Revolt of the Primitive: An Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness

Preface to the Paperback Edition

Transaction Publishers, 2003


   This exploration of political correctness, originally published in May 2001, could have been made irrelevant by the attack on the World Trade Center. As it turned out, the PC machine hardly missed a beat. Rather than being troubled by the collapse of the World Trade Center, the political correctness establishment felt vindicated. We had it coming, they were happy to tell us.


   If their hatred of our society is a passion that leaves the majority of us cold, it is still important to recognize that their position at the fulcrum of our educational and cultural systems provides leverage through which a great deal of damage can be done. What is now clear is that by making the honest discussion of important security issues impossible, and by subjecting us all to the unrelenting litany of how bad we are, political correctness is making it difficult to mobilize the realism, the positive feeling about ourselves, and indeed the aggression that we will need in our defense. PC has revealed itself as being a matter of life and death.


   The understanding of political correctness must first proceed through the recognition of how strange it is. Nothing illustrates that strangeness better than the PC response to September 11. From the immediacy of the response, from its total lack of feeling for those who had been killed, from its shrillness and schadenfreude, from its bizarre assumption that the willful murder of thousands represented a righteous response to the United States, it had to be clear that the forces of political correctness have to be understood in a different way than we typically understand political behavior. How could they live in a country and have so little feeling for their compatriots? How could the fact that Al Qaeda and its cousins were trying to kill them have evaded their comprehension? How could they imagine that providence would choose such an odious gang as an agent of moral retribution? When one of them, a recent president of the American Historical Association, said  "I'm not sure which is more frightening, the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the White House," how could one not ask whether these people have any sense of proportion.


     It is this lack of proportion that is the key to understanding here. As I argue later on, lack of proportion suggests the presence of a transference: a response to a present event from within a more primitive stage of our development, when the proportions of things, as we experienced them, really were different. If we want to understand the response of the PC crowd to the attack on the World Trade Center, we need first to understand that it has little to do with the attack on the World Trade Center.


   What does it have to do with, then?


   My book is an attempt to answer this question. But it does so generally and abstractly. For the present, I’d like to approach the matter in a more limited, but also more personal way. I’ll begin by relating an incident.


    During the sixties, and continuing into the seventies, I was a graduate student in philosophy at UCSD. Like many at the time, though not so many as you’d think from hearing faculty talk about it now, I was a radical.


   Conversations in our radical community revolved around what we called The Revolution. But as the period wore on, I began to have disturbing thoughts. Try as I might, I could not figure out how there could be a revolution, given the realities of our time. I began to pass those doubts around. Most of my friends simply ignored my arguments, but one day I had a conversation that turned out to be different. It was with a guy I’ll call Jack. Jack took what I was saying seriously and seemed distressed by it.  At some point he developed a faraway look. “There has to be a revolution,” he said. “If there isn‘t a revolution, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”


   I remember that statement precisely because I felt much the same way. Even not believing that there would be a revolution, I also did not know what, in the absence of a revolution, I was going to do.


   I believe Jack was speaking for more than himself and me. I think we can generalize to the radicals of our time. Our incapacity to imagine a future for ourselves without the revolution was a feature of who we were, and it remains so for many. I believe it is the place to look to understand the PC response to September 11.


  In that time, and carried forward until now, we radicals looked with scorn on anyone who was thought to have “sold out.” The incapacity to imagine a future without the revolution was deeply related to the injunction against selling out. That is not to say that this failure of imagination was the ideological consequence of the injunction against selling out. We were not standing on principle; we were confused. We were not saying we would not imagine, but that we could not.


   But what was selling out? What was sold? And who bought it? I have thought about this over the years and have come to the conclusion that what was sold was our self, and who bought it was everyone else, or rather the way in which everyone else related to everyone else.


   I base this conclusion on the central image of my aversion to selling out, which was the view I had of my father. That my father had sold out was a belief I came to early in life, and I early on resolved that I would never be like him.  He was a pharmacist. He sold things, and I could tell that the person he was at work did not represent who he was and how he really felt. For one thing, he did his job, not as self-expression, but just in order to make money. That money was the price he was paid for forsaking his desires, and for that reason I thought of it with utter disdain. Moreover, his personality at work was geared to increase the probability that customers would buy something. He had, in effect, put himself up for sale, not just the things he sold. He had turned himself into a commodity.


   I would sophisticate that now. I would say he put himself into the system of exchange and of the interdependencies and obligations to which it gives rise, the system of social norms, of shared meanings, ultimately of language and culture. He had come to see himself in terms of meanings that could apply to anyone – as an object rather than a subject. He had given up his identity to form part of the system, and hence, so far as I could see, disappeared. To me, that was death itself. “The letter,” Lacan’s term for the language of which our shared meanings are made, “kills.” The problem was that shared meaning only works if it works for everyone who shares it.  It had no place for my absolute and cosmic uniqueness. Narcissism and shared meaning do not cohabit very well.


   My resolution that I would not be like my father, then, represented my refusal to subordinate my unique self to the system of exchange that he represented. The problem was that the human world is made out of that system. Ordinarily, a father would have represented an idea, a first approximation, of being a person in the world. Rejecting him and what he represented left me without a sense of a future identity that would help me chart a course into that future.  Meaning, for me, could only come from my impulses of the moment.


   That was not a bad deal, I thought at the time. I was certainly not alone in this. The mutual life in our radical community was a celebration of those impulses, and of the possibilities and realities that their mutual satisfaction could provide. Over time, our lives even became a celebration of that celebration. Who would not celebrate it? The sex was good. The food was good. The sense of community was good. It was not clear to me that there was anything more, or at least anything more worth having.


   Yet one should not conclude from this that I was a happy guy. Impulses are pretty unreliable as a source of meaning, and after you’ve got them reasonably satisfied … what? For me, the answer was quite a considerable depression, which is to say a feeling of meaninglessness that was with me most of the time. The only form of life I could manage that gave me a framework of meaning and relieved me of the depression was to fight against the world of selling out, the nexus of exchange that seemed to threaten me. “Life against death,” as Norman O. Brown had it.


   I called that political activity. I loved it and felt that it united me with everyone else who felt, or could have been imagined to feel, threatened by the world of exchange, of shared meaning, and by everyone who increased its power by ordering their lives in accordance with it. Overcome that power and we would banish death. Then we could all live our lives in spontaneity, like children at perpetual play. That was what we meant by The Revolution.


    For better or worse, I couldn’t manage to stay in that condition. I think I had this form of alienation in a more debilitating form than most. The professional discipline of completing my PhD in philosophy was beyond me. Others managed it quite well. Many of them were what we now call “red-diaper babies,” and therefore had their own parents as models for a life based on alienation from the system. Others solved the problem of not being able to imagine the future simply by living from day to day, doing what they were doing, and growing older. In either case, they got their degrees and took their professional positions. They created whole philosophies, whole social theories expressing their alienation, finally coming to serve as the models of scholarly work and integrity within a university rededicated in their image.


   Now, speaking in the name of this university, they tell us that they are more frightened by George Bush than by Osama bin Laden. They really are, and they always were. Bin Laden’s rage doesn’t threaten their alienation. On the contrary, his rage is directed against the very system that threatens to subsume them. They share this rage and the rage defines them. He is not simply the enemy of their enemy; he is their brother.


   And their fellow countrymen are not. The United States is the father writ large. America, as they see it, is the organized process of selling out. They refuse to have anything to do with it. Indeed, they have organized their lives around not having anything to do with it. The Americans who represent the United States in their mind are those who have sold out to the system and who therefore no longer exist as unique individuals. On the contrary, they are the system and therefore represent death. It is only with those individuals who refuse to sell out that our intellectuals can identify and find commonality.  Only those who defy subordination to the system, and everything of which it is built  – norms, sense, reason itself – only those who assert and insist upon their unconditional freedom in the face of all constraint, can be said to be alive. Even on September 11th, only they could be objects of empathy. The agents of exchange who worked in the World Trade Center? Well, they had it coming. And besides that, they were already dead.


   The world of political correctness is built out of paradoxes. The cry for resistance to enculturation becomes a powerful cultural element. The corporations that radicals saw thirty years ago, and see today, as the very organisms of “selling out” line up solidly in the column of a political correctness whose politics are set by those very radicals. The revolt of freedom against shared meaning becomes, through the coercion of political correctness, the only meaning; shared perhaps, but only by default. The revolt of life against death leads to an orgiastic embrace of self-destruction. The social world comes to be held together by a suicide pact.


   I did not become reconciled with my father while he was alive. I mourn him now and I try to imagine what he might have said to me if I had ever asked him to defend the world of exchange, of mutual obligation, of which he was a part.


   He might have said this in defense of the world of exchange: The world was not built to love us. It is not our mother. We all need others to sustain us, and they will not do it on our terms, but only on theirs. Yet entering into the world of exchange does not mean the end of our lives, only an increment in our understanding of ourselves. The mutual connections, the commonalities, the accommodations, the limitations that the world imposes increase the range of our possibilities; they provide us with the dimensions of identity that the world has spent its history in developing. Indeed, this would be so even if they served only as patterns against which we could assert our difference. Ultimately our exchanges, our interdependencies, our obligations, even our subjugations, define us in the only ways in which we can be of interest, even to ourselves.  


    The letter kills, you say, but what does it kill? Who were you when you were so frightened of death at its hand? Pretty paltry, if I may say: protoplasm, appetite, morbid confusion, and a sense of your own cosmic importance that was anchored in nothing. In truth, the letter threatened only your grandiosity, and that wasn’t much. You can say the letter kills, if you like. It has a certain drama. But you should also know that for humans only the letter gives life. We are with the letter, whether we like it or not.


Milford, Michigan

February, 2003