The irony of the tiny epithet's current popularity and its routine deployment by right-wingers against lefties is that the term isn't remotely new -- it's a Stalinist relic, according to Todd Gitlin's new book on the culture wars, The Twilight of Common Dreams (Metropolitan Books, $25). In the Stalin-led communist world of the '30s, correct was superior to right, Gitlin informs us; the politically correct label was a compliment -- it meant you were in step with the party's march to victory. To be incorrect, as Gitlin puts it, "was to be consigned to outer darkness."
The phrase's second vogue came in the '60s, when New Leftists flung it with mockery at the old left's tired orthodoxies. But by the '90s, PC had become the derisive term of choice for conservative writers like Dinesh D'Souza, Hilton Kramer, and Roger Kimball. Left-wingers, they said, had kidnapped the textbook selection process in the public schools and stormed the college curriculums to defenestrate the Dead White European Males.
Gitlin's book continues where D'Souza's and Kimball's ended, or better put, begins where their books should have: He attacks PC from the left.
If anyone possesses the rsum for such an indirect approach, it's Comrade Gitlin. He was president of the Students for a Democratic Society in the '60s, authored The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, writes frequently for the significant journals of opinion, and for many years was a briefcase-toting professor of sociology at Berkeley (he's now at NYU). But just because Gitlin is pissing on the left from inside the tent doesn't mean that his criticism of PC and its practitioners is polite. He believes that the PC victories won by the left are wholly Pyrrhic, insisting that while the left was busy marching on the English department, the right was seizing the White House.
The case study for Gitlin's book is an early '90s textbook battle in Oakland that pitted the PC forces against traditional liberals. Although he concedes that the textbooks in question were flawed, he asks why, after nearly a decade of Republican rule in the White House and the governor's mansion, "did committed people devote so much energy to mobilizing against the most pluralist textbooks ever brought before the State of California?" His answer is enough to drive the loyal progressive to the cabinet for a shot of paregoric: After a century of campaigning on a platform of universal values to improve the status of everyone, the left had rejected the commonality of man for the narrowness of "identity politics," the politics organized around race, gender, and sexuality.
Instead of defending the broader good -- the commons -- the forces of PC project "a set of false solutions proclaimed for real problems." They devote themselves to quarreling over why gays are not better represented in U.S. history textbooks, to protecting a faculty appointment here and a job set-aside there, and to defending the sanctity of affirmative action. And, as with faculty politics, their fighting is so vicious because the stakes are so low.
To explain how right and left swapped places, The Twilight of Common Dreams submerges itself in detail. (There is more detail than probably necessary, and definitely too many references to Foucault and Adorno, but hey, what do you expect from a university professor?)
To begin with, Gitlin believes that the national panic over PC was not sparked solely by belligerence on campus, but by the overreaction of a gullible media (Time and Newsweek, in particular) and the polemics of a slew of book-writing pundits -- funded by the right-wing Olin Foundation -- who deliberately overstated the menace. While blaming the hyper press and pundits isn't consistent with Gitlin's disassembly, we can spot the prof a few points because he provides a brilliant historical exposition on how the left misplaced its substantial energies to win symbolic victories instead of ... revolution.
The New Left of the '60s may have paid lip service to organizing the common man, Gitlin writes, but it was far too distrustful of majorities to create a genuine populist movement. Organizing majorities would have required the New Left to embrace straight white males, and the nascent identity politics of those days made such an alliance unthinkable. White males were (and remain) the sworn enemy of the various left-vanguard sects -- radical blacks, revolutionary Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, militant feminists and gays. Then as now, white males were viewed as the colonizers, the imperialist oppressors, the bourgeoisie in conflict with the working class.
In Gitlin's telling, the PC left opted for easy victories on campus and at the school board, ceding to the right -- which had long been associated with privileged interests -- the position of defending the common good. It must have come as a great surprise to the left that Marx's dream of all for one and one for all was resurrected by (of all people) Ronald Reagan. Via the smoke and mirrors of his speechwriters, Reagan promoted the utopian vision of a City on a Hill attainable for all Americans. Meanwhile, the nominally left Democrats swapped idealism for quotas and deserted universal commonality for political subsets (women and minorities). By advocating such fragile images as a gorgeous national "mosaic" of peoples, the "breakdown of the idea of a common left" was completed.
Abandoning the real world, the left retreated to academia, or what Gitlin calls the "surrogate world."
"In the hothouse of the campus, the diversity rhetoric of identity politics short-circuits the necessary discussion," he writes. "Along the way, it is convenient to accuse a liberal professor of racism, to campaign against a campus newspaper that publishes a conservative columnist, to vent anger against a pliant university administrator."
Identity politics thrive on campus for the same reason drug and sexual experimentation do: Few wage-earning adults are watching. The proliferation of identity politics has continued at such a furious pace that no ethnic or gender group is now without an administration-recognized association of its own -- with the possible exception of straight white males. (But don't cry for them; their brothers in rural America are busy organizing militias to advance their identity interests.)
Gitlin deplores this atomization and segregation of politics, in part because it is ineffectual. He notes how rarely the aggrieved parties in the real world request the assistance of the campus coalitions, and rarer still how often the coalitions offer any help.
The big loser in the PC battle, writes Gitlin, isn't the frothing right-wing or the moderates for whom the PC wars are mostly an inconvenience. Western civilization will survive the reprimand dealt the UPenn student who called a group of raucous black women "water buffaloes." Shakespeare's plays will continue to be revered even if the PC forces remove them from the curriculum. In the various textbook battles, less academic freedom is lost than patience.
What haunts Gitlin about PC is how it has obliterated the left's sense of a commons. Thanks in part to PC, there are no shared institutions around which a majority can organize: no political party; no common church or unified school system or, to revive that old dream, no one big union to unite all.
"What is a left without a commons, even a hypothetical one?" Gitlin asks. "If there is no people, but only peoples, there is no left.