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'Political correctness' is in vogue in Clinton's America. But James Heartfield finds that PC is less of a challenge to oppression than an accompaniment to it

The PC presidency

It's official: America is PC, 'politically correct'. President Bill Clinton has an ethnically diverse cabinet that 'looks like America'. He has enraged the military with his campaign promise to stop discrimination against homosexuals in the US forces. And January's inauguration featured a gay marching band.

Clinton himself is PC. He is the first president to have attended family therapy sessions, as well as birthing classes. He listens carefully to his wife, Hillary, a successful woman in her own right. In his campaign speeches Clinton warned that America was becoming too exclusive in its attacks on minorities, 'them', to the point where 'we've nearly themmed ourselves to death'. His appointments of black and Hispanic officials, and of more women to senior posts, suggest that he is out to redress the balance.

Is a PC presidency a good thing? All the noises from the White House suggest a kinder, more caring America, out to put a reputation for racial strife and moralising 'family values' behind it. On closer inspection, however, political correctness looks like little more than a new etiquette to accompany oppression. PC affects to compensate for discrimination, but in reality it trivialises the problem.

New niceties

Political correctness first made an impact on college campuses. To be PC, as in 'the politically correct thing to say is...', meant that you observed the new niceties of respect for ethnic and gender diversity. On campus, terms that had become tainted were shunned for not being politically correct: 'black' gave way to 'African-American', or the more poetic 'people of colour'. Feminists objected to forms of address that were considered patronising and over-familiar.

College authorities, keen to keep the peace, formalised the new manners in speech codes. The anodyne preamble to the college code of conduct would embrace such values as diversity and respect for difference. The terms now considered derogatory were banned. Famously, the University of Connecticut even ruled 'inappropriately directed laughter' out of order.

American conservatives protested that PC speech codes were the 'McCarthyism of the left'. PC, they warned, would engulf the country, until it was impossible to speak freely for fear of the PC thought police. Today they must think their nightmare has come true. Yet, while Clinton's election has put the stamp of approval upon PC, racism and 'family values' remain secure in the USA. Why?

In politically correct speak, tortuous circumlocutions abound, everything is a euphemism. Not disabled, but 'differently abled', as though command of a wheelchair was just another kind of an ability to walking; not black or poor, but 'culturally disadvantaged'. When Queer Nation 'outed' Clinton appointee Donna Shalala, she was in a quandary - how to deny the charge (she's not that PC) without suggesting that she thought homosexuality a disadvantage. She said that she 'did not have a different lifestyle'.

The strangled terminology of PC-speak shows that it is concerned with appearance, not substance. Like the awkward host who does not want to offend a guest by drawing attention to an ill-fitting toupee, the politically correct brazen the issue out with empty compliments. By implication the problems of discrimination are in the eye of the beholder alone and not problems of society at all. Oppression is made a trivial matter of the prejudices of a few uncouth individuals who lack the manners to make allowances for the differently advantaged.

In Victorian England moral codes dictated respect and protection for womankind. A gentleman should open a door for a lady, lift his hat to her and certainly never curse in her presence, or worse still impose his unwanted attentions upon her. At the same time women were denied rights to vote, hold property independent of their husbands, and to divorce. Chivalry and etiquette not only existed alongside the oppression of women, they reinforced it. The special treatment women could expect in polite society only underscored their inequality in society at large.

In Clinton's America newly framed moral codes dictate respect for ethnic diversity on the one hand, and for women on the other. But the special treatment that ethnic minorities and women can expect among the politically correct only serves to fix their inequality in American society.

Political correctness has transformed the American women's movement from a campaign for equality into one of respect for womanhood. The overwhelming concerns of feminism have become derogatory forms of address, sexual harassment and 'date rape'. All of these features of women's vulnerability arise out of a position of inequality in society. But political correctness is not about fighting social inequality.

PC campaigns which focus upon problems like the sexual harassment of professional women only serve to trivialise the issue of social inequality. Indeed it is possible to argue that such campaigns serve to reinforce the perception that women just are the weaker sex. The PC demand for special respect for women is shared by conservatives who think it uncouth to take advantage. PC meets family values.

Politically correct respect for ethnic diversity also comes with a heavy price, supplanting another aspiration for equality, racial equality. The emphasis on respecting diversity distracts from the failure to achieve real equality of income or status for American blacks. Token political representation in city administrations has little impact when economic power has been moved out to the suburbs. Affirmative action programmes guaranteeing diversity at work only confirm the expectation that blacks require special assistance. More importantly, they do not work.

Political correctness not only trivialises oppression, it can strengthen the hands of the middle class moralisers. Americans certainly balked at the sort of right-wing moralising that dominated last year's Republican Party platform with its near-hysterical demand for a return to 'family values'. But the Clinton administration promises its own brand of politically correct sermonising against the immoral and uncouth poor.

Tipper Gore, wife of vice-president Al, has led the campaign against sexually explicit lyrics in rock and rap music. She persuaded record companies to put stickers on the front of records with offensive words. All of this was done in the name of women, as many rap records carried sexist lyrics. Not surprisingly, however, 'offensive' was defined according to middle class values, and attention quickly turned to Ice T's 'Cop Killer' and other 'inflammatory' black music. Demands for censorship followed, backed by such champions of PC as Dan Quayle. Ice T wrote Tipper a song, 'KKK Bitch'.

By reposing social problems in terms of personal responsibilities, PC tends to reinforce the conservatives' argument that the poor are to blame for their own poverty. The conditions of the poor are seen as a product of their own prejudices and personal failings rather than conditions arising out of society.

Personal blame

The way that political correctness turns to personal blame is illustrated by the stereotype of black sexism. Condemnations of sexism find a ready audience if the perpetrator is black. The trial of boxer Mike Tyson for rape, the senate hearings of judge Clarence Thomas over the sexual harassment of Anita Hill, all fit the politically correct stereotype. Black men are held responsible for the breakdown of the black family because they lack a sense of personal responsibility and respect for women. Bill Clinton endorsed this view in his campaign promise to force absentee fathers (popularly known as black men) to shoulder financial responsibility for their children.

All of this professed PC concern with the problems faced by black women only serves to present black poverty as the product of personal irresponsibility on the part of black men, rather than of the failure of the American system.

The example of 'black sexism' shows how political correctness can end up blaming the least powerful people in society for America's problems. The oppression of women is reduced to an issue of personal manners rather than social inequality, and the impoverished black men of the ghetto are found guilty while the authorities get off scot-free. Here the sermonising of the PC lobby joins with plain racism to summon up the caricature of black vulgarity.

Because moralising treats social problems as individual failings, it always tends to reinforce the status quo, and that is as true of PC moralising as it is of the conservatives' family values. The PC preoccupation with language and symbolism reflects its apologetic nature. The Clinton generation of ruling Americans are concerned not with equality, but with covering up the appearance of inequality. The tortuous terminology arises out of attempts to mask the real injustice in American society.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 53, March 1993

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