This past weekend, I read an editorial (“Baby, There’s a Chilling Effect Outside”) today by Peggy Noonan in the Wall St. Journal. As I write this today, the entire article can be read on-line. That may or may not be true by the time you read this.
She begins by focusing, as the title implies, on the recent brouhaha over Baby, It’s Cold Outside, framing the topic of artistic expression with the words from a 1999 papal letter (hey, it’s Peggy Noonan). She then moves on to what, apparently, is one of her favorite record albums from the 1970s, Good Old Boys by Randy Newman. Focusing on a few lyrics she points out, quite correctly in my opinion, that songs like these could not be released today.
Just yesterday I was reading about how now Seinfeld is drawing ire for its political incorrectness*. We needn’t go back very far into our memories at all to find examples of art that would no longer be tolerated.
Noonan’s argument, in the last third of the article is that, in order for us to recover from this malady, it is the left that must lead the charge. As she says, when someone from the right points out this deterioration of our culture, they are dismissed as merely covering for racist, sexist beliefs. Near the end she states, “[T]here is hardly an American the past quarter-century who hasn’t been shamed for saying, doing or thinking the wrong thing.”
I can’t speak for other Americans, but I don’t think she’s too far off base here.
Americans are being cowed in terms of our speech and our thought. It has gone on for most of my life but, at present, it seems to be moving into a new and universal phase. This is the antithesis of what it has long meant to be “an American.”
Immediately after reading the Journal editorial, I remembered a story told to me decades ago. The company I worked for, at the time, was involved with an effort by the U.S. government to constructively engage the Russian defense technology infrastructure to prevent bad things from happening as a result of the unraveling of the Soviet Union. My company, and many others, were encouraged to engage in joint projects involving technology with the Russians (OMG!!! He has ties to Russia!). As part of this, a number of employees traveled to Moscow for tours, meetings, and glad-handling. Mostly it was the bigwigs, but the occasional regular person also got to go, including someone I worked with closely.
This coworker told me a story. One day, when he was free to roam about a bit in Moscow, he decided to go to the newly-opened McDonalds. It was extremely popular, for the novelty if nothing else. Lines were long and seating was short. After my coworker got his Big Mac, he sat down at a table to eat. Fairly soon, he was approached by a woman, a Muscovite, who asked to share his table, as no empty tables remained. While she did speak some English, it wasn’t a lot. Still, she was able to make herself understood to my coworker, who didn’t know any Russian**. After sitting down, she asked if he was an American. He said, “Yes, how can you tell?”
She mimed the answer. She pointed around to the other tables, said “Russians” and assumed a meek stance; Head down, legs together, hands tight to the body. Then she said “Americans,” and she leaned back, spread her legs, stretched out her arms, and held her head high.
Americans are not supposed to fear our government. The resultant mannerisms extend to when we travel abroad. This creates a caricature of rude Americans who seem unable to express a polite humility in the face of other cultures. It can also mean that we fail to have a healthy respect for the danger of truly-tyrannical foreign governments. It also means that we have internalized our natural right to individual freedom in a way that projects forth when we walk into a room. Good and bad, it was even in the way we sat down to eat our hamburgers.
Yet today, we are being trained in the same way the Soviets trained the residents of Moscow under a generation of totalitarian rule. We now must always be careful what we say and how we say it. We must be careful about how we sit (no manspreading!) and how we stand. As we change the way we speak and act, we’re also inevitably have to watch what we even think and feel. The Soviet Union didn’t just police truly subversive thoughts, they tried to be in your head all the time. In your religion, in your culture, and in your entertainment.
It works. If you are constantly second-guessing even your most trivial of thoughts, there is no way your going to be able to form an opinion that is contrary to the will of the State.
*I have this theory about the phrase “politically correct” itself. In our current lexicon it has an actual, specific meaning. Part of that is the words don’t have concrete meaning outside of the context which we use them. I have yet to be able to back up, but wasn’t the original phrase “politically correct discrimination?” In other words, the idea is that “discrimination” is not always bad. If you discriminate against a racial minority, that’s bad. Evil, even. If you discriminate against a “privileged” white male, yes it is still “discrimination” but it is good discrimination. “Correct” discrimination. I sometimes think about this because I think the origin of the phrase is instructive about its present impact, even though the meaning of “political correctness” has grown and morphed through the years.
**This, by the way, was a sore point with a number of us who had actually taken some Russian language instruction in hopes that we might be able to participate in this effort. Bah.