Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Politically correct

Rising out of the drear 1950s, led by the civil rights movement which in turn gave rise to the anti-war movement and the women's movement and the gay movement, inspired by the anti-colonial uprisings and wars for national liberation in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Pacific islands, on through the 1960s and into the 1970s, there was in this country a flowering of political consciousness. As we all know. It is now most often referred to with the all-encompassing term "the 60s." To the bourgeoisie and all those in the grip of that class's ideology, which most definitely includes the liberal intelligentsia, "the 60s" is now a term of opprobrium. To those of us who are partisans for the class struggle and against racism, sexism, LGBT oppression and all forms of bigotry and exploitation, "the 60s" is or should be shorthand for everything righteous—rebellion, revolution, activism—for rejecting the norms of capitalism and fighting toward a new way of organizing society. This latter, our view of the 60s, is also known by another term, especially as regards education and the arts: politically correct.

Those of us of the 60s/70s generation of activists did indeed come to understand some things as correct and some other things as incorrect by the lights of our politics. That which seeks to advance the struggle, that which conveys the reality of oppression and exploitation, that which upends the old hierarchies and gives voice to those whose voices were heretofore suppressed, this is correct. The old ways of seeing, doing, explaining, steeped as they are in bourgeois consciousness and backward, reactionary ideology, are wrong. Incorrect. Offensive. Above all, untrue. Based on all the false old assumptions, all the lies and justifications of the chattel-slavery-subjugation-of-women system that built the wealth of this country's capitalist class. By our lights, all this needed, and of course still needs, correcting. This is a noble and necessary endeavor.

It is also a frightening challenge to the status quo and for that reason has been subjected to a 40-year-long onslaught of taunts, derision and every other possible means to flip the truth into its opposite. The problem isn't racism, sexism, oppression, exploitation, we're told. The problem is all these uptight rigid purveyors of the whip of political correctness, which is portrayed as an assault on freedom of expression. How dare these people—and for these people read people of color, women, LGBT people, workers, the disabled—how dare anyone trespass on anyone else's freedom to be as incorrect as they please? Is this a free country or what? And so they've managed, the bourgeoisie and its witless mouthpieces, to turn reality on its head with the well-worn Big Lie tactic of endless repetition. And so "politically correct" joins "the 60s" (and especially its literary sub-genre "the madness of the 60s," which I've ranted about before) as A Bad Thing. None of this is surprising. Not the ruling class's efforts to shore up its image and beef up its propaganda; not the bosses' vicious, mendacious attacks against any and all who do try to tell the truth; and, saddest of all, not the efficacy of these efforts. Hardly anyone proudly, boldly claims the mantle of politically correct anymore. Most run scared of being so named, and if so named turn somersaults to defend against the accusation.

Which brings us to the latest round of doings in the literary world. First, by way of noting that "the 60s" is a broad term and can be stretched decades to make a point, I must quickly mention a book I read about in this past Sunday's New York Times Book Review. It's a "madness of the 60s" memoir—set in the 80s! Apparently it tells the poignant tale of a young woman who was so misguided as to travel to Central America and join a bunch of wacky internationalists doing solidarity work in support of the anti-imperialist struggles there. The men she worked with were of course louts. The women were, like her, naïve and confused, and motivated by their pitiful devotion to the loutish men rather than any of their own opinions or political ideas. None had the slightest inkling of what they were doing, and all were completely misled by the Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans fighting the Reagan administration's overt and covert military intervention. The reviewer loved it. I expectorated onto the review.

But the main event I want to point to is a bold, courageous initiative by poet Claudia Rankine, begun at the AWP conference in D.C. earlier this month and still under way online. AWP is the big daddy of literary conferences, put together by the organization of college writing programs and attended by many thousands of poets and writers, almost all of them associated with a writing program in one way or another. I went once, a few years ago when it was here in NYC and the staff very kindly allowed me to attend for free as a worker, rather than student or faculty, at a university. That once was enough, for the whole thing was far too drenched in academia for me. Not my scene. Still, thousands of folks attend, and in a literary culture where it's virtually impossible to be published without an MFA and the only way for writers to make a living is by teaching, I can understand why they do. Once in a while something noteworthy occurs, as it did this year.

I've read a number of accounts of it and I'd urge you to do the same. Basically, at one of the poetry panels, Claudia Rankine's presentation consisted of having Nick Flynn get up and read Tony Hoagland's poem "The Change," then her reading her response to the poem, then her reading his emailed response to her response. Google the key names and you'll find lots of blog postings including several that have the full texts. You'll find that Hoagland's poem includes blatant racist language and imagery. You'll find that Rankine's response is deep, incisive, painful, and so full of truth that … that, yes, sure enough, in his response, Hoagland accused her of "political correctness, with its agendas of rightness, perfection, enforcement, and moral superiority." He also calls this brilliant African American poet "naïve," explains the nuances of U.S. racial history to her, and avers that his poem "is not 'racist' but 'racially complex.'" Hoagland's stunningly, yes, racist and sexist condescension becomes even more breathtaking when you reread and think again about Rankine's thoughts, which are nothing if not complex. "Who let America in the room?" she asks. She says she "could taste the vomit of Reconstruction and slavery in the back of my throat"—but only after acknowledging that she knows what she's opening herself up to by daring to speak up about any of this.
I don't like using the word racist because of you use it it means you are an angry black person. Angry black people are the old black and everyone knows that's pathological. … The old black is positioned in a no-win situation where to express an opinion based on what you see, experience, feel or deduce rsisk falling right into some white folk's notion of black insanity.
This is one brave truth-telling artist. Further, in the wake of all the commentary that's been swirling since AWP, she is not shying away from pursuing the issue. She recently posted an open letter on her website, calling for people to submit their own "thoughts on writing about race." She poses a series of provocative questions as "a few possible jumping-off points." They include:
  • If you write about race frequently what issues, difficulties, advantages, and disadvantages do you negotiate?
  • If you have never written consciously about race why have you never felt compelled to do so?
  • Do you believe race can be decontextualized, or in other words, can ideas of race be constructed separate from their history.
Rankine will post responses received by March 11 on her blog.

Finally, one other item under the Politically Correct rubric. I was planning to write about this but I've gone on too long as it is so I'm just going to point you to this article. Headed "Let's say goodbye to the straw-feminist," it's Cordelia Fine's response to a slew of reactionary reviews of her book Delusions of Gender. In that book, which I've now added to my to-read list, she dismantles the sexist underpinnings of the increasingly dominant strain of evolutionary biology and psychology, the Steven Pinker school of biological determinism as regards innate sex differences, i.e. trucks vs. dolls or, as per Lawrence Summers, home ec vs. science. These reviewers to whom she responds in this piece accuse Fine of political correctness, that most dreaded of offenses. Kudos to her for taking them on.