Political correctness is a doctrine widely presumed dead. An object of ridicule that no one defends these days outside the margins of the ideological left. Yet my recent tour of college campuses under the necessary armed protection of campus security guards suggests that it is obviously alive and well -- and itself protected -- in certain regions of the political culture.
A sure sign of p.c. thinking is when the other side of a controversial subject is successfully identified as forbidden territory. To cross the invisible boundary that embargoes a politically incorrect view renders one's motives immediately suspect. To argue the position is a sign of one's indecency. It is to mark the holder of the position as a bad person, a relic of the reactionary past, an obstacle on the path to human progress.
This was the object of the campaign of vilification I encountered when I suggested that reparations for an injury committed 136 years ago and payable on the basis of skin color instead of injury was "a bad idea and racist too." For the heresy of opposing the left on an issue it considered a political litmus, I was accused of expressing ideas that were "offensive," and then tarred and feathered as a bonehead "racist." The attacks weren't limited to me; they were also directed at the journalistic institutions that printed my ad in the interest of free speech. My Salon colleague Joan Walsh accurately described these attacks as "political correctness run amok. Yet they were also lent credence and support by pundits who generally opposed political correctness like Jonathan Alter, Clarence Page and the Washington Post's Richard Cohen.
This is a sure sign that the tenets of political correctness are still very much alive and well. An interesting case of this was recently provided by my good and courageous friend Andrew Sullivan in a column that appeared in the New York Times Magazine. In it, Sullivan addressed the subject of gays in the military in a way that I found morally persuasive and poignant on the one hand, but politically correct and obtuse on the other.
His column was titled "They Also Served," and it asked for "some ... recognition in today's war nostalgia of the role that gay men have played in the past in defending their country." In the film "Pearl Harbor," for example "Cuba Gooding Jr. played the brave segregated Negro, fighting back for his country." In "Saving Private Ryan," "the sensibilities of the '90s were projected backward. We didn't see just soldiers; we saw a Jewish American soldier, an Italian, a WASP and so on." Actually, Sullivan is wrong on that count. This wasn't the sensibility of the '90s. It was the same sensibility I saw as a kid in the 1940s when World War II films invariably featured the identical rainbow and, in features like "Home of the Brave," included black soldiers and was accompanied by a powerful anti-discrimination theme.
This is the part of Sullivan's argument I can wholeheartedly embrace -- and I believe a majority of Americans do, too. When a socially conservative president appoints an openly gay man to an administration post, it is a sign that things have really changed. But the recognition of gays who served the country was not Sullivan's main agenda in his New York Times Magazine essay. Having established the point that we should, but do not, acknowledge the service that gay men have performed for this country, he wants to use it as a wedge for the argument that the armed services should abandon their "Don't ask, don't tell" policy and embrace a gay presence in their ranks. Sullivan calls this goal a "diverse military" and wonders why "we seem to be going in reverse."
It is at this point that Sullivan's argument abruptly incorporates the telltale syntax of political correctness. His opponents are reactionaries, prejudiced against "diversity" -- i.e., gays. The assumption is that no serious rationale other than lingering social prejudice exists for current military policy. Opposing it requires no military argument, while defending it is a sign of failure to fully qualify for the ranks of the decent and humane. As Sullivan presents the case, no other possibility exists.
Sullivan's argument, however, is counterintuitive. Of all social institutions, the military is the most pragmatic. Its task, brutal in its simplicity, is to develop the most efficient killing machine that money can buy and intelligence can devise. This singularity of purpose creates a paradoxical result. The military is indeed retrograde in some of its aspects. (It's not a democratic institution, for example.) On the other hand, it is more progressive in others. Precisely because the military's overriding purpose is to win wars, free black fighting units were incorporated into its ranks more than a century ago, at a time when slavery was still legal. Less well known is the fact that free black troops and military support units were part of the Confederate war effort as well.
For almost a century after that, black soldiers were still segregated and confined to subordinate roles. But in 1947 the military was integrated. That was seven years before the Supreme Court integrated the nation's schools and 18 years before progress in the political realm made it possible to end segregation in the South. (All this military progress was made notwithstanding the fact the military culture is largely a Southern culture.) In short, because of its pragmatic focus, the military -- rigid in other areas -- in this crucial terrain of social conflict has shown itself to be historically more flexible, progressive and ready to adapt than the democratic political process itself.
Then what is the military's problem with including gays, other than prejudice? It is a sign of the force of political correctness in our culture that there is probably not one among a hundred readers of these words who could answer that question. Because of the embargo that political correctness puts on even considering the arguments of the other side, the conventional "wisdom" is that an institution that pioneered integration is run by individuals -- many of whom are themselves minorities -- who are more prejudiced against gays than they were against blacks. And by 100 years! Is this an argument that any self-respecting pundit -- in other circumstances -- would even want to be associated with?
Yet it is precisely the argument that all proponents of including gays in the military currently make. For all such advocates, including my friend Sullivan, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is just a hypocritical attempt to appease lingering social prejudice. That's the voice of political correctness.
In fact, there is a military argument against the inclusion of gays in combat, which has nothing to do with social prejudice. It may or may not be a sound argument. I am not a military expert, and any opinion I have about the armed forces is necessarily based on intuition rather than experience. I certainly am open to counter arguments. It's just that nobody on the inclusion side is offering any.
Sullivan's argument in the Times article is more interesting than most in that it credits the Army with having important agendas that are worthy of respect. He observes that the current policy of "don't ask, don't tell" creates a standing loophole for anyone who wants to leave the service. This is bad for the military, and an argument for changing the policy. That's well and good, but hardly persuasive for a service that relies on volunteers. To make a credible argument for changing the policy, Andrew and others will have to address the military rationale for the policy itself.
"Don't ask, don't tell" is a way of containing the destructive force of sex on a combat capability called "unit cohesion." To create the perfect killing machine, the military works hard to drain recruits of their individuality and their self-interested desires in order to make them think like cogs in a machine. An essential part of the military mind is that the members of fighting units don't think for themselves but do as they are told. They work as a unit in which each performs an appointed task. The mission objective -- not personal consideration -- guides their actions. Suppose a commander were faced with the choice of risking his unit or risking the life of his own son, for example. Suppose the life of his son were threatened, but to save him would risk the military objective his superiors had set. Suppose he let the human override the imperatives of the machine. He would be doing what was natural, but the military objective he sacrificed might cost the lives of hundreds or thousands.
To avoid such breaches of military discipline, military policy does not allow family members to fight in the same unit. The same principle underlies its policy towards gays. Sacrifice of unit cohesion and military order is the threat that sex between soldiers poses for any combat force. The open inclusion of gays in the military is regarded by military men who oppose it a threat to effectiveness of the military as a fighting force.
This has nothing to do with the individual fighting capability of gay males. It is about unit cohesion. It's about making every soldier a cog in a machine whose larger purpose he cannot understand, but he is bound to serve. Suppose two men in a five-man unit are sexual partners. What will that do to the cohesiveness and effectiveness of the fighting unit? What impact will it have on its ability to carry out its mission? These are the questions that led to the ban on gays in the military and then to the subsequent "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Because once you are able to tell -- and stay -- then there is no containing the sexual problem.
As a comeback, some may be tempted to ask: What about the fact that women now serve in combat units? Far from taking care of the problem, this comparison only underscores the dangers in letting politicians treat the military as a social experiment. In one sense, of course, we don't really know the magnitude of the threat since we haven't been in a ground war since women were allowed in combat roles. (And there may, indeed, be a connection between the two.) But we do know that every military that has attempted to place women in combat positions -- the Israelis, the Germans and the Russians provide three examples -- has abandoned the practice, because of its negative impact on unit cohesion. (In part, because men will instinctively sacrifice their tactical missions to protect the women.) We do know that since women have been included in these roles, requirements and standards have been dramatically lowered, and along with them morale -- a crucial, if immeasurable, element of military success.
Moreover, we know that once the politically correct foot is in the door, the possibility of reasserting pragmatic controls becomes ever more remote. The same "progressive" intolerance that forced the original issue will prevent any rational assessment of the result. The admission of women into the American military was not a military decision but a political act. The Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, which was created during Bush père's administration, recommended against putting women in combat positions.
The Clinton administration ignored the recommendation and slipped the new policy into place without a public discussion or congressional debate. During the Gulf War, women in the armed services failed to report to combat duty at rates many multiples that of men. When you don't show up for your combat assignment you are effectively sabotaging existing battle plans. On one ship, the Aurora, 10 percent of the women en route to the war zone got pregnant. The military looked the other way. None was court-martialed for cowardice or dereliction of duty. In other words, under the force of political correctness, the military has surrendered to the fact that it will be a less effective fighting machine.
The integration of women in the military and in combat forces is a politically created debacle that has already weakened America's defenses. The open inclusion of gays in the military could have an even more damaging effect, with unknown consequences for untold lives. If proponents of gay inclusion want to make their case persuasively, they need to make it not on the battlefields of political correctness, but here in the real world.
Note: A correction to this story has been published.