Mises Wire

Yes, PC is Real. Yes, it is Illiberal

Brian Doherty at Reason magazine has a new article that attempts to dispel certain myths surrounding “cultural Marxism,” a term used promiscuously and inaccurately in Mr. Doherty’s view. Fair enough, but the article sheds more heat than light on what is in fact a very illiberal and powerful phenomenon in western countries. Cultural Marxism and political correctness are not imaginary and cannot simply be dismissed as benign or organic.

Two omissions in the article stand out.

First, Doherty completely ignores the general meaning of the term, which is fairly well-understood. In the mid-20th century (actual) Marxists realized their focus on creating economic class consciousness by pitting proletariat against bourgeoisie had failed to resonate with working class people. Thus they shifted (albeit not all at once and not always deftly) to a narrative of oppressor and oppressed, which allowed women, minorities, gays and other groups to create class consciousness around cultural issues rather than economic standing. Cultural Marxism describes the results of this shift.

Second, political correctness — an important subset of cultural Marxism and a term Doherty dismisses — is also reasonably definable:

Political correctness is the conscious, designed manipulation of language intended to change the way people speak, write, think, feel, and act, in furtherance of an agenda.

Doherty’s insistence that there’s nothing to see here beyond right-wing crankery would be better served by at least attempting to define the views of his opponents. And if you believe The Atlantic, rejection of PC culture is hardly limited to the Right.

The timing of the article is unfortunate, coming on the heels of yet another round of social media de-platforming. Facebook recently removed several libertarian pages without warning, apparently over concerns they might promote Wrongthink on the eve of mid-term elections. In case you missed it, the Atlantic Council— funded by the US government and several foreign governments — helpfully counsels (private company) Facebook regarding which pages to darken.

Needless to say this sort of action is demoralizing to affected Facebook users, particularly those who count on social media platforms for their businesses, and sends a message that encourages self-censorship. So maybe something bigger is happening than Pat Buchanan misreading dead French philosophers.     

Doherty makes reasonable points about the political Right’s vague mishmash of ideas and thinkers supposedly behind cultural Marxism, including the Frankfurt school, critical theory, Marcuse, Freud, and Karl Marx himself. But he depressingly launches into tired progressive shibboleths and buzzwords that only hurt his argument:

It may be comforting to believe your ideological foes are dupes of manipulative intellectual fiends. But declaring that advocates of multiculturalism, feminism, and gay rights are the pawns of dead Jewish communists is both mistaken as a matter of cultural history and foolish as a way to sell an alternate ideology. You won’t win the day by treating people who merely disagree with you as stalking horses for socialist tyranny.

Then he doubles down on his insistence that opposition to cultural Marxism must be driven by nefarious right-wing hatred of minorities and modernity:

American right-wingers hate multiculturalism and gay rights and radical feminism for their own sake, not because they were designed to pave the path for communism. But the story has the emotional advantage of allowing them to imagine that the trends they despise didn’t arise from a long history of the social abuse of blacks, gays, women, and immigrants, but from sinister machinations of commies striving to enslave us. Never mind that the unstoppable traditionalist “cultural decline” of the last several decades has not gotten the United States any closer to public ownership of the means of production.

Or maybe people just resent being told how to think and speak? Yes, accuracy in language is important, Yes, accuracy is important in identifying historical influences. So why doesn’t Doherty apply these standards to his own critiques? Not everyone who worries about Orwellian language and thought policing does so for the reasons Doherty lazily imagines.

Doherty makes room for an obligatory swipe at Jordan Peterson, whose work I haven’t taken the time to read or view much. But from a distance Peterson’s two unpardonable sins seem to be exposing the rottenness of social science departments and suggesting individuals bear some responsibility for their lot in life. Anyone who shakes up the Left/Right paradigm in an articulate way and encourages self-sufficiency seems to me a potential ally for libertarians, rather than a punching bag.

Doherty also bemoans Dr. Ron Paul’s1 opposition to cultural Marxism, referencing posts on Paul’s Facebook page. He correctly reminds us that Paul’s presidential campaigns offered people a way out of the culture wars by (quoting Paul) “allowing [everybody] to make personal choices, social relations, sexual choices, personal economic choices” — and this ought to be a potent sales pitch for libertarianism generally.

But Doherty misses the salient point: cultural Marxism is not about allowing anything, but rather about policing our views. And if in fact dramatically reducing the size and scope of government (as both Paul and Doherty advocate) would reduce cultural hostilities, doesn’t this tacitly acknowledge that cultural Marxism and PC are related to the state? Does Doherty not see the state as the potential enforcer via hate speech laws, employments laws, and the like?  

Doherty concludes with this puzzling admonition:

All who want a tolerant civic peace in this vast and varied land should work to forge whatever way of life they choose on their own property or in their own communities, not insist that former outsiders who wish to be treated more fairly are merely doing so as a cover to impose communist tyranny. The fight for limited government in our culture can’t be successfully fought in dogged, frightened opposition to freely chosen cultural plenitude.

Again we witness a reversion to common themes of victimhood, tolerance, and blinkered cultural nativists. And once again Doherty misses the point: the question is whether our “cultural plenitude” is always freely chosen, or rather sometimes imposed by a very small nexus of cultural, media, and economic elites — elites who are increasingly state-connected.

It also never occurs to him that many who do want tolerance and peace resent the constant imposition of new PC modes of thought and speech, rather then considering those modes a form of liberation.

  • 1Brian Doherty generally has been fair and friendly toward Dr. Paul in his writing, see, e.g., his book on the Ron Paul 2012 presidential campaign.
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