In a declaration of his hatred for political correctness, Norman Mailer called it “the enemy.” Political correctness is an adversary of freedom and education, because it not only dictates to people what they cannot say, but also “what they cannot think.” Rules governing acceptable discussion in polite social circles, and unwritten regulations drawing borders around permissible political discourse, inevitably contribute to self-censorship in speech, but also shame in thought. The politically incorrect thinker cannot silence her own mind, but she can neglect to pursue the endpoint of her internal inquiry if she feels that it violates social norms and mores.
Politicians and pundits of the right wing strike a familiar, and transparently phony, pose as heroic defenders of free expression and open investigation; claiming that they have the courage, strength and rationality to ask the questions, and consider the answers, liberals have rejected, silenced, or repudiated. One of Donald Trump’s most predictable applause lines is “we don’t have time for political correctness,” and before Ben Carson’s campaign faded away, he regularly indicted political correctness as a “muzzle over people’s free thoughts.”
It is certainly true that many liberals, especially the mobs on social media, could become more logical, not to mention cheerful, and resign from their self-appointed positions of clerical inquisitors – judging everyone from Sean Penn to President Barack Obama as offenders against all that is decent for innocuous jokes. The vision for culture too many liberals project on college campuses, and countless Twitter feeds, is dogmatic, programmatic and, worst of all, boring.
The right wing, however, disqualified itself from combating political correctness many years ago. Far from fit for arbitration against speech codes and pressure to censor, they are actually the champions of enforcing emotional blackmail against violators of their increasingly delicate sensibilities. Conservatives do not call the positions they protect “political correctness,” but they are, in many ways, far worse than even the most hysterical campus activist, because they typically enjoy cooperation from the cowardly mainstream media.
I became intimately acquainted with the pathetic tantrums of the right wing when I tap danced around the third rail of cultural debate by criticizing the application of the honorific “hero” to every active member of the United States military, and every combat veteran. The seemingly pedestrian point that every large group of people contains good and bad, bolstered by evidence of widespread sexual assault in the military and high rates of domestic violence among combat veterans, was not so much engaged but disciplined by several commentators on Fox News, right-wing writers, and former congressmen. Most reactions did not offer a rebuttal, but only attacked the “indecency” of my words. Indignation, as many conservative commentators continually remind readers, is not a substitute for debate. “How dare you” is an equally invalid argument as calling something “offensive.”
Yet any criticism of the United States military becomes immediately subject to scorn in the right-wing world. Universally demanding that every member of any demographic receive a hero’s welcome, even if that group does include genuine heroes, is sloppy, dishonest, and politically problematic, considering that unheroic behavior will not receive any attention. Stacy Bannerman, the nation’s leading advocate for military spouses whose husbands, while suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, or some horrific combination of both, turn abusive and dangerous, claims that the single greatest obstacle preventing Congress from acting to end the crisis is the taboo surrounding any information or policy less than fully deferential to the assumed nobility of all things military. Right-wing political correctness, in this case and others, directly contributes to the destruction of people’s lives.
An equally hideous illustration of the cruel consequences of right-wing dogma is the refusal to substantively address the ongoing catastrophe of rape in the armed services. Anyone who cites the highly documented facts and figures on sexual assault in the military, including victims and veterans themselves, enters political quicksand. Despite reports on the rape epidemic from major newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post) and networks (CNN), Congress has made only superficial reforms to military justice. The reforms were so ineffectual that last May, the United Nations issued a human rights report calling on the United States to “prevent sexual violence in the military and ensure effective prosecution of offenders and redress for victims.”
Brooke Baldwin, an anchor for CNN, found herself reciting a statement of contrition similar to Chris Hayes’s after asking a psychologist if recent incidents of police brutality might have some connection to the high number of combat veterans working as police officers, and the influence of PTSD. The outrage meter broke, and Baldwin, probably for reasons of job security, had to complete the ritual of claiming she meant “no disrespect to the heroes of military.” Baldwin’s question might have been entirely legitimate, or it might have been a wild theory with no basis in reality. Instead of reviewing the evidence and allowing the experts to have a rational debate, the reaction made it clear that such an inquiry was unacceptable for public discussion. In other words, it was politically incorrect.
Playing on the general lack of interest in foreign affairs among the American public, right-wing insistence on unmitigated glorification of the military functions as an eclipse; blocking out the reality of American foreign policy. In place of any real conversation about how 27 cents of every tax dollar goes to the Pentagon, and instead of any significant debate over how the American military extends itself into every planetary corner while conducting raids, bombings, drone strikes and assassinations throughout Africa and the Middle East, American media defaults to constant praise of every person in uniform. As long as public focus remains on the sacrifices of military service members, no honest and beneficial examination of the policies requiring those sacrifices will take place.
Even before the attacks of September 11, 2001, treatment of American foreign policy had all the sophistication of a comic book, but the atrocity and tragedy of the terrorist attacks only simplified the already dualistic narrative. America is the heroic angel, fighting for freedom and international salvation from evil, while anyone America bombs is irredeemably Satanic. Candidates for office, with the originality and imagination of caged parrots, adhere to the politically correct talking point that the Iraq War was merely a “mistake” or “tactical error.” They are unlikely to present the invasion of Iraq as a reckless crime directly responsible for the deaths and destruction of millions of people and homes. Event the most conservative estimates of civilian death in Iraq place the body count between 143,334 and 162,577.
Former Congressman Ron Paul was routinely on the receiving end of jeers in 2012 for making the elementary point that people living in the Middle East dislike having their cities bombed as much as anyone else, and that some of their hostility toward the United States might diminish if the bombs stopped falling, and their families stopped dying. Ron Paul’s son, Rand, attempted to avoid the sins of his father by reversing himself on American foreign policy after declaring his candidacy for the presidency. Before his announcement, Senator Paul was a courageous critic of American aggression and intervention; compellingly connecting the dots between global instability and American adventurism, as well as fiscal insolvency and the bloated budget for the Department of Defense. Likely with the realization that his politically incorrect critique was unwelcome in the Republican Party, and anathema to Republican voters, he quickly adopted the phony tough talk of the far right – promising to bomb and destroy all enemies of the United States, real or imagined. Recently, he has reverted back to Paul 1.0 in order to differentiate himself from the bloodthirsty maniacs in his party. It is too little, too late.
Any criticism of U.S. foreign policy in moral terms is too politically incorrect to receive amplification in the mainstream media. Noam Chomsky, who is likely the most popular and reputable intellectual in the entire world, is rarely, if ever on American television, and his books are consistently ignored by the country’s major newspapers. Bill O’Reilly recently likened Chomsky’s well reasoned and heavily researched denunciation of American foreign policy to “hate speech.” According to the anti-intellectual, politically correct worldview of O’Reilly and his strange ilk, any acknowledgement of how U.S. foreign policy is often in violation of international law and human rights is hateful and unworthy of even cursory consideration.
The code of silence even mutes recognition of financial calamity. While the Republican candidates for the presidency pretend they are the serious accountants in a country of drunken spenders, the only time they mention the largest discretionary expenditure in the U.S. budget – funds for the Pentagon – is to propose wasting more money on a Department of Defense that spent $43 million to construct a gas station in Afghanistan, and still cannot account for the $2.3 trillion that went missing in 2001. So much for fiscal responsibility. When it comes to condemnation of political correctness, the right wing is oblivious to both irony and hypocrisy.
A major part of American foreign policy is its unwavering support – to the point of sycophancy – of Israel. President Obama, despite continuing the policy of giving Israel over $3.1 billion in annual aid, has provoked weird and incoherent outrage from the right as “an enemy of Israel.” Obama’s crimes amount to sputtering soft ridicule of Israeli wartime tactics, and, in rhetoric only, insisting on an end to settlements.
Presidential politics have undergone a dark metamorphosis in recent decades, creating a politically correct shield of silence around Israeli policy. The Reagan administration, while far from an equal broker in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, voted against Israel’s militarism at the United Nations, and President George H.W. Bush, unlike the weak-kneed Obama, did not merely criticize Israeli settlements, but withheld loan guarantees from Israel until he received reassurance that they would allocate none of the funds for settlement construction.
The omerta surrounding Israel, and the backlash for its violation, extends to Hollywood and academia – two supposed bastions of liberalism.
When Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem signed a letter condemning the Israeli attack of Gaza in 2014, many Hollywood studios reportedly blacklisted the actors.
Steven Salaita suffered even worse censorship and punishment after tweeting criticism of the Israeli air raid against Gaza. The University of Illinois rescinded their job offer for him to become a professor in their American Studies department.
Conservatives accuse liberals of deflecting legitimate policy questions and concerns with cries of racism, but it is the right wing that vilifies any criticism of Israel by cynically equating it with “anti-Semitism.” President Jimmy Carter, whose negotiation of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel saved more Jewish lives than every fantasy of every right-wing writer combined, faced widespread condemnation as an anti-Semite when he wrote a book critical of Israel’s continual occupation of Palestinian territory.
The American alliance with Israel receives full backing from Evangelical Christians with desires to hasten the apocalypse. Longing for the end of days and the end of all life, they claim friendship to Israel, because according to their misanthropic theology, Jerusalem must be under Jewish control for Armageddon to occur, while domestically, they too cry the tears of political correctness with the temperament of a hungry baby.
The way in which Christian conservatives have called offense to the seasonal greeting of “happy holidays” every winter, and use something so benign as evidence of a “war on Christmas,” gives all the illustration an observer needs to conclude that when it comes to political correctness, there is no group more sensitive or juvenile than the religious right.
Sociologists who explain the transformation of America from a “dignity culture” to a “victimhood culture” offer a convincing and disturbing argument, but no one should allow the right-wing poseurs of machismo to hoodwink them. In the rush to claim victimhood and silence unconventional political positions, conservatives are often first in line.