The Empire Strikes Back

The Conservative Attack on “Political Correctness”

By Stanley Fish

The following is excerpted from a recent speech by Stanley Fish. Professor of English and Professor of Law at Duke University in Durham, N. C., Fish also heads the English Department at Duke. These remarks are the beginnings of a larger consideration by Fish. While Fish is addressing the “political correctness” debate within higher education, that controversy parallels the struggles around multicultural education in elementary and secondary schools.

I appear before you today by virtue of a mistake made by central casting, which has tapped me for the role of ardent academic leftist, proponent of multiculturalism, and avatar of the politically correct. As some of you know, my qualifications for this assignment are so slight as to be non-existent.

First of all I am, as you can see, a 53-year-old white male. More importantly, I have for the past 30 years taught only traditional texts written by canonical male authors of the ultracanonical English Renaissance — John Milton, John Donne, Edmund Spenser, George Herbert, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, Andrew Marvell.

When not writing on these classical authors, I have in recent years addressed a number of issues in literary and legal theory, and I think it fair to say that I have come out on the “right” end of the spectrum every time, arguing against the liberationist claims often associated with deconstruction and some versions of feminism, against the political pretensions of the New Historicism, against the Utopian vision of inter-disciplinarity, against the revisionary program of the Critical Legal Studies Movement, the left wing of the legal academy.

Why then have the media so consistenly mischaracterized my position and misreported my views? The question is a real one, but it is of interest only to a few, perhaps only to my mother.

The larger question is, What is going on? What developments in the classroom and in the pages of various academic journals have stirred up such a commotion?

It is easier to say what is not going on. Notwithstanding reports to the contrary, there is no evidence that either Shakespeare or those who teach him have been run out of the academy by an intolerant coalition of Marxists, rabid feminists, godless deconstructionists, and diseased gays.

Noting media reporting of “a fight over the political or cultural content of classroom learning and of speaker presentations,” the 1991 survey of Campus Trends (compiled by the American Council on Education), concludes that despite “anecdotal accounts,” “problems are not widespread.”

Ninety percent of all institutions report no “controversies over the political or cultural content of remarks made by invited speakers.” Ninety-seven percent of the same institutions report no “controversies over course texts or over information presented in the classroom….”

Dinesh D’Souza reports a professor at Penn State as saying “I would bet that …The Color Purple is taught in more English departments today than all of Shakespeare’s plays combined.” He would lose that bet, and he would lose it if the field of reference were the nation’s high schools, where, as another survey has recently indicated, Shakespeare is alive and well and massively studied.

Is there then nothing going on that deserves the label “political correctness?” Before answering the question it might be good to examine the label and inquire into what it implies.

First of all it implies the introduction of politics into an area (often called the life of the mind) where it doesn’t belong, and second it implies that this intrusion of politics is itself politically organized, that is, the result of design and coordinated activity.

In that sense of politics, however, all of the action is to be found on the side of those who are yelling “political correctness” (as they once yelled “communist sympathizers”) rather than on the side of those at whom the epithet is hurled.

It is the neo-conservative forces on and off campus (and, as we shall see, more off than on) that operate an efficient network of semi-student organizations, non-official semi-student newspapers, and non-local faculty action groups. It is the neo-conservatives who intrude themselves into other peoples’ classes, and demand the removal of courses and programs put in place by regular university procedures; it is the neo-conservatives who generalize a few tired incidents into an assertion of wholesale crisis and then feed the public’s appetite for crisis with the help of a cadre of well-placed and largely ignorant journalists. And, above all it is the neo-conservatives who are enabled in these activities by massive infusions of outside funding from a familiar list of far-right foundations, think tanks, and individuals.

In the past two years, the National Association of Scholars (a successor to the infamous Accuracy in Academia) has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from two of those foundations alone; and the Dartmouth Review — the flagship of yellow journalism, academic style — has received $300,000 from the Olin Foundation in the past decade….

Now don’t get me wrong; there is nothing illegal or even immoral about this; concerted organization for partisan ends is the American way; my only point is that it is the way of politics — itself a perfectly honorable word despite the fact that it has been turned into an accusation by the very people who are so assiduously practicing it. What we have here, then, is not, as has been advertised, a brave resistance to politics by the representatives of an apolitical rationality, but, rather an argument between two forms of politics, or if you prefer, two forms of political correctness.

Once this point is clear and the polemical use of the term has been blunted, we can rephrase the question I raised earlier: is there nothing going on in the academy today that might raise the ire of the politically correct who live on the right? The answer is “yes;” there have indeed been developments in the past 20 years that would be distressing to persons invested in traditional modes of intellectual inquiry.

Some of these developments are demographic, and therefore not a matter of anyone’s design.

Before World War II, both the college population and the ranks of the professoriate were drawn from a pool made up largely of middle class and upper middle class males, many of whom would have been destined in an earlier age for a life in the ministry. In the years following the war, the GI Bill of Rights brought many to the university who would not have thought of going before, and some of those made their way to graduate school and then into the classroom as instructors. A short time later, the percentage of women in higher education began to rise at virtually the same moment that a strong feminist movement was making its way into every corner of American life. Add to these developments the impetus of the Civil Rights Movement, new patterns of immigration following the immigration act of 1965, and the reawakening of interest in ethnic origins and traditions stimulated in part by the television program Roots, and it would be surprising had there not been significant changes in the materials making their way into the curriculum and onto the reading lists of our colleges and universities….