William Urban

What Stalinism demanded all the time and McCarthyism some of the time was absolute conformism in thought, speech and action. Stalinists enforced the Total in Totalitarianism by death, imprisonment and exileCroughly twenty million dead in the Soviet Union alone; McCarthyism deprived accused communists and supposed communist sympathizers (as well as some actual communists) of employment and opportunities for employment. Although Stalinism so outranks McCarthyism on any scale of justice that comparison is extremely difficult, both systems were evil, easily manipulated for personal political ends, and fundamentally destructive of the systems they were supposed to be defending.

After 1956 reform communists eschewed murder, relying instead on the fear of losing useful and enjoyable employment, the right to publish, and the opportunities to travel and to study. It was necessary to end the reign of terror, they reasoned, in order to assure a future for scientific socialism. Ultimately, they evolved into the Gorbachev supporters and today call themselves Democratic Socialists. Who are the American successors to 1950's McCarthyism? And have they made a similar evolution?

It is important to remember that McCarthyism affected largely the educational community, with its offshoots in the government, the press, and Hollywood; in short, the individuals who have the greatest influence over what people read, hear, and think. It should be no surprise, therefore, that if any type of new McCarthyism exists now, it will be attempting to control higher education and the media.

There are a good many issues which MUST BE by their very nature controversial: religion, politics, racial problems, sex and sex roles, to name but a few. A skilled and fair presentation of any of these subjects can provoke a tolerant audience into thinking, reflecting, reassessing. Alas, in 1995 it is increasingly difficult to find tolerant and inquiring audiences. Instead, we hear proclamations: "How dare you say or write anything which offends me! If you say anything which offends me, attacks my ideas, or insults my group, I will complain." In higher education, where the outraged groups have been most vocal, this often results in instructors hesitating to mention these subjects in lectures or discussion; and, should these subjects come up, the cautious instructor will make certain that his views reflect those of his audience as much as possible; that is the path to tenure and promotion. The textbook writer will follow whatever is currently popular down the road to last non-challenging non-assertion and boring platitude; the professors know what type of research gets grants.

What is the threat to those academics who refuse to conform to what De Tocqueville (in 1830) called the "tyranny of the majority?" Nothing less than being deprived of employment. For what else is the point of complaining about an instructor's comments? A request for an apology? What would be the point of an apology? To have the offender admit being sorry for having offended the preconceived views of the majority and promising not to think independently again. It is strongly implied that repetition would mean the loss of employment.

How far will this demand for apologies go? Often as far as to complain about using the word "his" without the "/her" in the third paragraph. Of course, this is only true in the currently popular circles of "political correctness," which promotes unanimity of thought through the threat of labeling offenders racists, sexists, or Republicans. Its goal is to smooth the way to a more perfect society by eliminating any word, thought or action which might offend anyone in a multi-cultural society (for example, promoting religious observations, limiting any individual freedom, or suggesting that crime can be blamed on anything other than society's own shortcomings). It is sometimes the mirror image of the ultra-conservatives who want to create a more perfect society by promoting public recognition of religion's important role in setting moral standards, requiring good manners, and punishing criminal behavior. Alas, while conservatives too often chose spokesmen who seem to exude shallowness, vulgarity, and hypocrisy, liberal spokesmen often represent the least-common denominators in the American public. What these spokesmen have in common is a complete faith in their own virtue and a belief that their enemies are evil incarnate. Such fanaticism is a common fault of idealistsCthis allows the righteous to disregard inconvenient facts and ignore the common courtesy necessary for conventional rational discourse.

The reason that the debate on political correctness is more important in academic circles than popular mass conformism is that the threat from traditional McCarthyites is practically non-existent in first-class liberal arts colleges and major state universities (the p.c. elites do not care about cow colleges and bible schools because they despise the "common people" who teach and study there). The triumph of the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations was followed by a splintering of the victorious liberal forces, with ever more radical leaders thrusting themselves ahead of the moderates by 1) espousing the cause of groups newly aware of their opportunities to escape long-standing discrimination or perceived discrimination; 2) arguing for new government policies and more money to resolve problems which were more intractable than expected; 3) raising their sights to newer and more noble goals: not merely to repeal discriminatory laws and regulations, not merely to get out of an ill-conceived war, but to change the way we talk and think.

The unhappy fact is that we Americans are fundamentally very polite: we tend to give way to those who shout loudly. As a result, anyone who wants to get anything learns to shout back. (True terrorism, like true anarchism, is very rare in America; even street gangs posture more than they shoot, and the KKK rarely leaves the air conditioning nowadays.) The so-called political correctness debate has become a shouting match on some campuses, with an economic death threat hanging over the potential losers: a complaint to an intimidated administrator whose primary goal is to run a quiet campus (in order to raise enough money to keep the institution in existence). On other campuses the contest has been so totally won by one side that students are not even aware that an intellectual war has been foughtCand that they have lost.

It is possible for individuals of wildly differing political orientations to discuss ideas if those individuals believe in an established ideology that has defended itself over many decades or centuries in the give and take of debate, if they have at their command a set of generally accepted facts which approximate reality, or if they can speak from personal experience, especially if they have suffered for their cause. Today's conservative elite gives too much stress to conformist pieties (the right clothes, traditional sexual mores, attending religious services) to be popular on the mainstream academic scene. Their liberal equivalents emphasize feelings, second-hand experience, and (perhaps) guilt for having somehow missed out on real challenges of the past; they express individuality by looking and talking like everyone else who wants to upset their parents. There is no debate, because one can only debate ideas and facts, never feelings. One can't hurt facts; to concentrate on sensitivity, on not hurting anyone's feelings, guarantees victory for the side with the loudest feelings. Forget what the main point was. Object to the outrageous phrase. Control the debate by limiting what can be said and how it can be expressed.

The essence of totalitarianism is a lack of tolerance for anyone who is different. Among academics and students this intolerance is for anyone who calls up inconvenient facts, who utters a forbidden word, whose background is working class, whose accent is southern or rural. Who are the American successors of McCarthy? Aren't they those who intimidate by expressing instant outrage or who, by threatening to complain and demonstrate, stifle research which might offend them, snuff out dissenting ideas, discourage civil courage?

American McCarthyism is not characterized by its political orientation, but by its methods. The non-violent extremes of left and right have to be combatted by a genuine toleranceCone which allows people to be different, to have occasionally outrageous views, even to be a little humorous. Tolerance allows people faults, forgives shortcomings, looks for what is good in everyone's contributions.

God help us all (if such a phrase is allowed nowadays), if we don't develop a bit more tolerance.

The Essay within the Essay

The foregoing essay was written in November 1994 in the Czech Republic while I was directing the ACM\GLCA program, originally in response to some student comments, first about how McCarthyism was as bad as Stalinism, second about a female American not far from retirement age who was teaching English and Educational Theory at Palacky University and who had literally worked her way from the cotton patch to the professorate via the US Air Force. The first matter did not require extensive discussion, once we agreed that not all evil acts are equally evil. The second was more intractable. Because the woman was White and Southern, because she had the courage to speak her mind, because she did not try to disguise her accent or origin, because she did not affect the "cool" distance of educated people, a few of the students made fun of her gushy friendliness, her funny speech, her lack of the social graces, and the political and social opinions she had formed growing up and teaching in East Texas (anyone who has lived among real racists would know that her words and the way she used them were not in the redneck ball park). In the discussions I initiated concerning the students' lack of common courtesy (much less attempting to understand her or learn anything which she might have to offer), it became apparent that the problem was even deeper than it first appeared: even more so than the thoughtless comparison of McCarthy to Stalin, the cruel gibes reflected what is currently, 1994-1995, called Political Correctness.

In most ways, the students on the program were marvelousConly a very few engaged in the behind-the-back mocking and some of the others were embarrassed by their infantile behavior. Nevertheless, there was a common tendency among all the students to judge opinions and ideas on the basis of who said them, not whether the opinions might have any independent validity. In addition, their opinions about social issues were firmly fixed, at least at the beginning of the program. To give three examples: the Americans found it surprising difficult to understand that Czech women had little interest in feminist issues as defined in the West, especially as defined by American academics (having been in the workplace for five decades, Czech women wanted to stay home and be mothers); they tended to see the Gypsy issue as racism rather than a social-economic problem; and their intitial approach to ecological issues was to shut down the nuclear stations, no matter what the economic and ecological consequences. In the course of the program most of the students learned that the world is an even more complicated place than they had imagined; they opened up their minds to new ideas and learned to modify the preconceptions they had brought to EuropeCwithout abandoning their typically strong and typically American views on morality and fairness. A few had their world-view confirmedCthese students usually had more experience in life and a better idea of what they wanted to do after graduation. A small number learned facts, but never gave an inch on attitudesCto them the world remained essentially black and white, easily divided into good and evil along the lines of social class, accent, and accepted ways of thought. Alas, this group agreed with this essay 100%: they thought everyone else had the closed minds, and, more or less, they believed that they knew how those minds should be opened and what should be put into them.

What the ultimate meaning of this is, is hard to say. Was this an unusual group of students? Probably not. Did I spend a lot more time with this group than the ones I ordinarily have in class? You bet! Would the more radical students support a McCarthyite purge of Academe or even a Stalinist one? Well, one of the writers we studied, Milan Kundera, noted that the communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948 without using tanks because they had the overwhelming support of intellectuals and students who saw the world in simple terms, who could not imagine the evil which would follow, but who were very skilled at inventing ever-new defenses for ever-more illogical ideas. The intellectuals and students agreed with the suppression of freedom in 1948 for the sake of more freedom later. Later never came. Today, in 1995, many American intellectuals dismiss this all as Cold-War rhetoric; the real enemy, they suggest, are racist, sexist, linear-thinkers who fail to keep up with the latest twists of progressive thought.

In strong contrast to many professors on American campuses, the Americans who were teaching in the Czech Republic were profoundly worried by political correctness. All were able (nay, eager) to recount experiences, real horror tales, from their home campuses. Here were people who were multi-lingual, willing to live on minimum salary, teaching in a provincial university, in some cases working well past the age of retirement. Moreover, they knew what real racism, sexism, and national chauvinism were and in some cases had fought against those evils, sometimes at considerable personal perilCwho were very worried about the direction American academic life was taking. Ex-liberals all (i.e., their ideas had not changed, but they felt that radicals had stolen their most sacred ideals and changed them into something unrecognizable), they were now somewhat unconventional conservatives. One of their conclusions: too few American intellectuals have had true multi-cultural experiences: a semester in the Czech Republic (or almost anywhere else) would undermine the American-centeredness of the contemporary academic scene. A beer in Prague, a glass of wine in Italy, a taco south of the border won't do it.

Probably the academic expatriates in Olomouc are too optimistic. If students can resist the lessons available in a semester in Olomouc, what chance is there of opening the mind of scholars between the ages of thirty and fifty? Well, some. Who knows? At least, we planted some seeds among the elite of the upcoming generation which will perhaps sprout later, if somebody continues to water them.