Driving past office buildings in downtown Washington one sees people huddled in doorways in cold, heat, and driving rain — smoking. These huddled seekers have learned not to smoke indoors because an anti-smoking culture told them they were pariahs and they should keep their place, outdoors. These belittled hold-outs for personal freedom are lucky to get a seat in a restaurant any more, even in the corner.
In the culture that has come down to us from the decade of the '60s, smoking, at least of tobacco though not of marijuana, is politically incorrect. In this upside-down world view, smokers are seen as “bad” people while those who favor abortion for convenience are “good.” The new culture of political correctness propagated mainly by the elites of the universities, the media, and Hollywood, has seeped into our lives and our institutions, including many churches. This culture is at the core of one of our major political parties and has intimidated the other. Political correctness influences their agenda, their rhetoric, and their ability to lead.
Political correctness in its many manifestations is hostile to the traditional virtues of Western culture. That is not too surprising, since it came from a decade of precisely that sort of hostility. Not too surprising either, political correctness appeals to groups who stand to gain political and cultural influence and power from it. The Democratic Party has a coalition of such groups as its base: feminists, homosexuals, racial and ethnic minorities, and government employee unions. Affirmative action, multiculturalism, and bilingualism are the natural outgrowth of catering to groups rather than to individuals. That many of those policies do harm, often severe harm, to the groups they were intended to benefit does not deflect the powerful thrust of political correctness.
When people identify themselves by ethnicity or gender they naturally want group rights, thus pitting one group against the other. They see themselves as Afro-Americans, Slovakian-Americans, or Latvian-Americans rather than just Americans. Violence, hostility, and envy on college campuses is rampant as each ethnic group seeks its rights against other groups. In many cases they want their own cultural centers and dorms. Dissenting voices are silenced. Political correctness means authoritarianism and turbulence, not harmony and freedom.
Republicans have a political base of a different stripe, conservatives, business leaders, the “religious right,” and people who are not hostile to Western culture. They should be the party criticizing and resisting political correctness. But they are hesitant and confused about how to respond to popular political proposals. They propose “color-blind” policies based on merit instead of quotas but they have made little headway. In the face of vociferous opposition they often do not argue the case against political correctness with clarity and conviction. They are for school choice but their strategy of tucking this provision into a large bill backfired. President Clinton vetoed the bill that, among other things, would have provided $3,000 to each of 2,000 poor families in Washington, D.C. to send their children to the schools of their choice. Republicans are intimidated by the loud and often hysterical voices on the other side. And they want to be liked. After all, they do not want to be seen as the skunk at the picnic. It is astounding that a party that knows better and whose core supporters are opposed to political correctness in all its forms is nevertheless too morally intimidated to oppose and roll it back.
Our system of government needs two parties capable of debating moral and social issues and crafting decent legislation, not screaming matches televised on C-Span, and certainly not equivocation when votes are cast. Political correctness is a cancer attacking the basis of democratic ideas of individual merit, freedom of speech, and Americans' identity. Few politicians exhibit the courage and endurance needed to suffer the barrage of criticism and hostility when they raise their voices against these trends. One wonders why they want to be reelected.
With both parties under the sway of radical ideas about the ordering of society they should heed the wisdom of Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae. He speaks forcefully about the need to resist political solutions that are not in keeping with the dignity of the person, including abortion and the denial of religious freedom. The individual person, not the group, is the basis of a democratic government. When we capitulate to false ideas about the ordering of society we risk losing our human freedom, individually and collectively. Politicians of both parties have a weighty responsibility to preserve our democratic freedoms and resist establishing in law futile and harmful ideas about identity, parental choice, and crushing tax burdens on married couples and families. Unless politicians act with a larger dose of moral courage, voters this fall may put them out in the cold, with the smokers.
Mary Ellen Bork, a board member of the Catholic Campaign for America and the Institute for Religion in Democracy, writes from Washington, D.C.