Monday, February 9, 2015

How Political Incorrectness Was Stolen

I've always detested political correctness. Even before I was old enough to actually understand politics, it always came off to me as a stupid set of rules written by people who thought that no one should ever have to be offended, and that even innocuous speech and behaviors should be deemed "offensive." My impression of it over the years has hardly improved; it’s always seemed like—and still seems like—an excuse to get outraged over stupid things, act victimized, and prevent any sort of enlightened discussion on serious issues from actually taking place, often while promoting shallow, empty catchphrases that are more problematic than helpful.

George Carlin (Image from Reuters)
Ever since I discovered them, I’ve been a fan of George Carlin’s numerous takedowns of the hypocrisy and frivolity of the PC movement; it’s in that vein of anti-PC thought that I’ve always fallen. Historically, I consider myself to have pretty good company: Carlin, Marilyn Manson, who’s always been just as ready to offend PC liberals as he has the Christian right, and Hunter S. Thompson, who always represented the spirit of political incorrectness in his very existence. The stated goals of political correctness—moving toward a society where we tolerate our differences with one another and no one is unfairly discriminated against or made to feel inferior—were always ones I supported, but the victim mentality of the PC movement, their constant and usually unjustified outrage, their readiness to glorify people who say and do things that have reason to be offensive, just not to their side—those were always enough to turn me off.

But it’s because of my disgust for that sort of shallowness and hypocrisy that a disheartening truth has become clear to me, after a barrage of events to back it up—the uncritical deification of the dead Charlie Hebdo journalists, Salman Rushdie’s vindictive attacks against those who criticize “our fallen comrades,” Bill Maher’s claim that liberals are “bullying” him, and then, of course, Jonathan Chait’s empty-headed bad joke of an article; there is a new breed of political correctness: Political Incorrectness. People like Maher, who I once thought of as almost an heir to Carlin’s anti-PC individualist legacy, have revealed themselves to be no more eager to have a rational discussion, no less willing to play the victim, and just as ready to exploit good ideas as an excuse for loathsome garbage, than the PC crusaders they so despise.

Political correctness, to this new movement, is a convenient accusation to lob at anyone who challenges their mendacity—take when, back in May of 2013, Maher had Glenn Greenwald on his show, and after Greenwald threw a mountain of facts at him rebutting his claims about Islam, Maher eschewed rational argumentation in favor of accusing him of holding “a silly, liberal view that all religions are alike, because it makes [Greenwald] feel good [to think so].” Similarly, when, last year, Brandeis University decided not to grant Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree because of her statements on Islam (such as that the West should fight a war against it using military force and that it’s a “nihilistic cult of death” that it “legitimates murder”), Sam Harris immediately responded by deeming the university’s act a capitulation to “PC-bullying.”

Harris also wrote off criticism of his support for ethnic profiling as being largely motivated by political correctness, and lacking substantive critique; Rushdie, too, has claimed that because of the “intimidation” of political correctness, we are unable to address the major problems associated with the War on Terror (presumably, he’s not referring to the very true, but largely unmentioned, fact that the United States, being the world’s leading terrorist nation, has no business waging a “War on Terror”). Like Jonathan Chait in his recent article, Harris, Rushdie, Maher, and the rest of the “Political Incorrectness” movement readily write off whatever arguments or actions contradict their “Politically Incorrect” views as being motivated by PC standards, regardless of who’s behind them and the rationale that’s offered for them.

As can be seen from these quotes, though, it’s not enough for the champions of “Political Incorrectness” to just dismiss criticism of their views as PC bullshit; rather, it’s crucial that political correctness of almost any incarnation is now a type of “bullying” or “intimidation” (or fascism, depending on who you’re talking to). One of the most annoying traits of the PC movement (particularly among self-proclaimed feminists on sites like Tumblr), for me, has always been the victim mentality underlying it, so it’s particularly disappointing to see these proponents of “Political Incorrectness” succumbing to the same self-indulgent nonsense. The downright whininess of the “Politically Incorrect” is, at times, farcical, such as when Sam Harris complained to Cenk Uygur about (perish the thought!) being called a “douchebag” in an article on Salon (we can only hope poor Sam has gotten the help he needed in recovering from that degree of PC bullying). The “Politically Incorrect” crew throws around accusations of bullying, authoritarianism, and censorship almost as readily as online “Social Justice Warriors” throw out accusations of racism and misogyny. What makes this particularly ironic, of course, is the standard line from the “Politically Incorrect” that what they really want is an open discussion and that their opponents should “just stop being so sensitive!”

Even worse, though, is that the “Politically Incorrect” crowd is really not that great when it comes to “politically correct” issues like the LGBT cause, religious tolerance, women’s equality, and so forth. Not long ago, Bill Maher cited how “Facebook has now decided we have to choose, in our profile, from 56 different genders” (which, if he’d checked, he would know are largely just slightly different terms for the same things, and are really just various prompts you’ll get if you select the “custom” option and begin typing, rather than some long list you have to scroll through) as an example of liberals being “obnoxious;” in a stand-up routine, he went on to mockingly list options like intersex, bigender, and genderfluid (apparently Bill Maher is unaware of the various societies throughout history—all, no doubt, ruled by PC fascists—that have recognized more than two genders). And, even taking into account that he’s a comedian, it’s a bit hard not to detect misogyny in some of his routines, as he talks about the "feminization" of society, where sensitivity matters more than facts.

Harris is worse; his ideas about “conversational intolerance” are completely incompatible with the view of a society where no one is made to feel unwelcome based on personal creed (as long as that creed tolerates others and harms no one). His advocacy for “benign dictatorship” being imposed on Muslim countries by the West as a means of transitioning to democracy shows an undeniable belief in an almost inherent superiority of Westerners, to the extent that even a Western-imposed dictator is better than a Middle Eastern Muslim democracy (until, of course, we can properly civilize the Muslims).

Then, of course, we have the late Christopher Hitchens—not a just a saint for the New Atheists, but for many of the “Politically Incorrect” as well (no surprise, given the overlap). With him we run into a gold mine of awful views, from his support of the Iraq War to his view that Native Americans really should get over the whole “genocide” deal because it was one of those unfortunate things that happens in the process of advancing as a species. Hitchens said and did the sort of things that even some of today’s conservatives would back away from.

With Manson, Carlin, or Thompson, while you might not exactly get that “let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya” feeling, there's always the sense of a sort of “you don’t screw with me and mine, I won’t screw with you” attitude—that as long as someone else isn’t hurting anyone, there’s no reason to bother them. The Manson-Carlin-Thompson dream society is an essentially libertarian one—not libertarian in the Ron Paul free market sense of the word, but rather a society where people are free to be who they are, and aren’t under the thumb of big business, big government, religious institutions, or the thought police. In the end, they're on the side of the “little guy,” whoever it is, in the present or the past, that's getting unfairly kicked around (or worse) based on race, class, or personal creed. The same, I’m afraid, just can’t be said for the Mahers, Harrises, and Hitchenses of the world.

In the end, though, there really is a defining feature of “Political Incorrectness” that makes it vastly worse than the PC values and attitudes it’s supposed to save us from: it consistently, with few exceptions, ends up defending the worst aspects of Western foreign policy. This stands in stark contrast to the old-school political incorrectness I’ve mentioned. Between Carlin’s scathing quips about how the US likes to bomb brown people, Thompson’s unequivocal condemnation of George W. Bush for “killing brown skinned children in the name of Jesus and the American people,” and Manson’s comparison of America’s role in the Iraq War to a large-scale version of the Columbine shooting, it’s very clear where each of them falls on the foreign policy debate: with those who hold the Noam Chomsky-esque view that American foreign policy is largely murder on a massive scale. And why not? Isn’t the idea that when the government disintegrates innocents halfway across the world, it’s somehow more noble than any other instance of murder, just an example of a particularly awful sort of political correctness? Isn’t calling out the crimes of the government we live under challenging the standard on what it’s “acceptable” to say in perhaps the most important way possible?

But, unsurprisingly, the “Politically Incorrect” see it differently; this is obvious enough with Harris or Hitchens, given their readiness to use whatever force necessary to eliminate the Islamic extremism they claim is the real threat to civilization; given his unfettered praise of Obama, one can’t expect anything too impressive from Chait on the foreign policy front, either. Steven Pinker, another “Politically Incorrect” “intellectual,” asserts that democracies like the US “tend to stay out of disputes across the board,” disregarding all examples to the contrary and asserting there has been a “Long Peace” since World War II. Maher is probably the best in this respect, given his opposition to the Iraq War and that he even went as far as to compare the drone war to terrorism—but, as illustrated in his scuffle with Glenn Greenwald, that doesn’t keep from ultimately defending the idea that we Westerners are far more civilized than Those People (i.e. Muslims).

For all the stupidity of political correctness, it is at least on the right side of this issue; while the PC warriors may be obnoxious, one rarely finds them defending Western foreign policy or trying to stick up for the human rights record of the US or UK. The PC left is not only annoying, but certainly also hypocritical at times. But issues like these are trifles compared to the monstrous crimes that have occurred as part of US foreign policy, and which the “Politically Incorrect” would often like to gloss over or even defend. By giving cover to that sort of barbarism, “Political Incorrectness” earns itself the scorn and disgust of anyone concerned with human rights. It’s this issue, ultimately, that’s prompted me to focus so much on figures like Maher and Harris recently.

Anti-PC individualism, as espoused by Carlin, Thompson, Manson, and numerous others, has been buried by people claiming to represent it but using it as a fa├žade to promote a completely different set of ideas. We need someone who condemns the stupidities of the PC movement on the one hand—a movement that really has gained a disquieting amount of influence—but who stands just as strongly against the violence of Western foreign policy and the lies than enable it from people like Harris and Hitchens. I don’t know who might fill that role, but whoever it is, now would be a great time for them to step into the spotlight.

[Later note: Originally, I cited California's affirmative consent law as an example of political correctness leading to a bad policy. However, I have since reevaluated my position and consider my former views on the law to have been based on a poor understanding of it, and I have concluded that, while there may be some concerns in how it's enforced, the law is fundamentally sound.]

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