You Can’t Say That!

It was in the mid-1980s that I first heard the term “politically correct,” from an older housemate in Berkeley. She had a couple glasses of wine in her and was on a roll, venturing some opinions that were outré by the local standards. I thought the term witty and took it for her own coinage, but in retrospect she probably picked it up from one of the magazines that she would leave on the kitchen table: Commentary, or maybe the New Criterion. The Cold War was in full bloom at the time, and it was clear to all in Berkeley which side deserved to win. She was on the other side. I was in my late teens; her treasonous perfidy was exciting.

Through the ’80s, ’90s, and into the new millennium, the phrase “politically correct” would crop up here and there. Among people who were credited as being sophisticated, use of the term would be met with a certain exasperation: It was needling and stale. The phrase had been picked up by the likes of College Republicans and Fox News, and if you had an ear for intellectual class distinctions you avoided it.

Originally a witticism, the term suggested there was something Soviet-like in the policing of liberal opinion. When it first came into wide circulation, was it anything but humorous hyperbole? Is that still the case today?

A sociologist might point to a decline in social trust over the past few decades—they have ways of measuring this—and speculate about its bearing on political speech. One wonders: Who am I talking to? How will my utterances be received? What sort of allegiances are in play here? In the absence of trust, it becomes necessary to send explicit signals. We become fastidious in speech and observe gestures of affirmation and condemnation that would be unnecessary among friends.

The more insecure one’s position (for example, as a middle manager who senses his disposability, or a graduate student who hopes for admittance to the academic guild), the more important it is to signal virtue and castigate the usual villains. In some settings these performative imperatives lead us to mimic the ideologue. But from the outside, mimicry may be indistinguishable from the real thing. This uncertainty heightens the atmosphere of mistrust, as in the Soviet world where one could never be sure who might be an informer. Such informers need not be ideologues themselves, just opportunists.

Ryszard Legutko is a professor of philosophy in Krakow who has held various ministerial positions in the post-Communist, liberal-democratic governments of Poland and is currently a member of the European parliament. Under communism, he was a dissident and an editor of the Solidarity movement’s samizdat. He is thus well positioned to make comparisons between two regimes that are conventionally taken to be at polar ends of the axis of freedom. In his book The Demon in Democracy—published last year, with a paperback edition scheduled for next year—Legutko’s thesis is that the important differences between communism and liberal democracy obscure affinities that go deeper than any recent sociological developments. He finds both tyrannical in their central tendencies and inner logic. Legutko’s tone is darkly aggrieved, and he sometimes overstates his case. But his biography compels us to consider seriously the parallels with communism that he asserts, for as a former dissident under a brutal regime he knows what real oppression looks like. He is no intellectual crybaby or talk-radio crank.

Many of Legutko’s observations and arguments can be applied to the United States, even though he is more focused on EU-style liberal democracy:

Even a preliminary contact with the EU institutions allows one to feel a stifling atmosphere typical of a political monopoly, to see the destruction of language turning into a new form of Newspeak, to observe the creation of a surreality, mostly ideological, that obfuscates the real world, to witness an uncompromising hostility against all dissidents, and to perceive many other things only too familiar to anyone who remembers the world governed by the Communist Party.

The parallels Legutko finds between liberal democracy and communism become plausible once you grant that in Europe the term “liberal democracy” has come to name a disposition and political system that is neither liberal nor democratic. In theory, liberal democracy is supposed to be a merely formal or neutral arrangement to guarantee rule by consent—the consent of a majority with important constitutional limits and guarantees of minority rights. Thus conceived, it is to be agnostic about human ends and ideals, pluralistic in its sympathies, and tolerant of dissent. Such political ideals would nourish a diversity of human experience and many “experiments in living,” John Stuart Mill hoped.

But if the hope was to depoliticize society, rendering issues of public morality into matters of private concern, the effect has been the opposite. Everything is deeply politicized: family life, intellectual life, art, sex, children’s toys, you name it. Domains of life that were previously oriented by their own internal logic of experience are now held to account by a self-appointed vanguard, exposed to the sterilizing light of publicity, and made to answer to liberal ideals that are not merely procedural but substantive. “It is difficult to find some nondoctrinal slice of the world, a nondoctrinal image, narrative, tone, or thought,” Legutko writes.

In this regard—the denial of sovereignty to spheres of life that in principle ought to be beneath the notice and beyond the reach of the political regime—it is fair to say that liberal democracy in its 21st-century workings does resemble communism as described by dissident authors such as Milan Kundera and Václav Havel. Both regimes have “proved to be all-unifying entities compelling their followers how to think, what to do, how to evaluate events, what to dream, and what language to use.” Communism had, and liberal democracy has, its own orthodoxies and its own “models of an ideal citizen.”

What can account for the mismatch between liberal democracy’s easygoing self-image and the feel of everyday life in a liberal democracy? There is little sense of social spontaneity; one watches what one says. This has come to feel normal.

Like François Furet before him, Legutko suggests that the key to understanding the character of life in a liberal democracy is the role that history—or rather History, understood as inevitable progress in a certain direction—plays in the liberal imagination. In recent decades, this manifested as the enthusiasm for trying to bring liberal democracy to very illiberal places using the blunt instruments of military action and marketization. But it was during the Obama era that this energy really got released onto the domestic scene for the first time in perhaps 40 years. Liberals started calling themselves progressives—a rebranding significant because it announced a new boldness in speaking an idiom of historical necessity. It announced a new impatience with foot-draggers as well.

In a handful of years, we went from Obama himself being opposed to gay marriage (however sincerely) to a cultural norm in which to wonder aloud about the civilizational novelty of gay marriage, even in a speculative or theoretical register, is to risk harming yourself socially and professionally. To anyone who felt squeezed by a tightening cultural grid during the Obama years, the parallels Legutko offers with the Soviet experience won’t seem hyperbolic.

Both the communists and liberal democrats, while praising what is inevitable and objectively necessary in history, praise at the same time the free activities of parties, associations, community groups, and organizations in which, as they believe, what is inevitable and objectively necessary reveals itself. Both speak fondly of “the people” and large social movements, while at the same time .  .  . [they] have no qualms in ruthlessly breaking social spontaneity in order to accelerate social reconstruction.

In his foreword to Legutko’s book, John O’Sullivan crisply lays out the logic that follows from the conviction of historical privilege shared by communism and liberalism. Both insist “that all social institutions—family, churches, private associations—must conform” to certain rules in their internal functioning, and “both are devoted to social engineering to bring about this transformation. And because such engineering is naturally resisted, .  .  . both are engaged in a never-ending struggle against enemies of society (superstition, tradition, the past, intolerance, racism, xenophobia, bigotry, etc., etc.).”

Legutko writes that going with the flow, whether Communist or liberal-democratic, “gives an intellectual more power, or at least an illusion of it. He feels like part of a powerful global machine of transformation. .  .  . [He criticizes] what is in the name of what will be, but what a large part of humanity, less perceptive and less intelligent than himself, fails to see.”

This sounds apt as an account of a certain kind of narcissistic political pleasure. In the United States, Comedy Central serves to organize the youthful, lumpen intelligentsia and make it aware of itself as a force. A coveted demographic for advertisers, these viewers tune in to be flattered by the minstrels of corporate right-thinking. As a rough rule of thumb, it seems the higher the stock market capitalization of a firm (think Google, Facebook, Apple) and the more quasigovernmental a role it plays in our collective lives, the less daylight will be found between its enlightened positions and the brave truth-telling of a Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, or John Oliver. Liberal use of the F-bomb confirms, and reconfirms, that here we are engaged in transgression—for the sake of principles the stupids fail to grasp.

“The trackers of traitors to liberal democracy readily succumb,” Legutko writes, to the delusion “that they are a brave small group struggling dauntlessly against an overwhelming enemy.” In the European setting, “On their side are the courts, both national and international, the UN and its agencies, the European Union with all its institutions, countless media, universities, and public opinion. .  .  . They feel absolutely safe, being equipped with the most powerful political tools in today’s world but at the same time priding themselves on their courage and decency, which are more formidable the more awesome the image of the enemy becomes.”

In the United States, a small-town entrepreneur who, say, politely declines to bake a cake or arrange flowers for a gay wedding sometimes has to suffice for this purpose, serving the role of an awesome enemy. Notions such as freedom of association and freedom of conscience can only mask the “hate” just beneath the deceptively congenial surface of American life.

As Legutko writes, “the very idea of liberal democracy should presuppose the freedom of action.” But because there is an arc of progress to this regime—one that is not only discerned in retrospect but is understood as a mission—those who fail to get with the program “lose their legitimacy. The need for building a liberal-democratic society [as opposed to a mere liberal-democratic political procedure] thus implies the withdrawal of the guarantee of freedom for those whose actions and interests are said to be hostile to what the liberal democrats conceive as the cause of freedom.”

Such projects of social transformation give expression to progressive “empathy” for designated classes of victims. But here we encounter another bit of Newspeak, if we grant that empathy properly understood means being sympathetic and alive to human experience in its concrete particularity. Progressive empathy tends to treat persons as instances of categories defined by politics. Drawing a parallel between Communist class struggle and liberal-democratic gender politics, Legutko writes that “a real woman living in a real society, like a real worker living in a real society, is politically not to be trusted because she deviates too much from the political model. In fact, a nonfeminist woman is not a woman at all, just as a noncommunist worker was not really a proletarian.”

One could go further: Willful obtuseness to social phenomena is crucial in constructing the symbolic persons at the heart of these progressive dramas, because the point of the dramas is for the progressive to act out his own virtue as one who embraces the symbol. Progressive purity, based on abstraction from social reality, sometimes has to be guarded by policing the speech of real individuals who are putatively the objects of the progressive’s enthusiasm, or the speech of those who are in more intimate contact with these individuals and threaten to complicate the picture—for example, the speech of the social worker who frankly describes the confusion and unhappiness that mark the lives of transgender people. The great march forward requires the erasure of “gender binaries,” and that is all one needs to know.

Legutko’s book will appeal to people who can point to no overt political oppression, but who feel that the standards of acceptable discourse increasingly require them to lie, and to accept the humiliation of doing so. Like other dissident writers from the Soviet sphere, Legutko provides a historical parallel to our own time that helps us parse that feeling and discern its logic.

Matthew B. Crawford is a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and the author, most recently, of The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard


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