But the backlash has a way of biting the hand it feeds. Consider Bill Maher, who took the name of his late-night talk show from an attack on political correctness. Right-wingers flocked to his program, along with liberals eager to prove they could take a joke. But one thing Maher never kidded about was feminism. He brayed about the need for a "men's agenda," and though he often expressed his support for gay rights, he railed at any sign that homosexuals wanted their own institutions, such as same-sex proms. As long as he stuck to bashing pushy women and queers, Maher was the rogue of the moment. Then came 9-11, and he made the mistake of saying something truly politically incorrect. He called the terrorists courageous, and that was that; Maher lost his show.
There's a lesson here about the true meaning of labels. Political correctness ought to describe blind adherence to the dominant ideologyand these days, that means American nationalism. But you'll never hear a guy with an eagle tattoo called p.c. In practice, the term applies only to those who fight the power. It's an enforcer of the order, just like its synonyms, Stalinist and Commie. In the fall of Bill Maher, you can grasp the clear and present danger of Red-baiting, even in a world without Reds. It shuts down critical thinking, and in that sense, it's the most effective instrument of conformity we have.
Richard Goldstein is the author of The Attack Queers: Liberal Society and the Gay Right (Verso).