Politics & Policy

Political Correctness Knows No Statute of Limitations

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam speaks during a news conference at the Governori’s Mansion in Richmond, Va., February 2, 2019. (Jay Paul/Reuters)
If Ralph Northam were to resign as governor of Virginia, it would be a great victory for the bullies of political correctness.

The first time I heard the name “Ralph Northam” was earlier last week when he endorsed what seemed a radically dangerous abortion scheme for the state of Virginia, of which he is governor. When I heard what he endorsed, I merely thought, in the way of the political dilettante that I am, how likely this was to stir up the country’s pro-life forces, adding to the nation’s already high GDP, or Gross Divisiveness Product.

But, then, later that same week, when a putative photograph of Ralph Northam either in blackface or wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood taken from his medical-school graduation yearbook showed up, I began to feel sympathy for him. My sympathy increased as, on the news, I heard various people, many but not all of them African Americans, say that now that this photograph has been revealed Northam surely can no longer govern and must step down from his office as governor. Ralph Northam graduated from medical school in 1984, and so the photograph was taken fully 35 years ago. The incident reminded me that political correctness, for which Ralph Northam is the latest victim, knows no statute of limitations.

What may now be thought of as “the yearbook ploy” surfaced last year in the egregious Brett Kavanaugh hearings, where scribblings in Justice Kavanaugh’s high-school yearbook were used against him. The Kavanaugh hearings of course were not generally about Kavanaugh’s legal fitness for the Supreme Court but about his political correct- or incorrectness. (About whether, in high school, he was a sexual predator or not.) Why, I wondered when the opposition brought out a few obscure scribblings from his high-school yearbook, stop at high school? What about the grammar-school playground, where one might have an eyewitness for a fifth-grade student pulling a girl’s pigtails (an early act of sexism), or another witness might have heard a political candidate when in the third-grade say the “Eeney-meeny-miny-moe” poem (purest racism)? Or in preschool, the same candidate laughing after having fouled himself?

Many tend to find political correctness amusing in its absurdity. Notable in this line is the politically correct person who objected to the vagina caps worn by women in a recent feminist protest march on the grounds that not all vaginas, like the caps, are pink and, besides, she (or was it “he”) added that not all women have vaginas. A friend in Evanston, the progressive community in which I live, recently told me that in a local CVS she remarked on the beauty of an infant to its mother, and asked whether the child was male or female. “Oh,” said the young mother, “we haven’t gendered it yet.”

I have myself found mild amusement watching academics, nervous about that relentless division of political correctness known as the pronoun police, write sentences that demonstrate that their hearts — if not their minds — are in the right place. “Every student knows that she needs to be careful about student loans.” Or better: “The contemporary professional basketball player is aware of the perils facing her over the long season.” I first encountered this pronoun nervousness when more than 25 years ago when the head of a Ph.D. orals committee I sat in on signed off on the graduate student’s performance as “Chair.” “Be brave,” I said, “put down ‘Chairman.’” He turned away. No bloody chance.

On another occasion, a graduate student I had become friendly with happened to mention that a friend of his girlfriend was taking my course on Joseph Conrad. “I hope she’s not disappointed in it,” I said, no doubt fishing for a compliment. “Well, if you must know,” he said, “she thinks you’re sexist.” When I ask on what grounds, he answered that she notices that in class I call on more male than female students. “Tell her, please, that if I thought it had something interesting to say, I would call on an hermaphroditic armadillo.” But I couldn’t get out of my mind the notion of that young woman sitting there counting out the number of male or female students I called on each day in class.

Something not merely humorless but mentally dull there is about the mindset of political correctness. Subtlety under political correctness is out. So, too, complexity of character. To be politically correct one must also firmly believe that people do not change: If they were the least racist, sexist, homophobic forty years ago, they must still be so now. The mental map of the politically correct consists of a minuscule pale, with much of what is genuinely interesting or amusing in life beyond that pale. For the politically correct, what someone says, as distinguished from what he does, is crucial. This precludes of course the many men and women who have harsh, even objectionable opinions but lead generous, entirely honorable lives. H. L. Mencken was such a man. In many of his essays Mencken refered to African Americans as “blackamoors,” yet in his professional life he praised and promoted black writers whenever he came upon them. Much more common are people with perfect sets of opinions — race, check; the environment, check; LGBT, check; . . . — and whose actions are selfish, insensitive, even cruel.

The politically correct tend to be unremitting, unforgiving. One comment they find objectionable is enough to sink otherwise splendid careers. Saul Bellow is supposed to have said, apropros of the drift toward multiculturalism in academic life in his later years: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be happy to read them.” This was sufficient to stand, in Bellow’s words, as “a proof that I was at best insensitive and at worst an elitist, a chauvinist, a reactionary and a racist — in a word, a monster.” The righteousness of rage, Bellow wrote, was much the fashion of the day. “We can’t open our mouths without being denounced as racists, misogynists, supremacists, or fascists,” he wrote, adding: “As for the media, they stand ready to trash anyone so designated.”

One doesn’t even have to say anything thought to be egregious under the reign of political correctness to be put out of business. At the New York Review of Books late last year, Ian Buruma, the journal’s relatively new editor and previously a longtime contributor to the paper, was fired for printing an article by a Canadian radio broadcaster attempting to clear his name from charges of sexual assault of which Canadian courts had found him not guilty. Whether he was guilty or not, one might think he at least deserved a hearing, which could subsequently be attacked by his accusers. Not, in actual practice, so. Instead Mr. Buruma, who agreed to run the essay, was fired straightaway for doing so — and will no doubt henceforth be marked permanently non grata in all the right places. The politically correct are merciless not merely in their judgments but in their actions. And why not, they might argue: They have right on their side; to be politically incorrect is for them a euphemism for regressive, toxic, evil.

Humor is not a specialty among the politically correct. Political correctness is many ways the death of humor. Under its regime no ethnic jokes are allowed, no nationality, no mother-in-law, no battle-of-the-sexes jokes. So don’t, please, ask me what is the difference between a Romanian and a Hungarian — at least don’t ask me in a public place or be surprised if I check before telling you to make sure you’re not wearing a wire.

The only humor in a politically correct world is the unconscious humor occasioned by the full-court humorlessness of the politically correct themselves. This past winter, for example, they discovered that “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was politically incorrect; it’s a song, you see, about bullying (“All of the other reindeers, laughed and called him names”). “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” turns out to be about potential sexual assault, so best not to be caught humming it, either. The reign of political correctness may be thanked for the paucity of current-day comedians. The only new name in comedy to make her mark has been Sarah Silverman, who has done it chiefly, it turns out, by making jokes about political correctness.

The American university is the place where political correctness flourishes more than any other. Diversity is currently one of the leading goals of the contemporary university, except in the realm of opinion and point of view. Speakers with heterodox views, should these views even faintly smell of the politically incorrect, are there shouted down by students confident they have right on their side, and are rarely censured by their professors for doing so. In the university anything outside the realm of the politically correct is held to be dangerous, unsafe, and the First Amendment exists in theory only. The university in its homogeneity of outlook has become the utopia dreamt of by political correctness made flesh.

Political correctness itself originated in the generation of student revolutionaries of the mid 1960s. Thinking themselves victims, they honored the victim above all and made victimhood a form of secular sainthood. The chief victims were African Americans, Hispanics, gays and lesbians — later, Islamics. Among other minorities, Asian Americans and Jews, not so much.

Many of these ’60s students remained in the university as professors, and by the 1980s and ’90s were in positions of power there. The contemporary university is where bad ideas find a second life — a second and, thanks to tenure, lengthy life. Where else in but in English and History departments in American universities will one still find Marxists? Where but there are so many subjects politicized? Fortunately no way has been found to teach feminist physics or Hispanic chemistry or gay engineering, or the university would be an entirely worthless enterprise.

In going along with the program of political correctness, the university has greatly helped spread its doctrines beyond its politically correct confines. I recently complained to a friend still teaching at Northwestern University, where I taught for thirty years, about the waste entailed in hiring an associate provost for diversity, at a salary I take to be around $200,000 a year. My friend, more knowledgeable than I about these matters, replied that without an associate provost for diversity on the staff the university might not qualify for federal funds for science projects. One wonders where would the federal bureaucrats would get such ideas, but then remembers that they, too, attended university. Politicians, when it serves their purposes, of course readily avail themselves of all the politically correct gambits. Thus do the tentacles of political correctness reach out beyond the university itself.

Rare is the university professor of the current day who is ready to speak out against political correctness. My own experience of this conformity bred of want of courage was when, in the middle 1990s, I was fired owing to political correctness from the job of editor of Phi Beta Kappa’s quarterly magazine The American Scholar. With the exception of the historian Eugen Weber, the vote to fire me among the all-academic senator of Phi Beta Kappa was, I am told, unanimous. As for the reason for my being fired, it had nothing to do with politics, since I made it a point to clear the journal’s pages of all contemporary political content, but to do with my not running any articles in the journal on the subjects of feminism or African-American Studies — in other words, political correctness. I didn’t do so because I received no articles on these subjects that seemed of any genuine interest. I sought such articles from a few members of the Phi Beta Kappa Senate itself, with the proviso that I wasn’t interested in the clichés on the subject and hoped for work that went beyond standard victimology. None were forthcoming. I was, then, replaced as editor, given, in the best slow-motion academic fashion, two years to clean out my desk.

Political correctness rears up everywhere in the business of the university. To find a commencement ceremony of a major university that does not provide honorary degrees for a few women and African-Americans would not be an easy task. The grandson of a friend of mine, a brilliant student who has mastered Chinese, showed up for a Rhodes Scholarship interview to discover that a dozen women were also being interviewed for the same scholarship and knew his goose was cooked.

The aroma of goose-cooking brings us back to Ralph Northam. The gang up against him has been nothing if not impressive. After the original yearbook photograph was revealed, he claimed that he did not appear in it as either the man in blackface or the figure in KKK hood and gown. He did allow that, for a dance contest, in 1984, he dressed himself as Michael Jackson and used blackface as part of his get-up. It also somehow leaked out that his nickname in those days was “Coonman,” origin of the nickname in his case unknown. “Those days,” recall, were more than thirty-five years ago. That he has apparently been a strongly liberal governor cuts no ice with the political correctors.

The Democratic National Committee has asked for Ralph Northam’s resignation from the governorship of Virginia. The state’s two senators have done likewise. The Republican Party of Virginia insists that, with the yearbook revelations out in the world, he can no longer govern and must go. “The Republican Party of Virginia is committed to removing Ralph Northam NOW!,” it announced, joining the herd of independent minds. Black politicians across the country have stepped forth to mutter the usual phrases about “the pain he has caused,” that only his resignation will “help us heal,” nothing less than his removal from public life will “stop the pain.” Only Barack Obama, who campaigned for Northam, has remained silent.

Ralph Northam, as of the moment, has refused to resign, and, though I suspect I share few of his political ideas, I, for one, hope he holds out and remains in office. What is really at stake here has almost nothing to do with pain, healing, or racism, and everything to do with political correctness. Northam is the object of the bullying of the self-righteous, providing them, by dressing up as a young man more than three decades ago as Michael Jackson, an opportunity to demonstrate their self-righteousness under the klieg lights of television publicity. A young man dressing up and doing an impression of Michael Jackson dancing — not, one would think, a big deal. Nor is it, really, except in the world of the politically correct, where human nature is judged incapable of change, humor is not allowed, any sense of proportion is precluded, and virtue invariably resides with the accuser. If Ralph Northam were to resign as governor of Virginia it would be a great victory for the bullies of political correctness. Hold on, Guv, I say, hang in there and hold on.

Joseph Epstein — Mr. Epstein is the author, most recently, of Charm, The Elusive Enchantment (Lyons Press).

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