Political Correctness and All That

By Fischel, Jack | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

Political Correctness and All That


Fischel, Jack, The Virginia Quarterly Review


POLITICAL CORRECTNESS AND ALL THAT By JACK FISCHEL

The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked By Cultural Wars. By Todd Gitlin. Metropolitan Books. $25.00. In recent years there has been a plethora of books that have addressed the issue of multiculturalism and political correctness on college campuses. Works ranging from John Leo's Two Steps

Ahead of the Thought Police and Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education to Richard Bernstein's Dictatorship of Virtue have chronicled the horror stories associated with the zealous enforcement of P.C. regulations on college campuses as well as the attacks on the "canon" of Western culture in the name of the multicultural curriculum. More recently Mary Lefkowitz, who teaches at Wellesley, has published an attack on Afrocentrism in her Not Out of Africa and we can be certain that the publication of additional works on academia's version of the "culture wars" is far from exhausted in what has virtually become a cottage industry.

Todd Gitlin's contribution to the controversy tracks the circumstances that diverted multiculturalism from its promise to make society more tolerant of diversity to one which threatens to "balkanize" not just the university but American culture as a whole. His other theme is a lament for the Left which historically fought for a diverse and inclusive society but now finds itself superceded by a new Left who negate the idea of a common nationality and promote an America consisting of groups who celebrate their separate identities. For Gitlin, this is not only a betrayal of the universal values of the Left but also the promise of what made America different. The author notes that what distinguished the American experience from other countries was our freedom from ethnic definition. Whereas the Germans marked their identity by blood and soil and the French through their language, the American definition of identity was a compound of ideals ranging from attachments to the social equality of the individual, to the preeminent value of personal freedom, to the official symbols of union such as flags and the celebration of secular holidays such as July 4th and Thanksgiving Day. The history of the United States, therefore, is the story of the struggle to become in reality what the nation's credo often failed to accomplish in practice. The historic role of the Left was to work for an America where everyone was judged on the content of their character rather than on their skin color, religion, gender or sexual preferences. For Gitlin, America was a nation always in the state of moving in the direction of the universalist principles of the Declaration of Independence whose promises would eventually be applied to all races, creeds and colors.

Gitlin argues that both the Cold War and a rising standard of living contributed to the fostering of a national community in the years following the Second World War. The gains made by the Civil Rights Movement for African-Americans, as well as for women and other groups who were victims of discrimination, seemed to promise the fulfillment of the American promise. Similarly, although the nation was brought together by a common enemy, the Soviets, it nevertheless enjoyed an unprecedented prosperity that seemed to benefit large numbers of Americans. Together, the security provided by American military power and the economic progress that benefitted so many were proof that Americanism worked. Centrifugal forces, such as the "black power" movement and the Nation of Islam, were lone voices preaching the language of cultural and political separatism in an America that appeared to be on the verge of fulfilling its ideals. All of this, however, came to an end with the Vietnam war. As the war escalated, growing numbers in the civil rights and antiwar movements went from rejecting America's role in the war to rejecting American ideals. Gitlin explains this political evolution when he writes:

The early New Left rejected the American political consensus as hypocritical: the country was in default on its promise to recognize equal rights. …

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