By this, obviously, I mean right-wing political correctness.
Maybe you’re surprised to hear this. In the U.S. media, there’s no shortage of lamentations about political correctness and how it chills debate — but they’re almost always about the threat of left-wing PC.
In reality, political correctness, or cancel culture, or whatever it’s called, is not a phenomenon of the left, right, or center. It’s a phenomenon of human nature. All humanity’s infinite tribes are prone to groupthink and punishing heretics. That’s why the principle of free thought has to be defended: It is, unfortunately, a weird and unnatural fit for humans.
There absolutely are examples of ugly political correctness from the U.S. “left,” whatever that means in a country that, by historical standards, doesn’t have a left. But the vast, vast majority of political correctness in America is conservative. Conservative PC is so powerful in the U.S. that much of it is adopted by both political parties and all of the corporate media. Indeed, right-wing political correctness is so dominant that it’s politically incorrect to refer to it as political correctness. Instead, we call it things like “patriotism,” or simply don’t notice its existence.
A full examination of America’s conservative PC culture would take the rest of your life to read. So let’s limit this to four areas where the right’s PC causes some of the most harm: religion, foreign policy, the Republican Party, and police.
It probably doesn’t surprise you that exactly zero U.S. presidents have been open atheists. But since Congress first convened in 1789, it’s only had one openly atheist member: Pete Stark of California. Stark retired in 2013, so there are currently none.
According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 23 percent of Americans identify as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” This means, Pew says, that “by far the largest difference between the U.S. public and Congress is in the share who are unaffiliated with a religious group.”
So there are likely many members of Congress right now who are “in the closet” when it comes to not believing in God. The only explanation? They’re all too cowed by PC to come out.
This isn’t surprising, since the U.S. still demonstrates informal and formal discrimination against atheists. A recent poll found that 96 percent of Americans said they’d vote for a Black candidate for president; 95 percent for a Catholic; and 66 percent for a Muslim. Only 60 percent said they’d vote for an atheist. While it’s unenforceable, the constitutions of eight states actually prohibit atheists from holding office. This includes Maryland, one of the most liberal states, whose constitution also declares that “it is the duty of every man to worship God.” (Maryland women are seemingly free to putter around ignoring the Almighty.)
Pro-religion PC is practiced on both sides of the aisle. In one of the hacked Democratic National Committee emails published by WikiLeaks in 2016, the DNC chief financial officer suggested forcing Bernie Sanders to go on the record about whether he believes in God. “He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage,” the CFO argued. “My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist.”
Even if, someday, a few national politicians screw up enough courage to admit that they’re atheists, it’s impossible to imagine any announcing that they’re actively anti-theistic. No member of the House is going to go on the CBS morning show and say, “I think all religion is pernicious, it’s a gross form of brainwashing children, and every religious leader is a con artist, including the Pope.”
No one on this plane of existence can say whether or not atheism is correct. What we can be sure of is right-wing PC has sharply limited free political speech in this area, and that’s made us less skeptical and more prone to authoritarianism.
America’s ironclad political correctness on religion plays into another aspect of our PC: The ferocious conservative restrictions on discussions of U.S. foreign policy. Since 9/11, many powerful Americans have demonstrated openness, perhaps even eagerness, for war between Christianity and Islam. Before the invasion of Iraq, then-President George W. Bush told French President Jacques Chirac that he saw “Gog and Magog at work” in the Middle East. President Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon has spoken about “the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam.” When the Christian Broadcasting Network asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo whether God sent Trump “just like Queen Esther to help save the Jewish people from the Iranian menace,” Pompeo responded, “I certainly believe that’s possible.” The right’s yearning to mix religion and violence is incredibly dangerous, yet is a staple of our daily political diet. Few politicians or powerful figures notice, much less attack this.
But our conservative PC on foreign policy goes much further. Everyone in the foreign policy establishment is aware that 9/11 and almost all Islamist terrorism is direct blowback from U.S. actions overseas. As a Defense Department report explained, “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’” — i.e., what Bush claimed in front of Congress on September 20, 2001 — “but rather, they hate our policies.” The problem from the establishment’s perspective is that they like those policies, and don’t want to change them just because they get Americans killed. Top members of the military apparently say in private that our deaths are “a small price to pay for being a superpower.”
Yet perhaps the only national-level politician who’s spoken clearly and openly about this is former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. In 2004, a senior Bush administration official was willing to say that without U.S. actions in the Middle East, “bin Laden might still be redecorating mosques and boring friends with stories of his mujahideen days in the Khyber Pass” — but without his or her name attached. The 9/11 Commission’s report makes glancing reference to reality, but as one member later wrote, “The commissioners believed that American foreign policy was too controversial to be discussed except in recommendations written in the future tense. Here we compromised our commitment to set forth the full story.”
As with the conservative PC about God, Democrats also obey the conservative political correctness about foreign policy. For instance, in then-President Barack Obama’s famous 2009 speech in Cairo, he was too PC to tell the truth. Instead, he mumbled that “tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims,” whatever that means exactly. In 2010, when Obama’s then-counterterrorism adviser John Brennan was asked why Al Qaeda was so determined to attack the U.S., he responded, “I think this is a, uh, long issue.” He did not elaborate.
The PC line on foreign policy extends far beyond terrorism. Israel is one of the most powerful examples. Every American politician who cares to know is aware that of Israel’s dozen or so wars, it was clearly the aggressor in all but two — the 1948 War of Independence and the 1973 Yom Kippur War — and even those are arguable. They also understand that Israel has rejected numerous offers to create a just, two-state solution with the Palestinians. In private, U.S. officials say that Israel has constructed “apartheid” in the West Bank. While a minor glasnost on this subject is currently in progress, this clear reality remains inexpressible by U.S. politicians.
And what about the media, that hotbed of freethinking radicalism? Even rich, famous TV hosts who deviate from the right’s PC line must issue groveling apologies or get canceled, literally. Sometimes they issue groveling apologies and get canceled. After Bush called the 9/11 hijackers “cowards,” Bill Maher took issue on his old ABC show “Politically Incorrect.” “We have been the cowards,” Maher said, “lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away.” Maher immediately said he was sorry, but it was too late: His show lost big advertisers and was taken off the air the next year. In other words, the moment “Politically Incorrect” was genuinely politically incorrect, Maher was yanked off-stage.
Next, in February 2003 just before the invasion of Iraq, Phil Donohue’s MSNBC show got the ax. It had the highest ratings on the network, but as executives fretted in an internal memo, it could become “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” In other words, since all of the rest of American TV was ultra-PC, and they had to be too. The same channel soon signed Jesse Ventura to a three-year contract for a new show but then found out he was anti-war and so paid him to do nothing.
Other TV figures made sure not to suffer similar fates. “I remember,” Katie Couric later said, “this inevitable march towards war and kind of feeling like, ‘Will anybody put the brakes on this? And is this really being properly challenged by the right people? … Anyone who questioned the administration was considered unpatriotic and it was a very difficult position to be in.” At the time, when it actually mattered, Couric chirped on “The Today Show” that “Navy SEALs rock!”
Then there’s Chris Hayes, another MSNBC host. In a broadcast just before Memorial Day 2012, Hayes expressed exactly the kind of sentiment you’d expect to hear in an honest debate on war: “It is, I think, very difficult to talk about the war dead and the fallen without invoking valor. … I feel uncomfortable about the word ‘hero’ because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. And I obviously don’t want to desecrate or disrespect the memory of anyone that’s fallen. … But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that is problematic.” The freakout from the right was so intense that Hayes immediately said he was “deeply sorry” because “it’s very easy for me, a TV host, to opine about people who fight our wars, having never dodged a bullet or guarded a post or walked a mile in their boots.”
Even opinions on events from a lifetime ago must be politically correct. After Jon Stewart said on “The Daily Show” that he believed Harry Truman was a “war criminal” for using atomic weapons on Japan, he came under immediate attack, and quickly came crawling for forgiveness. “I walk that back because it was in my estimation a stupid thing to say,” Stewart pleaded in a tone recognizable from any of history’s struggle sessions. “You ever do that, where you’re saying something, and as it’s coming out you’re like, ‘What the fuck?’ And it just sat in there for a couple of days, just sitting going, ‘No, no, [Truman] wasn’t, and you should really say that out loud on the show.’”
With no critiques about specifics permissible, a broad discussion about U.S. foreign policy is light years away. There won’t be any politicians or TV hosts anytime soon who’ll consistently emphasize Martin Luther King Jr.’s position that America is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
No one knows what foreign policy Americans would choose after an open debate. But it’s manifestly true that the current one, shaped overwhelmingly by right-wing PC, has caused gigantic damage to the U.S. and the world.
Today’s GOP often enforces internal ideological purity more strictly than the Chinese Communist Party. This matters because the U.S. political system is so sclerotic it requires some buy-in from the opposition party for almost anything to change. So as long as Republicans stay in lockstep with each other, nothing will happen.
The GOP’s PC has been particularly disastrous with the climate crisis. The Republican president of the United States constantly calls it a “hoax.” For a decade, GOP politicians and the party’s apparat have almost all refused to acknowledge that it even exists. Newt Gingrich said in 2008 that “our country must take action to address climate change” — but when GOP PC changed, so did he. When Gingrich ran for president in 2012, Rush Limbaugh horrified listeners by telling them of a rumored chapter in a forthcoming Gingrich book that addressed global warming honestly. Gingrich obediently cut it. Then he began posting pictures on Instagram with captions like “More evidence of global warming, the Potomac iced over last night.”
Things are slowly shifting now as younger Republicans begin to understand the frightening future staring them in the face. Currently the party’s split between a faction that wants to continue denying reality, and one which wants to stop denying reality while doing nothing effective about it.
The GOP’s political correctness on climate change flows from a broader rejection of Enlightenment methods of figuring out reality. Limbaugh, whom Trump recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, has famously proclaimed that science is one of the “corners of deceit” used by liberals to create “The Universe of Lies.” No prominent Republican politician has ever disavowed Limbaugh’s view.
Beyond this is further rigid GOP political correctness on almost all issues. A Republican politician must publicly profess belief in American exceptionalism. Cutting taxes causes government revenue to go up. Any increase in taxes on the rich and corporations will cause economic devastation. Evolution is a lie. Abortion is a titanic moral evil. Trump is a super-duper president. They have a great idea for bringing low-cost, high-quality health care to every citizen but don’t want to mention it right now and ruin the secret.
With millions of people turning out in demonstrations against police brutality, there are some obvious questions we should be asking ourselves: Why are cops acting this way? Why are the so-called bad apples never removed? No politicians or TV hosts are providing the simple answer: political correctness.
Police officers will almost never report another officer mistreating a civilian. This is understandable, since the best case for these “snitches” is usually having their careers destroyed. Some, such as the NYPD’s Adrian Schoolcraft, fare even worse. In 2009, after Schoolcraft found that his supervisors were manipulating crime statistics, his fellow cops broke into his apartment, abducted him, and committed him to a psychiatric hospital. Whatever you want to say about Oberlin’s student council, they’re not doing that.
Police department PC has been enabled by another layer of conservative political correctness on top of it. Until recently, the idea that police routinely engage in unjustifiable violence, and then lie about it, was generally unutterable for an American politician. Then there was even higher-level layer of PC on top of that in U.S. culture: Reality shows have continually glorified cops engaging in barbarity, and in scripted shows, there’s no greater cliché than hero cops.
For 100 years, various commissions charged with police reform have come and gone. Most often any gains are minor and prone to backsliding. The only way to change reality is to face reality, not live in a comfortable fantasy concocted by right-wing PC.
All of that is just a few waves in America’s never-ending flood of right-wing political correctness. Can the surgeon general suggest that drug legalization should be studied, and perhaps children should be taught about masturbation? Nope. Can you work for the Department of Agriculture and deliver an honest speech about your life without the right misrepresenting it and getting you fired? No. Can CBS broadcast a miniseries about Ronald Reagan that lightly fictionalizes the grotesque response of his administration to AIDS? Sorry; that has to be moved to a much smaller audience on Showtime. Can you tell the truth as you see it? No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.
But even the endless concrete examples of conservative PC are not the end of the problem. Right-wing political correctness so hobbles our political imagination that we don’t even dream of having debates on the deepest, most important problems of our lives. Imagine politicians or New York Times op-ed columnists or corporate TV hosts asking simple questions like:
There aren’t any easy answers here, but let’s at least be honest about the problem. If we’re going to talk about political correctness, let’s start with the truth about the kind of PC that matters most: the political correctness that is literally killing us.
We should let science and evidence prevail while recognizing that science, like other disciplines, is shaped by competing interests.