[This article appeared in the August 1991 issue of Conservative Review.]
FROM THE ACADEMY…
‘Political Correctness’: A Third Window into American Liberalism’s
Otherwise Latent Affinity for Totalitarianism
Dwight D. Murphey
Three episodes in the history of modern American liberalism give us a glimpse – i.e., serve as windows – into the affinity that many liberals have toward a totalitarian mindset. These are chilling episodes, all the more because they run so counter to modern liberalism’s professed (and generally sincere) adherence to democracy, freedom of speech, humane caring and support for the underdog. Dr. Murphey points out that the seeming inconsistency can easily be explained if we understand the dynamics that make liberalism tick.
IN THE WEIMAR REPUBLIC during the years before Hitler became Chancellor and initiated the Third Reich, squads of angry men roamed the streets, invaded meeting halls, and fought each other over who would have the right to assemble. Some of these squads were Nazi, the others Communist; both were the apostles of totalitarianism – and sought to deny freedom of speech and assembly to anyone who opposed them.
’s brief post-World War I experiment in parliamentary democracy went down in flames, as we know, under these irascible pressures. Germany
As Nazism came to pervade German society, great pressure was placed within the schools and universities, as elsewhere, on anyone who did not conform.
We have come in the twentieth century to recognize the tell-tale signs of totalitarianism:
An idealism so persuaded of its own truth and so fanatic that it sharply devalues all other views;
That accordingly comes to see the adherents of those other views not as fellow citizens who just happen to disagree, but as people who must necessarily be vicious and perverse;
That therefore considers those others outside the pale, no longer deserving humane consideration;
And that is willing to unleash the coercive violence of the mob, of paramilitary squads and ultimately of the state to carry out this combination of idealism and hatred.
History has put the world on notice that such a syndrome portends an appalling danger to personal liberties and to humane civilization.
Is there any excuse, then, for such patterns to be repeated, and even accepted indulgently, in today’s society just because the syndrome is being advanced under a different rhetoric in the name of another idealism?
‘Political Correctness’: Contemporary Liberalism’s Intolerant Demand that ‘Everyone Conform – Or Else’
IT IS IN THE NATURE of the Left to seek out an alliance with any disaffected or unassimilated group. If there are no such groups, or if they are too few to be effective, the Left works to manufacture them.
During the first century and more of the Left’s existence, the main effort was for an alliance of the alienated intellectual subculture with the “proletariat” – i.e., the “workers.” Over a long period of time this proved unsuccessful, and since World War II the Left has searched for new alliances. This has led to the focus on racial, ethnic and
Third Worldpeoples. Marx’s “exploitation of the proletariat” has given way to a new emphasis on the “victimization” of these newly-discovered minorities.
The process has now even gone so far that “ableism” and “lookism” have been proclaimed as newly-coined forms of victimization. Thus, anyone with a disability, and anyone who isn’t considered as attractive as others, is defined as a “victim.” The goofy militants who thought this up hope thereby to recruit additional millions – anyone who is in any way disabled, short, obese, etc., etc. – into the ranks of the angry and disaffected. And who are the victimizers? An amorphous, undefined “they” who make up the main society. Paranoia is spread far and wide as we all become both victims and victimizers. And anyone who isn’t “sensitive” to each minute nuance of this is per se a monster, to be shunned, punished and reeducated.
None of this is put forth as reasoned argument, although there is plenty of “theory” assigned to it in radicalism’s in-house writing. It is pressed on us in the form of iron-clad taboos. Anyone who disagrees or who, even without conscious disagreement, doesn’t conform his language and behavior to the semantic and observances it commands is outside the pale. Those on the left who still talk in Marxian terms continue to speak of “class enemies.” I am not yet aware of any particular term the new “ideology of sensitivity” applies to those it shuns. But there is no doubt that they are seen as enemies.
In this context, American society has become inured to and indulgent toward four abuses that we must recognize for what they are – as totalitarian in their very essence. The list is almost certainly not exhaustive:
A tone of irascible intolerance discolors much of our university life, militating against the essential values of academic freedom and scientific inquiry, and seeps into our public discourse.
“Reeducation” and “sensitization” programs have been growing as institutions seek a way to enforce conformity. It is a terrible thing when people are killed or tortured for their beliefs, but that at least leaves them their identity as self-defining human beings. But when an ideology reaches out to demand control over people’s minds, not admitting that any thoughts other than those embraced by the ideology are even to be allowed to exist, we see the most insidious form of totalitarianism. We have seen atrocious examples of this in the twentieth century. In a recent St. Croix Review article on political correctness, Allan C. Brownfield has rightly said that “many of today’s academics resemble A. A. Zdhanov, who was Stalin’s Minister of Culture, and whose responsibility it was to ensure ideologically correct aesthetic standards.” And many of the most vivid images of “public confession” and enforced “reeducation” come from Communist China.
There is an inexplicable tolerance toward mob violence – when it comes from the Left or from any of society’s alleged “victims” – that is directed against the free expression of opinion. In one episode after another in American life – especially in the universities – since the mid-1960s mobs have been able to silence speakers, driving them from the stage in fear of their lives or denying them the opportunity ever to take the stage in the first place. And although the suppression of free speech is perhaps the most flagrant form of such violence, Americans have become indulgent toward such mob action in other connections, too, such as in the seizing of university and other public buildings. If anyone thinks such behavior stopped twenty years ago, he should pay closer attention to the daily paper. Not only is it still going on, but we have become so tolerant of it that any given incident hardly attracts more than a fleeting paragraph or two, if that.
Yet another consequence is that we have come to entertain a dual system of law and of rights. It may be true that the victims of crime still receive little consideration from our justice system. But “society’s victims” as defined by the Left are put on a pedestal in
today, possessing rights and privileges that mainstream Americans don’t have. Instead of one coherent theory of rights and public services, we have a bifurcated system. (The Constitutional paradigm for this duality was stated by Justice Stone in his famous “Footnote Four” to the Carolene Products decision in 1938. Government was to be free to do almost anything – i.e., was to be subject to “lesser scrutiny” – so far as actions toward the mainstream society was concerned; but anything pertaining to “discrete and insular minorities” was to be treated by a different standard and was to receive “heightened scrutiny.” Some freedoms were declared “preferred freedoms.” We have been running on a dual track ever since. Although there is superficial appeal to declaring law the “champion of the underdog,” the duality of rights is far removed from any proper Constitutional theory, which under the norms of the Rule of Law should seek an equality of rights for all citizens.) America
Thus it is that “black homecoming queen” competitions are permissible, but it would be vicious and racist for whites to have anything comparable; or that there are such things as a “Women’s Society of Professional Accountants” while men can no longer have their own service clubs. (I quit Optimists after twenty years when they put up no fight, even politically, against an insistence that they admit women. I had no objection to groups that combine men and women, but I wanted no part of an obsequious acquiescence in the taking away of men’s own freedom of association. Why the American mainstream won’t stand up for its rights will be the subject of a future article.)
What ‘Political Correctness’ Tells Us About the Liberal Mind
IT HASN’T BEEN MY INTENTION in this article to detail the recent “political correctness” movement for its own sake. A number of authors have done that recently, so that a hue and cry is going up that is warning Americans about it. Whether the hue and cry will succeed in loosening the Left’s grip is still to be seen.
What I wish to do here is to point to what the intolerance tells us about the liberal mind. (As always, it is important to make it clear that I am referring to twentieth century leftist liberalism, not the “classical liberalism” that has long championed a market economy, limited government, and the like.)
The great thrust of modern American liberalism has been “social democratic.” It has placed great emphasis on democracy, equality, and the processes (such as freedom of speech) of an open society. This has been advanced quite sincerely by liberals generally. It is a mistake to think that the adherents of any ideology do not, in the main, believe in what they are advocating.
Just the same, there have been three episodes in the history of modern American liberalism that reveal a strong undertow of totalitarianism at such times as the American Left has felt itself in a position to disregard the toleration of competing views that goes with democratic procedure. Today’s intolerant demand for “political correctness” is the latest of these. (Not everyone on the American Left displays this schizophrenia, of course. Sidney Hook, for example, stood up courageously and consistently for democratic values as against the totalitarian pressures of the New Left.)
After I have reviewed the other two, I will explain what it is about the dynamics of the American Left that allows two such seemingly inconsistent elements – an adherence to democracy and an affinity for totalitarianism – to exist side-by-side within the same mentality.
The First Episode: Liberalism’s 1920s-1930s Adoration of ‘the Great Soviet Experiment’
ANTI-COMMUNISTS have for thirty years been so beaten down in American society that we are rarely reminded anymore of just how intense the American Left’s infatuation with Soviet Russia was during the thirty years between 1917 and 1947. Andre Gide summed it up in The New Republic in 1937: “Who shall say what the
Soviet Unionhas been to us? More than a chosen land – an example, a guide. What we have dreamt of, what we have hardly dared to hope, but towards which we were straining all our will and all our strength, was coming into being over there.”
Two years before, in 1935, Waldo Frank, a frequent writer for The New Republic at that time, sent in a letter saying that “I wish to stress… my entire loyalty to the Soviet cause and my strict partisanship with its government in its struggles against a hostile world.” He added that “the
is the ‘fatherland’ of all true revolutionaries, the world over.” USSR
I could multiply the examples a thousand times, but it is hardly necessary. American liberal intellectuals, until gradually more and more were weaned away by Stalin’s purges, the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and other enormities, had an abiding love for Lenin and Stalin’s totalitarian behemoth. They had this love at the very same time they preached democracy and free speech here at home.
Nor was it just a Platonic, arms-length affection. Liberals mixed it up, getting their hands dirty. They were capable, at least for a considerable while, of excusing even the most specific butcheries. In 1926, Jerome Davis wrote a justification for the Soviet secret police: “…every country has its G.P.U., especially in a period of war and revolution.” A year later, a
article told of the execution of twenty-two opponents of the Soviet regime – and excused them as arising out of Soviet fears caused by the West and by the assassination of the Soviet ambassador to New Republic . In 1930, Vera Micheles Dean wrote a strangely non-judgmental article about Stalin’s drive to “liquidate” the “kulaks” (the so-called wealthy peasants, who were seen as a class enemy, although the liquidation went well beyond the wealthy). Poland
Such examples can be cited at length, but what most implicated American liberal intellectual culture in Lenin and Stalin’s atrocities was their silence. There was, and remains to this day, hardly a peep from them about the Holocaust of 1933, when millions were deliberately starved to death to suppress Ukrainian nationalism and to force the collectivization of agriculture. Until Solzhenitsyn, the world hardly knew of the millions in the labor camps. Even now, with the
Soviet Unionand Eastern Europeopen to the world media, how many “oral histories” are being taken telling about survivors’ recollections of Communist butchery? Do the survivors of Communism have less graphic memories, and fewer tears about loved ones lost, than those of Nazism?
The Second Episode: Liberalism’s Late-1960s Indulgence of the Totalitarian Left
IT IS ITSELF an indication of the indulgence that American liberal intellectual culture has shown toward the New Left that even today most Americans have not been oriented toward thinking of the New Left as a totalitarian movement. Most people think of it as having been libertarian, since it championed, among other things, a “do your own thing” brand of anarchic “individualism” and opposed a war that we are accustomed to hearing was immoral and unjustified.
The New Left was a complicated phenomenon, and I certainly don’t wish to oversimplify it. It combined three revolutions: the red (a resurgent Leftist radicalism that yearned for a revival of nineteenth-century forms of socialist thought and that began to come together as early as 1956), the green (this refers not to the “greens” of the later ecology movement in Europe, but to the “counterculture” that decried the “structuring” of “bourgeois lifestyle”), and the black (the “civil rights movement” after it became black separatist and ever-more militant). In the name of these combined elements, riots flourished and cities burned, university administration buildings were seized, freakishly attired Yippies raised the Viet Cong flag and called for “the overthrow of Western civilization,” and everywhere there was an omnipresent intensity of ideology and intimidation.
In the midst of it all, the New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse spelled out the rationale for a totalitarianism-in-the-name-of-liberation. In his essay on “Repressive Tolerance,” he explained how freedom of speech and “liberalist tolerance” within an open marketplace of ideas had simply provided a cover for the bourgeois establishment’s subtle manipulation of people. “When tolerance mainly serves the protection and preservation of a repressive society, when it serves to neutralize opposition and to render men immune against other and better forms of life, then tolerance has been perverted.” Thus, he said, “universal toleration becomes questionable.” He called for a new approach to freedom. “Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left (emphasis added).” In other words, stamp out all expression of conservative thought – and do so as a way to liberate mankind from conservatism’s and mainstream society’s regressive notions!
Now, that is totalitarianism for you. Idealism and hatred mixed nicely together, asserting its right to silence its opponents.
Marcuse was a part of the New Left episode. But we should notice that nothing better captures the essence of today’s insistence on “political correctness” than the rationale he spelled out. In the name of higher leftist purposes, it tells us just how it is that someone can feel himself a “liberator” while at the same time engaging in the most extreme intolerance toward others.
We saw a good example of this put into practice in 1977 when the federal government sponsored a series of women’s conferences leading to a large national conference. Gloria Steinem argued in Marcusean terms for the exclusion of conservative women: “The legal purpose of these conferences is to further the status of women and, therefore, there is no legal obligation to include representatives of groups who want to retard the status of women.”
Did all of this show complicity by American liberalism in the totalitarian undertow? Yes, again for a considerable while. Eventually the New Left broke up, in part because many liberals turned against its excesses. But in the meantime the New Left received vitally important support from liberal sources. In
, the Council of Churches put up $100,000 to support Saul Alinsky’s activities there. Jerry Rubin boasted about how much financial support he received from university forum board committees and student government associations: “After some of my speeches on campus, the students would close down the school with a strike, or blow up the ROTC building, or riot. Meanwhile, I was being paid $500 to $1,000 from the official student organization for giving the speech.” Rochester
Even more important than the financial support was, of course, the moral support given by the liberal intellectual culture. After seizure of the chief administration building on the
campus in December 1964, for example, a Berkeley editorial applauded the students. New Republic
What Is It about Modern Liberalism That Explains the Inconsistency of Its Elements?
THESE THREE EPISODES – the pre-World War II adoration of the
Soviet Union, the support for the New Left, and today’s intolerant insistence on “political correctness” – provide us a window into the liberal mind. Without them, we would have reason to believe that the liberals’ stress on democratic process, pluralism and free speech have represented liberalism’s primary values.
The incongruity can easily be explained by reference to the dynamic factors that underlie a century and three-quarters of leftist ideology, both in this country and elsewhere.
The most constant and powerful motive-force behind the Left has been the “alienation of the intellectual” against mainstream “bourgeois” society. This hatred and rivalry of the intelligentsia for power has been one of the principal forces within Western civilization since the early nineteenth century.
As I indicated earlier, the intelligentsia has sought many allies among disaffected and unassimilated groups so that it could benefit from their combined weight in this struggle. Out of this has grown its ideology of championing the have-not, and in turn this has found expression in socialist doctrine. (Egalitarian socialism can be summed up as “the state in aid of the have-nots.”) All of this has been going on for many years, and most liberals don’t even comprehend what all it entails.
An ideology that champions the have-nots and seeks social change on their behalf will necessarily talk in terms of increasing participation, processes of social change, etc. Thus, the language of democracy and pluralism will dominate its ideology – and will be adhered to sincerely by those who are immersed in it.
But at those times at which the ideology feels itself capable of a more powerful expression of its alienation, many of its exponents are willing to take a quicker path – and to move toward the crushing of the hated predominant society and the championing of the have-nots through totalitarian means.
Each position must be understood in terms of the tactical situation in which the alienated intelligentsia finds itself at a given point in time.
The three episodes I’ve pointed to tend to show that the liberal intellectual subculture’s long-term hierarchy of values is as follows:
Alienation, however served, ranks first.
Its commitment to democratic method comes in a distant second.
WELLANTICIPATE that most liberals who read this article will at first take offense at its analysis. I can only urge them to take it seriously. Any liberal who feels himself unambiguously committed to democratic values and doesn’t want to be “tarred with a totalitarian brush,” as he may think he is here, is welcome to join me and other conservatives in denouncing the totalitarian streak that exists within American liberalism. Such a person will find that eventually this will mean abandoning the intense alienation that most liberals feel toward mainstream society, since that is the ultimate source of their totalitarianism impulse.