Culture Vultures

The Culture Wars Are 10 Years Old. Has the Right Won the Struggle Over P.C., Multiculturalism, and the Canon?

Ten years ago, the United States was at war. The media and the universities whipped up a veritable frenzy of demonstrations and denunciations; big-city editorials decried "crimes against humanity"; talk shows and think tanks went into overdrive; and at the peak of the furor, George F. Will declared that the enemy was powerful and dangerous—even more dangerous than Saddam Hussein.

That's right, more dangerous than Saddam. Because we're not talking about the Gulf War here, we're talking about the culture wars, the biggest domestic media event of 1991. Free speech and hate speech. Multiculturalism and the canon. Affirmative action and inclusivity training and the "differently abled." Christian student groups and gay-lesbian-bisexual student groups. Bill Bennett and Lynne Cheney holding forth on the achievements of Western civilization, and the dire threat posed by professors, students, and assorted virtuecrats who would impose their monolithic ideas of diversity and tolerance on the rest of us.

Ten years later: For a culture warrior, 2001 must look like a vision of hell. Lynne Cheney is back in town, and her husband is running the country. The attorney general is some guy who speaks of slave owners "subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor" to the cause of the Civil War. And the "president" himself boggles the mind: appointed to his post late one December evening by a handful of right-wing judges, who awarded him the electoral votes of a state whose incomplete vote tally had earlier been "certified" by his brother and his local campaign co-chair.

It looks like the 1990s culture wars are over and my side lost. Or has it?

The standards for acceptable public discourse on "difference" have ratcheted slowly upward since 1991. Still, an official national rhetoric of multiculturalism and inclusion can go quite nicely with a violent redistribution of wealth to the top.

Back in the spring of 1991 I wrote an essay on political correctness. It appeared in these very pages in mid June; by that point, media coverage of p.c. had proceeded, incredibly, for eight full months without a single left-liberal voice in the mix—starting with Richard Bernstein's October 1990 New York Times essay titled "The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct," and making its way through every major media outlet in the country. By the time Newsweek, U.S. News, The Atlantic, and The New Republic had piled on, mild-mannered, centrist academics like Catharine Stimpson had been cast as disciples of Bakunin, and deconstructionist literary critics had been likened to Stalin and Hitler.

What were their crimes? Well, some academics did say some bad things about some dead white males, and I believe that Stanley Fish, the old devil, actually suggested that members of the neocon National Association of Scholars be barred from service on campus committees at Duke (partly a response to a particularly sclerotic NAS member at Duke who had demanded that all books with "Marx" or "Marxism" in the title be removed from the university bookstore). But that's not what made the press coverage of p.c. so stupefying. What was truly remarkable was that suddenly the mass media's conventional wisdom, on topics ranging from queer theory to African American studies to sexual harassment, was derived almost entirely from people like Ms. Cheney, Dinesh D'Souza, Roger Kimball, Camille Paglia, and the boys from the NAS, all of whom were mightily delighted to see themselves described in newsweeklies as embattled independent thinkers devoted to restoring standards and objectivity to higher education. Back then, it was commonplace—nay, in some quarters, obligatory—for conservative cultural critics to make fun of scholarship devoted to matters gay or lesbian, and it was even possible for reputable columnists to ridicule the various attempts of people with disabilities to call themselves something other than "crippled" or "handicapped."

Times have changed, if ever so slightly. The term "politically correct" has long since been drained of any specific content; although it's still most often used as a synonym for "obnoxious liberal," its polemical charge was gradually undermined over the course of the decade by the fact that its opposite term, "politically incorrect," was adopted by such an unpleasant assortment of cranks, nasties, and utter loons. It was one thing to call yourself "politically incorrect" back in 1991 when you meant to say that you flew bravely in the face of stultifying liberal groupthink about affirmative action, gender difference, or violent crime; but by the time the millennium arrived, intolerance had earned a bad rep once again, thanks in large part to the hard work of hate criminals driving around the country shooting at Asians, dragging African Americans to their deaths, beating young gay men to death on the high plains, and opening fire on Jewish day care centers.

The standards for acceptable public discourse on "difference," then, have ratcheted slowly upward since 1991. Still, an official national rhetoric of multiculturalism and inclusion can go quite nicely with a violent redistribution of wealth to the top. Cultural politics, it would seem, operates with some autonomy from economic policy—and all too often in the 1990s, leftists and liberals drew the conclusion that the culture wars really didn't matter, that if we all agreed to concentrate on economic issues and ignore the attacks on Rigoberta Menchu and gay Teletubbies, the right's support among working-class and middle-income voters would evaporate.

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