Every 20 years or so, America comes down with a serious case of political correctivitis.
I’m old enough to remember the first PC outbreak in the 1970s, when the tide of ’60s radicalism washed against the shore of Establishment America. Another epidemic spread in the early 1990s, and we’re in the midst of the third – and most serious – eruption now. We survived the first two flare-ups relatively intact, and I’m hoping Donald Trump can get us through the third.
Among the lasting changes of the first PC wave were affirmative action, which initially targeted blacks until women demanded to get into the action, and the beginnings of identity politics (which activists from other groups viewed as a way to get a piece of the affirmative action bonanza).
Also important was how feminists changed the language, starting by introducing three new words: sexist, sexism and Ms. Inflamed by Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinam and company, female activists worked to rid the English language of words they deemed sexist. Goodbye, policeman, mailman and fireman. Hello, police officer, letter carrier and firefighter.
Fortunately, other substitutes never really took hold (except in Democrat quarters). Despite their best efforts, few normal people really wanted to change “chairman” to “chairperson” or “spokesman” to “spokesperson.” A tidy solution was to substitute “-woman” for “-man” on a case-by-case basis.
Steinem was extraordinarily successful with the creation of “Ms.” (the courtesy title, not the magazine). She was offended that all men were simply addressed by “Mr.,” while women’s titles – “Mrs.” and “Miss” – were based on their marital status. “Ms.” thus leveled the gender playing field.
(This caused problems for me and other reporters. Many newspaper editors were slow to approve the new courtesy title, which put us in the embarrassing position of asking females sources who used “Ms.” whether they were married. Most publications eventually solved that dilemma by dropping all courtesy titles and referring to women only by their last names on second reference.)
After digesting all these changes, great and small, America experienced a new outbreak of PC in the 1990s, when the seeds of identity politics planted a generation earlier sprouted into saplings. The bastions of the Old Order who had faced the first wave were giving way to new people whose beliefs were shaped in the ’70s. Their faith in traditions was shaky, and they were more willing to compromise with advocates of identity politics. This was when the Left and the Right alike began using the term “politically correct.”
Affirmative action had been dealt serious setbacks in the courts, so activists began using “diversity” as the reason for pushing racial and sex-based quotas into all aspects of society, from the workplace to the schools. As today, diversity meant only racial, sexual and religious differences; diversity of political thought was scorned.
I came upon this first-hand when local school officials put out a call for citizens to serve on several advisory boards, including a new committee to foster diversity. That struck a chord with concerned residents – 45 people, more than half of them men, showed up for the diversity committee’s organizational meeting. The chairwoman, amazed by the turnout, started asking crowd members why they were there.
One by one, each man and most of the women said they wanted to be on the committee to make sure the schools emphasized the similarities among students, not the differences. Halfway through her questioning, the chairwoman said the committee’s goal was to help students embrace their distinctions, not stress what they shared in common. At that point, all the men except me and most of the women stood up and left.
I stayed on, figuring the rump committee needed at least one voice of reason. After listening to and speaking out against schemes ranging from silly to gobsmackingly stupid, I gave up after six meetings. Luckily for my children, the plans they discussed never went into effect. (Perhaps that happened because I ran into a school board member, who was aghast when I told him what the committee was up to.)
So here we are, struggling through a third PC epidemic. Times never looked bleaker under Barack Obama, and I would have given up hope under a Hillary Clinton presidency. Trump’s refusal to buckle under to political correctness certainly gave him a boost in 2016, and he could put a big dent into PC culture if he wins a second term.
I have just one tip for The Donald: Fight your foes through your policies, not your tweets.