March 27, 1993
I became a feminist twenty-five years ago, as an undergraduate. The women’s movement was as yet barely visible; at any rate, I had never seen or heard of it. But that year I read The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence. Neither is a “feminist” novel, and neither author was a feminist. But both show brave, gifted women struggling to live full, independent lives. Because they’re great novels, and because I was young and impressionable, those struggles deeply affected, in fact helped form, my moral imagination. They created, or at least made possible, a lasting solidarity.
I mention this bit of personal history to make clear why I find much contemporary debate about culture and politics baffling and exasperating. The literary canon, even in its most traditional and conservative versions, is political dynamite. Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn are hardly agitprop, but the relationships of Ishmael with Queequeg and Huck with Jim are immeasurably more potent arguments for racial justice than anything in the collected works of Amiri Baraka. Homosexuals have infinitely more reason to take pride in that reactionary snob Proust than in that pious mediocrity May Sarton. And the most important feminist in each of the last three centuries was a (now-dead) white male: in the eighteenth century, William Godwin (admittedly a case can be made for his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft; but nothing she wrote was as famous in their lifetimes as his biography of her or as his argument in Political Justice for the abolition of marriage); in the nineteenth, John Stuart Mill; and in the twentieth, George Bernard Shaw. Who needs Kate Millett or Marge Piercy?
Forgive my pique; of course we need Kate Millett and Marge Piercy, probably even Amiri Baraka (though not May Sarton). But pique is, in part, my point: exaggerated claims tend to produce exaggerated dismissals and vice versa-- hence the overheated atmosphere of the P.C. debate. My main point, though, is that all too many of the earnest antagonists on both sides ignore or misunderstand the political significance of the traditional canon. Great literature engages, heightens, and refines the reader’s imagination, moral as well as linguistic. And a developed moral imagination is the root of all political wisdom.
From this perspective, what’s frustrating about the controversy over multiculturalism is how seldom it gets down to cases. As Christopher Lasch points out in one of the few important contributions to the debate missing from Debating P.C.: “The trouble with the humanities today is not that people want to revise the canon but that too many of them can’t be bothered to argue for the exclusion or inclusion of particular works.” Similarly, in disputes over affirmative action it’s disappointingly rare to find the issue personalized: to hear radicals demand of university administrators, “why did you hire Professor X rather than these equally or better qualified women or blacks? What were your standards and how do you justify them?” or conservatives challenge radicals, “Put up or shut up. Just who is clearly so much better qualified than Professor X
that passing over him or her raises doubts about fairness?” For lack of such impolite questions— and even more important, of a manifest willingness on both sides to sit still for an answer —— it’s a pretty dreary debate.
Debating P.C makes the best of this unsatisfactory situation. Along with a certain amount of dreariness, it contains a half-dozen memorable essays and a witty, perceptive, fair-minded introduction by editor Paul Berman. Some of Berman’s observations, it must be said, are less plausible than others, such as this clever but dubious diagnosis of political correctness:
"Dwight Macdonald defined 1930s fellow-traveling as the fog that arose when the warm ocean currents of American liberalism encountered the Soviet iceberg. Political correctness in the 1990s is a related syndrome. It is the fog that arises from American liberalism’s encounter with the iceberg of French cynicism."
Berman appears to have an unfortunate weakness for the intellectual folies parisiennes and so overestimates the influence of the theoretical grands maitres on this side of the Atlantic. Whatever the (numerous) sins of Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida, I don’t think they’re much to blame for P.C., which is as homegrown as McCarthyism or Prohibition.
They are, however, to blame for corrupting Edward Said, a gifted literary and music critic and political polemicist whose prose has become overgrown in recent years with the weeds of theoretical jargon. Fortunately, the excesses of the multiculturalism debate seem to have moderated rather than exacerbated this tendency. Said’s “The Politics of Knowledge” is one of the better things in this collection: a clear and patient attempt to sort out what is permanently valuable in the new critical theories from what is mere modishness or ideological zealotry. Coming from Said, this gentle but forceful rebuke to his less discriminating comrades has a special authority.
It’s cheering to see Said’s essay side by side in Debating P.C. with Irving Rowe’s “The Value of the Canon.” Howe is also a superb literary critic but an unapologetically old-fashioned one. His rebuttal of multiculturalist extremism is more pointed than Said’s and his attitude to the “classical heritage of mankind” is more deferential. But one comes away feeling that on this issue he and Said-- between whom there is a bitter, painful division over Middle Eastern politics-- could talk to and even learn from each other.
It’s also heartening that half of the best essays in Debating P.C. are by women, that they are ideologically diverse, and that they are not primarily, or even secondarily, about gender. (Not, of course, be cause gender isn’t at least as important as any other topic, but because it’s pleasingly appropriate that a controversy over how to include new voices in the cultural conversation should illustrate-- structurally, you might say-- the happy outcome of a previous stage of the same controversy.) Katha Pollitt is, as usual, trenchant and funny, dealing all parties a dialectical box on the ear. Barbara Ehrenreich is, as usual, generous and sensible, chiding errant disputants rather than (like Pollitt) skewering them. I don’t know what Diane Ravitch, a historian who is currently Assistant Secretary of Education, is usually like, but here she is incisive and authoritative, expounding a distinction between “pluralistic” and “particularistic” multiculturalisms that could go a long way toward clearing up the vexed question, and laying low a good deal of loose talk about “Eurocentrism.”
The most original piece in Debating P.C. is “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing, Too” by Stanley Fish, scholarly superstar and reputed model for Morris Zapp, the anti-hero of David Lodge’s sublimely funny academic novels. Fish dismantles-- deconstructs, if you like-- the distinction between speech and behavior, or expression and action. The upshot of this exercise is not merely that “everything is political” —— every callow campus radical already knows as much. The political and the non-political, freedom and restriction, fairness and unfairness, ideas and their consequences: these distinctions are all indispensable but contingent. They are working distinctions. We can’t do without them, on pain of intellectual and social incoherence. But what content we give them is determined by our fundamental goals and values, our deepest sense of how things are and who we are. It’s no use saying that there’s no disputing about such questions. Either we discuss them publicly or they’re settled, for public purposes, without discussion.
Fish’s argument is exquisitely subtle, and I’m afraid no summary could avoid oversimplifying it. Mine certainly hasn’t. But it’s important to avoid one misconception, at least: Fish is not just proposing to junk all the old, familiar distinctions. He would, I am sure, agree with Irving Howe’s insistence in “The Value of the Canon” that
"If you look hard (or foolishly) enough, you can find political and social traces everywhere. But to see politics or ideology in all texts is to scrutinize the riches of literature through a single lens. ... Politics may be “in” everything, but not everything is politics. A good social critic will know which texts are inviting to a given approach and which it would be wise to leave alone. ... To see politics everywhere is to diminish the weight of politics."
And in turn, both Fish and Howe would, I suspect, endorse Paul Berman’s conjecture that “perhaps if America were experiencing right now a significant movement for radical social reform, the temptation to embark on verbal campaigns and to invest these campaigns with outlandish hopes would be less, and the students and younger professors would put their energy into real-life democratic movements instead.”
It seems fitting to give the last word to a canonical figure. I’d like to think that all the contributors to Debating P.C. (and all of you, dear readers) would agree with me that the following observation by Bernard Shaw might just as well have ended the debate over multiculturalism a hundred years before it began:
"What we want is not music for the people, but bread for the people, rest for the people, immunity from robbery and scorn for the people, hope for them, enjoyment, equal respect and consideration, life and aspiration, instead of drudgery and despair. When we get that I imagine the people will make tolerable music for themselves."