The Real “PC”

Ever since the term political correctness came into vogue around 1990, the general tendency of its critics has been to treat it as an odd or extreme offshoot of the modern left—powerful and threatening at times, but not intrinsic to liberalism and to modern beliefs generally. At the same time, the very fact of PC, the silencing of discussion of important public issues such as racial quotas and immigration, made it urgent to confront and criticize the phenomenon. The evident power of PC also made it seem that PC was itself the main problem, rather than the liberal belief system of which PC was a symptom.

In 1991 the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) held a one-day conference on “Immigration Policy in the Era of the Politically Correct.” The conference was organized around the work of Katherine Betts, an Australian sociologist whose thesis was that PC is primarily a class phenomenon, an expression of the class identity of academics and their need to see themselves as superior to everyone else in their society. While there is a lot of truth in that idea, I felt that PC goes much deeper, as I argued in this talk, which is here being published for the first time.

Lawrence Auster

Immigration Policy in the Era of the Politically Correct

Federation for American Immigration Reform
Washington, D.C., October 25, 1991

While the “PC”coinage is of course welcome, I’m a bit pessimistic about the potential of using the critique of political correctness when it comes to immigration. And the reason is that the politically correct view of immigration is not just an orthodoxy of the campus left, of radicals and feminists—and thus relatively easy to attack. It is a national orthodoxy.

Recently at a social gathering I was talking with someone about immigration and multiculturalism, and when he heard my views he was stunned. “How can anyone be against multiculturalism?” he cried. “This country was built by diversity! What makes America is freedom!” When I challenged him on some of the supposed blessings of unlimited diversity, like animal sacrifice, he said that he had no problem with immigrants practicing animal sacrifice, so long as they didn’t impose it on him.

Here, I think, is the essence of the problem we face, and Katherine Betts herself has pointed it out: that my acquaintance, and millions of other college educated people like him, do not embrace open immigration merely in order to assert their class status; they really and passionately believe in it.

In the same way, I’m afraid it’s not enough to refute the racism charge, as vitally necessary as that is. The politically correct myth, that immigration restriction is evil and openness is good, stems from moral and philosophical assumptions in which all of us are implicated. The feeling that makes it emotionally impossible for college educated Americans actively to oppose Third-World immigration is ultimately part of the same belief system that is driving much else in our society, from the acceptance of illegitimacy to the politicized and attenuated contents of grade school textbooks to the decomposed manners and speech of our young people. For this reason I would like to take a different angle on this problem, shifting the focus away from the particulars of immigration ideology to the larger world-view that underlies it.

In our lifetimes, American democracy has been radicalized. The idea of equality has been extended beyond the carefully defined political sphere where the American Founding placed it, to the idea that everything is equal, that all types of men, all types of behavior are equal. The goal of equality has supplanted all other cultural and moral values and become the sole legitimating principle of this society. Today we have notions of absolute “life-style” equality; absolute cultural equality (as in multiculturalism); absolute equality of the races (as in the demand for statistical equality of results, and the belief that the ethnic and racial composition of our society should be a matter of complete indifference to us); and absolute sex equality (as in the feminization of the military). When you press people on these issues, you find that they have an implicit feeling that normative distinctions, upon which civilization just happens to be based, are inhumane. In order to avoid being inhumane to out-of-wedlock mothers, we must say that illegitimacy is as worthy of respect as legitimacy; and we end up with a nation of fatherless children. In order to avoid being inhumane to illegal immigrants, we give illegals virtually all the privileges of citizenship; and so on.

In earlier generations, Americans spoke not of “democracy” so much as of freedom. But freedom used to have a more complex meaning—it meant ordered freedom, freedom within the constitutional and moral order that makes that freedom possible. Freedom also meant national freedom, sovereignty, and distinctiveness, and the duty to defend it. The motto “Don’t tread on me,” with its sense of proud independence, was once part of our national character. But today freedom has come to mean simply the freedom to do as one pleases. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his Commencement address at Harvard in 1978: “…[In early democracies, as] in American democracy at its birth, all individual human rights were granted on the ground that man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility… . Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual be granted boundless freedom with no purpose, simply for the satisfaction of his whims.”

Now in the economic sphere we often think of freedom and equality as trade-offs. But in the moral sphere, radical freedom and equality advance hand in hand. The maximization of freedom means that all values, all “lifestyles,” all “cultures,” must be equally free and there is no way to choose between them. From the degrading music videos of Madonna to the expansion of rights for professional derelicts as they take over our cities, all these things are seen as further extensions of rights and freedoms, and therefore they must be good—or at least, there is no objective basis on which we can say they are bad. The same holds for the massive influx of foreign peoples and cultures totally incompatible with the existing society. The pursuit of unlimited diversity for its own sake is a necessary consequence of unrestrained democracy and equality, as Plato was the first to observe.

Indeed, everything I’ve been saying here can be found in Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, where he describes the way of life in a society practicing unrestrained democracy. To summarize Plato’s chief points:

- There is, first of all, unlimited personal freedom; a tremendous diversity of types of people; and love of diversity for its own sake.

- People only fulfil their civic obligations or obey the law if they feel like it, since obedience smacks of servitude and they will have no master over them.

- Leaders must constantly appease the people out of fear of being called oligarchs; parents are afraid of their children and are extremely mild with them; the teacher fears and fawns upon the pupil.

- All desires are equally to be esteemed, with no distinction between noble and base desires.

- Equality is “granted indiscriminately to equals and unequals alike.”

- And finally, says Plato, the resident alien and foreigner are regarded as equal to the citizen.

As can be gleaned from Plato’s incomparable analysis, a society’s openness to unlimited diversity is not primarily a question of economics or ideology or class; it is at bottom a moral phenomenon, connected with all the other moral concerns of society.

In the classic and Christian view, man’s moral nature is understood as a hierarchy. Justice means the proper ordering of the parts of man’s nature and of society. The love of the good is higher than the love of pleasure. But the radical democratic morality—which dominates our politics, our popular culture, our schools and even our churches—denies the existence of a moral hierarchy in man and society. In the modern democratic view, the chief moral principle is compassion, Rousseau’s natural virtue of “pity.” As the 1920s literary critic Irving Babbitt pointed out in Democracy and Leadership, Rousseauian pity is not a virtue in the classic sense; it is an expansive instinct, indistinguishable in its essential form from other expansive appetites such as greed and power. Thus, in democratic society, we have the phenomenon of conspicous compassion, whether for the homeless, or immigrants, or whatever. Traditional morality contains our natural impulses and directs them toward the good; it discriminates. But the essence of egalitarian morality is its indiscriminateness. Instead of loving something that represents our highest values or that is most intimate with us personally, egalitarian morality serves the “Other,” and more “other” the Other is, the more “moral” is our service of it.

The final consequences of the egalitarian ideology can be seen in the decomposing effect it has on our character as a people, especially our young people. I was just reading a study from the Rockford Foundation that took a close look at the contents of 40 grade school textbooks from around the country. Three themes dominated these textbooks’ portrayals of American society and history: minority rights, feminism, and consumerism. Portrayal of marriage and traditional sex roles was non-existent, as were traditional American stories and heroes. In our schools, the formative elements of the American character have been erased. And this makes me wonder: can we really expect the members of this anomic bubblegum culture that we have created to be serious about a task as morally demanding as controlling our borders or opposing multiculturalism?

I am sorry to sound pessimistic, but I think we are so far gone that perhaps only a spiritual rebirth can save our country. And I do not mean the globalist sentimentality that passes for spirituality today. Our challenge is to rediscover the meaning of our cultural and national heritage, and to bring back to life the components of that heritage which have been banished by egalitarianism and multiculturalism: classical philosophy and natural law; Christian or Judeo-Christian faith; traditional moral values; our irreplaceable literary tradition; the Anglo-Saxon ethos; republicanism; patriotism. If we are successfully to resist the disorder that is destroying our society, including the disorder of uncontrolled immigration, we must be able to articulate principles deeper than the radical democratic ideology which is the very source of that disorder.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 30, 2002 12:38 PM | Send


Good speech! How was it received?

Posted by: Jim Kalb on June 30, 2002 2:19 PM

A couple of people liked it very much, but much of the audience seemed like Washington policy and technocratic types, and from the looks on their faces as I was giving the speech I had the feeling that I was speaking a foreign language to them.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on June 30, 2002 2:33 PM

I think Political Correctness is a symptom of a disease. I believe our young people are being brainwashed in public schools to believe that rising above others is bad. I have also noticed that to the liberals, some people are “more equal than others”. In other words, they enjoy a designated privilege above others. This is done by the liberals who dictate who is worthy of this specal treatment. Multiculturalism is very much praised and yet American culture is just about obliterated. Diversity is worshipped, yet if one dares to give an opinion other than a liberal opinon, one is silenced. I believe this is an “equality” that is being contrived by the liberals to make ours a totalitarian socialist society. There, I said it!

Posted by: Heidi on June 30, 2002 4:50 PM

Regarding the emergence of “conspicuous compassion” you might be interested in the thoughts of Eliza Linton, a nineteenth century English writer.

In 1885 she wrote that “We Liberals are becoming riddled through and through with unworkable sentimentality. It is pitiable. Under this washy, treacly overflow we are losing all the fine old force that made us what we once were.”

It seems that already by the 1880s, the expansive, indiscriminate “pity” described by Lawrence Auster was rampant amongst liberals.

Eliza Linton was aware of the need to discriminate in favour of a particular and traditionalist version of the good (that “fine old force that made us (Britons) what we once were.”)

(PS By the 1890s Eliza Linton was describing herself as a conservative rather than a liberal.)

Posted by: Mark Richardson on June 30, 2002 9:20 PM
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