Debating PC: The controversy over political correctness on college campuses

Debating PC

Book Review

Paul Berman, ed. Dell
New York, 1992;
Paperback; 338 pages

By Scott Henson
April 1992; page 9; Volume 3, No. 5

In reflecting on the national debate among academics over "political correctness," one is struck by the tiresomely repetitive way our country's leading intellectuals tread endlessly over the same ground. The only thing anyone has learned for sure is that - if it were still a question after Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind - books attacking academic radicals and liberals sell big.

Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals - a collection of essays originally printed in the New Criterion, where he serves as managing editor - fired the first volley in the recent debate in 1990. But the really big guns only appeared in 1991, starting with Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education, which spent months on the New York Times bestseller list. Soon PC hit the cover of nearly national magazine, and publishers realized that debating PC could mean big bucks.

Thus it was inevitable that someone would produce a book like Paul Berman's Debating PC, an anthology made up mostly of articles reprinted from the national press. In his excellent review in the Nation, Russell Jacoby wondered aloud if Berman mightn't at least have looked past his mailbox for articles. Indeed, the anthology is useful only to the extent that it summarizes previous positions taken. It breaks no ground, and in some cases obfuscates issues more than clarifies them.

For example, Berman reprinted three articles ostensibly about PC debates here at UT-Austin under the trite heading "Texas Shoot-Out." Although student journalistic investigation by both Polemicist and the University Review had focused on the E306 debate, and numerous professors had hashed out the details of the case in The Texan, the Statesman, and Texas Academe, Berman chose Oxford graduate and Beltway columnist George Will to represent the conservative viewpoint and a New Jersey philosophy professor to represent liberaldom, presumably for balance. This treatment tells nothing about what actually happened at UT, and allows this pair of east coast intellectuals to frame Texas' debate.

The only article by UT professors, "The Statement of the Black Faculty Caucus" by Ted Gordon and Wahneema Lubiano, addresses a different issue - multicultural curriculum reform - and was written before the E306 controversy. (Perhaps since Wahneema has since moved to Princeton, Berman thought the article less parochial.) But since Berman offers nothing but cursory introductions to each piece, the reader wouldn't necessarily understand that the latter article appeared in a separate context.

This sloppy treatment results in confusion, not clarification, of the issues at stake. For instance, Paula Rothenberg's essay mentions not once "Dollar" Bill Cunningham's unprecedented breach of faculty control over the curriculum, and by extension academic freedom, around which campus debate centered. Nor did it raise the grave issue of wealthy alumni exercising undue control over university policy. Rothenberg instead defends the central assumptions of her own book, which was briefly considered for use in a revised E306 and dropped well before the controversy's climax. Pardon me, but who cares?

George Will's article also focuses chiefly on Rothenberg's book, quoting out of context from sections the English department never included in its syllabus. Will never mentions that Rothenberg's text was dropped months before Cunningham canceled the course, and the editor either didn't see fit or didn't know enough himself to make clear this distinction. Especially in UT's case, Berman's selections perpetuate myths rather than dissect them.

Fish's reduction of the free speech debate is nothing new. It is the central thesis of William F. Buckley Jr.'s 1952 book God and Man at Yale, in which Buckley argued for restricting the academic freedom not just of Communist Party members, but of "Keynesians" and "atheists" as well. Perhaps Fish plans to eschew his liberal politics and take a post at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

The list of contributors to Debating PC sounds so familiar the entire book feels like a cliché. Illiberal Education author Dinesh D'Souza, Tenured Radicals author Richard Kimball, Kimball's boss at The New Criterion, Hilton Kramer, Irving Howe, a Cold War liberal and editor of Dissent magazine, and Assistant Secretary of Education Diance Ravitch all chime in from a traditionalist viewpoint. But did we need Debating PC to give these people a forum?

Opposing views also came from very usual suspects - for example, superstar academic Henry Louis Gates Jr., 1990 Modern Language Association President Catharine Stimpson, and professors Cornell West and Barbara Ehrerenreich. Far too often, the arguments between these tired and often tiresome cultural gladiators degenerate into a polemic - such as the one by UC Berkeley professor John Searle - over whether Western Civilization is a good or bad thing.

Stanley Fish, former chairman of the Duke English department contributed a shameful article entitled "There's no such thing as free speech and it's a good thing too." Here he argues that free speech doesn't really exist, because under certain circumstances it may be restricted, hauling out Canadian case law and a 1942 Supreme Court decision on "fighting words." From these examples, Fish concludes that the only real question is where to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable speech, and argues a case for drawing it more restrictively.

Perhaps Fish thought himself quite creative in teasing out this rationalization, but his argument is not new. It is the central thesis of William F. Buckley Jr.'s 1952 book God and Man at Yale, in which Buckley argued for restricting the academic freedom not just of Communist Party members, but of "Keynesians" and "atheists" as well. Perhaps Fish plans to eschew his liberal politics and take a post at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. His article in Debating PC would fit right in.

By contrast, (ostensibly) liberal Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff's position on free speech is a polar opposite to Fish's, and nearly as silly. Hentoff attacks "hate speech" codes at universities, but really this is only a straw man to hide his real target - left student activism. Hentoff's obfuscations typify his recent drift toward neoconservatism, which culminated in his endorsement of Clarence Thomas for Supreme Court Justice.

Let me say here that I disagree with speech codes both in principle and practice, but speech codes have little to do with Hentoff's real position. Despite his talk of such rules as "gags on speech," the heart of Hentoff's critique is that "politically moderate" students are "intimidated," not banned, from speaking.

The first amendment grants one the right to speak or print one's thoughts, not the right to have everyone respect your opinion. The same first amendment grants radicals the right to disagree with the political moderates, even angrily and boisterously. No one's rights are violated, although perhaps some feelings are hurt, when heated debates intimidate the meek-minded.

Paul Berman seems not to have put much effort into this book. Not only are the article choices uncreative, but frustratingly he compiled no index. And his introduction to the book reveals truly shallow thinking. Amazingly, at one point he comes close to redbaiting those he calls PC professors. He explicitly compares PC with "fellow travelling" - a Cold War liberal's euphemism for the activities of Communist sympathizers.

Berman assumes without debate that PC is a real issue because conservatives and a few elderly liberals say so. But he can only discuss PC generally; he never allows case studies to get in the way of his arguments. Instead of talking through actual incidents, Berman draws an extended "caricature" (his word) - "Race/class/gender-ism" - and then argues against that instead of anything real.

He periodically mentions (drops?) names like Heidegger, Lacan or Foucault as sources of PC, but never critiques specifically anything they said or wrote, other than to label Heidegger a Nazi. One can't tell from this essay whether he's even read these thinkers.

Unable to explicate any of the thinkers behind or within his book, Berman substitutes mini-bios at the beginning of each article for analysis, and uses them to puff his friends. He calls Dissent editor Irving Howe a "distinguished literary and social critic" and Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff a "veteran battler for free speech and other issues" - Berman writes for both Dissent and the Voice. On the other hand, he identifies Henry Louis Gates merely as an "author" and Edward Said as a "well-known author." These distinctions may serve Berman's career goals, but they do not help elucidate this amorphous "debate."

Berman's anthology will provide light reading for individuals who have read little or nothing about PC, but the book sadly contributes little toward the debate's resolution, and actually misrepresents what happened at UT. So what else is new?