the University of Michigan that, "Ironically, on the 200th anniversary of our Bill of Rights, we find free speech under assault throughout the United States, including on some college campuses." He had the pomposity to blame the campus anti-bigotry movement for a "rise of intolerance" and for "crusades that . . . crush diveristy in the name of diversity." Quite amusing, given the racist pandering in his notorious Willie Horton campaign ad and his harping on "quotas" to damage civil rights legislation.
The new conservative assertions, like those of Joe McCarthy, have been "objectively" broadcast and amplified by the corporate media. Syndicated columnists George Will, Mona Charen, and James Kilpatrick have joined Newsweek, New York, and The Atlantic in claiming a "tyranny of the left" in the universities. ABC's Nightline covered the controversy from a framework favorable to the right, as have other news shows.
Unless it is successfully resisted, the tide of reaction against PC will, like McCarthyism, result in profound violations of academic freedom. After all, who would tolerate a PC faculty member's cramming totalitarianism down the throats of innocent students? Consider the sinister titles of several recent books--Charles Sykes' Profscam and Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals--which focus the attack on tenured professors with radical or liberal views. Consider also a case at the University of Oregon. On National Coming-Out Day last year, a law instructor, during a discussion of Supeme Court verdicts on gay rights, told his class he was gay and read a poem. Conservative students complained, and the law school administration reprimanded the instructor and demanded he apologize to his class. The instructor complied, apparently out of fear for his career. This grave violation of academic freedom, which relies on the principle that teachers are free to express views in class as they see fit, indicates that PC may as well be turned around. The real totalitarians are on the right, viewing heresy as politically incorrect and seeking to eradicate it by branding left-liberals dogmatic ideologues unfit to teach. McCarthyism, one may recall, suppressed dissent in the name of preserving academic freedom and democracy from the threat of "totalitarianism."
God and Man at Dartmouth
A final parallel to McCarthyism may be drawn. Although it now appears in the national media as an objective depiction of campus reality, the concept of "political correctness" originated in the organized right. The intellectual centerpiece of the opposition to "political correctness," for instance, is Illiberal Education by Dinesh D'Souza. D'Souza, a smooth-tongued twenty-nine-year-old who is the leading figure in the attack on PC, was a founding editor of The Dartmouth Review. The Review published during D'Souza's editorial tenure an infamous "jive" article that attacked affirmative action in African-American "dialect." Despite his hand in these and other bigoted outrages, D'Souza has been able, because of his Indian descent and his purportedly principled defense of free speech and academic freedom, to pass himself off as a consummate liberal. Since leaving Dartmouth, however, he has served in the Reagan White House and now works for the American Enterprise Institute, a major conservative think-tank.
If there was a counterpart to D'Souza in the McCarthy era, was William F. Buckley, Jr. Like D'Souza, Buckley rose to prominence by editing a campus newspaper, the Yale Daily News. Also like D'Souza, Buckley's first book was an attack on higher education. His God and Man at Yale was published in 1951, just before McCarthyism turned its full force on the campuses. Buckley employed a rhetoric that finds echoes in D'Souza. "The conservatives, as a minority, are the new radicals," he wrote, complaining that the campuses were awash in New Deal liberalism and moral relativism that undermined individualism and Christianity. Although he admitted that actual Communist groups were all but absent from Yale, Buckley argued that Yale was on a sure course toward totalitarianism. Buckley's argument was unique among right-wing tracts of the era, in part for its genteel style but mainly in its conclusion that "academic freedom" was nothing more than a smokescreen. Yale, Buckley argued, did subscribe to an orthodoxy, though of expediency rather than principle, and thus would not hire a Communist or a Nazi. Buckley urged that the orthodoxy be further constricted so that faculty belief in Christianity and anticommunism were secured. As he put it, his argument was "not so much . . . that limits should be imposed, but that existing limits should be narrowed."
D'Souza has been called by some pundits a "new Buckley"--meaning a refined and learned intellectual of conservatism--but the differences between God and Man at Yale and Illiberal Education are as revealing as their similarities. D'Souza's perspective is that of the modernizing right, hegemonic since Reagan, which despite its nostalgic pining for simpler days unites in practice around meritocratic values and market choice. In contrast, God and Man at Yale put forward the program of a reactionary right. Buckley joined medieval religion and nineteenth-century economic liberalism to a worldview placing anticommunism at the center of politics. For Buckley, the central conflict in higher education was Communism against free enterprise, collectivism against individualism. D'Souza seeks to overthrow orthodoxy while preserving a tradition based on his notions of merit. For D'Souza, the problem is relativism rather than collectivism, a lack of standards that results in an "anything goes" mentality, leading to leftist tyranny. While Buckley's argument was much more coherent and consistent, D'Souza's promises to be more effective. Buckley became the enfant terrible of the Eastern intellectual establishment after God and Man at Yale, but was marginalized after his extended apology for McCarthyism in McCarthy and His Enemies. D'Souza has been treated obsequiously, his thesis absorbed and propounded by the mass media. Although D'Souza, like Buckley, claims in his book to be attacking an intellectual and liberal establishment, he has since its publication been wined and dined by that very establishment.
Unlike Buckley, whose overt McCarthyism associated him with a blundering assailant of civil liberties, D'Souza has placed himself squarely within the timid liberalism that has long been the political perspective of American elites. His use of "liberalism" is somewhat misleading, relying as it does upon the confusion between its nineteenth-century origins and its subsequent connotation of social reform. Still, the appeal to a "liberal" education in the sense of unfettered ideological competition is a far cry from Buckley's proposal that all professors be Christian individualists. Indeed, the use of "new McCarthyism" as some sort of a loose political epithet must unsettle Buckley, who to this day suggests that Joe McCarthy did not go far enough: "It never crossed his mind, when he railed about institutional disloyalty, how bad it really was."
A Right Turn?
This, then, is the paradox: Although distinct in tenor and program from the true McCarthyism of the early 1950s, the new conservative attack on "political correctness" falls neatly within the domestic Cold War consensus, or what is today known broadly as "McCarthyism." In order to wage an attack on campus radicalism, conservatives will be most successful when they appeal on liberal grounds for repression, as were anticommunists in the 1940s and 1950s. And as in the McCarthy period, the potential success of the right's antiradicalism is aided by the elasticity of its ideology--"political correctness" can smear almost any political belief with suspicion--and its usefulness in constraining such impulses toward reform as remain in liberalism.
The claim that the American university is a totalitarian institution in the hands of the left is a patent absurdity. The success of this claim on campus demonstrates not only that it is false but that it has real potential as a conservative influence on liberalism. The left has no position of control, either on campus or elsewhere. The real power in an American university lies with trustees drawn from the business class and elite administrators who direct resource allocation and make the detailed policy decisions. Inroads made by progressive faculty and ideas since the New Left are important, but greatly exaggerated by the right. Despite all the claptrap about "reverse discrimination," by the mid-1980s only about 12 percent of all full professors were women and 2 percent African-American--hardly a sufficient base for domination by feminists and multiculturalists. Despite all the talk about a curricular revolution under the guise of "diversity," only one school in the United States, Temple University, offers a Ph.D. in African-American studies. Despite fears of "politicized" education, academic radicals have to an unfortunate extent cultivated convoluted writing and retreated from activism.
Campus liberals are in far better shape than campus radicals. Talk of radical rule is a red herring (so to speak) for the hardiness of leberal culture, which is infuriating to conservatives and motivates the current attack on "political correctness." A recent nationwide Roper survey found that one in five students is involved in political activity, that about 60 percent become more politically aware while at college, and that 65 percent say their views changed while at college (50 percent more liberal and 15 percent more conservative). Such statistics indicate that the university remains a place where liberalism not only survives but thrives. It is ludicrous, however, to suggest that liberals are engaged in thought control. Conservatives and proponents of scholarly "neutrality" are hardly endagered species on campus. Accurately portrayed, the American university is a basically conservative institution, contracted to corporations and the state. Its peculiarity is that it remains, as it should, a contested terrain on the level of ideas. It is that contest, not tyranny, that the right seeks to end.
In addition to liberalism and radicalism, the right's targets are "multiculturalism" and "diversity." Ironically, these concepts, the new buzz-words of university administrators, represent a weak attempt--more public relations than substance--to make up for the fact that U.S. higher education is still Eurocentric, its faculties and student bodies still disproportionately white and male, and its campuses the location of continuing rape, gay-bashing, and racist attacks. But the right sees even timid pledges of diversity as a threat to "tradition"--a word that sometimes indicates a legitimate appeal to cultural roots and scholarly rigor but is more often than not a euphemism for an elitist, European, male canon.
The right is out to prevent the left from criticizing the unsavory aspects of the university, the American social order, and Western culture. It wants people to feel ashamed of holding critical opinions. Elitism, racism, sexism, and homophobia, however, are real problems that won't go away unless society changes. Those who make up the civic community of the university have an obligation to challenge bigotry if they truly want a democratic university open to free speech for all. Bigoted statements, whether made out of malice or ignorance, reinforce the structural and institutional difficulties that already bar oppressed groups from equal access to education. It is true that in attempting to correct bigotry people are occasionally too quick to judge or too harsh in their criticism, but this should not cause people to destroy what they want to preserve. Those who seek honestly to challenge oppressive behavior should not have to fear being labeled PC--that is, dogmatic and self-righteous. Nor should anyone be able to avoid responsibility for their actions by slandering their opponents as PC. For universities to be a place for rational debate, no stigma may be placed upon criticism and no barriers thrown up to exchange.
There is a real crisis of the university, but it won't be found by pursuing windmills of leftist tyranny. A fiscal crisis threatens programs and access to higher education. The budgetary crisis reveals the real tyrants of the university: managerial bureaucrats and capitalist trustees. The result of their unaccountable rule has been the reduction of financial aid and the elimination of programs. Simultaneously, federal minority aid programs have been gutted. Access to higher education is constricting, and students and faculty have little control over how the university will respond. At the University of Oregon, for instance, the response to budget cuts from new restrictions on property taxes was to eliminate the entire school of education, while such redeeming programs as military studies were left untouched.
Whether deliberately or not, the campaign against PC serves to distract the attention of the public, students, and faculty from the very real crisis of the university. Simultaneously, it serves to channel that crisis in specific directions. The new rejection of PC comes as the aging strata of professors hired in the boom years of the 1950s approaches retirement and a new generation of scholars, with a liberal tinge, seeks tenure. It also comes as the demographic composition of the United States shifts so that multiculturalism has become a fact, not an aim. The present university, the university of the right, is a think-tank for corporations and the state, a management training school for children of the elite, and a credentialling program for everyone else. In the face of budgetary crisis, restricting enrollment to privileged groups and increasing penetration of the university by corporate financing and military contracts will be the order of the day--unless an organized left is around to demonstrate the threat to academic freedom, scholarly integrity, and equal opportunity that such a financing structure implies, and to push for a different vision of the university. A genuine concern for freedom requires opposition to a mean-spirited ideology calculated to preserve the corporate and military university and to narrow higher education to a class privilege rather than a universal right.
The conservative blather about PC must be recognized for what it is: an attempt to expunge from the universities all obstacles to the progress of privatization and militarization. To be effective, the left will have to break through the framework that the right has given the debate. It should be remembered that it was the courage of the African-American movement for civil rights that broke open the old McCarthyism, dispelling the myth that militant democracy is totalitarian. Similarly, the left today should put its minds toward rejuvenating the movements for radical change. Rather than cower in the face of PC, it must cultivate an imaginative vision of the university. Against the right's corporate university, it must counterpose its own alternatives. Against bureaucratic administration, it must build democratic structures. Against an institution open to those who can afford it, the left must counterpose a campus open to all who are serious and responsible. Against a shrine to national and European culture, it must insist upon an international curriculum. Against a business contracted to the military, the corporations, and the rich, it must build alliances with working people and the oppressed. Against a fictitious separation of theory from practice in an illusory ivory tower, it must propose a humanist socialism.
Only active campaigns to change the university will prevent the right from quietly resurrecting McCarthy under the cover of a "political correctness" smokescreen. If McCarthyism has a lesson to teach us, it is that lies can stick and wound. The success of campus activism in refuting the lies this time around will be determined by its scholarly inquiry, its rational criticism, and its progressive activism. Nothing less than democratic militancy will bring down the curtain on this farce.