Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics

By Michael Bérubé | Go to book overview

3 Exigencies of Value

PC is now bibliographically real: as someone once said, you could look it up. That is, PC is no longer a smattering of abuses and inquisitions attributable to ostensibly 'progressive' faculty and students, but a fully organized 'movement', a movement that has now earned its own listing in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature (under 'Politically Correct Movement, The'). It got that listing thanks to the brief but intense media blitz on 'PC' that occupied the first half of 1991, when the literary public sphere was littered with newsmagazines, conservative journals, editorials and opinion pieces on the new 'left McCarthyism' in the universities. Dinesh D'Souza, having failed to crack the bestseller list with Before the Millennium, his 1984 biography of Jerry Falwell, struck pay dirt with Illiberal Education, 1 and very quickly a new kind of 'common sense' was formed around the neoconservative conviction that the American university is 'an island of repression in a sea of freedom'. 2 Phantasmic as this conviction is, it has set the terms of debate to such an extent that today it is being followed by still more vehement charges that the academic left is dismissing the conservative account of PC as, well, 'phantasmic': we're not taking these complaints about leftist arrogance and intolerance seriously enough; we're denying the existence of PC, stonewalling further queries and hoping the issue goes away; and we're blaming the whole flap on media hype, conservative cabals and a moral panic of post-Cold War, paranoid hysteria. 3

There is considerable rhetorical and political pressure, therefore, on left academics: if we are going to be taken seriously as commentators on contemporary debates in American higher education, we first have to be willing to discuss some of the crimes of our 'extremist' colleagues before we can proceed to mount the counterargument. Strategically, there may be nothing wrong with this kind of ritual confession; surely the more the academic left makes public its notable capacities for self-criticism, the

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