Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

They Said It:

Socialists can only obtain great influence if they can manage, by the use of a very confused language, to impose themselves on very diverse groups; for example, they must have working-men constituents simple enough to allow themselves to be duped by high-sounding phrases about future collectivism; they are compelled to represent themselves as profound philosophers to stupid middle-class people who wish to appear to be well informed about social questions; it is very necessary also for them to be able to exploit rich people who think that they are earning the gratitude of humanity by taking shares in the enterprises of Socialist politicians.

Georges Sorel, Reflexions Sur La Violence, 1908.



Over the course of the past 15 months or so, we have all read (and some of us have written) a great deal about Donald Trump and his place in the American political arena.  What caused Trump’s rise?  What does his popularity say about the state of American politics?  Who are his voters?  And why do they love him?  Can he win?  Will he lose?  What will the outcome – either outcome – portend for the future of the Republican Party and of American politics more generally?

These are important questions, many of which we ourselves have asked.  And the answers to these questions will have important and profound impacts on the state of our politics going forward.  About that, there can be no doubt.

At the same time, we can’t help but wonder if the most important questions of all have gone unasked, not to say unanswered.  What has Trump done for us, as a people, as a nation?  Win or lose what effect has he had on the broader culture?  And even if you detest the man, are suspicious of his policies, and question his easily questioned character, doesn’t he deserve at least some credit for doing the things that have long needed doing and that no one else likely could have done, particularly with respect to that culture?  In short, what has been or will ultimately be Donald Trump’s place in American political history?

Most of these questions are, of course, still open and will remain so until Trump leaves the political stage, be that in eight weeks or eight years.  Others, by contrast, are answerable at the moment, which is to say that Trump has already had a massive and irreversible impact on the culture, although it is one that should, but likely won’t, earn him a great deal of credit among the conservative culture warriors.

To explain what we mean, let us take a brief look at the term “political correctness” and the role it has played in the current election cycle and our politics more generally.  This term has a specific, historical definition that makes it a serious and vital issue in our social discourse.  Some even claim that it is a threat to Western Civilization as we know it.  But you’d never know any of this from the current “debate” over the term and over Trump’s rebellion against it.  And there’s a reason for that.

Throughout the campaign, Trump has made “political correctness” his defining issue.  He has argued that he and he alone can challenge the reign of PC in our politics, since he and he alone has the guts to speak real truth to real power.  Interestingly, the mainstream media has done its very best to accommodate Trump’s desire to be seen as the bane of political correctness.  The catch is that neither Trump nor the media are being terribly rigorous about the definition of the phrase, thereby concealing the actual import of the matter.

Trump, for example, has gone out in public and said some truly terrible and tasteless things.  He’s mocked the handicapped.  He’s insulted and attacked women.  He’s tried to turn his personal and legal woes into questions of race and ethnicity.  None of these is especially politically incorrect.  Three months ago, in his Wall Street Journal column, Jason Riley fleshed out this point:

The problem is Donald Trump.  Some political incorrectness is refreshing after seven years of Mr. Obama, but Mr. Trump’s attempts to stretch the definition aren’t working.

Questioning the impartiality of a federal judge born in Indiana because his parents emigrated from Mexico isn’t politically incorrect.  It’s inappropriate.

Degrading the military service of Sen. John McCain, who spent more than five years in a POW camp, isn’t politically incorrect.  It’s unfathomable and somewhat undermines Mr. Trump’s professed support for veterans.

Claiming that President George W. Bush lied about chemical weapons to wage war in Iraq isn’t politically incorrect.  It’s a liberal talking point that has been repeatedly debunked.

Mocking Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who shamelessly claimed Native American ancestry to advance her academic career, as “Pocahontas” isn’t politically incorrect.  It’s juvenile and off-putting . . .

Similarly, Mr. Trump’s past references to his anatomy and to women as pigs are nothing more than crudeness and vulgarity masquerading as politically incorrect straight talk.  And if the polls are accurate, such comments are drowning out the constructive policy criticism he wants to offer.  When an NBC reporter told the candidate that “parents are trying to figure out how to explain some of the language they’re hearing on the campaign trail,” Mr. Trump’s response was, “Oh, you’re so politically correct.”

Both Trump and the media appear to be a little bit confused.  The term for this type of behavior isn’t “politically incorrect,” it is impolitic or perhaps just impolite.  When NeverTrump conservatives complain about the man being vile and of poor character, this is the type of thing they have in mind.  This is what annoys them.  Rightfully so.  And none of this has anything at all to do with genuine “political correctness.”

Think about it this way.  If political incorrectness consisted exclusively of calling people names and telling off-color jokes and saying things that shouldn’t be said in mixed company – as Trump sometimes seems to think and as the media always does – then the most politically incorrect man in the country would NOT be Trump.  It would Harry Reid, the soon-to-be-ex-Senate Minority Leader from Nevada.

Let’s take a short quiz:  Who once said that Obama was the perfect black candidate, since he had “light skin” and “no negro dialect, unless he wants to have one?”  Who once called the President of the United States a “loser” and a “liar?”  Who once told a predominantly Asian-American audience that they were no smarter than anyone else and that he has had “trouble keeping my wongs straight?”  Who once called the lone black Supreme Court Justice an “embarrassment to the Court” who writes like an “eighth-grader?”  And who, just the other day, called one of the two major party presidential nominees “not slim-and-trim?”

If you answered:  Harry Reid, Harry Reid, Harry Reid, Harry Reid, and Harry Reid, then give yourself a gold star.

Have you ever heard Harry Reid described as a hero to the opponents of “political correctness?”  Have you ever read about him being a savior of sorts to those who rebel against the stifling culture of speech codes?  Indeed, have you ever seen him described in print as anything other than “gritty,” “sharp-elbowed” or “a fighter?”  Of course you haven’t.  After all, Harry Reid is a Democrat, and that means that his displays political incivility are either ignored altogether or treated as what they are, exercises in boorishness.  And that, frankly, is as it should be.

Our basic understanding of the term “political correctness” has, more or less, been perverted, and it has been perverted for mostly selfish reasons.  Entertainers and politicians in particular have become annoyed over the years at the fact that that certain subjects are considered off-limits today, when they were perfectly acceptable yesterday.  They believe that their ability to be free and creative and honest has somehow been stifled by society’s “gentle snowflakes” and their desire to take offense at any slight, real or imagined.  Now, this may indeed be an unfortunate side-effect of political correctness, but it is not political correctness itself.  Bill Maher’s protestations to the contrary, saying stupid and offensive things about how the 9/11 terrorists were “brave” isn’t “politically incorrect.”  It’s just stupid and offensive.

In short, political correctness isn’t, as so many in our popular culture insist, about being able to say certain things without fear of repercussion.  It is, rather, about the culture and specifically about cultural hegemony.

If that term, “cultural hegemony” sounds familiar, it should.  Antonio Gramsci, the early twentieth century Marxist revisionist, used the phrase to explain why the proletariat had failed to “lose its chains,” despite so many opportunities to do so.  Gramsci concluded that the prevailing status quo, that is the dominant Judeo-Christian culture, had infected the working class with the belief that its happiness and prosperity were linked directly to the well-being of the bourgeoisie.  He rightly concluded that Marx and Lenin had never considered the possibility that the workers of the world would become comfortable in a capitalist society.  He called this phenomenon “cultural hegemony” – which is to say the total domination of the culture by the enemies of the masses – and believed that the workers of the world could unite, to coin a phrase, only once this domination had been broken.

Some historians and students of “political correctness” trace the origins of the term to Gramsci and his belief that cultural hegemony kept the working class oppressed.  If Gramsci was right about this, then the obvious solution would be to “flip” the culture, to infiltrate its institutions and use them to inculcate the masses with a more worker-amenable cultural attitude.  If the culture could be used to enforce traditionalist bourgeois hegemony, then it could also be used to enforce a different kind of hegemony – a politically “correct” hegemony.

Other students of the subject lay the blame for political correctness at the feet of the Frankfurt School (i.e. the Institute of Social Research) and its famous/infamous “critical theory,” which sought to remake the world along neo-Marxist lines.  Still others see the source in postmodernism and its emphasis on language and the manipulation of language as a tool for the accumulation and exertion power.

Our suspicion is that the truth lies somewhere in a mix of all three, (which are intimately related anyway).  But whatever the case, the fact is that political correctness is the progeny of Marxism.  In an essay on the subject written almost two years ago, Jesse Walker, the books editor at Reason magazine, put it this way:

People have been putting the words “politically” and “correct” together in various contexts for ages, but for our purposes the story begins in the middle of the 20th century, as various Marxist-Leninist sects developed a distinctive cant.  One of the terms they liked to use was “politically correct,” as in ”What is needed now is a politically correct, class-conscious and militant leadership, which will lead an armed struggle to abolish the whole system of exploitation of man by man in Indonesia and establish a workers state!”  It was a phrase for the sort of radical who was deeply interested in establishing and enforcing the “correct line,” to borrow another term of the day.

Walker is right, of course, although he misses a key point.  Political Correctness is not just an outgrowth of Marxist-Leninist politics.  It is, rather, the direct result of the failure of theoretical Marxism and the Left’s panicked response to that failure.  Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, and postmodernism were ALL attempting to do the same thing, to breathe new life into an ideology that had proven completely and utterly bankrupt.  Simply put, Marx was wrong.  And his devotees either had to explain why or fix it.

This is important.  When it became clear to the Marxists that conventional reality was not inevitably moving toward communism as they believed it would, they determined that they had to alter that reality.  In Explaining Postmodernism, his classic book on the subject of postmodernism and the interplay between it and Marxism, Stephen Hicks explained the phenomenon as follows:

In the past two centuries, many strategies have been pursued by socialists the world over.  Socialists have tried waiting for the masses to achieve socialism from the bottom up, and they have tried imposing socialism from the top down.  They have tried to achieve it by evolution and revolution.  They have tried versions of socialism that emphasize industrialization, and they have tried those that are agrarian.  They have waited for capitalism to collapse by itself, and when that did not happen they have tried to destroy capitalism by peaceful means. And when that did not work some tried to destroy it by terrorism.

But capitalism continues to do well and socialism has been a disaster.  In modern times there have been over two centuries of socialist theory and practice, and the preponderance of logic and evidence has gone against socialism.

There is accordingly a choice about what lesson to learn from history.  If one is interested in truth, the one’s rational response to a failing theory is as follows:

One breaks the theory down to its constituent premises.

One questions its premises vigorously and checks the logic that integrates them.

One seeks out alternatives to the most questionable premises.

One accepts moral responsibility for any bad consequences of putting the false theory into practice.

This is not what we find in postmodern reflections on contemporary politics.  [Instead] Truth and rationality are subjected to attack . . .

In practice, this revision of reality required a new vocabulary.  If language is power, then only by altering the language of a culture can said culture’s power relationships be likewise altered.  In order to forge this new reality – to change the cultural hegemony, to break the “repressive tolerance” of capitalism, as Herbert Marcuse called it – a new “tolerance” had to be created, one which severed the culture’s attachment to reason and rational discourse.  Again, Hicks explains:

Many [postmodernists] deconstruct reason, truth, and reality because they believe that in the name of reason, truth, and reality Western civilization has wrought dominance, oppression, and destruction.  “Reason and power are one and the same,” Jean-Francois Lyotard states.  Both lead to and are synonymous with “prisons, prohibitions, selection process, the public good.”

Postmodernism then becomes an activist strategy against the coalition of reason and power.  Postmodernism, Frank Lentricchia explains, “seeks not to find the foundation and the conditions of truth but to exercise power for the purpose of social change.”  The task of postmodern professors is to help students” spot, confront, and work against the political horrors of one’s time”

Those horrors, according to postmodernism, are most prominent in the West, Western civilization being where reason and power have been the most developed.  But the pain of those horrors is neither inflicted nor suffered equally.  Males, whites, and the rich have their hands on the whip of power, and they use it cruelly at the expense of women, racial minorities, and the poor.

The end result of all of this is what we today call “political correctness,” which is nothing short of the new vocabulary, the new language of the Marxist revisionists.  This new language was designed consciously and specifically for the purpose of altering perceived reality, for changing the culture, and thereby writing the wrongs the Marxists believe have been inflicted on the world by Western Civilization, not the least of which is the deferral of the proletariat revolution.

Does this mean that today’s enforcers of political correctness are all secret Marxists, eagerly awaiting the moment that the culture has been softened sufficiently to facilitate real revolution?  Of course not.  Indeed, we’d guess that most members of the PC crowd don’t have the foggiest idea what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.  They just know that certain things are unmentionable, that certain ideas are unconscionable, that certain people are deplorable – which is precisely the point.

This past summer, just after Donald Trump locked up the Republican presidential nomination and just after the terrorist attack on a nightclub in Orlando, various and sundry academics took aim at the candidate for his boorishness, attempting, in the process, to discredit not just him, but any opposition at all to political correctness.  In a June piece for CNN, Julian Zelizer, a professor of public affairs and history at Princeton, took on Trump and his opposition to PC, insisting that GOP-nominee had it entirely backward.  In so doing, though, he gave away the game:

On the face of it, Trump’s bravado is a superficial part of the campaign.  But the events in Orlando were actually a powerful reminder of why politicians and political activists who take language seriously have been doing much more than serving as “thought police.”  They have been engaged in a long struggle to fight against ugly, discriminatory cultural traditions that marginalize, ostracize and demonize entire social groups in ways that create a dangerous and toxic environment legitimating injustice . . .

The decision to take language seriously took hold through the fierce political battles that have taken place since the 1960s, when activists recognized that language could be part of the arsenal used against social progress.  For civil rights activists, it was crystal clear that the language used by white racists was extraordinarily damaging.  An entire lexicon of racism went into the ongoing efforts to denigrate and dehumanize African-Americans.  The term “n—ger” usually went hand in hand with the lynchings and the beatings of earlier eras.

Women have long understood that the demeaning words men have used to talk about the alleged weaknesses of females seeped into the way in which we thought as a society about what each gender could accomplish.  Jews have been subjected to horrendous verbal assaults that have fueled stereotypes and propaganda that have been at the heart of anti-Semitism.  The words used to describe gay Americans, such as “queer” and “fag” have played into a culture that made homosexuals seem outside of what the mainstream was.  Women have faced rhetorical barrages that make them seem irrational, angry, and weak.  And Native Americans have been subjected to constant stereotyping through words and images, which is why so many recoil when Trump uses the term “Pocahontas” to dismiss Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Superficially, Zelizer’s point seems unobjectionable.  Nobody particularly likes the offensive words he mentions.  Nobody thinks that our discourse would be better served if we would just call people more names.  But then again, nobody particularly likes the offensive words he mentions.  And nobody thinks that our discourse would be better served if we would just call people more names.  All of which is to say that Zelizer’s point is absurd.  He has created a straw man not just to knock it down, but to hide the real issue.

When Zelizer mentions “discriminatory cultural traditions that marginalize, ostracize and demonize entire social groups in ways that create a dangerous and toxic environment legitimating injustice,” what he doesn’t do is explain what those “cultural traditions” are or explain how they contribute to injustice.  And the reason he doesn’t do so is because most of what he would mention would prove the anti-PC crowd’s point, that this entire academic practice is an exercise in arbitrarily denigrating those aspects of Western culture that the academics find awkward.  He focuses instead on terms that have long been out of fashion and which were considered offensive even when they were used more frequently, terms that even the most radical opponents of political correctness have no interest in resurrecting.  Again, this is a case of confusing “politically correct” with “impolite,” although we suspect that in this case, Zelizer sows the confusion purposefully.

Zelizer is not alone in this endeavor, of course.  As you know, two weeks ago, Hillary Clinton unloaded on a good chunk of her fellow Americans for being “deplorable” enough to hold unpopular ideas.  Now again, on the surface, Clinton’s list of deplorable sentiments was unobjectionable:  “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic . . .”  Who could possibly condone such ideas?  They are, indeed, deplorable.

Naturally, what Hillary doesn’t mention is that she and her ilk are hermeneutic Gnostics, which is to say that they and they alone are capable of detecting these attitudes among their countrymen.  She knows that the deplorables are too clever to make themselves obvious; so they hide behind “code words,” “dog whistles,” and archaic ideas about law and public policy.  If, for example, you believe that the United States of America should enforce its immigration laws, then you are xenophobic.  If you think police are being hamstrung by know-nothing activists or that that school vouchers might help to lift minorities out of poverty, you are racist.  If you think that the millennia-old definition of marriage should be viewed with respect and altered only after much thought and consideration, then you are homophobic.  If you think that abortion is wrong, you are sexist.  And perhaps most importantly, if you think that Islamic terrorism is somehow connected to Islam, then you are Islamophobic.  Or to put it another way, if you hold traditional notions about the West, about Western civilization, or about America’s position in that civilization, then you are merely using language to exercise power, to oppress the weakest among you, and to facilitate the ongoing destruction of global peace and harmony.  You are depolorable.

Now, we should note here that none of this is particularly new in American politics.  This is precisely the way the politically correct Left has looked at its fellow Americans for at least the last 40 years.  What is different this time around, however, is the fact that the Left is being forced to confront its cultural revolution specifically because it is being called out for it.  And the person responsible for calling the leftists out is Donald Trump.

We know that a great many conservatives detest Trump and wish the GOP had nominated anyone else.  At the same time, we know that we began warning about Islamic terrorism some years before 9/11, and were dismissed as cranks and extremists for daring to single out Islam for criticism.  Likewise, we know that Mark Krikorian from the Center for Immigration Studies has been writing about the importance of law enforcement in immigration for at least 20 years, only to be written off as a “far right-winger” with xenophobic and racist tendencies.  We know that Kevin Williamson has been writing about the culture for years, and has been called all sorts of names for his efforts.  We know that pro-Life activists have been called misogynists for decades, that welfare opponents have been called racists, that people opposed to letting men go tinkle in the ladies room have been called homophobes.  We know, in short, that any variation from the liberal-Left orthodoxy has been used as justification to delegitimize and demonize entire swaths of people.

We also know that Donald Trump has forced the American public – if not its media and academics – to think differently about these matters.  Some people may view Trump as a boor and a jerk, but the fact is that he is also right about a great many things.  And even those things about which he is wrong are nonetheless important fodder for political discourse.  Trump has made the unacceptable acceptable again.  For that even the NeverTrumpers should be grateful.

Come November, one of two things will happen.  Either Trump will win and he will be forced to put up or shut up, which is to say that he will be compelled to make good on his promises to question the liberal orthodoxy and to address problems from a position of civilizational strength, rather than weakness.  Or he will lose, in which case Hillary Clinton will determine that her world view has been accepted and even endorsed by the electorate.  And if that happens, the noose of political correctness will be cinched even tighter.

Fortunately for all of us, Donald Trump will have set a precedent.  And future candidates will simply have to follow it with a little more couth and a little more knowledge.


Copyright 2016. The Political Forum. 3350 Longview Ct., Lincoln NE  68506, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.