[The Montana Professor 1.2, Spring 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Political Correctness and the Canon

William Plank
Foreign Language and Literature
Eastern Montana College

Cultural pluralism and legalism

Twenty-five years ago, I sat in UW's Art Coffee Shop with Bronko Lenski, a professor of French from Eastern Europe and my instructor in the Genêt seminar. "Look at that girl over there," he said. "She's reading Kierkegaard, wearing a serape, and listening to Ravi Shankar on the PA system. Only in America will you see that!" He went on to explain that it was that wealth of cultural pluralism that made the United States a unique country.

Over the years I have observed the differences between our low-context culture and the tremendous freedom it allows us and the high-context cultures of Europe, which provide a strong cultural identity within a comparatively rigid set of generally unconscious values cemented by a common language. We pay for that freedom by the loss of a strong sense of cultural identity. It may even be that we confuse freedom with the lack of identity.

The American melting pot has largely dissolved the high-context cultures of the Old World and we have thereby lost the common set of values which make an orderly society possible. I am convinced that the sense of satisfaction you can see on the face of a Parisian on the terrasse of a cafe comes from the utter conviction of his identity, surrounded by the artifacts of 2000 years of his culture from the Roman arena just off the Rue Monge, up past the gothic monuments of the Ile de la Cite, to the 20th century Centre Pompidou on the right bank. You can see the same calm conviction of self in the faces of the Mayans in Yucatan, who live in the midst of the temples and pyramids their relatives built. A common religion, language, and culture allowed the old Jewish ghettos of Europe to live almost without crime in the midst of poverty. We Americans have basically one source of identity: financial success. Lack of financial success in the United States is cultural death, followed closely by physiological death. Anthropologists have long known that physical death follows close on social exclusion. A cynic could suggest that crime in the pursuit of wealth is merely cultural and physiological self-defense and is consequently an American cultural imperative.

As a result, we Americans cannot get along with one another. The national capital is also the capital of murder where the homeless sleep in the streets within view of the White House and the surrounding sanctuaries of Americanism. We have found it necessary to arm ourselves against our fellow Americans, who are a greater threat to us than the communists and Iraqis, and we have put a million people behind bars, a greater percentage of our population than any other nation. We might have compensated for that loss of a high-context culture by education, but American public education has been a terrifying failure--the proof of which is the election of Ronald Reagan for two consecutive terms and the existence of the Montana Board of Regents.

In order to hold our nation together, we have had to develop a horde of people specialists to enable us to deal with one another: lawyers, psychologists, counsellors, group therapists, self-helpers in person and in print, policemen, gurus, marriage counsellors and intermediaries of every stripe and every water, and industrial psychologists to convince us that it is realistic to spend our lives at boring and repetitive labor. We have been forced by self-defense to replace the high-context culture with a legalistic culture. Thus, whereas the Japanese have one lawyer for about every 10,000 people, we have one lawyer for every 300 Americans. It does no good therefore to complain about the behavior of lawyers; they and the policemen make it possible, for us middle class fellows at least, to survive with a modicum of safety. The role of the lawyer has become so great in our legalistic culture that national and regional political leaders are frequently and logically attorneys. We begin to see that although we putative intellectuals usually perceive the National Rifle Association as a bunch of gun nuts, the NRA is an intimate part of such a culture. We inhabit a society where armed self-defense and official regulations have replaced a common set of internalized values.

This legalism has now passed over into the university setting with the concept of Political Correctness and what Newsweek (24 December 1990) calls the Thought Police. The irony is that the very institution which should have passed along human values now finds itself creating regulations and punishing people for the general failure of our culture and of public education to allow us to live with cultural pluralism, that pluralism which so much delighted Professor Lenski. The ivory tower is being mined by besiegers from the external world. The university is less and less the place where people freely seek the meaning of life together: it is becoming a place where they function according to written regulations, like an asylum, a total institution. The problem is further complicated by the question of the canon.

The canon and male Europeans

Major universities all over the country are facing pressure to change core requirements in order to more sensitively reflect the values, rights, and heritage of various sexual and ethnic groups: homosexuals, feminists, blacks, Asians, Latins, Indians, etc. (We have not yet had this problem in Montana because we are usually about twenty years behind the rest of the country, for which the average Montanan generally finds a reason for self-congratulation.) The complaint is that what is taught as the history of humanity is merely the values of white male Europeans, that it thereby falsifies human reality, that it is unfair to minorities, and that what we call history, literature, and philosophy is merely a white European male political posture with the goal of social domination. There are several unpleasant truths in the objections of the minorities:

  1. The art, literature, philosophy, music, science, mathematics, politics, and religion of the last 2500 years have indeed been written, sculpted, painted, and played largely by white male Europeans.

  2. The idealist and Platonist metaphysic which underlies almost all of the ideas of the Western world (allowing Whitehead to remark that all philosophy is a commentary on Plato) takes its origin in a culture of male domination (where, by the way, homosexuality and slavery were commonly accepted).

  3. As has been frequently pointed out by structuralists, post-structuralists, and post-modernists, that metaphysical posture is indeed a colonialization not merely of society but of the mind itself.

What are we to do? It is not possible to reject twenty-five centuries of graphic and plastic culture in order to replace it with the recent history of the repression and misery of women and minorities, particularly since the critique of western civilization by such minorities is too often only a superficial political critique which does not reach down to the true rot and only reflects a narrow political critique they learned and absorbed from that very philosophical, literary, and artistic tradition itself. Rather than escaping from it, they only reinforce it. More of us need to learn that Plato, as Bertrand Russell wrote, "possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals...." Russell continued with, "I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism."

Before we find a critique of western (male-dominated) civilization, we need to know what we are critiquing and whether we are not merely critiquing it from within as impotent representatives of that culture. This is not a new idea: the bibliography is massive, but you will not learn it by majoring in women's studies, black studies, engineering technology, education administration, or biology. You can broach it by reading the critique of the epoch of the logos and phonocentrism by Derrida; by studying the works of Habermas on modernity; by understanding why Marx critiques Hegel's negative dialectic in Critique of Hegel's Dialectic and its dangerous definition of reality as universal spirit; by understanding Foucault's genealogy of knowledge; by seeing the point of Deleuze's materialism in the desiring machines of the Anti-Oedipus; by understanding Nietzsche's fury at western metaphysics and its component of idealism and negativity which forever condemns man (and woman) to a fallen state of sin and negativity; by exposing yourself to Michel Serres' bracketing of subjectivity and the creation of a universe of palimpsests; by seeing the point of Jean Baudrillard's critique of consumption. If you really want to strike a blow at the rot of occidental philosophy, art, and literature, then you have to understand those western (men) who were furious at it, too, who understood why they were furious, and who wrote their reasons down for you to read--unless you are a monolingual seeking easy solutions.

And finally, you have to come to accept that these white male Europeans were representatives of your culture, of which you are likewise the proprietor regardless of your race or sex, men who did not merely invent the culture but who gave a voice to the concepts which were in some sense already there in the whole population, and who passed down to you ideas you are not very likely to want to reject: Platonism's ideal models (without which the common man's mental apparatus would not function and there could be no sports page in the Billings Gazette), the Renaissance and Reformation's concepts of subjectivity and the individual, the separation of church and state, equality before the law, representative democracy, racial equality, the concept of Natural Law, progress, revolution, etc. But we have to know what they had to say before we can cull out the good from the bad. You have to accept to participate in all that they did that was good and make it your own and not reject it from some feeling of inadequacy or cultural paranoia.

I will not impoverish myself by basing my participation in and proprietorship of culture on race and gender. You cannot deny me the feeling of exhilaration in the physical grace and strength of the human organism when I see Michael Jordan slam the ball through the net and almost break off the backboard...just because Mr. Jordan is black. I will not give up the reassurance Fats Waller's gigantic energy and optimism give me just because he was black. He helps me get through a lot of days. I will not forego to read Marie de France, Christine de Pisan, Marguerite de Navarre, Louise Labbe, George Sand, Collette, Simone de Beauvoir, Benoîte Groult, Ann Landers, Meg Greenfield, or Jane Bryant Quinn because they are women. And I will not stop admiring Gide, Proust, Foucault, Roland Barthes, and the whole tribe of homosexuals from Periclean Athens, any more than I will cease to read with amazement Freud, Marx, Jesus, Lévi-Strauss, or Derrida because they are Jews, Firdusi because he was Persian, or F. Scott Fitzgerald because he was a drunk. I will not stop listening to Django Reinhardt because he was a Belgian gypsy.

The canon needs to be expanded with care to include recent valuable work. It does not need to be shrunk by the lazy, by those who look for easy answers, or by those who need a quick and superficial political fix. Such procedures certainly are not taught in the canon. And I will not, like Descartes, reject my ancestors with the preposterous claim that I will thereby find the Truth and be liberated.

[The Montana Professor 1.2, Spring 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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