The Second Time as Farce: The Right's "New McCarthyism." (Public Criticism of Political Correctness)

By Phelps, Christopher | Monthly Review, October 1991 | Go to article overview

The Second Time as Farce: The Right's "New McCarthyism." (Public Criticism of Political Correctness)


Phelps, Christopher, Monthly Review


Suddenly, it seemed, a deluge was upon us: a torrent of magazine articles, newspaper columns, books, talk shows, even a presidential speech, all claiming that "political correctness" (PC) has run amok on campus. The university, if we are to believe these sources, is dominated by tenured radicals. Guided by "well-intentioned" aims of eliminating bigotry, PC faculty and their student allies are zealots in charge of a repressive and censorious culture stifling investigation and discussion. Students and faculty who say the wrong thing, however innocently, are branded racist, sexist, or homophobic and sent packing. It requires real courage to speak out against the "tyranny of the left," and a massive violation of free speech is underway in higher education. The campus, in short, is afflicted with a "new McCarthyism."

One of the earliest and most vehement attacks of this sort came in December 1990, when Newsweek emblazoned the phrase "THOUGHT POLICE" across its cover in ominous block letters. Rhetorically, the subtitle asked, "Is This the New Enlightenment or the New McCarthyism?" Curiously, however, the article inside made almost no mention of McCarthy. The sole reference came in an assessment of comments made by Duke University literary critic Stanley Fish about the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a conservative faculty organization backed at Duke by political scientist James David Barber: "Fish called NAS, and by implication its members, 'racist, sexist and homphobic.' 'That,' notes one of Barber's allies, 'is like calling someone a Communist in the McCarthy years.'" Despite the dubiousness of this passage--its anonymous attribution and its assumption that Fish meant his assessment of NAS as an organization to apply to its members as well--others have rushed to raise the sensational cry of a "McCarthyism of the left." Invoking the memory of her father, who as a Hollywood screenwriter was blacklisted after refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), a Sarah Lawrence College student wrote, "I am a senior in college at a time when the freedom to voice, indeed even to think, controversial thoughts is under assault in American universities. One can't ignore the similarity between those accused in the 1950s of being disloyal and those accused today of failing to be politically correct."

Others dare to go even further. When ABC's Nightline took up the issue on May 13, reporter Jackie Judd opened an introductory piece on "political correctness" with a clip from an interview with Yale University Dean Donal Kagan:

Kagan: When I was a student back in the 1950s, in the days of Joe McCarthy, there was some such thing, but it was infinitely less effective than now. I don't think anybody was really afraid to speak his mind, even from a very unpopular, what would be thought to be an unpopular, point of view.

Judd: Are you saying that there is more intimidation today . . .

Kagan: Oh, sure.

Judd: . . . than there was during the McCarthy era?

Kagan: Oh, sure. No contest.

Kagan has been topped in rhetorical forcefulness only by the eminent historian Eugene Genovese. Shortly after announcing his departure from Marxism, Genovese wrote in a recent issue of the New Republic, "As one who saw his professors fired during the McCarthy era, and who had to fight, as a pro-Communist Marxist, for his own right to teach, I fear that our conservative colleagues are today facing a new McCarthyism in some ways some effective and vicious than the old."

McCarthyism and the University

Anyone attempting to investigate the theory of a "new McCarthyism" runs into a problem: there is, properly speaking, no such theory. None of those who see a new campus McCarthyism can define the term. Nor do they compare historical McCarthyism to the contemporary university in any systematic way. This neglect of intellectual responsibility is curious, since opponents who cry "leftist tyranny" invariably compalin that the modern academy is marred by a decline in the quality and standards of scholarship.

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