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?
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.
There was always something wrong with this line of thinking; for one thing, it’s not necessarily helpful to ignore right-wing offensives on the cultural front. More important, there’s a terrible asymmetry in contemporary American political life: Left-liberal politicians tend to be pretty ambivalent about the culture wars, whereas the right not only funds its culture warriors but tries to disseminate and implement their ideas.
Take the Justice Department as a case in point. When Lani Guinier was nominated to head the Civil Rights Division in 1993, right-wing culture warriors like Abigail Thernstrom and Clint Bolick went after her with the long knives, and within a matter of weeks, liberals abandoned her and Clinton withdrew her nomination altogether. When John Ashcroft was nominated to head the entire department, the culture warriors of the left went after him as best we could, but not a single conservative broke ranks. Every right-wing flack and toady, from George F. Will on down the food chain, wailed in unison that Ashcroft’s critics were slandering a good religious man. And Ashcroft was confirmed.
Or take another example: In 1995, Dinesh D’Souza followed up his 1991 anti-p.c. smash, Illiberal Education, with an astonishing book titled The End of Racism, in which he proposed a theory of “rational discrimination” based on the idea that there are “civilizational differences” between black and white Americans. Then as now, D’Souza was a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and in response to his book, Glenn Loury, the conservative black economist, resigned from the AEI. How many of Loury’s white colleagues followed suit? If you said “none,” you win a free tour of the AEI’s white wing.
I’d like to be able to say that my 1991 essay, firing back at D’Souza and company, was uniformly right about the right. I thought their campaign against liberal academics was a sham; I thought their larger agenda was to gut the public sector; I thought they were setting the terms for public “debate” in the mass media. My instincts in defending academe in 1991 were quite similar to those of Clinton’s defenders in the years since: Sure, we’ve got our troubles, and nobody wants to applaud speech codes on campus or oral sex with interns in the White House, but look, our enemies are actually quite evil folk who stay up late at night filing their teeth and figuring out ways to make orphans and gay men with disabilities pay for tax breaks for Midland Oil and Bob Jones University. About those people my instincts were indeed right, and “but look, his enemies are even worse” wound up becoming the unofficial liberal slogan of the Clinton era. But about “political correctness” itself I was wrong in two ways.
First, in the summer of 1991 I was but a second-year assistant professor, and hadn’t yet taken the full measure of how insane a place an American university can be. I didn’t take seriously enough the possibility that well-intentioned if dunderheaded administrative edicts and diversity initiatives would take the form, on a handful of campuses, of kangaroo courts and show trials.
Second, and more embarrassingly, I thought at the time that the intellectual battles of the culture wars were about justice in the broadest sense—justice to minorities, justice to the complexity of the cultural history of the West. But immersed as we were in questions about gender and popular culture and postcolonialism, none of us could see what was really going to transform higher education in the 1990s—not the advent of queer theory or the reign of dunderheaded administrative edicts, but the downsizing and outsourcing of academic labor. Today, half of all college teachers are part-timers; only one-quarter enjoy the protections of tenure. Graduate students, forced into nakedly exploitative teaching arrangements, have begun to unionize, and college administrators, in reply, have begun to sound like the coal-mine-owning and red-baiting robber barons of yore.
At first, campus lefties like me wanted to see the right-wing anti-p.c. campaign as the air assault that prepared the way for on-the-ground defunding. But then an odd thing happened: Tuitions kept rising, private-university stock portfolios boomed, even state appropriations inched up—and still the campus labor force found itself part-timed, just-in-timed, and two-timed. And you know, there’s just no plausible way I can blame all this on Cheney and D’Souza. American universities have thus generally become harder, not easier, for progressives to defend in the past 10 years, and p.c. has almost nothing to do with it.
The universities have nonetheless played a crucial role in shaping American self-perception. The struggles for cultural justice couldn’t be contained in the campus quad and in fact were representative of larger social transformations that were eventually felt in city councils, newspaper editorials, and local school districts. But here’s the most curious development of the decade: While the flashpoint issue on campus has become a nakedly economic one, pitting trade unionism against academic hierarchy and privilege, the culture wars have moved—namely, onto the national stage, where they made all the difference between Bush voters and Goreans.
You’re already familiar with the conundrum: Gore should have won with 56 percent of the vote, according to the standard political-science textbooks, because if you multiply the rate of inflation by Clinton’s October 2000 approval rating, divide by the unemployment rate, and add the Dow Jones surge from 1992 onward, you get about 320 Democratic electoral votes and an unambiguous result in Florida. But that didn’t happen. Not because of Gore’s annoying sighs or meaningless fibs or tedious lockbox, but because of the culture wars. The Gore/Bush vote split almost exactly between people who did and didn’t believe that W. was going to restore “honor and dignity to the Oval Office.” The people who voted for W. knew precisely what that phrase meant (it was partly about renting out the Lincoln bedroom, but really, finally, mainly, it was about Monica). And on the edges of that split, you can find an even more basic divide—the difference between Americans who think it’s reasonable to call the United States a Christian nation and Americans who want to believe they live in a secular democracy.
This, I think, is the most basic ground of the culture wars, and perhaps on this front my side hasn’t lost after all. Yes, we lost an election and we’re likely to lose still more ground as a result. But culture wars are, in fact and in principle, unwinnable; the stakes have to do with ideas and ways of life, not with kill ratios or hanging chads. The question for the next decade, then, is whether the left believes its ideas are truly worth fighting for.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 20, 2001