Curt Schilling, Allan Bloom, and the Meaning of Political Correctness

Curt Schilling is a loud-mouth. This is not news. He has a long history of saying boorish and often stupid things. He is the kind of guy who compares Muslims to Nazis. Or complains about critical coverage with long, bizarre emails to the author questioning their integrity. Schilling wandered into the transgendered bathroom debate by sharing this image:

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 4.28.26 PM.png

He also added this comment:

A man is a man no matter what they call themselves. I don’t care what they are, who they sleep with, men’s room was designed for the penis, women’s not so much. Now you need laws telling us differently? Pathetic.

I wonder what sort of devices Curt Schilling thinks are in women’s restrooms that are not penis friendly? Or is he that guy that duces in the urinal under the misguided notion that these penis specific devices are all we are allowed to use? That Schilling is unable to see the world as a complicated place full of nuance is unsurprising. And somewhat forgivable– he’s just a silly ex-baseball player. As one would expect, the LGBTQ community and ESPN did not take his callous attitude towards transgendered people too well. Calls for his head lead to the standard corporate reaction of “this matter is under investigation” before his subsequent termination.

Schilling took to his blog to double-down on his statement. He was determined to die on the anti-PC cross he erected for himself:

Let’s make one thing clear right upfront. If you get offended by ANYTHING in this post, that’s your fault, all yours… This latest brew ha ha is beyond hilarious. I didn’t post that ugly picture. I made a comment about the basic functionality of men’s and women’s restrooms, period.

This is a common defense for people who like to consider themselves straight shooters who “tell it like it is” and generally act offensively in their online interactions. I don’t need to be accountable for the things I say or do, you need to grow thicker skin and deal with it. You see, it is not Curt Schilling’s fault that you find dishonestly portraying trans women this way and positing that they are a threat to your daughters (implying that they will sexually assault or otherwise harass them) offensive. It is your problem. Just like it is your problem when he equates Muslims to Nazis. Or when your racist coworker sends you a dumb chain email depicting Obama as a monkey. Stop being so sensitive!

Here is the thing about sensitivity– everyone has it. Well, maybe not sociopaths, but the rest of us do. Indeed, some of the loudest proponents of the anti-PC movement are also vigorous defenders of some identity, practice, or belief that is particular to them. People who tell me to get over some sexist or racist joke will turn around and complain about a blasphemous joke. Or the profane. Or about NASCAR. Why is it only ok to make fun of white Christians? My god, there is a war on Christmas! Apparently thick skin is only applicable to heathens.

Humor is tricky business. By its very nature, it pushes the boundaries of polite culture. When it is done well, it forces us to examine the nastier elements of our souls. Dave Chappelle was a master of this. Done poorly, it is Andrew Dice Clay or Dane Cook– vapid, self-congratulatory, and offensive for the sake of shock. Comedy that tackles the toughest subjects, race and gender among them, is often some of the funniest stuff out there. And nothing is off-limits. This doesn’t mean every joke is fair game. In fact, our idea of acceptable humor shifts all the time. How many people want to see the return of such classics like this:

Discerning the line isn’t always easy– though it certainly is in Schilling’s most recent case. Even the most well-intentioned person will make mistakes. A mature, responsible adult responds to criticism like Schilling received by reflecting on what they said, considering what people seem offended by, and in a case like this apologizing. Something like “I can see how that was an uncharitable way to portray trans people and that my statements showed a lack of insight into this debate. While I am opposed to the opening of public restrooms based on gender identification, I did not mean to demean the lives of trans people” would have basically defused the situation without abandoning his position. What Schilling and his ilk want is not freedom from the tyranny of the underclasses, he wants to be able to state his opinion loudly and offensively without blowback.

The hypocrisy of the anti-PC crusade is apparent to all but the most partisan of onlookers. No one likes being disparaged, misrepresented, or exploited. Basic notions of morality tell us that we should not seek to damage people in such needless and careless ways. But that is not how people like Curt Schilling (or nearly everyone I know) view PC. To them, political correctness is a liberal excess, turning the laudable desire to undo the codified language of racism and sexism in American society into a silencing weapon against dissenting opinion. Their anger stems from the notion that allowing for a plurality of viewpoints and identities in America is limiting and damaging to “traditional” or dominant culture and poses a threat to free-thinking (as though racism and misogyny do not).

However, the idea of political correctness is largely misunderstood. If you asked most people you know they would probably tell you it is a leftist movement to strip speech of offensive or objectionable material. Historically, this is nonsense. The phrase is an outgrowth of anti-Stalinist thought in the communist party post-WWII. It has been adopted and reappropriated many times since. The identity politics of the New Left in the 1970s used it satirically– it was more of an inside joke than a rallying cry. The contemporary use of the phrase comes from the 1980s conservative counter-reaction to the liberalism of the 60s and 70s. To understand what the term means you need to understand where it came from. And there is no better place to start than with Allan Bloom’s 1987 ahistorical travesty, The Closing of the American Mind.

allanbloomtwo5102011.jpg

While Bloom’s book was a best seller, few people who cite it or scream about the abuses of PC culture seem to have read his argument. And since I think no one should be subjected to this trash at full length, I’ll give you the highlights. Bloom’s thesis is that the American universities of the 70s and 80s were failing students. New advances in philosophy and the humanities, namely relativism, were undermining traditional culture. Without the traditional curriculum leading students to detached enlightenment, students (and thus society) are left to worship at the vulgar altar of pop culture. In a world where all people and ideas have value, none have value, thus, the students of the day are left without a moral basis for living their lives. I’ll leave it to the people of my parent’s generation to decide for themselves whether or not Bloom accurately described their “pathetic” lives (his judgment, not mine).

To break that down a little further, Bloom was fundamentally pissed about two things: 1) That the “Great Books” and the myth of Western Civilization were being undone by people like the feminists (he really hates feminism) and anti-colonialists. 2) That universities (and American culture at large) were being made vulgar by democratization.

This is completely insane. For one, the “Great Books” and Western Civilization canon that he pines for was itself derided when it became the focus of literature and history courses in the late 19th century. His traditional curriculum was itself a modernist revolution, replacing the old Latin curriculum with works more relevant to the world of the period. This sort of ahistorical thinking is common to nearly every conservative defense of tradition in education. And the idea that American culture, whatever the hell Bloom thought that was, was being degraded by the elevation of popular (or common) culture over high culture is equally laughable. American culture has ALWAYS been more common than high– read any European scholar or visitor’s take on American literature, theater, art, music, or culture during the early Republic. They are not singing the praises of our high masters…

For Bloom, the democratization of higher education, with the influx of women, people of color, and those of lower standing in wealth and social position was perverting the traditional purpose of the university: the pursuit of fixed, eternal truths. Bloom is quite forward about the elitist nature of his argument

It consists of thousands of students of comparatively high intelligence, materially and spiritually free to do pretty much what they want with the few years of college they are privileged to have—in short, the kind of young persons who populate the twenty or thirty best universities. There are other kinds of students whom circumstances of one sort or another prevent from having the freedom required to pursue a liberal education. They have their own needs and may very well have very different characters from those I describe here. My sample, whatever its limits, has the advantage of concentrating on those who are most likely to take advantage of a liberal education and to have the greatest moral and intellectual effect on the nation. It is sometimes said that these advantaged youths have less need of our attention and resources, that they already have enough. But they, above all, most need education, inasmuch as the greatest talents are most difficult to perfect, and the more complex the nature the more susceptible it is to perversion.

The population of American universities changed rapidly after the 1950s (the time to which Bloom and seemingly all contemporary conservatives nostalgically look back to as a time of greatness– when the white male fantasyland of Leave it to Beaver reigned supreme!– nevermind how narrow and unrealistic this idea was). When Bloom was writing this in the late 80s, enrollment in undergraduate higher education in the United States has increased by almost 400% from where it was in the 1950s. And this actually marked a slowdown in the expansion of higher education, as it rose by nearly 3000% from 1860-1940! Bloom laments this growth, believing that only those who have the material means to be “liberated” from work or vulgar concerns like future employment were truly able to take advantage of a liberal education and were the people we should concentrate our curriculum and resources around.

Does anyone want to defend this position?

If you are an anti-PC, conservative cultural warrior you already are. Bloom’s thesis is the heart of your movement.

His sloppy appeal to the wisdom of the ancients, his complaints about the cultural confusion brought on by the proliferation of non-dominant points of view, a supposed lowering of standards (I assure you that academics have thought their students were feckless, lazy, stupid, and less worthy than their generation from the earliest days of professional education), his lament that the holy word of the Bible no longer ruled in the hearts and minds of the masses, and his belief that higher education is the purview of the aristocratic class are all part of the conservative critique on culture and education in America today.

Adherents to Bloom’s worldview look down on ethical concerns and the search for social justice. Indeed, the phrase social justice is a punchline to contemporary conservatives. Universities, in their minds, are complicit in this perversion, as they have grown more concerned with training citizens to be more ethically reflective or by searching for better moral or political or economic theories rather than pursuing immutable truths. For Bloom, higher education (and leadership in American culture and life) belongs to the elite, eschewing the notion that citizens should be committed to protecting and promoting a plurality of “the good life(s)” (the essence of citizenship in a democratic society). In the Bloomian mind, morality and justice are the tawdry concerns of common people, too concerned with this Earthly life and ignorant of the greater mysteries of the universe. Bloom derisively attributed these concerns to political correctness. The phrase stuck and became a rallying cry for conservatives who disliked changes being made to American society in the name of feminists, minorities, LGBTQ, and non-religious (more specifically, non-evangelical Christian) people.

This is the hill Curt Schilling chose to die on. This is what you fight for every time you express your displeasure with political correctness. This fraudulent theory is morally, ethically, and politically bankrupt. It promotes a worldview more in line with Louis XIV’s than Thomas Jefferson’s. By all means, continue bitching about how you can’t be a dick with impunity, how terrible it is that the world keeps changing, and the horrible damage being done by letting women and racial, ethnic, sexual, and gendered minorities have access to both de facto and de jure aspects of citizenship. But know that it makes you a fundamentally undemocratic person. To be anti-PC is to be fundamentally unAmerican.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s