Richard Bernstein

On Being Politically Correct

VTR Date: October 13, 1994

Guest: Bernstein, Richard


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Richard Bernstein
Title: “On Being Politically Correct”
VTR: 10/13/94

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And I can’t help but be enormously taken with Saul Bellow’s insight when, in parsing the provocative ideas expressed in a new book by my guest today, he refers to witch-hunting as a perennial American passion now associated with progress and fairness. Well, what Saul Bellow means, of course, is that in the name of progress, in the service of combating racism and sexism, and for the sake of treating Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and other minorities more fairly by way of achieving something akin to equality in our marketplace of goods and services, witch-hunting today too often undermines the free marketplace of ideas. All of this, of course, in the service of what my guest, New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein calls “A Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future”, the title of his angry, new Alfred A. Knopf book.

Mr. Bernstein and I clashed swords recently in The Times when he wrote – and I challenged – his disparaging critique of Robert Redford’s film, Quiz Show, as “ironically distorting truth for the sake of entertainment, just as television’s quiz-show schlockmeisters had distorted truth in the 1950s in presumably the same cause”. To me, that parallel was rather far-fetched. So that Mr. Bernstein and I can simply agree to disagree on this point.

Concerning his new book, however, given his abundant evidence, from the words and deeds of the multiculturalists themselves, along with his own abundant anger, to be sure, it’s hard to read Mr. Bernstein’s new “Dictatorship of Virtue” without fearing, just as he does, that the slide in revolutionary France 200 years ago from liberty, equality and fraternity to the fanaticism, dogmatism and dictatorship of the Reign of Terror very much finds its unhappy parallels today in intolerance and witch-hunting in the name of political correctness and multiculturalism.

To be sure, these parallel paths presented by Mr. Bernstein are illumined by anecdotes. And he, himself, has a good deal to say about anecdotes in his new book. Let me read: “What is the value of an anecdote? People advocating one position in the ongoing culture wars, accuse their critics of circulating the same few stories and falsely proclaiming that they make concrete and otherwise abstract descriptions of American life. An incident of racism is all that is needed for the bearers of the new consciousness to proclaim the inescapable inequity of American life. At the same time, every outrage perpetrated in the name of the battle against racism and sexism is used to discredit the entire battle, rather than seen as an isolated instance of slippage of excessive zeal in a good cause”.

Well, given that definition of the value of an anecdote, I want to ask you, Richard, why do you use quite so many, and why do you base your book, as you do, upon them?

BERNSTEIN: Well, you could have read the next paragraph, Mr. Heffner.

HEFFNER: I could have, but didn’t.

BERNSTEIN: I’m troubled by anecdotes. And I wrestled with this issue as I wrote the book. The issue that I’m trying to deal with here is one that has so many different manifestations. It’s a kind of sensibility. It’s an attitude that’s been gathering force in American life since the 1960s at least, and in fact, I think it has its roots, and you talked about Mr. Bellow’s phrase, “witch-hunting”: I think it has its roots actually in Puritan moralism that goes back to the seventeenth century settlers in North America. And it’s a sensibility that expresses itself in so many different ways that the only way that I found to describe it was to tell stories, to be descriptive, to use anecdotes. It troubles me, because especially in some of the more extreme instances of witch-hunting, the debate about political correctness can, in a way, be sidetracked by that. So that people can say, “Well, of course, there are always excesses, but, you know, we just deal with those excesses, and there’s really no other problem”. What I try to do in the book is show that those excesses reflect a more, sort of, everyday witch-hunting, if you want to use that word, that operates in a lot of the elite institutions of society, and, you know, it’s kind of covered us over with a thick cloud of sanctimony. It doesn’t necessarily produce some of the kinds of incidents that I describe in that particular chapter, a series of incidents and anecdotes, but I do think that there’s a kind of normative discourse that’s also politically correct and doesn’t get noticed that much.

HEFFNER: Do you think this has to do with Dick Hofstadter’s paranoia…why his description of our political paranoia or intellectual paranoia?

BERNSTEIN: I haven’t thought about it in terms of Hofstadter. I do think about it as in terms of the moralism of American life. But I also see it as kind of conjunctural with a certain history. One of the parts of the book that I particularly like is a little analysis that I do of the movies. We can get into our former discussion about the movies. But is seems to me that there are certain icons of the movies that have changed from the fifties until now that really reflect the change in the sensibility of the inhabitants of the elite institutions. So you’ve got the space invader, for example, once a symbol of all that was evil in American life or in life, a symbol, you know, that the other was a menacing creature, usually technologically superior and superior also in its ruthlessness. And from there you do to a kind of an E.T. character. E.T. is really a kind of science fiction version of the Jesus Christ story. So that the other, the space invader, becomes the symbol of all that is good and virtuous in the universe, and we, the earthlings, are foolish, stupid. And I think that that really is a reflection of a, kind of a, what Nietzsche might call a transvaluation of values that took place in the 1960s, when a lot of people grew up during that period, came of political age during that period, began to think of the United States as a place where the inequity outweighed the virtue. And I think that some of the zealousness involved in what the advocates of multiculturalism think is the struggle for equality is reflected in that underlying transvaluation of values, or a very different way of looking at the country.

HEFFNER: Well, I remember when Anna Quindlen was here, oh, I guess it must have been two years ago, and I started to talk about multiculturalism or started to talk about political correctness. And she rather pooh-poohed it. Now, do you think this was a manifestation of an unwillingness on our part, really, to deal with the intolerance that has grown up on the campus and that you describe chapter and verse, chapter and verse?

BERNSTEIN: Well, I mean, I’m sure that Anna Quindlen and I don’t agree on this. I admire her a great deal and I like her a great deal, but I do feel that she has something of a blind spot on this subject. And I think that she does, for me, represent a kind of very articulate embodiment of the culture of victimization that I think underlies the whole movement of multiculturalism and I try to describe in a lot of different ways in the book. That is, one of the, and there’s a chapter, “The Search for Sin”, if you remember, where I talk about the exaggeration of racism and attendant –isms like sexism and heterosexism and lookism and ageism and all kinds of –isms that have been invented in order to demonstrate how evil American life it, and also to give jobs to the people who are staffing, you know, the army of bureaucrats that are fighting against these evils. In fact, there are a lot of people like Anna Quindlen who don’t seem to take, who don’t seem to feel alarmed by that. I don’t know why she doesn’t feel alarmed. I find it a little bit strange that there’s an unrecognition of the fact that we’ve gone through an incredible revolution in this country in the last 25, 30,40 years on the subjects of sexual equality and racial justice. And, you know, you listen to some of the multiculturalists, you would think that we’re still in the 1950s and that nothing has happened.

HEFFNER: But that’s a theme that runs through your book: “If you listen to them, you’d think nothing has happened”. Aren’t you sympathetic at all to those people who feel that not enough ahs happened?

BERNSTEIN: I am sympathetic. I’m not…This is a hard subject to address because it’s so easy to be misunderstood. You know, Harold Bloom, in his new book, has talked about feeling that we live in an occupied country, and, you know, you have to be very careful about what you say, and a little bit apologetic about what you say, because you’re afraid that you might offend the occupiers, the moral occupiers. And the moral occupiers are very ready to jump up and say, “Well, you know, you’re unsympathetic to the strivings towards equality of minorities and women. You have nostalgia for the good old days when the White males reigned supreme”. Although I must say that White males from my particular background certainly didn’t reign supreme, and I’m not exactly a member of the privileged class. So that…of course, I’m sympathetic. On an individual basis, I’m just as angry about discrimination and prejudice and inequalities as any other person that walks the globe. But I don’t think that it helps the cause of equality to throw around the use of the word “racism” promiscuously, or to confuse a lot of other, kind of, everyday problems of life with a sine that’s equal to racism. You know, there’s a tremendous, sort of, active conflation taking place where racism, which is a unique evil in American history, becomes the model for heterosexism, or even sexism, whatever you might want to say about the inequalities of women. I think I have a line in the book something to the effect that it’s true that both Blacks and women have been oppressed in America, but Blacks were oppressed by being hung from trees, and women were oppressed by being put on pedestals. And it’s not the same thing.

HEFFNER: But, you know, you’ve just said something that indicates that there’s another question for me to ask. And that is: Wouldn’t you get further in your criticism of the anti-intellectualism that’s represented here, or the refusal to accept your view, if you were less angry and less in full battle formation when you deal with these people?

BERNSTEIN: Well, I was struck by your use of the word “angry”, because I believe you, if that’s the impression that you got from the book…

HEFFNER: You’re darned tootin’ it’s the impression. (Laughter)

BERNSTEIN: …I’m sure that it’s a valid impression. I didn’t think of myself as angry. And in fact, I feel that I went out of my way to make sure that in the battles that I describe and in the stories that I tell that the other side has its say and that I try also to understand with a kind of critical sympathy where the other side is coming from, even at the same time as I do, I editorialize and I let the reader know where I stand on this issue. But I don’t try to exclude, or I certainly don’t misrepresent, I hope, other people.

HEFFNER: But maybe that’s the trouble with the anecdotal approach. That what you have here is case study after case study after case study of horrendous events in which those who want to push political correctness have done in what our earlier freedoms had always been, have been, extraordinarily irrational and dumb things that you couldn’t possibly applaud. But you end up with an indictment that has so many facets to it that it’s mind-boggling. I don’t think you’re wrong in what you write. My assumption is that if one checked through every fact here, whether it had to do with the case in New Hampshire or it had to do with a school board somewhere else, they’d check out completely.

BERNSTEIN: Uh huh. Well, I mean, I guess I don’t agree completely with your characterization of the book as “entirely anecdote after anecdote”, as though there’s no general statements in the book at all, or no reference at all to…

HEFFNER: Oh, no, no. What…

BERNSTEIN: …large, you know, to statistics, you know, larger studies or things like that.

HEFFNER: No, I mean, when you begin with what you call “Notebook, Chapter 4”, that’s when, obviously it’s quite appropriate for you to document what you’ve said.

But let me move away from that for a moment and just ask: Where are we going to go with this? How are we going to get out of this contest?

BERNSTEIN: Well, you know, actually, I feel that, I see some signs that things might be changing a little bit and that some of that tendency of Americans to take the normal abrasions of life as criminal offenses that need to be prosecuted by a whole army of bureaucratic prosecutors, I see some of that ebbing a little bit. And I think that the key to it is just not to be intimidated. In other words, not to behave like we’re in an occupied country. The chapter that I have at the very end – I know that a reader has to get through quite a lot in order to reach that point – but those that stick with me will come to a chapter called “The Empty Fortress”…

HEFFNER: Excuse me. Don’t make this sound like a trial.

BERNSTEIN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: This is an extraordinarily interesting book.

BERNSTEIN: My natural modesty was surging forward. No, of course, I…

HEFFNER: Enough with the modesty.

BERNSTEIN: …I hope that people will read the whole thing. But “The Empty Fortress”…And, in fact, I think that the two chapters at the end, if I can make a little advertisement for myself, “The Battle of Brookline”, and the Texas chapter are really, I found them to be absolutely gripping stories to study and to report. I hope that they’re good stories to read also.

HEFFNER: Sure, but when you finish reading them, you want to go out and kill the people in Brookline and in Texas.

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, but don’t forget that in both Brookline and Texas the good guys won ultimately. So that, and I chose those chapters intentionally because the good side won. I wanted to show that the battle can be fought and the battle can be won. And the way to fight the battle is not to be apologetic about good, old-fashioned liberal values, and not to be intimidated by the bearers of this new orthodoxy who will accuse you, not just of being wrong, but of being evil if you don’t agree with them. I know that I’m not evil, I know that I’m not a racist, I know where I was during the Civil Rights Movement, and I don‘t have to apologize for…I don‘t have to behave like I’m in an occupied country.

HEFFNER: You know, I don’t know why I’m bringing up Anna Quindlen’s name again. But she did a piece in which a phrase stuck with me. And that is – and now it’s driven from my mind by commenting on it – “Familiarity breeds content”.

BERNSTEIN: Oh, content, yeah.

HEFFNER: Not contempt; but content.

BERNSTEIN: Right. I saw that.

HEFFNER: And there was a sympathy there that I wonder whether we don’t have to incorporate in our dealings with the people who are pushing an idea that you and I find repulsive, being politically correct. “How can you be politically incorrect?” you would say, and I would say. But in terms of what appears in textbooks, in terms of images in the media, we’re dealing with people who are, to a large extent, invisible or totally discriminated against, whether you’re talking about minorities who are Hispanic or Black, or women, and you say being condemned to, being put on a pedestal wasn’t exactly to be equated with being hanged. You’re right. But these people, these groups, individual, individual members have that feeling of having been left out. And don’t you have to be more sympathetic with them rather than attack the results of their feeling? Don’t you have to deal with what Anna Quindlen said about “familiarity breeding content” if they find themselves on reading lists, if they find themselves elevated in a away that perhaps reason and logic wouldn’t elevate them, doesn’t that lead to an acceptance of our society as not one of victims but rather one of basically equals?

BERNSTEIN: Well, but when you say, first of all, “they”, the oppressed, are on reading lists.

HEFFNER: What, people who feel oppressed?

BERNSTEIN: Well, again, you put me in a difficult spot with a question like that. There’s a little bit of a kind of, you know, “When did you stop beating your wife” aspect to that. Because I don’t want to deny that there are people who are disadvantaged. I’m not sure that I like the use of the word “oppression”. People are disadvantaged. They’re disadvantaged by background, they’re disadvantaged by history, they’re disadvantaged by present circumstance, and they’re disadvantaged by discrimination.

HEFFNER: It’s the latter group, that last group that we’re talking about.

BERNSTEIN: Okay. But, okay, then nonetheless, how do you characterize the society? Do you characterize the society as a place where discrimination, racism, and prejudice are the inherent characteristics? Or do you characterize it as a country that has fought a historically unprecedented battle, and a battle that has had some success, against prejudice, discrimination, and racism? And, you know, so that if you accept the…I believe that we should pursue the values of the Civil Rights Movement, that we should continue to fight against real discrimination and real oppression, and that we should distinguish between what is real oppression and what is a kind of manufactured sort of rage that’s aimed at gaining bureaucratic advantage. It doesn’t help in the fight against discrimination and oppression to, I don’t know, to put writers on reading lists because of their racial or sexual representativeness rather than because of their quality. And I don’t think that we should buy the argument that this is in some way redressing the history of oppression.

HEFFNER: Why do you say “manufactured rage”?

BERNSTEIN: Because I think if, and again, if, you know, you read some of the anecdotes, some of the stories that I tell, I think that that accusation, especially the racism and sexism accusations, are used really kind of cynically by a multicultural bureaucracy to press for with a radical political agenda. And that there’s a climate, especially on the campuses – and the press, I think, is complicit in this by not being skeptical enough about some of these claims – there’s a climate on the campuses and elsewhere in life of a sort of exaggerated aggrievement. So, you know, that justifies the creation of these, you know, armies of judicial officers and campus prosecutors who are going to maintain the speech codes and the behavior codes which, in the name of fighting against oppression, actually pose a threat to the First Amendment and to genuine discourse and free debate in American life.

HEFFNER: All right. Now, let’s get back to the point which you made before in which you sort of felt there might be a sort of slackening-off of this.

BERNSTEIN: I was encouraged in that sense by the outcome of the case in New Hampshire. You know, I talk about the professor of writing in New Hampshire, a tenured professor of 30 years who was kicked out of the university for a year and required to undergo psychotherapy with a psychotherapist chosen by the sexual harassment officer at the university because he mad a couple of remarks in class that were deemed to have constituted sexual harassment. And there was a whole, I mean, it’s a long story and it takes a number of pages to tell in the book, and I’m sure I don’t have time to go into all the details, but briefly, he was fed to the wolves in order to satisfy the campus militants.

HEFFNER: But it was the courts…

BERNSTEIN: And the courts recently, in the last few weeks, ordered the university to reinstate him in his position, and said that h is First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated. And I think that’s a message that this kind of thing is going too far. And I think there have been other messages.

HEFFNER: You think it will be heard?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, because I mean. I think also that some of the, you know, some of the things again, you know, one of my main chapters involves the University of Pennsylvania where I think the dictatorship of virtue operated in a lot of different and interesting ways. And again, that climate of aggrievement and victimization and the “manufacture of rage” and all of that were very much present on the scene at the University of Pennsylvania. And after ignoring this kind of thing for quite a while, I think that the media have now really started to report on incidents like that. So that what’s been going on, in a way, kind of in the shadows, now, is going on with a bit of a journalistic spotlight on it, and I think it makes it more difficult for that to happen.

HEFFNER: What’s the reaction generally to the kinds of things you write about as your write about them?

BERNSTEIN: Well, I guess it’s kind of polarized. I’m getting bashed a little bit by the left, which is a little sad for me, because I think of myself as on the left, actually. The good left, you know, the…

HEFFNER: The old left.

BERNSTEIN: Not the old left. I mean, you know, the democratic left of liberal principles that believed in Martin Luther King…

HEFFNER: That’s the old left.

BERNSTEIN: Well, when we were the new left in the Sixties, we thought the old left was, you know, sort of, Gus Hall and the American Communist Party.


BERNSTEIN: The new left was Martin Luther King’s, you know, amazing statement in Washington in 1963 that, you know, “I dream of the day when my children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters”. And I think that what multiculturalism is doing is pushing us to judge people by, again, by the color of their skin, and not as self-fashioning individuals. And in that sense, I am a member of the sort of Martin Luther King left. But anyway, I’m sorry, I’ve gone off the track.

HEFFNER: No, no, you haven’t gotten off the track. You’ve described it perfect. We’re almost at the end of our time, and I just wanted to say that I still kind of feel that the recitation of these cases makes you sound so much more, so much angrier and less understanding and less one of those who stood at the barricades with Martin Luther King. It seems to me it would be a wonderful thing if there could be this accommodation of positions here, not an accommodation of the limitation of free speech, not an accommodation of victimization. But I must say that I hope everyone reads “The Dictatorship of Virtue”. And multiculturalism and the battle for America’s future, if you had to make a bet, who’s going to win that battle?

BERNSTEIN: Well, my last chapter, “The Empty Fortress”, makes a prediction. I think that this too will pass.

HEFFNER: Richard Bernstein, thank you so much for joining me on THE OPEN MIND.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.