Remembering the Third Reich American Style

This is the fourth in a series of posts.

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Part Two: Pissing on Language (2)

Before the 1980s, it was mostly Marxists who used the term “politically correct” to mock other Marxists. Since then, charging someone else with political correctness has become the first line of defense for racists, one of the best ways to shut down any discussion about inequality.

— Jeff Chang, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation


It is by just such semantic means that we are all robbed even of any voice and vocabulary to report—even, and most especially, to ourselves—the robbery of our very freedom, let alone to protest against it.

I have not researched the matter myself to confirm what Chang says about Marxists’ abuse of the term “politically correct” prior to the 1980s, but it sounds right to me, and I certainly have no reason to contest it. However, throughout my own childhood and youth, which had already passed by before the 1980s ever got underway, the sense that same term always had anytime I encountered or used it was free either of left-wing, Marxist or of right-wing, racist appropriation and distortion. Instead, in my experience back then it had a neutral, descriptive, situation-specific usage. To say that some statement or idea or action was the “politically correct” thing to say or do meant that it was what the given politics of the time and place at issue required be done or said. That is, to be “politically correct” meant not to go beyond the confines of what was regarded as acceptable given the concrete political atmosphere of that time. Thus, one and the same remark or behavior that was “politically correct” in one historically concrete situation might very well be anything but that in a different situation.

For example, in the United States during the 1950s, when I was a child—the era of Joe McCarthy, “loyalty oaths,” and the House Un-American Affairs Committee witch-hunts—it was not “politically correct” to express, or even to be discovered to hold, left-leaning views. Doing so could and often did subject those who expressed or could be found out to hold such views to censure and worse (e.g., the Hollywood “black-listing” of writers such as Dalton Trumbo). Yet during the same period, not holding or expressing those very same views, the very one that could get one censured and banished in the United States, was not “politically correct” in various other places in the “Cold-War” world of that day.

In the United States today, sixty years later, things are as Chang characterizes them in the lines I cited above. In this country now, it is no longer possible to use the term “politically correct” in its original, neutral, descriptive, and situation-specific meaning. Instead, the term has been taken over by right-wingers and perverted into being used solely as a label for certain egalitarian or anti-racist positions and views. Today, here, the phrase is no longer used as a label applied with any interest for clarifying the shared political situation or furthering serious political discussion. Rather, it is applied in order to obscure the underlying reality, and to preclude genuine discussion of issues.

To sum up: Today in the Unites States, after years of misappropriation and distortion of the phrase by right-wing ideologues, it is no longer politically correct to use the expression “political correctness” correctly.

By such theft of language, we are all robbed of some of the rich potential of our linguistic heritage. In the process, our communal linguistic topography is leveled down to a single monotonous surface.

Nor is what has happened to such phrases as “political correctness” the only example of such impoverishing of our common language, such flattening of our shared linguistic terrain.

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To be continued.

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