Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In Search of Déjà vu: For Intellectuals, Political Correctness is Twenty-First Century Communism

By Barry Rubin

We are all searching, in this bizarre era we inhabit, for a healthy sense of déjà vu. By this I mean, we seek precedents for some of the strange things that Political Correctness forces onto people and current political debates bring into play.

Unfortunately, the virtually sole candidate brought up play in such matters is summarized by the word “fascism.” But the extremities of Nazi Germany generally don’t fit well with the relatively mild forms of mischief gotten up to in Western democratic states. Actually, the best parallel I can think of is the way that the Communist party and its fellow travelers tried to impose a cultural line on intellectual life, a process at its peak in the United States and in Britain during the 1930s, while continuingfor many decades longer in countries like France and Italy.

The experience described below by George Orwell in 1937 is a wonderful example of how history is repeating itself. I want to add quickly that I am not speaking here of subservience to a foreign state (the USSR) or even the kind of discipline exercised on party members, but how it permeated into the broader cultural, media, and intellectual scene.

To sum up the five themes:

--There is a party line which should be followed by everyone, even if they aren't in the party.

--Those who don’t follow it will be called all sorts of awful names which even horrify the victim, since these insults have nothing to do with what he was trying to do or say. In those days, it was fascist or Trotskyist; today it is racist, neo-conservative, or Islamophobic.

--The line is justified because not following it is said to lead to terrible results (historically, the triumph of fascism and big business; today, the triumph of racism, Islamophobia, and big business). Another reason is that telling the truth would help the enemy, in those days, fascism or capitalism, in these days, Republicans, George W. Bush, or various reactionary, Christian fundamentalist, or fuddy-duddy forces.

--The punishments are not torture, prison, and execution but ridicule, denial of a teaching job or tenure, or just not getting your book or articles published.

--Events can be distorted, facts covered up, heroes demonized, intellectual and professional standards trampled, if that serves the cause. The public's right to know is replaced by tailoring the news to engineer proper attitudes among the people. 

The particular examples cited by Orwell pertain to coverage of the Spanish Civil War in Britain. Orwell, a militant socialist but not a Communist, went to Spain to fight and, partly by accident, ended up in the POUM militia. This was an indeendent socialist group, mainly in Catalonia, which did not follow the Communist party line.

The Communists, however, wanted to control the republic and saw the POUM as a barrier. It repressed the group using bloody attacks, executions, and denunciations of it as fascist or Trotskyist. Orwell would call this in a letter, “Fascism being imposed under the pretense of resisting Fascism.”

Wounded by a sniper, Orwell headed back to Britain for treatment and here our story begins. He quickly discovered that the Communists would suppress the truth out of self-interest and goals, while fellow travelers and “well-intentioned” people would do so because they believed that knowing the truth would not lead the masses in the right direction.

Remember, too, that it doesn’t matter how stupid any idea or belief is as long as it is fashionable.

Now to Orwell’s experience in 1937. As soon as he reached France, he contacted the left-oriented New Statesman about writing an article on his experiences. As he recounted in a letter to a friend:

“Of course they said yes, but when they saw my article was on the suppression of the POUM they said they couldn’t print it.”

So to buy him off, they offered to let him review a new book on the war. But, Orwell continued, “once again when they saw my review they couldn’t print it as it was “against editorial policy.” They did, however, offer to pay him the full fee for the review, which Orwell saw as “hush-money.” The magazine was desperate to ensure he wouldn’t reveal publicly its policy of censorship.

Orwell wrote that the editors warned it would “cause trouble” or, in Orwell’s words, “blow the gaff on the Communist party…..They were evidently very anxious to prevent me giving away the fact that they are covering up important pieces ot the news.”

Orwell also lost his publisher which, he explained, “is of course part of the Communism-racket” and as soon as it realized he had been with the POUM and would be critical of the Stalinists, explained it would be unable to publish the book even though they hadn't seen a word of the text. Orwell found another publisher and his Homage to Catalonia became a classic.

But this is how things worked then and work today. Blacklisting was not merely a technique of Senator Joe McCarthy. Back then, it was forbidden to write about Soviet concentration camps or antisemitism, or the economic incompetence of the USSR because that would allegedly “help” the bourgeoisie, or fascism, and hurt the cause of the workers.

Today, one cannot write about lots of things because they allegedly wouldn’t be good for people to think or believe. In the 1930s that was also true, except all the things designed to do good through self-censorship actually did immense harm. In fact, Orwell wrote as much in another letter:

“A number of people had said to me with varying degrees of frankness that one must not tell the truth about what was happening in Spain, and the part played by the Communist Party, because to do so would be to prejudice public opinion against the [Republican] Spanish Government and so aid [General Francisco] Franco [the fascist leader].”

Today we know that the Communists, including NKVD agents dispatched for the purpose, tortured and murdered huge numbers of people for the crime of having a view of their own. We also know about the Gulag of concentration camps and the framing of hundreds of thousands of people, many crimes of the USSR which were hidden from the world by those supposedly so solicitous of the rights of man and the worker’s cause. Of course, the result was that more people died and no effort was made to help them.

Another result was that the Republicans lost the war. You see, if you shut up about the misdeeds of those with the good fortunate of being dubbed "progressives" you do more harm both because of the people they victimize and since their weaknesses undermine whatever good there might be in the wider cause.

And all of this also shows one other thing: the cowardice of intellectuals. If the Wicked Witch of the West demanded that they surrender Dorothy, they probably would, and pronounce the deed just retribution for Dorothy’s house landing on the Wicked Witch’s sister. Disproportionate force, you know. And after all the Wicket Witch of the East was a civilian.

It is a cowardice both physical—though they beat their chest to advertize alleged courage in defying forces that in fact will do nothing to them—and moral. Dorothy Parker ridiculed such people long ago in a poem where she wrote: "Their one ambition is to get themselves arrested,/So that they can come out and be Heroes."

Yet nowadays even such minimal inconveniences are avoided, replaced by the feather-lined mattresses of rewards for alleged heroism with no pain or risk whatsoever. The pain is suffered by others, including victims of the causes rationalized by the self-described virtuous.

Leaping to the defense of courageous democrats crushed by left-wing (at least in rhetoric) dictatorships might not make them look like courageous battlers for progressive causes.

Publishing the “Danish cartoons” or telling the truth about the radical Islamist threat might hurt someone’s feelings. Remember, it is always more popular to avoid hurting the feelings of people who might want to kill you in response.

Ah yes, to paraphrase Bob Dylan once put it, we’ve been in this movie before.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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