Thursday, January 29, 2015

Return of the Locusts

Jonathan Chait:

But it would be a mistake to categorize today’s p.c. culture as only an academic phenomenon. Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.

...The most probable cause of death of the first political-correctness movement was the 1992 presidential election. That event mobilized left-of-center politics around national issues like health care and the economy, and away from the introspective suppression of dissent within the academy. Bill Clinton’s campaign frontally attacked left-wing racial politics, famously using inflammatory comments by Sister Souljah to distance him from Jesse Jackson. Barbara Jordan, the first black woman from a southern state elected to the House of Representatives, attacked political correctness in her keynote speech. (“We honor cultural identity. We always have; we always will. But separatism is not allowed. Separatism is not the American way. We must not allow ideas like political correctness to divide us and cause us to reverse hard-won achievements in human rights and civil rights.”)

Yet it is possible to imagine that, as the next Clinton presidential campaign gets under way, p.c. culture may not dissolve so easily. The internet has shrunk the distance between p.c. culture and mainstream liberal politics, and the two are now hopelessly entangled. During the 2008 primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the modern politics of grievance had already begun to play out, as each side’s supporters patrolled the other for any comment that might indicate gender or racial bias. It dissipated in the general election, but that was partly because Obama’s supporters worried about whether America really was ready to accept its first president who was not a white male. Clinton enters the 2016 race in a much stronger position than any other candidate, and her supporters may find it irresistible to amplify p.c. culture’s habit of interrogating the hidden gender biases in every word and gesture against their side.

Or maybe not. The p.c. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting. Claims of victimhood that are useful within the left-wing subculture may alienate much of America. The movement’s dour puritanism can move people to outrage, but it may prove ill suited to the hopeful mood required of mass politics. Nor does it bode well for the movement’s longevity that many of its allies are worn out.

I've seen Chait's article getting linked everywhere for the last few days, but I almost didn't bother to read it. Too much of a muchness, basically. Attempting to summarize the sensibility which has taken over much of the web in the last few years makes me feel exhausted. Still, it's a very good article, and I hope it signals some kind of turning point.

He mentions the zenith of the last outbreak in the early '90s, but doesn't note the neat correlation with the emergence of what would soon be officially named Generation X. Perhaps it wouldn't meet Chait's criteria for exerting hegemonic influence over the intellectual atmosphere, but the soundtrack to that generation, which would be officially named "grunge", was dominated by a similar leftish puritanism, typical of kids who had just dropped out of college to start bands. (Recall the furor surrounding the song "Sex-Type Thing", the first single from Stone Temple Pilots, in which singer Scott Weiland was mercilessly attacked as a macho misogynist for writing ambiguous lyrics from the perspective of a date-rapist; the same sort of manufactured, witch-trial hysteria surrounded Robin Thicke's song "Blurred Lines" last year.) The same ideas we're being inundated with today were out there among young, smart kids of my generation; lacking social media, we just had to make do with 'zines and mimeographed flyers to get the word out.

Attentive readers will likely remember my own hypothesis: we are currently experiencing the emergence of a mini-baby boom, a new generation commonly referred to as Millennials, the bulk of whom are in their mid-to-late twenties right now. The web is currently dominated by their perspectives and obsessions. I suggest to you that this phase of p.c. culture will fade out in the next several years, partially because, as Chait suggests, it has a predictable habit of eating its own and getting indigestion, and partially for a more prosaic reason: as these kids inevitably start to settle down with marriage, kids, and full-time careers, they will find their perspectives maturing away from the strident militancy of the freshly-minted college graduate, and their new responsibilities will leave them with very little free time to spend on social media, arguing vociferously over the finer points of gender studies and critical theory.

Assuming the political system retains its dysfunctional stability in the interim, expect to see the next wave in the late '20s, early '30s.