Right-Wing P.C.

How conservatives learned to stop worrying and love political correctness


I always suspected the right's disdain for political correctness was a Sam-and-Diane sort of enmity, an animus that could only end with a lusty, guilty romp in the hay. Last month in Bellevue, Washington, they finally consummated their union, after years of catty insults, coy flirtation, and occasional bouts of heavy petting.

When I say "political correctness," I'm referring to an attitude, not an agenda. In some hands the term is a broad synonym for censorship and groupthink, qualities that have always been common across the political spectrum. Other times it devolves into a vague smear-term for anything left of center. I'm using it to describe a particular political posture: one that treats identity politics not just as an ideology but as a trump card, that maintains a rigid orthodoxy while regarding itself as subversive, that uses a series of contrived outrages to feed a bureaucratic machine. Each of those elements has infected parts of the right.

Identity politics. When identity-conscious movements began to emerge from the '60s and '70s left—black pride, brown pride, women's liberation—the animating idea was to refuse to be a victim. Over the years, they sometimes came to connote the opposite: the power of being a victim, or at least of being seen as one. The difference between the two approaches is the difference between James Brown singing "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" and Tawana Brawley deciding there might be an advantage to covering herself in dogshit and racial slurs.

We haven't had any Brawley-style fabrications on the right—none that we know of, anyway—but Republicans have certainly learned the benefits of faux victimization. You can see this in play with several identities the right likes to claim as its own—southern, military, male—but it's most pronounced when the subject is religion. Some of the country's leading conservatives met this past March to denounce what they called a "War on Christians." To hear them tell it, this war on faith includes Tom DeLay's legal troubles: When conference organizer Rick Scarborough introduced the disgraced congressman, he said, "I believe the most damaging thing that Tom DeLay has done in his life is take his faith seriously into public office, which made him a target for all those who despise the cause of Christ." (He also told DeLay to buck up, because "God always does his best work after a crucifixion.")

Now conservatism itself is an identity, available to anyone willing to adopt a "Red America" persona as superficial and idealized as anything you'd find in a multicultural textbook for second-graders. Blake Hurst laid out the sunny scene in a widely quoted article for The American Enterprise: "People living in the great middle are perfectly happy to be slightly overweight, a little underpaid, and dressed in fashions that cause comment when we interact with our betters… We respect formal learning, but we value practicality over more esoteric fields of knowledge, and treasure self-sufficiency above all… Most Red Americans can't deconstruct post-modern literature, give proper orders to a nanny, pick out a cabernet with aftertones of licorice, or quote prices from the Abercrombie and Fitch catalog." Unlike, say, those Blue State snobs in the Bronx.

We even have conservative tokens. Consider Ben Domenech, co-founder of RedState.com, who served briefly as the house Republican in The Washington Post's lineup of blogs. Domenech fit the classic stereotype of an affirmative-action hire, picked not for his talent—he turned out to be a serial plagiarist—but because the professional Red Staters had mau maued the Post into enlisting him. He played his role to the hilt, telling his employers they just don't get his culture ("For the MSM, Dan Rather is just another TV anchor, France is just another country and Red Dawn is just another cheesy throwaway Sunday afternoon movie") and playing the victim card after his transgressions were exposed ("no conservative could write for the Post without being subject to the gauntlet of the liberal attack machine"). If Domenech ever writes a memoir of the experience, he can borrow his title from Jayson Blair's barely repentant book: Burning Down My Master's House. More thoughtful conservatives rolled their eyes, embarrassed that this man was supposed to represent them.

Orthodoxy and outrage. The prototypical P.C. leftist will pat himself on the back for being "subversive" while reciting opinions carefully calculated not to upset his career track. The prototypical P.C. conservative will pat herself on the back for being "politically incorrect" while reciting opinions that are just as safe and predictable. When Fox blowhard Bill O'Reilly declares that "it is politically incorrect to mention that immigration laws must be enforced and the borders effectively monitored," he obviously isn't describing what's risky to say on the channel that employs him, where calls to enforce our immigration laws are about as rare as ads for Hannity & Colmes.

Virtually every political tribe has an orthodoxy. To be P.C., you have to search actively for deviations from it, no matter how dubious, petty, or obscure. The ritual of outrage and punishment is more important than the offense itself; indeed, it's OK to change the rules, or invent new rules on the spot, if that keeps the faithful in a state of high dudgeon. One of the most infamous campus conflicts of the early '90s involved Eden Jacobowitz, a student at the University of Pennsylvania who was accused of harassment after he called some noisy sorority sisters "water buffalo." The women in question were black, so the college argued that "water buffalo" was a racial slur, assigning connotations to the phrase that it had never held before and would never hold again.

Something similar is at work with the current uproar over "Nuestro Himno," a Spanish-language adaptation of "The Star-Spangled Banner." It takes a really hard-core busybody to get outraged that people are singing a patriotic song, but the record sparked an eruption of contrived fury, much of it from folks who ordinarily assert that immigrants are out to reconquer the southwest for Mexico. (So shouldn't they be teaching us their anthem?) Before long the president himself was declaring that "the national anthem ought to be sung in English," and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander and Kansas Rep. Jim Ryun were asking Congress to state the same preference.

The punchline: It quickly emerged that there were four Spanish translations of the anthem on the U.S. State Department's website, and that the government had published a Spanish version of the song as early as 1919. The lyrics have also been translated into German (way back in 1861), French, Yiddish, and several other languages. There was even a report claiming that George W. Bush himself had sung the anthem in Spanish when he was on the campaign trail.

But the point of the commotion wasn't to protect the anthem, which was never in danger; it's still sung in English before baseball games, even in San Diego and Los Angeles. The point was to keep the political troops excited. If that means suddenly inventing new norms about who's allowed to sing what songs in what language, so be it.

Bureaucracy. Mindless orthodoxy and artificial outrage are obnoxious, but it isn't hard to ignore them. What made political correctness harmful was the machinery that sprawled around it: the speech codes, the self-perpetuating bureaucracies, the amorphous regulations. (My freshman year at Michigan, the university explained its "anti-harassment" policy in a pamphlet issued to all students. You were a harasser, it explained, if you "laugh at a joke about someone in your class that stutters," "display a Confederate flag on the door of your room," or simply were a member of an organization that "sponsors entertainment that includes a comedian who slurs Hispanics.")

Conservatives used to say they wanted to tear down that sprawl. These days, a lot of them just want to take it over. The neocon activist David Horowitz even toyed with the idea of "adding the categories of political and religious affiliation to Title IX and other existing legislation," thus making conservatives an officially protected class. He eventually gave up on that notion, but he's still pushing an "Academic Bill of Rights" that would let students lodge official complaints against professors for the topics they choose to explore in the classroom.

Which brings us back to Bellevue. The incident that finally fused the left and right wings of P.C. came at Bellevue Community College last month, after the black Republican Wayne Perryman protested a stupid and racist joke embedded in a math question. (It began: "Condoleezza holds a watermelon just over the edge of the roof of the 300-foot Federal Building, and tosses it up with a velocity of 20 feet per second.") The affront to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was noted, and several right-wing pundits publicized Perryman's crusade. Hundreds of angry e-mails poured into the college.

As the cliché goes, the solution to bad speech is more speech. It's fine for the professor's offended students to protest. It's also fine for sympathetic outsiders to join in, though it's hard to imagine how one idiot's joke at one obscure school could rile up anyone not plugged into the perpetual outrage machine. But the end result of the protests was not so fine. With the college chastened, its Pluralism Steering Committee offered a series of recommendations, including:

• "a Community Pluralism Committee reporting to the President, an integral part of our original Pluralism Initiative Structure that never solidified."

• "The college creates and fills the position of Vice President of Equity and Pluralism."

• "The college provides increased funding for pluralism training and development including hiring Glenn Singleton for the Beyond Diversity workshop at least once, and maybe several more times."

In other words, Perryman's protest became an opportunity for bureaucratic expansion. The reference to Singleton is especially telling. "A self-described 'diversity expert,'" the historian and blogger David Beito writes, "Singleton is an accomplished race baiter who is often able to persuade colleges and schools to pay him hefty fees for his services. Critics on both the left and right have condemned his 'Maoist' style 'training' methods."

So this isn't simply a case of people on the right taking advantage of the structures put in place by the left, nor of building a parallel apparatus of their own. It's a case of a conservative campaign that actively helped those original structures grow, even landing a professional diversity hustler a job. Left and right were already co-dependent; now they're in a full-fledged clinch. I wonder how they'll feel in the morning?