Political correctness is gelding liberalism, as Jonathan Chait recently observed. A punitive spirit of denunciation haunts pretty much any conversation among liberals. We’ve seen it for a generation in higher education. Now social media allows the harpies of political correctness to troll for transgressions, ready to ramp up the volume of denunciation should someone slip up.
I saw this in action when I recently spoke at a conference hosted by the Trinity Church here in New York. The topic was economic inequality. The afternoon session featured Barbara Ehrenreich. Her talk drew on material from her 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, which recounts her experiences working with and among the poor.
What Ehrenreich had to say was long on anecdote and short on analysis. But there’s no question that her stories are representative. The rules of the game in America have been changing over the last generation. It’s now very tough to make your way in the global economy with a high school degree.
During the discussion I made some points about how a Sixties-inspired deconstruction of middle-class manners and morals contributes significantly to the disorientation and dysfunction of today’s working class. Ehrenreich tends to speak as if there’s a coordinated effort to “criminalize” poverty, which seemed to me simple-minded. But I admire her genuine concern about what’s undoubtedly one of the fundamental challenges we face in America today.
Then another panelist, Traci West, a professor of Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University, intervened to denounce the entire thrust of Ehrenreich’s presentation and the discussion. Her charge: We were ignoring women of color, transgendered homeless youth, and others. My own statements about the way in which the decline of marriage contributes to the difficulties facing the working class were singled out as suggesting that unmarried women with children were somehow responsibleblaming the victim.
I’m used to being denounced in this way. In any event, I don’t think West was interested in addressing me. Her real concern seemed to be to reprimand the liberal audience and prevent them from being distracted from what really matters, which is race, gender, sexual identity, and so forth. Ehrenreich’s response was what West expected. Ehrenreich accepted the public spanking and offered the usual apologies. “What I said in no way was meant to exclude. . . .”
My first reaction was a smug satisfaction that Ehrenreich had become a victim of left-wing friendly fire. Later, as I thought more about the incident, I came to see how bad the identity-politics of denunciation is for our body politic. We need a debate about what we can do about the erosion of middle-class life in America. (If in fact we can do much.) But as Chait points out, that debate among liberals gets short-circuited pretty quickly by identity politics.
This is not a problem I can help solve. Almost all liberals treat conservatives as wicked people. Our voices don’t count. It’s going to take some moral seriousness and political courage among liberals to put an end to the reign of terror. I hope they find both.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.