Political Correctness: Handle with Care

The Power and Class You Serve

Racial, gender, and ethnic diversity matters, of course, but political correctness (PC) tied to bourgeois identity politics can be deadly to Left thinkers and activists and to the causes of peace and social justice. Part of what made the deeply conservative Barack Obama attractive to the U.S. corporate and imperial establishment during the long run up to the 2008 presidential election was the American power elite’s reasonable, born-out expectation that Obama’s skin color and status as a First Black President (FBP) would help make progressives, leftists, and serious liberals reluctant to forthrightly protest his coming service to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, class, empire, and (curiously and stealthily enough) white privilege. Smart power brokers calculated correctly that political correctness around race – and the related fear of being considered racist because one dared to criticize a FBP – would help keep the left in check on Obama’s corporatist, Wall Street-pleasing, and imperial policies.

With Hillary Clinton in the White House (the likely though hardly certain outcome of the coming presidential election), we’ll have some of the same problem around gender. Numerous progressives, liberals, and even leftists will be unduly reluctant to criticize an arch-militarist, super-corporatist Clinton45 White House because of Hillary’s status (should she win) as a First Female President (FFP).

The right wing is unburdened by such liberal PC inhibitions, something that helps it tap majority white working class anger over the regularly elitist corporate-neoliberal policies and culture of (not-so) liberal Wall Street-captive Democratic presidents and presidential candidates like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Forbes Kerry, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton

This is part of the ongoing tragedy that is the progressive filmmaker Michael Moore, who was embarrassingly awash with FBP Obama-lust in 2008. Moore’s latest clever movie Where to Invade Next? (2016) nears its conclusion with an almost creepy paean to the supposed inherently progressive virtue of women taking top positions of state power. That was a depressing wet-kiss to Hillary “Queen of Chaos” Clinton, an arch-imperialist and super-corporatist war hawk who promises to bring the world to the brink of nuclear conflict with Russia and/or China. Michael Moore is certainly familiar with the horrible right-wing record of Margaret Thatcher.

Maybe Moore should have read the great African anti-colonialist Frantz Fanon before falling prey to the Obama virus. “What matters,” Fanon wrote 63 years ago in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, “is not so much the color of your skin as the power you serve and the millions you betray.” (Fanon was reflecting on the black African leaders who failed to serve the interests of the black masses whose national aspirations they rode to power in the post-World War II era. His formulation holds with haunting relevance to the performance of the in-power African National Congress in post-apartheid neoliberal South Africa and the insipidly neoliberal and fake-progressive presidency of Barack Obama.)

Maybe Moore should also have read my early 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics – a deeply researched historical analysis in which I showed why and how a President Obama could be expected to function like something out of Fanon on matters of class, empire, race, and livable ecology.

Also worth considering were the actually Left filmmaker John Pilger’s eloquent reflection on Obama in the summer of 2009. “The clever young man who recently made it to the White House,” Pilger told a gathering of international socialists in San Francisco, “is a very fine hypnotist, partly because it is indeed exciting to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery. However, this is the 21st century and race, together with gender and even class, can be very seductive tools of propaganda. For what is so often overlooked and what matters above all, is the class one serves.” (Intimately related to that is what the democratic socialist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously juxtaposed to “the color of [one’s] skin” in 1963: “the content of [one’s] character.”)

Perhaps we can update Fanon for the coming Age of Hillary: “What matters is not so much your gender or sexual orientation as the power you serve and the millions you betray.”

Silly and Not-So Silly Places

Four years ago I was asked by a left political journal to participate in a debate on how the left should respond to the 2012 presidential election. The request came with a promise to publish the debate in a forthcoming issue of the journal’s print magazine. I went to work on the topic, cobbling together an (I thought) sophisticated and non-Lesser-Evilist analyses of why it would be strategically better for the left if Obama rather than Mitt Romney were to prevail. It was a nice essay, but it never appeared in print (it did go up on the journal’s Website) because the journal was unsuccessful in its principled effort to secure essay submissions from writers who weren’t white males. It wasn’t enough that the journal had made every effort to recruit writers of a different gender and race than myself. No, the lack of response from aggressively invited non-white and non-male writers sunk the project as a print publication – this entirely irrespective of the merits of the essay produced by writers of politically suspect gender and race. It was all very PC – and very dysfunctional.

More serious examples come the nasty world of academic hiring. I know more than a few real-life stories wherein liberal and supposedly multicultural PC has provided an all-too convenient reason for an elitist academic hiring committee not to make a job offer to an accomplished Left scholar and highly rated teacher who happens to be a white male from a working class background while offering employment instead to an unskilled and unaccomplished scholar and poorly rated teacher who happens to be a politically milquetoast white female from an upper-middle class background. Similar hiring travesties occur in activist and nonprofit career markets

Politically Incorrect or Knowing Too Much About Empire?

Far more significant is the problem of how excessive middle-class political correctness around race, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity often falsely impute simple white racism and nativism in arrogant and counter-productive response to sentiments that are actually far more complex. Here’s one example. Say you are about to get on an airplane, bus, or subway train in a major U.S. city and you notice a young and sullen man of Middle Eastern ancestry looking around furtively, breathing heavily, and holding some bulky package in his hands while praying rapidly in Arabic. Are you a racist because a part of your mind signals the worry that you might be at risk of dying in a terrorist attack? Does your brain do this because you are a stereotypical white male middle-aged FOX News-watching and Muslim-hating racist who stereotypes all Arabs as bomb-toting terrorists?

Perhaps. Or maybe not. Maybe you are a non- and even anti-racist who doesn’t want to die today and who knows all too much about the mass-murderous mayhem the United States has inflicted on the Middle East and the Muslim world – and about how that savagely racist and imperial violence has sparked a desperate hunger for revenge on the part of countless “radicalized” Muslims and Arabs. Maybe you know that many understandably and predictably enraged Muslims and Arabs feel powerless to check America through “normal” political and military channels and thus resort to individual terror attacks – classic weapons of the weak. And maybe you understand that U.S foreign policy makers don’t mind putting ordinary U.S. citizens’ safety at stake (even in “the homeland”) in pursuit of their imperial ambitions in the Middle East.

So, should you just shuffle on to that plane, bus, or train without doing or saying anything because you don’t want to be politically incorrect?

Supply and Demand

Imagine you are a factory or other kind of wage-worker or a union organizer or shop steward in a British, French, or American community. Suppose also that you are concerned about a recent influx of thousands of desperate low-wage immigrants into your local labor market. Are your concerns about immigration merely a reflection of racism and/or nativism, as many politically correct middle class liberal folks would suggest? Perhaps. Could be.

Or maybe not. Maybe you know a basic thing or two about capitalist labor market economics and the conditions experienced by the immigrants in their lands of origin. It doesn’t take an advanced academic degree to realize that the movement of poor and desperate workers from one to another part of the world capitalist system poses threats to the working and living standards of working people in the receiving zone. The in-flow increases the supply of the commodity labor power relative to employer’s demand for that commodity. This enhances both the marketplace bargaining power and the related workplace authority of the employer class relative to the majority of people who must rent out their labor power. The ever-shifting supply and demand for labor power is a factor that holds no small relevance to the triumphs, trials and tribulations of the American working class past and present. As the leading left U.S. economist Richard Wolff explains, the long historical rise in real wages in the United States ended more than thirty years ago thanks to “the combination of computerization, exported jobs, women surging into the labor market, and a new wave of immigration…this time mainly from Latin America, especially Mexico and Central America….Capitalists from Main Street to Wall Street quickly realized that employers could slow or stop wage increases, given that supply now exceeded demand in the labor market..”

If you don’t believe immigration is used by employers to depress living and working standards in the U.S., then take a job in any U.S. factory that has a significant number of unpleasant low-skill tasks. You will see your capitalist bosses keeping wages down and workers cowed and oppressed by (among other things) hiring immigrants whose experience of extreme poverty, violence, and other forms of misery in their lands of origin make them more than ready to work obediently and without outward complaint for $10 an hour or less in “modern manufacturing.” That’s what I witnessed first-hand working last year at the giant Procter & Gamble (P&G) plant in Iowa City, Iowa, where I live. P&G, where the nation’s largest consumer packaged goods corporation, contracts with a leading temporary agency (Staff Management) to fill its lower end, three-shift line-feeding and packaging jobs in Iowa City with a large and steady flow of distressed yet eager newcomers from Sudan and Congo (and with smaller streams from other troubled and faraway places, including Kosovo, Ecuador, Mexico, Egypt, and Honduras). Very, very few of these traumatized, in-flight African workers are good union or strike material. Quite the opposite. They are not about to do anything that might endanger their employment and visa status in the U.S. And that’s no small part of why P&G and Staff Management loves hiring them.

(That said, I got along very well with the many immigrant workers I toiled alongside at the P&G plant last year. That was because I am a white male who happens to be an anti-racist and anti-nativist who went out of my way to make friends with immigrant and-non-white workers, to learn about life in their homelands, and to suggest ways in which we shared common class interests over and against those of P&G and Staff Management).

Upper Class Students Who Happen to be Chinese

Here’s another local campus-town example from the Upper Midwestern heartland. Let me state with full and (for some super-squeamish super-PC sorts) shocking candor that I have started to become at least mildly irritated by the ever-increasing number of Chinese university students in Iowa City at and around the University of Iowa. Why? Because of racism and nativism. No. Not at all. It has nothing to do with racism or nativism. I’m anti-racist and anti-nativist.

It’s about class, politics, and the ever-skyrocketing cost of college tuition in the United States. The young Chinese showing up all over campus town America are very disproportionately from the upper slices of mainland Chinese society. Their parents have accumulated enough wealth and income to send their only children to college overseas and often in very high style. This wealth is culled from the massive state-capitalist super-exploitation of a giant Chinese working class that has been forced into a vast industrial complex of global capitalist production. That is the source of the money that is passed on to the privileged class progeny of Chinese “Communist” Party elites who can be seen driving around in BMWs and living in pricey condominium apartments in Iowa City, Iowa, Madison, Wisconsin, and countless other U.S. university communities today.

Consistent with that class reality, many if not most of the Chinese students in question are remarkably self-absorbed, deeply conservative, and business-oriented. They are heavily into the American culture of commodified mass consumerism – a culture of spiritual death and ecocide many of them aim to promote back home.

A Korean-American professor I know has relayed to me a disturbing report from a friend of hers who teaches Chinese literature at the University of Iowa. The privileged Chinese students there don’t want to hear, read, or say anything about the horrible Tiananmen Square killings of 1989 or the overall problems of class exploitation, skyrocketing inequality and authoritarian (if not totalitarian) politics and state dictatorship in “communist” China today. They want to get rich and return to rise up into the Chinese elite – to look down their noses at the great mass of Chinese toilers.

And to make matters worse, all the money these students’ affluent parents are sending over to U.S. colleges and universities (and to U.S. campus-town real estate developers, auto dealers, and restaurant and Bubble Tea shop-owners) is part of how and why American working-class kids are being priced out of higher education.

These privileged Chinese kids are not my cup of tea. But it has nothing to with them being Chinese. It’s about them being rich kids. I don’t like privileged brats of any race or ethnicity, white Americans and Europeans included – none except the few who sincerely want to become egalitarian class traitors (such kids exist in the elite classes of every race, ethnicity, and nationality).

The Boss Lady and the Elevator

Here’s another local campus-town example. I recently had an ugly argument with a boss who lambasted me for walking briefly off a job site where I had just gotten stuck – dehydrated and scared out of my wits – in a very hot and non-air-conditioned elevator for twenty minutes or so. The boss, a middle-aged white female named Chrissy, charged me (for some strange reason that will remain mysterious to me) with having stayed silent in the elevator and making no effort to obtain assistance. This bizarre and inexplicable charge was levelled in a palpably sneering and world-weary voice that is all-too typical of the people who command lower-end workers. It was also absurdly and maddeningly false. Being thirsty and slightly claustrophobic, I had started pressing the elevator’s alarm and the emergency button within five seconds of realizing that the elevator wasn’t going anywhere and wouldn’t open.

Hearing that moronic charge (“so you just sat there and didn’t do anything?”) from Chrissy while still incompletely processing the considerable trauma (badly exacerbated by heat, thirst, and claustrophobia) involved in being trapped, I pretty much let her have it. I responded in terms guaranteed to end my continued employment at her corrupt, cheap-skate, worker-screwing, and wage-thieving company. Did I do this because of sexism (the first thing that would come to mind for many of the liberal, power-serving and identity-politicized PC academicians over at the university)? No, I didn’t. I’m a feminist and anti-sexist. I went off because I: was still badly triggered and adrenalized by my elevator experience; was deeply baffled and then offended by the arch-stupidity and arrogant ignorance of the boss’s preposterous charge; loathe idiotic and authoritarian bosses who lack proper respect and empathy for workers and who habitually blame workers for their difficulties; could afford to lose the (part-time) job.

In reality, my disdainful response was if anything softened by my own internalized political correctness. Had a male boss responded to my significantly traumatizing workplace experience in the same way as Chrissy did, the confrontation would have gotten a lot nastier. I know I’m not supposed to say something so damn male in a nice liberal, feminist, and PC university town, but if the boss had been of my own gender, the conflict could well have gone physical. I was that provoked. I’m glad Chrissy is a woman. If she were a man I’d probably be facing assault charges. (And no, I cannot explain why a full-grown adult would allow themselves to be known as “Chrissy.”)

Liberal PC as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Does a white male university custodian sneer with disgust as two young Chinese students pull up to a local gas station and convenience shop in a $125,000 Maserati because he’s a racist and a nativist? Maybe. Could be. It’s entirely possible. Or maybe not. Maybe he’s just fed up with privileged people, their conspicuously and narcissistically displayed wealth, and the extreme level of economic class inequality that is now so nauseatingly evident in New Gilded Age America. Perhaps it’s little bit of both: backward-looking nativism and racism alongside progressive-leaning working class consciousness, both tendencies co-existing (imagine) at one and the same time.

One thing that is clear to me is that one of the quickest ways for a middle-class progressive, liberal, or leftist to turn that working class white person into a Donald Trump supporter and FOX News fan is to instantly denounce that custodian’s sneer as being about nothing other or more than racism and nativism. That’s one of the key ways in which contemporary politically correct U.S. (neo) liberalism turns right-wing white nationalist populism into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).