It has been said that politics is the art of the possible. It is also the art of the silly and the dangerous.
I started collecting offbeat news items early in the '90s for my own amusement and sanity, but it soon became my primary interest to document the multifarious phenomena known as "political correctness." I'm well aware of the tendency to define this term loosely to mean "any closely held view of which I don't approve," and I'm not sure I'm offering anything better here. Yet while I believe both Left and Right entertain all sorts of smelly orthodoxies (to use Orwell's term), self-styled progressives have always had particular trouble recognizing limits to the sort of progress they seek. As a result, traditional liberal expectations of government activity often slip the tethers of plausibility.
The most notable PC enthusiasms—race, gender, sexual "difference"—became popular at roughly the same time the Soviet Union imploded, when talk of class differences became relatively unpopular among leftists. There has been a corresponding de-emphasis of human beings in favor of wildlife and the "environment," neither of which can complain of unwelcome attention the way proletarians are liable to these days. And faced with socialism's manifest failure, many have even chosen to deny the importance of objective reality altogether, adopting faddish nihilistic attitudes to conceal their own strange form of gnosticism.
I aim to document a wide range of these often contradictory threads, both in their speculative stages and once hardened into legal statutes or informal, polite axioms. Astute readers may notice a similar tension between my libertarian and conservative instincts. Yet while PC tends to explore some of the fringe logical questions that are routinely posed within the framework of a free society, I adapt that approach by refocusing attention on the logical extremes of PC itself. I'm optimistic at least that laughing at it may help diminish it.
I must warn you that if you are overly sensitive or if you identify yourself closely with the fortunes of various grievance groups, reading this anthology will not be cause for great joy. Even if that's not the case and if you are as insensitive as I am, reading too much in one sitting may still give you a bad case of the shakes. Medical vaccinations involve a weak dose of a disabled form of a virus; a political vaccination requires quite the opposite.
An Inclusive Litany
Okay, that was a bit harsh. The only other FAQ item I'd add...
- What's with the word "flummery"?
- It's a perfectly acceptable word:Perhaps more to the point:flum-mery \'flem-(e-)re^-\ [W llymru] (ca. 1623) 1a: a soft jelly or porridge made with flour or meal 1b: any of several sweet desserts 2: MUMMERY, MUMBO JUMBOmum-mery \'mem-e-re^-\ pl -mer-ies (1530) 1: a performance by mummers 2: a ridiculous, hypocritical, or pretentious ceremony or performance
- How about the word "litany"? Is the site supposed to be an inclusive "prayer" or "appeal" or "supplication"?
- How about "any long and tedious address or recital"? One of its most popular usages, after all, is "litany of complaints," which is rather what I had in mind. Also, a litany "is usually of a penitential character." I rather like that.
- Where does the term "political correctness" come from?
- Richard Bernstein of the New York Times (author of Dictatorship of Virtue) is generally credited with popularizing the term in a 1991 article, but he certainly did not coin it.
I have heard—and I'm not sure it's true—that the term "politically correct" (not the later "PC" acronym) originated among American communists during the '30s. It may have arisen from—ahem—"debate" between Stalinists and Trotskyites as to which path was ideologically superior. For all I know, it may have arisen as American shorthand used to track increasingly indefensible gyrations in the Soviet party line around the time of the Nazi/Soviet pact. (Memo to humanity: stop following political philosophies that are closely identified with primary colors. For one thing, "green" is synonymous with "naïve.")
Regardless, I have first-hand experience that the term "politically correct" was originally non-pejorative, and was used way too earnestly before becoming slathered with layers of irony. You might have heard the phrase used to describe the faux pas you just committed by failing to leave the toilet seat down for the next female who chanced along. I clearly remember (from around 1989-1990) the term "un-PC" being directed towards use of chopsticks, since they come from trees, which of course grow in rainforests. In that sense, saying something was "un-PC" was the equivalent of saying "we do not approve" when the person speaking happens to be the Queen of England. In that passive sense, it deflects open discussion and relies on consensus as its authority. After all, it is not so much that we don't do these things, it is that these things simply aren't done.
- I am a student, and I am writing a research paper on something having to do with the material on your site. Can you tell me what I should write about and do all my research for me?
- The question answers itself.
- Has PC affected you personally?
- Not all that much, or at least not directly. At one point at O'Reilly, where I made part of my living editing and producing computer books, some staff members once tried to implement a policy of alternating male and female pronouns in different paragraphs to represent the generic third person fairly, but I tried my best to ignore it. It would get plenty absurd, too. I remember proofing one stretch of text that oscillated so wildly between using 'her' and 'his' that what should have been a clear exposition of the layering of graphic interface elements sounded like some poor woman was having carnal relations with an X Windows dialog box handler, with special emphasis on its "widget." (That policy collapsed under its own weight.)
In fact, most people have not been fired, sued, or publicly humiliated as a result of PC. Most people I've spoken with simply regard it as a tax, with much the same grim sense of inevitability. I try to ignore it in my everyday life, despite many provocations.
- Where do all the circus graphics come from?
- The monochrome images are from the public-domain Dover Pictorial Archive, and may be copied freely. The color images on the September 2001 page, on the other hand, are all ripped off.
- You say that you're conflicted, not sure whether you're a libertarian or a conservative. Why?
- A little personal history: I was brought up liberal (the Upper West Side's default setting) and went through the usual inchoate radical left-wing stage as a teenager. In the mid-'80s, I had what alcoholics describe as a "moment of clarity" in which some of the basic laws of economics suddenly became apparent, as if by burning bush. Injesting modern-day liberalism was very much like eating bad meat, and while it took a while, believe me, it came up all at once.
I was a big-L "Libertarian" for a little while, but did not find them to be a serious political party. For one thing, they insisted on running the publisher of Screw magazine for political office in Florida. Aside from the unbelievably bad judgement that represented, many Libertarians also confused the issue with one of free speech, as if a (private!) political party were obliged to promulgate any viewpoint whatsoever.
I recall objecting in an e-mail discussion forum that it was not the business of a political party to contradict the sexual moral code of the overwhelming majority of the population, to which a surprising number of Libertarian activists responded Oh Yes It Was, and maybe their personal moral code needs some overturning. I found it surreal that the same bunch of people who constantly invoked Friedrich Hayek on the state's inability to process price information better than free markets ignored his more important insights into the pragmatic, evolutionary nature of informal human custom. Libertarians seemed almost Marxist in their willingness to overturn these long-though-out customs in favor of their own rigid ideological preferences. For the same reason, Libertarians are uncharacteristically utopian and arrogant in thinking that their way is the best, which, come to think of it, is also true of people who read way too much Ayn Rand. I'm convinced that if you encountered the same bunch of people 50 years ago, they'd be Trotskyites.
For a while I called myself a small-l libertarian, but even then I found major problems with the political philosophy. Without getting too long-winded about it, the problem is basically (a) little, if any, reference to moral philosophy or anything that falls outside the narrow realm of simple economic transaction, (b) isolationist foreign policy advice from Hell, and (c) an extreme fetish with individual rights to the exclusion of all other considerations. (For more on the latter point, the book to read is William Donohue's Twilight of Liberty, a strong criticism of the ACLU that happens to apply to libertarians as well.)
Which is not to say I feel completely comfortable calling myself "conservative," but there you have it: a split personality. Intellectually conservative, tempermentally liberal. And as you can tell from the above yammering, my pronounced sense of political identity has also long been something of a character flaw.
- Did you leave anything out?
- Since I rely mostly on print media, I occasionally miss broadcast commentaries that would otherwise make the cut, but that take too long to reproduce as text, and National Public Radio has been a particularly rich source.
I remember during the Clinton impeachment, hearing an NPR interview with Francine Du Plessix Gray, author of a biography of the Marquis De Sade, in which she compared the "persecution" of the famous... well... sadist to the persecution of President Clinton. There was no trace of irony in her voice whatsoever. I had to pull the car over. The same thing happened more recently when a talk show host commented on air that the poet Pablo Neruda "dabbled in politics."
I once heard another NPR interview with one of the actresses from the TV comedy, "In Living Color," who complained that when she grew up she only had a white doll to play with. At the time, there were a few dolls available that were black like her, but these were clearly the same white dolls, but that had only been painted over to be black. Later in life, she said, other dolls became available that were designed with African-American facial characteristics—no elaboration there. She was gratified, she said, that they were "dolls of color, rather than just colored dolls." (Again, I'm not sure if she was simply fulfilling her role as comedienne.)
In general, I haven't wailed on NPR and PBS enough, though I should say that the quality of their news reporting and choice of documentary subjects has improved, probably as a result of the '94 Republican Congressional takeover, and the inevitable incentive shift that implies. Prior to that, they had very little bad to say about places like Cuba, and very little good to say about Israel. Others argue they are still intensely biased; I leave it to you to evaluate.) NPR managed to inject every conceivable issue with liberal bias. In one story about agricultural policy on "All Things Considered," the only expert source they interviewed was perhaps the only economist in the world who thought that farm subsidies were a good idea. (And surprise!... he worked for the farm lobby.) Another story attacked the Christian Science Monitor for bias because of the religious institution that ran the paper. But NPR would constantly run horrific, three-hankie stories about all the bad things that happen when you cut social programs, but they never stated their own entrenched bias on the subject—that they rely so heavily on government subsidies.
- Are you really the "Original Blogger"?
- Not really, but it's kind of fun to say so. "Blog" is just a silly term anyway, since it represents a tautology. There's been plenty of blog-like content long before the advent of the Web. Does residence on the Web make it a blog? Likewise, I never specifically used "blog" software [until adapting the archive in 2008], even though my form of Internet-only content represents a kind of proto-blog. As far as I can tell, the only difference is that blog entries are displayed in strict reverse chronological order, while mine are pretty much random for each month. Also, most blogs feature links to readers' comments and trackbacks, whereas I don't care what you think and certainly don't want it on my site.
Finally, here's one other personal anecdote that somehow never made it into the Digest.
- Is it true you were once plagiarized by Ann Coulter?
- Apparently, yes.
I have a friend who lives with her husband and two sons in a rambling house in one of Boston's most affluent suburbs. Her husband managed software projects at firms like Lotus and IBM, eventually quitting to launch a startup that was quickly acquired by Abobe. At the time, she was an editor at an influential technical publishing firm, a position from which she was able to retire in her mid-thirties because, frankly, they were doing very well.
One of their sons returned from kindergarden one day and expressed great concern to his father about his employment status. "Please, daddy," he would say, "please keep your job. I would be very sad if you lost your job." He told his son that he had a job, a very good job, and that everything was alright. Still, his son expressed ongoing worry, and said something strange to the effect that he liked living in a house and didn't like beans. After a few days of this, they figured out the source of the tension. The boy's kindergarten class had read aloud a book about a family struggling to make it by in some marginal industry. After the father loses his job, they have to cut their expenses dramatically, hence the reference to eating beans. With barely enough left to eat, the family is then evicted from their apartment, and have to live in their car, huddled under blankets while seeking opportunities for migrant labor.