2015 was the year the GOP officially went bananas over “political correctness,” but in 2016 their hysteria could be even bigger—and it's all a bunch of hooey. It's been a favorite right-wing myth for a very long time—starting right around the time that international communism was disappearing. (Coincidence? I think not.) But it's taken the twin outsider candidacies of Donald Trump and Ben Carson to put the complaints center-stage like never before.
Characteristically, at a defining moment in the Fox News debate, when Megyn Kelly challenged Trump with his record of disparaging women--" You've called women you don't like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals"-- he responded by sweeping the whole subject aside, saying, “The big problem this country has is being politically correct.” That interchange—using the charge of “political correctness” to silence any further questioning or debate, particularly in the face of specific allegations—sums up the whole GOP presidential campaign in a nutshell, although as Dana Milbank recently noted, GOP candidates have since invoked “political correctness” when speaking about (or running away from) every issue under the sun.
A lot of folks aren't exactly clear about what's going on here. For example, over the holidays (P.C. Alert! I didn't say “Christmas!”) some very smart columnists even wondered if “political correctness” might hurt Democrats in the election. But, as Digby pointed out, this concern was misplaced. “Donald Trump voters are not reacting to 'political correctness' they're reacting to real, fundamental, social change,” she argued:
[W]hite men are losing their total dominance. Their world is changing. And Donald Trump is making it ok to be mad about all that.... [T]he true source of this resentment is not the alleged suppression of their right to say racist and sexist things and have everyone agree with them -- it's the racial minorities and the women having equal rights. The anti-PC issue is a smoke screen.
The Megyn Kelly interchange made this blindingly clear. Trump's answer to her question was essentially “Shut up!” And it was hardly unique. As Milbank wrote, “GOP candidates are now using the 'politically correct' label to shut down debate—exactly what conservatives complained politically correct liberals were doing in the first place,” which is hardly a surprise, since that's been the very purpose of the label ever since conservatives stole it in the late 1980s.
In the early 1990s, education writer Herbert Kohl explained that he knew the phrase from the Jewish working-class block he grew up on in the 1940s and '50s, where it was used by egalitarian socialists to ridicule authoritarian Communists, most notably for their blind support of the Hitler-Stalin pact. “The term 'politically correct' was used disparagingly to refer to someone whose loyalty to the CP line overrode compassion and led to bad politics,” Kohl recalled. “It was used by Socialists against Communists, and was meant to separate out Socialists who believed in equalitarian moral ideas from dogmatic Communists who would advocate and defend party positions regardless of their moral substance.”
But decades later, the term was turned upside-down:
Given that history, it was surprising to hear right-wing intellectuals in the 1990s using the phrase "politically correct" to disparage students and professors who advocate multiculturalism and are willing to confront racism, sexism, or homophobia at the university.... The implication of these accusations is that people calling for compliance with anti-sexist and anti-racist education today are similar to the Communist party hard-liners who insisted on compliance with the "correct" line on the Hitler-Stalin pact. It is a clever ploy on the part of neoconservatives, a number of whom were former CP members and know how the phrase "politically correct" was used in the past, to insinuate that egalitarian democratic ideas are actually authoritarian, orthodox, and Communist-influenced when they oppose the right of people to be racist, sexist, and homophobic. [Emphasis added.]
It's high time that we did something to reverse this complete inversion of the meaning of the term. So in that spirit, let's take a closer look at how real political correctness, in its original 1940s sense, functions on the right and within the GOP today, to enforce authoritarian order.
“Happy holidays” is politically incorrect. “Merry Christmas” is politically correct.
Perhaps the most blatant example is Bill O'Reilly's beloved “War on Christmas,” which Media Matters has been tracking since its inaugural campaign in 2004. O'Reilly's core tenet is that “Merry Christmas” is politically correct, and “Happy holidays” is politically incorrect, end of discussion. That's the premise he operates from—though there are other facets, offshoots, tendrils, call them what you like. O'Reilly tries to portray the innocent use of “Happy holidays” as the spearpoint of a deadly attack on Christianity, a claim that's laughable on its face, if for no other reason than that “Happy holidays” includes both Thanksgiving and New Years, covering the entire holiday season, even for the most purely devout and orthodox of American Christians.
Of course, there is more to the story—a lot more. For example, if you want to know about a real war on Christmas, you need to look back to the 17th century Protestant forebearers of today's religious right, whose real war on Christmas is very illuminating. A good summary of the story can be found in Chris Durston's 1985 essay, “The Puritan War on Christmas.”
In short, O'Reilly, Fox and the Christian right in general are on the wrong side in the Christmas wars, and have been for more than a decade now. They are the ones making war against Christmas—against the very spirit of generosity, fellowship, celebration and—to be honest—excess, which Christmas has always meant in the Anglo-American tradition. Unlike their ideological forebearers, the Puritans, they may embrace the outward forms of the holiday itself, but not the spirit, which they find anathema. Blaming others for waging a so-called “War on Christmas” is just a smokescreen, meant to hide the fact that they're the ones leading the attack. After all, everyone else just wants to enjoy the Christmas season with families, friends, neighbors and yes, even strangers who act like friends for this brief, magical time. Only the conservative culture warriors want to sour the mood and turn it into a time of anger, hatred and division.
“Black Lives Matter” Is Politically Incorrect. “All Lives Matter” Is Politically Correct.
This one isn't terribly difficult to figure out. As Digby said, the true source of resentment isn't the alleged suppression of racist/sexist speech, it's the attainment of equal rights. Nothing brings that into sharper forcus than a movement affirming the most basic of rights, which has always been denied to black Americans, the right to live in physical security. “The anti-PC issue is a smoke screen,” Digby wrote, and this is the clearest possible demonstration. It's not the phrase “Black lives matter” that's the source of their upset—it's the movement, and its purpose. This was made vividly clear when Mercutio Southall Jr. was beaten and kicked by Trump supporters at a Birmingham rally, while some chanted, “All lives matter” at him.
As Southall explained his motivation, “The things that he’s been saying about black people, Latino people, immigrants, refugees—we felt it was very disrespectful,” especially coming to “a city where some of the biggest battles of the civil rights movement happened.... I mean, this man came to our city a couple of weeks before Christmas, saying we should not let in Middle Eastern refugees. If I’m not mistaken, I think Jesus was a Middle Eastern refugee. So we were not going to stand idly by and see the rise of the next Hitler. We knew we had to stand for something.”
So Southall went to the Trump rally with two friends to protest. At one point, a Trump supporter knocked the phone out of his friend's hand, after which the three started chanting, “Black lives matter,” and the mob attacked them:
“It was just a sea of white faces,” he told ThinkProgress. “A lady kicked me in the stomach. A man kicked me in the chest. They called me n*****, monkey, and they shouted ‘all lives matter’ while they were kicking and punching me. So for all the people who are still confused at this point, they proved what ‘all lives matter’ meant. It means, ‘Shut up, n*****.'”
That, folks, is real political correctness in action.
“Radical Islamic Terrorism” Is Politically Correct. “Jihadi Radicalism“ and “Violent Extremism” are Politically Incorrect.
If the “War on Christmas” represents the right's most enduring high-profile PC obsession, the chestnut always roasting by its open fire of hellish resentment, the most recent example to rocket to the top is the insistence on using the term “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” which the entire GOP field seemed to demand after the Paris attacks in November, followed by a Democratic debate in which all three candidates refused to use the term. Hillary Clinton even went so far as to call it “one of the real contributions — despite all the other problems — that George W. Bush made after 9/11,” that he said, “We are not at war with Islam or Muslims. We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression.”
Now it seems that Bush was a PC wimp, given how ferociously the current crop of candidates responded, both during the debate and after:
- Jeb Bush: Yes, we are at war with radical Islamic terrorism.
- The RNC: Hillary refuses to say we are at war with “radical Islam.
- Carly Fiorina: We need a President who will see and speak and act on the truth…Hillary Clinton will not call this Islamic terrorism. I will.
- Rick Santorum: Yes, @HillaryClinton we are at war with radical Islam! You are not qualified to serve if you cannot even define our enemy!
- Mike Huckabee: You’re all grown up now. You can do it. Three words. Ten syllables. Say it with me: “Radical Islamic terrorism.”
- Ted Cruz: We need a President who is unafraid to name our enemy — radical Islamic terrorism — and will set out to defeat it.
- Donald Trump: Why won’t President Obama use the term Islamic Terrorism? Isn’t it now, after all of this time and so much death, about time!
- Donald Trump (again): When will President Obama issue the words RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM? He can’t say it, and unless he will, the problem will not be solved!
An article at News Corpse by Mark NC called it perfectly: “The Wingnut Reverse Beetlejuice Doctrine: Say ‘Radical Islamic Terrorism’ Three Times.” Just say the politically correct phrase and problem solved! After citing the above tweets and more, he wrote:
In addition to these individuals, conservative media is singing from the same hymnal. National Review, Breitbart News, Washington Times, Free Beacon, and the Daily Caller are among those in the choir. It’s clearly an obsession with these folks. They are convinced that babbling a few specific words is a better indicator of the determination to fight terrorists than actually fighting terrorists.
There's that old PC smokescreen function again, only this time it's covering the GOP's total cluelessness about how to combat terrorism.
But if there are no magic words to instantly solve the problem, there are words that can make it harder to solve (so-called “fighting words” and the like), which is the real reason why the Democrats act the way they do—and even George Bush did the same. Blogging at Religion News, Mark Silk laid it out clearly:
All three Abrahamic religions have hegemonic traditions that from time to time lead latter-day followers to commit acts of violence in their name. The war for the Promised Land in the Hebrew Bible lies behind acts of violence on the West Bank by Jewish extremists. Crusades and pogroms lie behind acts of violence against blacks and Jews and abortion providers by Christian extremists. Yet imagine the outrage if their opponents undertook a War on Radical Judaism or a War on Radical Christianity.
That's it, exactly. While the GOP's own political correctness tries to hide their utter cluelessness about dealing with terrorism, the compensatory charge of political correctness they hurl at Democrats is really just an attack on common sense. Priceless!
“Rightwing Terrorist” Is Politically Incorrect. “Lone Nut,” “Troubled Loner,” even “Patriot” Is Politically Correct.
Closely related to the previous example is a much more long-standing right wing PC obsession, that of never permitting terrorism to be associated with them, even in the midst of defending it—as happened with the Bundy Ranch standoff, for example, when Harry Reid attacked the heavily-armed Bundy Ranch defenders at an event hosted by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, saying, “If there were ever an example of people who were domestic violent terrorist wannabes, these are the guys.” To which Nevada's Republican senator, Dean Heller, shot back, “What Senator Reid may call domestic terrorists, I call patriots.” Heller knows what's politically correct, that's for damn sure.
Heller may have been their most enthusiastic supporter, but other Republicans sought to cloak them in high principle—though it was a bit tricky to pin that principle down. Senator Ted Cruz called the situation the “unfortunate and tragic culmination of the path that President Obama has set the federal government upon,” despite the fact that Bundy hadn't paid federal grazing fees for about 20 years at the time. Rand Paul argued, “There is a legitimate constitutional question here about whether the state should be in charge of endangered species or whether the federal government should be.” Not that Bundy's lawbreaking had anything to do with endangered species. “I have a problem with the federal government putting citizens in the position of having to feel like they have to use force to deal with their own government,” then-Governor Rick Perry of Texas said. “That's the bigger issue.” So, it was the government that made them terrorists! The South used a similar line back 1861. Why not try it again? After all, the South was nothing if not politically correct.
It's not just GOP politicians who toe the PC line on this. Neither the media nor law enforcement are terribly keen to speak of right-wing terrorists, as was pointed out here at Salon in 2013 by Matthew Harwood (“U.S. law enforcement blatantly ignores right-wing extremists”). Although Muslim-American communities had been singled out by law enforcement since 9/11, particularly the NYPD, Harwood pointed to two reports showing a more wide-ranging threat from right-wing groups and individuals. First, he noted:
According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), right-wing terrorists perpetrated 145 “ideologically motivated homicide incidents” between 1990 and 2010. In that same period, notes START, “al Qaeda affiliates, al Qaeda-inspired extremists, and secular Arab Nationalists committed 27 homicide incidents in the United States involving 16 perpetrators or groups of perpetrators.”
But that wasn't all Harwood pointed out:
Last November, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center published a report on America’s violent far-right extremists. Its numbers were even more startling than START’s. “The consolidated dataset,” writes report author Arie Perliger, “includes information on 4,420 violent incidents that occurred between 1990 and 2012 within U.S. borders, and which caused 670 fatalities and injured 3,053 people.” Perliger also found that the number of far-right attacks had jumped 400% in the first 11 years of the 21st century.
He went on to say it was “highly probable that the FBI drastically undercounts instances of terrorism perpetrated by right-wing extremists because of cultural double standards,” and he pointed to the work of investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson, who analyzed the FBI's extensive targeting of Muslims post-9/11. In his book, "The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism," he analyzed all such cases between September 11, 2001, and August 2011:
Of the 508 defendants, 243 had been targeted through an FBI informant, 158 had been caught in an FBI terrorism sting, and 49 had encountered an agent provocateur.... Of the 508 cases, I could count on one hand the number of actual terrorists… who posed a direct and immediate threat to the United States.
There are real terrorist threats out there, of course. But if you're looking for a needle in a haystack, it really doesn't help to dump a bunch of pins into the mix, just so that you can find them as well. You might just make that needle even harder to find. But reason goes out the window when Muslims are concerned.
The two studies Harwood wrote about were followed by third more recently. Last June, Vox reported, “Study: Right-wing terrorism has killed 48 people in the U.S. since 2001,” about data compiled by David Sterman and Peter Bergen at the New America Foundation. At the time, jihadist attacks had killed only 26—a number that's risen since to 45, still less than the right-wing figure. GlobalPost took a slightly different angle in its reporting, “White Americans are the biggest terror threat in the United States,” which also accurately reflected the data, but was so politically incorrect it caused a storm of outrage, prompting a followup story, “Turns out people get angry when you say white Americans are terrorists, too,” which said, in part:
Some readers saw what we were trying to do and applauded it....
Other readers were mad. Really mad.
Some of them objected to our decision to call the terrorists “white Americans” instead of “some white Americans” or “white American extremists.” Without qualifying the term, they argued, we were claiming that ALL white Americans were a terror threat. Other readers worried that the headline, though correct, was unnecessarily divisive. Some thought it was unfair to focus on racial data when the study's summary didn't call attention to it.
Other readers reported us to Facebook for posting hate speech. They called us racists and race-baiters. They said we were ignoring “white genocide.” They asked why were weren’t talking about “black-on-white crime.” One person threatened to file a discrimination lawsuit.
That's what happens when you say something that's really politically incorrect.
Finally, recall what happened in the early months of the Obama administration. In April 2009, conservatives exploded in a firestorm of anger over a leaked report from the Department of Homeland Security, “Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” The report was intended for law enforcement only, but as soon as it leaked, conservative outrage kicked into high gear. "Confirmed: The Obama DHS hit job on conservatives is real,” Michelle Malkin's widely cited blog post cried out.
Congressional Republicans quickly jumped in as well. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Management, Investigations, and Oversight, issued a statement denouncing the report. "I am disturbed and personally offended by the Department of Homeland Security's view that returning military veterans and gun owners are likely to commit terrorist acts," he wrote. Then-Minority Leader John Boehner struck a similar tone, saying, “To characterize men and women returning home after defending our country as potential terrorists is offensive and unacceptable. The Department of Homeland Security owes our veterans an apology.”
Apparently neither of them had ever heard of Timothy McVeigh. In short order, PC hysteria was whipped up to such an extent that House Republicans were emboldened to demand an explanation from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, “using a rare legislative maneuver that ensures that the Democrats must take a public stand--one way or another,” as Right Wing Watch reported. Within days, Napolitano caved, and withdrew the report. “[T]he Right and their allies on the Hill have managed to get Napolitano to apologize and retract the report because of their contrived fit of manufactured outrage,” Right Wing Watch summed up.
It all happened so quickly, and there was so much else going on, but a few key points put things in a very different light. First, the report was not a product of the Obama administration. It was written by career staff, who had begun investigative work as far back as 2007, and were working on a draft in January 2009, when Obama and Napolitano took office. Another DHS report on left-wing extremism came out at the same time. Both were intended only for law enforcement, not for the public, and thus had no possible propagandistic intent. While Obama could have pulled the plug on either or both reports, if they'd been on his radar screen, there's just no way he could have initiated them, any more than he could have forged his own birth certificate.
In fact, the lead author of the report—Daryl Johnson, a self-described registered Republican who "personifies conservatism"—gave an interview to the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2011, showing in detail how wildly off the mark Republicans were in their fit of PC hysteria. As the introduction to that interview explains:
In the months following the leak, Johnson says in the interview below, DHS gutted its domestic terrorism analysis unit.
Events in the immediate aftermath of DHS' suppression of its report seemed clearly to exonerate its conclusions. In late May 2009, abortion provider George Tiller was shot and killed by an anti-abortion fanatic— just the kind of person the DHS report had warned of in one section. In June 2009, neo-Nazi James von Brunn killed a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., while trying to storm into the building. Many similar attacks and planned attacks by the radical right have followed, right up to the present day.
If, as Ted Cruz says, “political correctness is killing people,” this is how it's done.