We are in a temporal loop. George Santayana’s 1905 observation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” remains (ironically?) indelible, but it isn’t even the half of it. Repetition suggests a start, ending, and restart, but really we’ve been marching in place for some 30 years with no tangible resolution to speak of.
If you want a sense of how far we haven’t come, revisit the PC debates of the early ’90s. Names may have changed but the story is still the same. Consider the following quotes:
“McCarthyism of the Left makes open debate irrelevant.”
“People are afraid to speak out because they know they will be abused. They’re walking on eggshells.”
“The saved…are good no matter what they do; racial minorities, for instance, are, by definition, incapable of racism. The damned — the white male ‘oppressors’… — are evil, even when they teach or act politically in favor of the oppressed.”
“[There is] a widespread tendency to use censorship, intimidation and other weapons abhorrent to the American political process to support popular demands for measures to enforce sexual, racial and ethnic equality.”
They could have easily been born of the ink spilled over the supposed contemporary threat to free speech, but all of these quotes above date back to the early ’90s and can be attributed to cultural commentators in the New York Times, Orlando Sentinel, and Camille Paglia. They were devised when this same basic argument assumed a different syntactical form: Back then, they called it political correctness.
The similarities are striking. “Woke,” a term deriving from African-American Vernacular English, whose textual roots have been traced back to Erykah Badu and Georgia Anne Muldrow’s 2008 song “Master Teacher,” has been appropriated by conservatives and fashioned into a slur—see Tom Cotton’s raging against “woke culture” and Bari Weiss’s recent listicle for the New York Post “10 ways to fight back against woke culture.” “Politically correct” underwent a similarly craven transubstantiation. Ruth Perry, writing in a 1992 issue of the Women’s Review of Books that was devoted to the PC debate, found the first written reference to political correctness in an essay by Toni Cade (before she was Toni Cade Bambara) in a 1970 anthology she had edited: “…Racism and chauvinism are anti-people. A man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist too.”
Though there are anecdotal accounts of the spoken use of “politically correct” perhaps circulating among Socialists of the 1940s, the Old Left of the ‘50s, and various radicals of the ’60s (including feminists, anti-war activists, and those devoted to the cause of Black Power), Cade’s use marked what Perry understood to be its print debut. In both the PC and woke eras, those against equality have shown themselves to be so craven as to plunder their opposition’s language and weaponize it as something to be ashamed of. As Cornel West wrote in 2004, political correctness was “a term coined by those who tend to trivialize the scars of others and minimize the suffering of victims while highlighting their own wounds.”
Another example of history’s Xerox occurred when Donald Trump and so many of his cronies jumped on the anti-cancel culture bandwagon, for they were just replicating President George H.W. Bush’s diatribe against political correctness at the University of Michigan’s commencement ceremony on May 4, 1991.
“The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land,” said Bush. “And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones.”
Bush’s caveat was a stylish one. Equality was admirable in theory, but taken too far by its new breed of censorious supporters. Then and now, by highlighting extreme examples of hypersensitivity and overshooting to illustrate what was being taken away from white men, as opposed to acknowledging what was being afforded (at least in theory) to everyone else, the right has presented the worst faith reading of what was always going to be a messy and painful clash in the redistribution of power. (For a contemporary longread that epitomizes this sort of selective presentation, see Jonathan Chait’s 2015 New York magazine feature, “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say.”)
Drawing the line from then to now is easy—it’s a straight shot. But time has eroded the nefarious origins of what the vocal detractors of “wokeness” frame as a mere investment in free expression.
Popularly, “politically correct” was often used in the 1990s the way people use “virtue signaling” today. To many, it meant acting earnestly for the selfish reason of conveying your righteousness, and in the process betraying the civic-minded content of the gesture. If there’s one thing that Generation X hated, it was phoniness. If there’s another thing Gen X hated, it was earnestness, even when sincere. This made “political correctness” kryptonite even for a generation that was supposedly the most tolerant and concerned about society that America had ever seen. You can compare this distorted logic to the way that people for years have disavowed the label of “feminism” for its supposed radical, man-hating connotations, even when they declare themselves in full support of women’s equality.
The way the “PC” debate has rolled into the wokeness wars illustrates Generation X’s failure to resolve this rather straightforward matter of inclusion and societal fairness. It is, in fact, Generation X’s most outstanding failure, albeit not a surprising one, given that the generation’s tagline could be summed up in a line from its anthem, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: Oh well, whatever, never mind.
In the Fall 1994 issue of the National Women’s Studies Association Journal, Nancy Baker Jones wrote that the battle over political correctness started as grappling with the changing face of higher education as it became less white and less male from the ‘60s to the ‘90s. In her essay “Confronting the PC ‘Debate’: The Politics of Identity and the American Image,” Jones said:
The shift from attacking affirmative action to criticizing curricular issues followed naturally from the right’s irritation that affirmative action had helped to increase the numbers of so-called minorities on colleges and universities and that so many of these newcomers were committed to infusing the viewpoints of marginalized groups into the curriculum, especially in such fields as literature and history…The appearance of a critical mass of people representing viewpoints that disagreed significantly with established views was, from the point of view of the right, a dangerous turn of events, representing an incursion of “special interests” on a commonly accepted educational tradition of such long standing that it had come to be considered apolitical, neutral, and universal.
This has always been a method of pushback from the powerful who think that equality means owning all of the pie, and that their rights are being impeded by being asked for a piece of it. Even John R. Seale’s December 6, 1990, New York Review of Books essay “The Storm Over the University,” which is largely credited with helping ignite the PC discourse—and not in the favor of political correctness—is clear-eyed on this matter (though note the unmistakably othering thwack of his use of “they”):
…Many African Americans and Hispanic Americans feel left out of the “canon,” and want to be included. Just as a few years ago they were demanding the creation of ethnic studies departments, so now they are demanding some representation of their experiences and their point of view as part of the general education of all undergraduates. This looks like a standard political demand for “representation” of the sort we are familiar with in higher education.
Perry’s WROB essay discussed the checkered past of the term “politically correct”—it was used by progressives in the ‘60s in the straightforward way that Cade replicated, but in other instances, “marked with quotation marks or italics, it expressed a combination of distrust for party lines of any kind and a simultaneous commitment to whichever dimension of social change that person was working for.” It was also used mockingly, to denote a certain disdain for goody-goody behavior in a manner that would predict the right’s appropriative use. However, such ambidextrousness was nowhere to be found by the time the debates were raging in the mainstream in the wake of Seale’s essay, as well as Richard Bernstein’s New York Times article dated October 28, 1990, “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct.” According to Nancy Baker Jones:
By the time political correctness had become a household phrase, it already meant intolerance by the left, thanks to the efforts of well-funded, mainstream publications like Newsweek, Time, New York, the Atlantic monthly, Forbes, and the New Republic, the last three of which published articles written by Dinesh D’Souza within a month of each other in early 1991, just prior to the appearance of D’Souza’s book Illiberal Education.
The asks of those who came to be demonized purveyors of political correctness were far from unreasonable, hysterical, or even extreme, as they were portrayed by the right. “I wish that those who take potshots at what they see as a new ‘political correctness’ would give a thought to what American universities used to be like,” wrote Princeton professor of history Nell Irvin Painter in a PC symposium that ran December 9, 1990, in the New York Times. “Then, perhaps, they would hesitate before assailing the attempt to forge a pedagogy appropriate for newly diversified student bodies and faculties.” The University of Houston’s then-president Marguerite Ross Barnett told the New York Times in 1991, “Political correctness is a symbol for a real shift in power at American universities.”
Much of the debate focused on the push for a curriculum of multiculturalism. “Multiculturalism ... is an attempt to understand how and why cultures are developed, organized and used as they are,” wrote Brian Bremen in the November 8, 1990, issue of Images (via Jones’s “Confronting the PC ‘Debate’”). “[I]t embodies a diverse group of ideas that can only enrich our thinking and expand the horizons of our disciplines.... [It is] not just about what constitutes culture, but about who determines what counts as ‘culture,’ about how power is wielded between and within cultures, and about the ways that culture is organized by politics.” This proved too difficult a thought exercise for the right. As Temple University’s Molefi Kete Asante wrote in Multiculturalism: An Exchange (1991), “Few whites have ever examined their culture critically.” They never had to.
It was far easier to think critically about perceived attacks on said culture. As simple and clear as the arguments for inclusion were, so baldfaced were those against it (of course this anti-political correctness was dressed up in the guise of being “pro-liberty,” which echoes in today’s cries of “thought freedom”). Many conservative thinkers seemed taken aback by the notion that affirmative action or instilling gay equality should be accepted as simply doing the right thing. “The chief danger posed by academic leftists — advocates of radical feminism, the normalization of homosexuality, Marxist revolution, and the like — lies in the principled refusal of so many of them to allow others the space in which to articulate objections to their way of thinking — space that is indispensable to survival of critical thought,” wrote Harvard Divinity School professor of Jewish studies Jon D. Levenson, in the aforementioned Times symposium. “By not tolerating critics of the civil-rights agenda, black leaders have hurt their cause,” read the dek of a U.S. News and World Report piece from December 24, 1990, titled “The hidden perils of racial conformity.”
“The ‘multiculturalists’ and the ‘politically correct’ on the subjects of race, class, and gender actually represent a continuation of the genteel tradition of respectability and conformity,” wrote Camille Paglia in “The Nursery-School Campus: The Corrupting of the Humanities in the U.S.” for the London Times Literary Supplement that ran May 22, 1992. “They have institutionalized American niceness, which seeks, above all, not to offend and must therefore pretend not to notice any differences or distinctions among people or cultures.”
This, of course, assumes the norm of whiteness—the gatekeepers here are merely well-intentioned white folks who have no true investment in the multiculturalism that they promote and must only be acting out of obligation. It ignores the academics of color like those already mentioned and people like Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (“Whose Canon Is It Anyway?”), whose push for change by definition did not derive from so-called white guilt.
Granted, it was a different time, a time so ensconced in institutional whiteness that it rendered too many people culturally snow-blind. Unconscious bias was so unconscious that it wasn’t recognized by whites as bias at all. It was just the way things were, and though plenty of supposedly rigorous thinkers took up the mantle of the anti-PC crusade, they didn’t spend much time discussing how things got to be how they were. They just were, and they just were under attack by minorities who no longer knew their place.
Though the PC wars were only tangentially related to Generation X discourse insofar as they were concurrent and figuring out inclusiveness was the youth’s problem to deal with, it is nonetheless useful to revisit the discussions on Generation X for what they tell us about the culture of young people in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. (Parameters varied, but generally, Generation X has been perceived to span the birth years of early-to-mid-‘60s and late-‘70s-to-early-‘80s.) Though Generation X’s supposed unilateral features were much dissected in the early ’90s (and integrated into marketing as time went on), by the mid-’90s, the press had turned on its own invention. Douglas Coupland—whose 1987 article in Vancouver magazine “Generation X” spawned a 1991 novel of the same name that would attempt to define the post-Baby Boom generation—declared Generation X over by June of 1995 in an essay for Details. To the New York Times that month, he spelled out the folly of even attempting to define a generation in the first place:
“This whole idea of generations —” he said over the phone from his New York hotel room recently, his voice showing signs of impatience at having to talk about something that wasn’t in his new book. But then he quoted one of his computer-nerd characters from “Microserfs.”
“Bears don’t expect the little bears to wear different fur and eat different berries,” he said. “What makes us think we have to be different?”
In the Details piece, Coupland moaned that “X got hypermarketed right from the start”—indeed, his scam of defining a generation in such pithy, anecdotal terms notably served as a launchpad for his career. Rereading his 1987 article, it’s striking how much he got wrong. “They never have any clear trends to report on. Punk was it—an expression of anti-trend that became so big, so indicative of X mass sentiment that it made them all feel like sheep,” he wrote. If the ideologies imposed upon this generation turned out to largely be untrue, particularly that of the slacker myth, and Xers were as highly motivated as the flurry of reconsideration pieces posited (Xers, after all, were responsible for the foundations of the internet as we’ve come to know it), then in retrospect, it is only the trends that define X. And in fact, punk’s mutation into grunge is one of the most enduring cultural features of the X era.
But there were more: Melrose Place, Reality Bites, Singles, Beverly Hills 90210. “Beavis and Butt-head were their icons; Beck’s ‘Loser’ was their song (‘Savin’ all your food stamps and burnin’ down the trailer park’); Richard Linklater’s Slacker, with its Austin, Texas, deadbeats, was their movie. This was the MTV generation: Net surfing, nihilistic nipple piercers whining about McJobs; latchkey legacies, fearful of commitment. Passive and powerless, they were content, it seemed, to party on in a Wayne’s Netherworld, one with more antiheroes—Kurt Cobain, Dennis Rodman, the Menendez brothers—than role models,” went Margot Hornblower’s reassessment of Generation X in the June 9, 1997, issue of Time. Consider those cultural markers alongside Coupland’s initial description of his article’s prototypical Xer subject, “Kevin”: “Kevin is Generation X. He is overeducated, comes from the suburbs, wears nice clothes, has chronic employment difficulties, lives at home (but has had his own place a few times), and makes brilliant conversation.”
Between these two thumbnail sketches of X, it is clear is how white an entire generation of Americans was perceived to be. The media was white, its consumers were white. Sometimes hip-hop, still ascending toward cultural juggernaut status, factored into the conversation; sometimes people cited Spike Lee as helping to define the film of this era; and there was indeed ideological overlap between Generation X’s (invisibly white) denizens as portrayed in the media and rappers (an allergy to selling out, for one thing). But generally speaking, whites were not merely seen as the norm; they were seen as the only. It was against this lighter, supposedly civically-minded backdrop, that the PC debates raged.
And somehow in the process, people decided everything had worked out, though there were few signs of actual resolution. “We recently have well-known critics publishing articles with titles like ‘What Was Political Correctness? Race, the Right, and Managerial Democracy in the Humanities,’ and ‘The Education Debate: A Postmortem.’ Oddly, both titles imply that the debate was probably inconsequential and undoubtedly should now be considered a thing of the past,” noted Harold K. Bush, Jr., in “A Brief History of PC, With Annotated Bibliography,” which ran in the April 1995 issue of the American Studies International journal. Political consultant Patrick Reddy determined in a 2002 article that Gen X had accomplished all it intended:
Against all odds, the young adults now aged between 21 and 36 have reversed every bad social trend of the last four decades, despite getting little help from either their families or the government.
…Derided as “slackers” 10 years ago, GenX has helped build a new information-based economy, won several wars, made equality for women and minorities a reality and helped make American society healthier in numerous ways.
…Despite a number of ugly racial incidents in places like Howard Beach and Forsyth County, Ga., and the rise of Louis Farrakhan, GenXers have proved surprisingly tolerant. For earlier generations, racial harmony was a political statement. For kids today growing up in a time of a record number of immigrants from the Third World and a record number of blacks and Hispanics living in the suburbs, it’s simply how they live. It is no accident that the youngest group of white voters in California voted the most heavily against Propositions 187 (to cut off services for illegal immigrants) and 209 (to ban racial preferences).
Well, it all worked out, didn’t it? Oh wait... it didn’t?
Reddy’s writing is so myopic as to be laughable in the face of the two ensuing decades, and for all of the disparity that he doesn’t account for, like poverty, the disproportionate policing of Black communities, the prison industrial complex. But this complacency was real, and a product of wishful thinking from presumably well-intentioned white liberals.
What is galling about the lack of resolution there, and its persistence, is just how obviously on the wrong side of history the cause of the anti-PCers were. And yet, their cause has been happily taken up by the critics of wokeness. In the ’90s, there was the rampant resistance to gay rights and the legitimacy of queer culture, of course. There was also the idea that inclusive education serves no one, which is just unfathomable in our current climate, which has put a strong emphasis on representation in culture and, in many ways, is demonstrably better as a result. Paglia wrote, in her aforementioned 1992 Times piece: “The universities led the way by creating a ghetto of black studies, which begat women’s studies, which in turn begat gay studies. Not one of these makeshift, would-be disciplines has shown itself capable of re-creating the broad humane picture of Sixties thought. Each has simply made up its own rules and fostered its own selfish clientele, who have created a closed system in which scholarship is inseparable from politics.”
It is, in fact, astounding how lazy today’s anti-woke arguments are for merely porting over so much of Paglia’s thinking to modern times. Here’s Andrew Sullivan in 2020 making a case against theory, a frequent target of Paglia’s. Seemingly everywhere are Bari Weiss, Joe Rogan, and Bill Maher talking about the manner in which cancel culture is depriving people of their courage to speak, as they go on speaking and trot out cherry-picked examples of the most egregious behavior from the left in the battle to be heard. Paglia was already on the case in her 1994 book Vamps & Tramps:
It was after my tumultuous lecture at Brown University in March 1992 that I saw this process of cultural repression most clearly. Taking questions at the reception, I sat with an African-American security guard as several hundred students seethed around me. Those who doubt the existence of political correctness have never seen the ruthless Red Guards in action, as I have done on campus after campus. For twenty years, meaningful debate of controversial issues of sex or race was silenced by overt or covert intimidation.
Note that none of the backlash served to actually suppress Paglia in any significant way; instead she continued her pontificating, incorporating her supposed oppressors into her copy. The PC police gave her more to talk about. As they do.
Paglia and her descendants have fashioned themselves as brave radicals who are saying what a suppressive culture has other people too scared to say. This self-celebration of supposedly free thinking was and is a grift, though the bigger grift now is pretending that this conversation is at all fresh or novel, that “wokeness” and “cancel culture” pose threats unique to our times. Some 30 years of an ongoing supposed threat show just how empty this hand-wringing is.
On these matters, Paglia was right about at least one thing, though. In “An Open Letter to the Students of Harvard,” which ran February 17, 1994, in the Harvard Crimson, she wrote: “In the twenty-first century, we will want something new. Today’s students can create it.” Indeed—we are well overdue.