In a long and complicated theoretical disquisition Angelo Codevilla has offered us the history of political correctness. Having originated with Communism, political correctness has now come to occupy the fever swamps of the academic and cultural left.
Codevilla explains that what began as a totalitarian impulse has been embraced by American progressives. For my part, I do not believe that progressivism should be seen as a radically leftist ideology. Its most prominent historical founder, Theodore Roosevelt was not a radical leftist. For many of today’s progressives, the term is a misnomer.
They used to like to call themselves liberals, but now the term has, on the one hand, been discredited, while on the other hand it has recovered its original sense of promoting free enterprise and free and open debate in the marketplace of ideas.
The notion that free trade in ideas could lead to a discovery of truth is anathema to the purveyors of political correctness. When Oliver Wendell Holmes coined the phrase, “free trade in ideas,” he was suggesting that two honorable people who held different opinions could to come to a conclusion that represented a middle ground, a mean between their extremes.
One must add that two people can only come to such an agreement if they accept an external reality, a set of objective facts.
When William James proposed the founding idea of pragmatism as: “The truth is what works”, he assumed that honorable people would be able to agree on whether a policy worked or not. If there is no frame of reference, the pragmatic and the empirical basis for Anglo-American culture will be undermined.
Which is, after all, the point of the politically correct enterprise.
Codevilla argues a point that I have discussed on many occasions. Political correctness is at war with reality. It wants to replace your sense of reality, your reference to objective fact with what the Party wants you to think. If you do not have access to any objective reality you do not have the right to formulate a judgment based on it.
If your senses and perceptions are unreliable, you will have to rely on those who have a better sense of the abiding truth of a transcendent ideal. In most cases that involves a narrative. In the Marxist sense that narrative involves the oppression of some people by others and the rebellion of the others against the ruling elite.
Codevilla opens his essay with a coda:
“Comrade, your statement is factually incorrect.”
“Yes, it is. But it is politically correct.”
“Yes, it is. But it is politically correct.”
And he continues:
The notion of political correctness came into use among Communists in the 1930s as a semi-humorous reminder that the Party’s interest is to be treated as a reality that ranks above reality itself. Because all progressives, Communists included, claim to be about creating new human realities, they are perpetually at war against nature’s laws and limits.
Those who traffic in political correctness believe that you can change reality by changing the way you think about it, talk about it or feel about it. But, this is a mammoth task, one that requires complete mind control. You cannot do it if you allow people to formulate their own judgments. Political correctness does not brook differences of opinion and thus naturally becomes totalitarian.
Codevilla suggests that:
… progressive movements end up struggling not so much to create the promised new realities as to force people to speak and act as if these were real: as if what is correct politically—i.e., what thoughts serve the party’s interest—were correct factually.
Codevilla does not mention it, but the philosophical basis for this practice lies in Western idealism, of the Platonic, Cartesian, Hegelian and Heideggerian variety. It assumes, to use David Hume’s phrasing, that ideas precede experience, that we never know more than the appearance of really and that we can change it by thinking about it differently. Idealism, at its root, is not a way to discover the truth. It’s a means to persuade you to accept as true ideas that make no sense.
Codevilla describes the strategy well:
But continued efforts to force people to celebrate the party’s ersatz reality, to affirm things that they know are not true and to deny others they know to be true—to live by lies—requires breaking them, reducing them to a sense of fearful isolation, destroying their self-esteem and their capacity to trust others. George Orwell’s novel 1984 dramatized this culture war’s ends and means: nothing less than the substitution of the party’s authority for the reality conveyed by human senses and reason. Big Brother’s agent, having berated the hapless Winston for preferring his own views to society’s dictates, finished breaking his spirit by holding up four fingers and demanding that Winston acknowledge seeing five.
The narrative superstructure is known most clearly to those who form the guardian class of philosopher-kings, Codevilla offers this summary:
They reason that America’s socio-political order is founded on racism, patriarchy, genocidal imperialism, as well as economic exploitation. Gramsci’s “historic bloc” can come about through the joint pursuit of racial justice, gender justice, economic justice, and anti-imperialism. The Revolution is all about the oppressed classes uniting to inflict upon the oppressors the retribution that each of the oppressed yearns for. This intersubjective community includes the several groups whose identity negates a piece of American culture—religious, racial, sexual, economic. Together, they negate it all.
Recently, the guardian class has told us that we must accept the latest dogma: that your gender identity is whatever you believe it is. If you don’t believe it, you are a bigot and are unfit for human community.
In Codevilla’s words:
Consider our ruling class’s very latest demand: Americans must agree that someone with a penis can be a woman, while someone else with a vagina can be a man. Complying with such arbitrariness is beyond human capacity. In Orwell’s 1984, as noted, Big Brother’s agent demanded that Winston acknowledge seeing five fingers while he was holding up four. But that is small stuff next to what the U.S. ruling class is demanding of a free people. Because courts and agencies just impose their diktats, without bothering to try to persuade, millions of precisely the kind of citizens who prize stability have become willing to take a wrecking ball to what little remains of the American republic, not caring so much what happens next.
The issue is framed in terms of discrimination and oppression. The biological male who is not allowed access to the girls’ locker room is the victim of oppression. The girls who are offended are caught up in a reactionary sexual binarism.
Those who direct the process achieve a special, almost addictive thrill when they feel morally superior to the rest of the fallen species:
The imposition of P.C. has no logical end because feeling better about one’s self by confessing other people’s sins, humiliating and hurting them, is an addictive pleasure the appetite for which grows with each satisfaction. The more fault I find in thee, the holier (or, at least, the trendier) I am than thou. The worse you are, the better I am and the more power I should have over you. America’s ruling class seems to have adopted the view that the rest of America should be treated as inmates in reeducation camps.
The larger project is to recreate human nature. By changing the way people think and feel, these guardians want to establish a new human reality, a new human being.
From the dawn of time, this class warfare has led to “contradictions”: between types of work, town and country, oppressors or oppressed, and so on. The proletariat’s victory in that conflict will establish a new reality by crushing all contradictions out of existence. Other branches of progressivism point to a different structural problem. For Freudians it’s sexual maladjustment, for followers of Rousseau it’s social constraint, for positivists it is the insufficient application of scientific method, for others it is oppression of one race by another. Once control of society passes exclusively into the hands of the proper set of progressives, each sect’s contradictions must disappear as the basic structural problem is straightened out.
Gramsci started from mixed philosophical premises. First, orthodox Marxism: “There is no such thing as ‘human nature,’ fixed and immutable,” he wrote. Rather, “human nature is the sum of historically determined social relationships.” The modern prince’s job is to change it.
Those of you who have read my book, The Last Psychoanalyst, will recall that I argued a similar point about Freud. Along with Marx and Heidegger Freud’s project was to correct God’s errors, to recreate human beings.
You also know that for Freud, and for Marx and for Heidegger and even for Herbert Marcuse of the Frankfurt School, God’s greatest error was giving human being free will.