Go to Chapter One Section Go to Book World's Review

Literature Lost
Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities
By John M. Ellis

Chapter One: The Origins of Political Correctness

What we now call "political correctness" may seem to be nothing more than a modern fad, and one that will pass, but to see it only this way is to misunderstand it. Its particular shape may be specific to our time, but its basic impulse is one that recurs regularly in the history of Western society. Herein lies a deep irony. Those in the grip of this impulse are critical of the Western tradition and define themselves by their opposition to it, yet the impulse itself is so much a part of the Western tradition that the attitudes it generates can be said to be quintessentially Western. One reason for studying the Western tradition is to learn some important lessons about this recurring phenomenon and so avoid mistakes that have been made many times before. In this chapter I shall look at some prior episodes to show more clearly what kind of thing this impulse is, what produces it, and what its dangers are. Rather than carp at the absurdities of the current scene, we can understand them more fully as part of the history of Western civilization.

Those who study German culture, as I do, usually get their first account of the early Germanic peoples from the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote a short treatise entitled Germania in the first century A.D. By the standards of civilized Rome, the Germans were barbarians, which is what Tacitus calls them; in modern terminology, they were part of the Third World of their day. But in Tacitus' eyes they were quite remarkable people. They seemed to be instinctively democratic; all major affairs were discussed by the entire community, and only minor matters were delegated to chieftains. Even the views of a king were heeded, Tacitus tells us, "more because his advice carries weight than because he has the power to command." Similarly, in war, commanders relied on example rather than on the authority of their rank. These natural egalitarians were apparently not bothered by questions of social standing and power. And if they seemed to have the sin of pride well under control, the sin of greed seemed to give them no problems either: Tacitus notes that "the employment of capital in order to increase it by usury is unknown in Germany."

Nor was sexism one of their vices, for they had a high regard for the opinions of women and treated them with the utmost respect: "They do not scorn to ask their advice, or lightly disregard their replies." In fact, these Germanic tribes, though primitive, exhibited high moral character, a point Tacitus stresses repeatedly, with remarks such as "They live uncorrupted by the temptations of public shows or the excitements of banquets" or "No one in Germany finds vice amusing, or calls it 'up to date' to seduce and be seduced" or "Clandestine love letters are unknown to men and women alike. Adultery is extremely rare." Tacitus' Germans were also brave, honest ... and just about anything else one could wish.

Tacitus sums up his idyllic picture by saying that "good morality is more effective in Germany than good laws are elsewhere." That is, of course, because the Germans were a naturally good people who did not need laws to keep their behavior in check. If Tacitus had been speaking about a tribe that had vanished without a trace, we might simply regret that we had never encountered such a splendid and admirable people. Unfortunately, we actually know a great deal more about those Germans than Tacitus did, and they do not seem so admirable in other recorded accounts. Moreover, Tacitus never actually traveled among them. What is going on here?

That vague word elsewhere in Tacitus' summary, suggesting as it does an unspecified place where people must be governed by laws to keep their depravity in check, gives the game away. It refers, of course, to Tacitus' own society, to the first world of the time: imperial Rome. What Tacitus really has on his mind is less the virtue of Germans than the corruptness of civilized Rome--its sexual depravity, greed, and obsession with rank and conquest.

We are surely familiar with this situation in our own time. A sophisticated man of letters, disillusioned and even embittered by the flaws, inconsistencies, and retrogressions of a great civilization, deludes himself that a world of primitive innocence and natural goodness exists in peoples who are untouched by the advances of that civilization. So intense are his hostile feelings toward his own society that he is unable to see the one he compares it to with any degree of realism: whatever its actual qualities, it is endowed with all of the human values that he misses in his own. Consequently, he sees his own culture not as an improvement on brutish natural human behavior but as a departure from a state of natural goodness. This recurring Western fantasy runs from Tacitus' idealized Germans all the way to such twentieth-century versions as Margaret Mead's sentimentalized Samoans and ultimately to one of the most far-reaching outbreaks of this illusion--the political correctness of our own day.

Anyone reasonably knowledgeable about the history of Western culture knows that some of these episodes were major factors in the historical development of Europe. Both Jean-Jacques Rousseau's adulation of the Noble Savage and the nineteenth-century German Romantics' glorification of the German Volk had serious repercussions. Karl Marx was perhaps in a similar frame of mind when he imagined the end point of his transformation of society to be the withering away of the state. He must have fantasized, just as Tacitus did, that morality could substitute for good laws.

John Searle recently defended Western thought against the criticisms of the politically correct by pointing out that it is uniquely self-critical. But an even stronger point can be made: political correctness itself is a thoroughly Western phenomenon. From earliest times, Western society has been prone to recurring fits of this self-doubt. Those who are seized by this mood may imagine that they are taking an anti-Western stance, but that is all part of the same pattern of self-delusion.

Tacitus was using these imagined noble Germans as a standard against which to judge the Romans, but that was as far as he went; his concern was simply with the particular historical situation he was in. Rousseau went further, however. Instead of being content to think that eighteenth-century French society and its institutions were corrupt and corrupting, and to imagine another people that was morally superior because their natural goodness had remained intact, Rousseau generalized: man in his natural state was naturally good, and all corruptness sprang from society and its institutions. His Noble Savage was not just a particular group of Germanic tribesmen but simply man in his naturally good state before the degradation brought by the institutions of society--any society.

Rousseau had gone beyond Tacitus' local irritation to formulate a general theory of society and human nature, one heavily pessimistic about the former and blithely optimistic about the latter. Tacitus' quarrel was with Roman society, but Rousseau's was with civilization itself, which, he said, had ruined the human race. For Rousseau, the first person who enclosed a piece of land and said "this is mine" started civil society; and, he tells us, if only someone had objected to that first step, "what crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors" he would have saved the human race.

Whether because of the direct influence of Rousseau or through the spontaneous eruption of the politically correct impulse, this dark view of civilization has been revisited often since Rousseau wrote. Yet history has been most unkind to these illusions. Tacitus wanted to see in the Germans the answer to everything that bothered him about his own society, just as the campus radicals of our own time are tempted to see in the contemporary Third World an absence of rank consciousness and hierarchy, of capitalism and greed, of the strong coercing the weak, and of men lording it over women and treating them as playthings. Alas, Tacitus did not live to see his noble Germans run amok in the centuries that followed. One tribe, the Vandals, instituted a legendary reign of terror that gave us the word vandalism. We can be sure their victims did not see the sweetness and natural goodness Tacitus attributed to them. The Goths and the Vikings, too, committed more than their share of rape and plunder, and we can be confident that when the Visigoths sacked Rome in A.D. 410, the female inhabitants of the city did not experience the respect for women that Tacitus had described.

Had the Germanic tribes changed in the intervening years? They had not. Tacitus recorded a curious detail in his account of one tribe that might have revealed the truth of the situation, if only he had been receptive to the bad news it contained. He tells us of a tribe called the Suiones, who lived beyond the mainland and built ships in a peculiar way: "The shape of their ships differs from the normal in having a prow at each end, so that they are always facing the right way to put in to shore. The rowlocks ... can be reversed, as circumstances require, for rowing in either direction." The word Suiones is, of course, our modern word Swedes, and those ships were already recognizable as Viking raiding ships. There was nothing peculiar about them if one understood the purpose of their design. They were built for what Gwyn Jones calls the "quick-in quick-out Viking raids." In remarking that they always face the right way to put in to shore Tacitus misses the point, which is that they always face the right way for putting out to sea. Just as a bank robber will leave a car idling outside the bank, the Vikings had a ship waiting that did not have to be turned around to get under way. This Germanic tribe was already not what Tacitus imagined it to be.

History has treated Rousseau's theories just as roughly. The French Revolution was Rousseauist in nature: the old institutions were swept away and what was left was simply citizens--an apparently egalitarian society without institutions that would corrupt them. But contrary to Rousseau, the very worst in human nature was about to be unleashed: cruelty, bloodlust, vengefulness, envy, greed. What the institutions of monarchic France had done to its citizens was nothing compared to what they now did to themselves. The atmosphere of fear in Paris is what has most captured the historical imagination, but the loss of life in provincial areas was far worse. (The same pattern was repeated in the Russian Revolution.) The vacuum left by the recently destroyed social institutions was filled not by the resplendent goodness of human beings but, quite the reverse, by the cruel tyrant Robespierre and his minions. The period is now known to historians as "the Terror." And Stalin's "Great Terror," though on a much larger scale, is a close parallel.

Rousseau died just before the Revolution and so escaped seeing what natural human qualities emerged during the Terror and having to face the fact that society's institutions are there precisely to restrain those qualities. Marx, too, never had to experience the consequences of his views: he was buried long before his romanticized future society turned out to be one in which proletarian leaders proved yet again to be all too human--greedy, corruptible, cruel, and much too fond of the state apparatuses they controlled to let them wither away. A system of thought that never envisaged the need for any check on natural human qualities proved powerless to check the savagery of a Stalin or a Pol Pot.

There is more than a broadbrush similarity between today's political correctness and these recurring fantasies of the primitive innocence to be found outside a corrupt Western society. Many of the views that are currently cherished as the sophisticated products of modern theory are in fact neither modern nor derived from theory) they are instead a replay of earlier episodes in the history of Western culture. Take, for example, the view that the Western canon of great books reflects ruling class values and that when reconstructed it reveals hidden power relations that have the repressive function of social control of the lower classes. This sounds like the very latest thought of those among us who have absorbed the teachings of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Antonio Gramsci. But now look at the same point, made in a more felicitous style over two hundred years ago: "Princes always view with pleasure the spread among their subjects of a taste for the arts.... The sciences, letters and arts ... cover with garlands of flowers the iron chains that bind them, stifle in them the feeling of that original liberty for which they seemed to have been born, make them love their slavery, and turn them into what is called civilized people."

This is again Rousseau, and here he presents all the essential elements of the avant-garde thought of our daring modern theorists: both the literary canon and scientific inquiry are really about social control and serve the interests of rulers by brainwashing the lower classes. Terry Eagleton is evidently much too intent on the iconoclasm of what he imagines to be bold new thought to understand that he is merely parroting Rousseau when he tells us that literature in England was designed to inculcate in the masses the viewpoint of their masters and "impress upon them a reverence for middle-class achievements, and ... curb in them any disruptive tendency to collective political action." There is not a single reference to Rousseau in the entire book from which this citation is taken.

In looking back at Rousseau's version of his thought we have one great advantage: we know what happened next--and we know that Rousseau could not have been more wrong. Nothing proved more dangerous to the rulers of his time than the free expression of ideas by the creative writers and philosophers of the Enlightenment. Unlike Rousseau, those princes correctly saw writers as dangerous subversives, censored them, and generally had strained relations with them. Rousseau's idea turned out to be foolish in his time, and there is no reason to believe that it is any less so in ours. The behavior of modern princes, whether they rule in Baghdad or Havana, tells us that they have no such illusions.

Rousseau obviously did not need modern literary theory to reach his view; to use the jargon of our day, he did not have to deconstruct the canon to reveal a "repressed politics" or to "bring political, psychological and institutional contexts into interpretive practices," as an advocate of this view puts it. He simply fell victim to a crude and unrealistic conspiracy theory--for that is what it is, whether as formulated by Rousseau or in its chic modern formulation.

All the major elements of modern political correctness can be found in the Western tradition, and in every case we can learn something from the way they have played out. One worth a careful look is the currently fashionable theory of cultural relativism.

In the modern context, what has become known as political correctness has two distinct strands. The first consists of people who are rather like Tacitus--intellectuals who are alienated from their own society and who in their disgust with its imperfections imagine a primitive society full of sweetness and light. The second reaches the same conclusion as the first but by a different route. We might call the two groups the alienated insiders and the resentful outsiders. The outsider denigrates the dominant culture not because of his disgust with its imperfections but because he does not feel part of it. Resentment is the reason for his adulation of primitive cultures. The alienated insider is motivated by self-disgust, the outsider by self-defense) and that defensiveness takes the form of cultural relativism.

Faced with a large disparity between the cultural influence and technological development of the West and Third World, the outsider tries to equalize matters with the notion that all cultures are unique--which in some sense must be true--and that consequently no one culture is better than any other. But the conclusion does not follow from the premise, and it is clearly false. Yet even this is not really enough to satisfy the animus against the dominant culture, and so the outsider still rails against it with an inconsistency that betrays irrationality. Because Western high culture is snobbish and elitist, for example, more popular or primitive cultures are preferable, and so some cultures are better than others after all. The end result is that the alienated insider and the envious outsider can agree: both are hostile to the stronger and more developed society and both idealize primitive cultures. Yet this synthesis of the two different strands is also not uniquely of our time. The convergence of these mutually supportive views is well attested in the Western tradition.

If Rousseau gives us an example of the alienated insider, the German Romantics serve as the example of the envious outsiders. By the middle of the eighteenth century, a number of European cultures were well advanced. The situation will have a familiar ring if we say that the dominance (the correct word today is hegemony) of countries like France was much resented in countries like Germany, whose renaissance, for various historical reasons, occurred quite late. Compared to the leading European nations of the day, Germany was culturally undeveloped.

The French often spoke disparagingly of the Germans, a fact that Germans perceived as cultural arrogance. Some German intellectuals began to question the right of French cultural imperialists to regard Germany as culturally primitive based on French standards. Johann Gottfried Herder, the major ideologist of the German Sturm und Drang movement, now invented multicultural theory--or rather cultural relativism, according to which cultures can be judged only by their own standards. No one culture can be said to be better than another--they are just different. And as might be said today, we should celebrate the difference.

Herder used another equally familiar argument to bolster Germany's case: he disparaged high culture as artificial and praised low culture (the culture of the common German Volk) as genuine, thereby breaking the cultural truce that relativism was supposed to offer. Here, too, modern multiculturalists unwittingly follow Herder to the letter, first by asking us to celebrate difference, then by denouncing Western culture as elitist.

Again, the advantage of locating a particular aspect of modern political correctness in its historical birthplace is that we can see how it fared. The fate of Germany's cultural relativism was partly amusing and partly tragic. The amusing part was that almost immediately German culture began to produce in quick succession a dazzling series of artists and philosophers: Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, Holderlin, the Grimms, and a host of others. Suddenly it was the Germans who dominated European culture. Not surprisingly, cultural relativism began to seem less attractive to them.

Now for the tragedy: the European Enlightenment had had a general, humanitarian focus. It espoused the rights of mankind rather than the special rights or virtues of particular nations. But thinkers like Herder would have none of that. What mattered for him was not a general European culture of the Enlightenment but the specifically German character of German culture and thought. He might well have said, consistent with his general position but in the language of today's multiculturalists, that the generalized notion of mankind prevalent among the French was a cover for Frenchmen foisting their values onto everyone else.

This turn away from the Enlightenment's emphasis on a common humanity was a fateful step, however, as was Herder's advocacy of the primitive culture of the German people. His celebration of the special character of the Volk as a more important value than European notions of mankind sowed the seeds of a virulent and persistent German nationalism, one based on blood and soil that echoes throughout the nineteenth century and eventually becomes an unmistakable ingredient in Nazi ideology. Germany was to fight many bitter wars with France in the century and a half after Herder wrote, and one must wonder how much his influence contributed to those wars.

There is a lesson to be learned from this sad sequence of events, and it is one that can be discerned in many comparable situations through out the world, both before and since, the latest examples being Sri Lanka and the former Yugoslavia. Anyone who thinks that cultural relativism and the celebration of ethnicity will ensure democracy and egalitarianism is sadly mistaken: history has shown us, to the contrary, that these attitudes are more likely to unleash the dangerous forces of tribal chauvinism and resentment. Encouraging people to think of themselves first and foremost as members of a tribe is a perilous undertaking. If Serbs and Sinhalese could have thought of themselves as human beings first and Serbs or Sinhalese second--the Enlightenment's way--much bloodshed might have been avoided.

When some scholars argue that we should pay less attention to the history of the Western tradition and more to both our own age and Third World peoples, we should be aware that this is a very Western thing to say. The Third World cultures so favored by these scholars are generally far more insistent on their own traditions that we are.

As to the other element in Herder's theory--the disparagement of high culture and praise for the culture of the common people--here, too, there is a lesson for us in what followed. Herder had extolled the natural eloquence of illiterate German country folk (especially women) who were unspoiled by books and philosophizing. The brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm liked the idea and set out to show the richness of German popular culture by collecting folktales and fairy tales. The result was their famous Grimms' Fairy Tales. Although the brothers insisted in the first edition that they had faithfully represented their peasant sources, we now know that they gathered their material almost exclusively from their literate middle-class friends or simply from other books--even French books--and that whatever the source, they rewrote everything extensively. The folksy tone and style of the collection is their own creation. When their sentimental preconceptions clashed with the reality of what real peasants said, the brothers chose to lie rather than to admit that their theory had turned out to be wishful thinking.

The trouble was that Herder and the Grimms believed they would find among simple peasants the modern equivalent of the oral traditions that resulted in Homer, not understanding that there was a world of difference between the uneducated, illiterate members of a modern literate society and the elite among the storytellers of a preliterate age. The real equivalent of the elite of that earlier time was to be found in people like the Grimms themselves, a fact that their (unacknowledged) authorship of the Tales demonstrates.

This episode shows that two theoretical advocates of the eloquence of low culture understood only too well that the only way to make low culture competitive with high culture was to have two high-cultural writers intervene to make the result appear authentically folklike. And they succeeded: such was their skill that they were able to create a carefully crafted and deceptively simple language that could nor have been achieved through any other means. And so this enduring monument of low culture is actually a fraud created by two upper middle class scholars.

At this point we ought to entertain a plea of mitigation for Tacitus and some of his successors. We must remember that, by our modern standards, they had a very limited experience of the world, whereas we have that world brought to us on CNN, in newspapers, through travel, and in countless other ways. Given his limited experience of the world, we ought not criticize Tacitus too severely for a lack of perspective on his Roman society, nor should we fault him for failing to foresee the brutal exploits of the Vandals and Goths. Neither can we blame Rousseau for not foreseeing Robespierre, or Herder and the Grimms for failing to see where celebrating the ethnicity of the German Volk would lead. But we surely can ask that literate people of the modern age who want to take us through all of this yet again first consider the lessons of history that show how disastrous these ideas have proved to be.

Because of modern communications, there is no longer any excuse for ignorance of the violent racial clashes and tribal conflicts of the Third World or for sentimentalizing the often appalling treatment of women there. The list of horrors visited upon women is extraordinary: in India, suttee (the ritual suicide expected of widows and often forced on them if they demur) and bride burning) in China, not too long ago, foot binding; in Africa, to this day, severe genital mutilation; in Islamic countries, the veil (chador), draconian restrictions on employment, and a prohibition on driving; and in many parts of the world, widespread killing of female infants. In a recent newspaper article entitled "Stark Data on Women: 100 Million Are Missing," Nicholas D. Kristof reported that census data from Asian countries indicate that "at lease 60 million females in Asia are missing and feared dead," based on evidence such as "the number of boy births and the ratio that should exist between them." Worldwide, Kristof guesses that "the number of missing females may top 100 million."

Equally absurd is the idea that where racial harmony or freedom from imperialism is concerned, the Third World is to be admired more than the West. Indeed, in these matters the Third World is politically incorrect to a shocking degree. Ethnic clashes abound, frequently escalating to the level of genocide. During the recent history of Nigeria, for example, tribal warfare resulted in genocidal massacre. Ethnic majorities routinely persecute minorities, and wars of the stronger against the weaker are constrained not by moral considerations alone but rather by military feasibility. Only intellectuals blinded by alienation from their own society could fail to see these clear differences or similarly striking examples of the extent to which state power is commonly abused; for example, the routine use of torture by police is common only outside the West. And the historical record leaves us in no doubt that this behavior predated the arrival of Western colonialism and imperialism--it could not have been learned from the West.

Given our knowledge of the world through modern communications, it rakes an extraordinary act of self-deception nor to see that it is the developed countries that are slowly leading the world away from racism and male dominance. To demand an end to racism and sexism is not to reject Western society but, on the contrary, to ally oneself with certain Western values. "Enlightened" attitudes toward the relations between men and women; social justice; torture, rape, and other forms of physical brutality; tribalism; and even imperialism have slowly coalesced in Western societies. Only someone who reads history blindfold could think that the absence of these evils is a normal state of humankind from which the West deviates. In denouncing any deviation from their own value system as "oppression," race-gender-class scholars by implication denounce non-Western cultures and measure them rigidly by Western standards, the reverse of what they think they are doing.

What does it mean when not simply individuals but whole groups of people maintain a view that is contradicted by facts too obvious to be ignored? This question takes us to the heart of the politically correct impulse and what it means. Of the two groups--the alienated insiders and the envious outsiders--the motivation of the second is straightforward enough. Their natural insecurity as outsiders, reinforced as it is by encouragement from the alienated insiders, produces a result that is not difficult to understand. The behavior of the first group, however, is less simple. Self-interest helps the outsider to his conclusion, but all that stands in the way of the alienated insider's seeing what is obvious to everyone else is his own determination to see the opposite. Where does this determination come from?

Some degree of dissatisfaction with one's society, or more specifically with one's place in it, is normal and rational. We all think that the society in which we live has room for improvement; a high school teacher, for example, might easily reach the conclusion that he or she was underpaid given the social importance of the work teachers do. Even so, such criticism need not interfere with an ability to form realistic judgments about how this society compares to others in terms of its overall fairness, racial tolerance, standard of living, protection of individuals from governmental abuse, and so on. Experience shows, however, that when these feelings reach a certain level of intensity, all perspective is lost. Antagonism toward one's own society then becomes so great that nothing can be conceded to it. Its imperfections can no longer be compared to those of other societies, yet it is the imperfect implementation of its own values that has caused the anger. The alienated insider is so much a creature of his own society that the values that are the basis of his criticism are uniquely its values.

The reasons for this intense alienation probably vary. Intellectuals often develop feelings of isolation, and some groups--for example, homosexuals--may have a good reason to feel left out of the mainstream. In the case of Foucault, the most influential figure among race-gender-class scholars, we know that this was a factor in his feelings of alienation. There is, however, more variety in the causes than in the result, which is not a general loss of the ability to think cogently but a disposition to think along specific lines.

When most of us reflect on the shortcomings of our society, we are likely to remember that the frailty of human nature is always the biggest problem. There is no institution, whether it be the Chrysler Corporation, the local high school, the Red Cross, or the U.S. Congress, that is immune from the problems of poor leadership, complacency, intellectual laziness, or zealotry--all permanent features of the human condition. Alienated intellectuals are unable to entertain such a thought, however, for that would be to let the society around them off the hook. They must therefore attribute all blame to society and none to humanity.

It is this critical step that determines the nature of politically correct thinking, because from this beginning it must follow that people are not responsible for, since they are inherently better than, what the alienated insider complains about. They are dragged down by this society, and their current state of degradation need not have happened. The politically correct impulse thus leads inexorably to thoughts of a place where people are simply allowed to be what they can be. And this, in turn, leads to the idea of a primitive harmony and Rousseau's idyllic state of nature.

Primitive harmony is therefore not simply a daydream that arises through fantasy but a result that follows with ironclad logic from the premises of the initial impulse. That is why so many different people reach this same point regardless of how many times it has led to ruin. For some, the disparagement of Western culture has had the effect of impoverishing their education so that they have been protected from any knowledge of Rousseau's thought and of the disasters that it has helped bring about. But even for those whose education was not deficient in this respect, the force of the impulse is still strong enough to make them dream of the elusive primitive harmony that allows them to denounce their own society. It is there in the idyllic life of the American Indians, according to Annette Kolodny, before the white man raped the country; or it was there in the Americas before Columbus brought the evils of European society; or it was there throughout the world, before Western civilization destroyed the reign of the "Goddess," a benign deity who presided over human life just before recorded history began; or it was there in Africa before colonization by Europeans brought misery with it; or it was there before capitalism. In each case we are told of lives of great beauty and simplicity, without exploitation of people or abuse of the environment; in short, these were ecological and human paradises. But they all appear to have existed before we could actually witness them and, in most cases, before recorded history began. In such settings, imaginative fantasy and wishful thinking encounter fewer obstacles.

It would be an understatement to say that arguments can be mounted against all these imagined conditions and more to the point to say that it is embarrassingly easy to show that none really existed. Our knowledge of pre-Columbian society, of North American Indians, or of precolonial Africa establishes that all the Western vices that race-gender-class scholars complain of were there, and more: human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, ethnic hatreds, rigidly hierarchical societies, and even a taste for cruelty and torture that would have put medieval Europe to shame.

By now, the notion of a primitive harmony has been ridiculed as wishful thinking so often that race-gender-class scholars seem on occasion embarrassed and defensive about their continued belief in it; yet they cling to it still. Annette Kolodny paints her picture of the idyllic life of the North American Indians--"a harmonious society governed by seasonal change and unburdened either by toil or material wealth"--but at the same time enters a caveat that this is not an invocation of the "noble savage." Yet that is exactly what it is. Fredric Jameson, no less in the grip of the fantasy of primitive harmony both in the contemporary Third World and more generally in the world before capitalism undid it, also mocks unreal "Western Third-Worldism," as if to suggest that there are indeed people who romanticize the Third World but that he is not one of them. But of course he is. The trouble is that Kolodny, Jameson, and others like them have no real choice: the fantasy of original harmony is what they must inevitably reach for when their resentment against their own society reaches an uncontrollable level.

There is another consequence of the belief of these alienated intellectuals that their society's corruption is the source of its problems. They are unable to grasp the fundamental truth that Robert Edgerton sets out in his book Sick Societies, namely, that all sociocultural systems must attempt to restrain weaknesses in human nature--traits like greed, envy, cowardice, dishonesty, selfishness--but that none has had complete success in doing so. "Nowhere," says Edgerton, "have adults found it necessary to teach their children to be selfish, greedy, angry, stubborn, envious, or disobedient; instead they search everywhere for means to limit or eliminate these characteristics in their children."

Although societies try to do this in different ways, their common task is to find a way to keep human nastiness in check, not to avoid interfering with the natural occurrence of human sweetness. One judges societies by many criteria, but one of the most important is: How well does a society protect its members from one another? This thought is not accessible to the mind-set we have been discussing, for it has things the other way around--it attributes nastiness to society, not to human nature.

Because the problems of society cannot be attributed in any serious degree to the human nature that it imperfectly restrains, it follows that some faction or force within the society must be to blame. Race-gender-class scholars are therefore predisposed to conspiracy thinking. The conspiracy will usually be run by a group that they can identify and resent: the rich, the patriarchy or, more generally, an "establishment." The chosen group will be imagined as uniquely successful in getting things arranged the way it wants. That our society is what we imperfect human beings collectively make it will not do as an explanation. But the most fateful part of this mind-set is its urge to destroy in order to rebuild. If our society is corrupt, it must be remade from the ground up. To reach the desired state of harmony, we must start again. And that would sweep away all the progress that we have made so far.

Most would agree that Western society, though far from perfect, has made very real progress: compared with the rest of the world, its system of laws keeps cruelty and torture in check, its people live longer and are healthier than those in other societies, it feeds its people comparatively well, it manages to change governments without civil war or bloody coups, and so on. But to say this simply angers alienated intellectuals, who know that the core of Western society is rotten, however rosy its surface appearance. Starting again will not return us to natural goodness, however, but only to a natural chaos where all kinds of natural human nastiness flourish; that would mean both undoing the progress made by the Enlightenment and abandoning much practical experience about the calamity of naive utopian political thought.

The cruel paradox of the politically correct impulse is that it is impatient with imperfection and wants something better, but its actual results are always destructive. As Marxism is to the economic sphere, so cultural political correctness is to the cultural sphere. Marxism promised a utopian economic abundance to be shared equally by all--if only we would dismantle the existing bad economic structure. But only the dismantling was ever realized, with the result that the formerly socialist countries must now suffer severe hardships during the long process of rebuilding their economies. In just the same way, cultural political correctness now promises cultural abundance for everyone in a new egalitarian culture if only we are willing to reject our elitist Western culture. The result is just as predictable: we shall all be culturally poorer as, once again, the destruction succeeds but the promised state of cultural utopia that is to replace it never materializes. Our Western cultural inheritance is not perfect, but it has succeeded in raising us from the barbarism of a state of nature. It has managed to abolish many forms of human cruelty, has given us forms of democratic government that actually work, and has a record of human thought in literature and philosophy that offers extraordinary range, depth, and complexity. Far from debasing human beings, it has enhanced their dignity in a thousand different ways. We can build on it, extend it, modify it; but if we allow the politically correct to pull it down with their characteristic utopian promises about what they can replace it with, we have only ourselves to blame. We can be sure that if we allow their destructive resentment to destroy yet again so that they can create perfection, we shall witness the destruction but never see the benefits promised. We shall soon be faced with cultural ruin and a painful period of rebuilding--a cultural disaster analogous to the economic disaster that has befallen eastern Europe.

Copyright 1997 Yale University

Yale University Press

Back to the top

Navigation image map
Home page Site Index Search Help! Home page Site Index Search Help!