There’s much talk these days of “political correctness,” and although everyone seems to agree that it’s a problem no one seems to agree on it what it means. We first heard the term way back in the mid-’70s, when the exceedingly well-educated and exquisitely bien pensant College Hill kids that we were hanging out with on the local high school debate circuit used it to chide one another for any opinions that were a wee bit too doctrinaire even for their tastes, but apparently it was previously used in less jocular ways by Mao’s Red Guards and even earlier by Leon Trotsky. By now it’s generally understood to mean to any attempt to enforce respectable opinion by means of public shaming, but these days respectable opinion is ever harder to define.
Some of Donald Trump’s supporters will defend his mocking of a reporter’s physical handicap on the grounds that he’s bravely defying the stultifying constraints of political correctness, but even some Trump supporters acknowledge that it’s more a breach of common decency. Most of the entertainment industry still prides itself on a similarly courageous stance as it sinks ever further into the depths of depravity, but the only price they pay is in glowing reviews and Academy Awards and big bucks contracts. Only the likes of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia seem truly sympathetic victims of the problem, and they tend to get the least attention.
In case you were distracted by Trump’s latest “tweet” or the news about Leonardo DiCaprio being raped by a bear in a soon-to-be-released Hollywood blockbuster, Scalia brought down the wrath of the respectable press by a couple of questions he asked during oral arguments in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas-Austin. It’s yet another affirmative action case, which we first heard of way back in the mid-’70s when we were messengers at at the Supreme Court as it deliberated the the Bakke v. University of Texas-Austin case, so some sort of racial imbroglio was inevitable. Scalia dared to ask one of the defendant’s lawyers about “mismatch,” which is what several notable social scientists call the phenomenon of minority students being admitted to universities despite having lower grades and test scores that are reliably predictive of academic performance, and the sad result of those students faring less well than they likely would have at other schools with more similarly prepared student bodies. Scalia was careless enough to pose the question of if “it does not benefit African-Americans into the University of Texas, where they do not well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less — a lower-track school where they do well.” This formulation allowed the Huffington Post to report that “Justice Scalia thinks black students belong in ‘slower-track’ schools,” and The Hill to sniff “Scalia: Maybe black students belong at ‘less-advanced’ schools,” and Yahoo to write that “Scalia suggested that black students benefit from a ‘slower track’ at less prestigious universities.”
Of course Scalia had nothing to say against those many black students who would qualify for entry at even the most advanced and fast-track and prestigious universities by any color-blind standard, such as Dr. Ben Carson or Justice Clarence Thomas, but not necessarily President Barack Obama, and his genuine concern for the black students ill-served by defendant’s condescending and ill-considered policies is apparent, but the pull-out quotes are sufficient to tar him as a stone-cold racist. Support for affirmative action policies is “politically correct” by any definition, and even the most reasonable and well-intentioned questions that might be asked about it is therefore proof of some anti-black animus, even if blacks wind up worse off as a result of those unquestionable policies. The same boundaries of polite discussion are enforced in the related matter of the “Black Lives Matter Movement,” which is mainly concerned with the matter of black lives lost to police enforcement and not the far greater number of black lives lost to a lack of police enforcement, and which will not allow any discussion of how the undeniably higher rates of crime in inner-black black neighborhoods are at the root of all of it.
The public discourse is also constrained by political correctness on the pressing issues of radical Islamic terrorism, which even the most politically correct politicians and press organs are trying to come up with a more polite term to describe, and the related issue of unfettered immigration from the Third World to the west, with all its worries that the unwashed know-nothing nativists of west will selfishly insist on their way of life, and we suppose that even in this age of transgendered triumphalism that are still one or relics of Victorian morality that impede a frank discussion about something or another. These boundaries must always be challenged, and the campus crusades against free speech and the Senate Democrats’ proposed changes to the First Amendment and all that open talk about criminal charges against anyone who has doubts about all that global warming nonsense should be resisted by all means, but we’d like to think some things are still beyond the pale.
Once upon a time campus crusades against free speech and officially introduced changes to the First Amendment and open talk about criminal charges against skeptical scientists on a disputed scientific issue would have been proscribed by public opinion, and so would a presidential candidate’s mocking of reporter’s handicap or a rival’s face, and so would have been a self-described socialist, and we think that by and large the debates were better resolved. Times like these call for frankness, even bluntness, and an unflinching acknowledgement of harsh realities, but we think it will also benefit from some civility and common courtesy and a sense of what matters most.
— Bud Norman