Ted Frier

Ted Frier
April 02
Ted Frier is an author and former political reporter turned speechwriter who at one time served as communications director for the Massachusetts Republican Party, helping Bill Weld become the first Bay State Republican in a generation to be elected Governor. He was Chief Speechwriter for Republican Governor Paul Cellucci and Lt. Governor Jane Swift. Ted is also the author of the hardly-read 1992 history "Time for a Change: The Return of the Republican Party in Massachusetts." So, why the current hostility to the Republican Party and what passes for conservatism today? The Republican Party was once a national governing party that looked out for the interests of the nation as a whole. Now it is the wholly-owned subsidiary of self interest. Conservatism once sought national unity to promote social peace and harmony. Now conservatism has devolved into a right wing mutation that uses divide and conquer tactics to promote the solidarity of certain social sub-groups united against the larger society while preserving the privileges of a few.


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JANUARY 8, 2013 5:17PM

Conservative Political Correctness

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As required class reading, I am tempted to assign to George F. Will an essay in December's American Conservative written by former Reagan economic adviser and Republican apostate Bruce Bartlett, called "Revenge of the Reality-based Community."  In it, Bartlett chronicles his excommunication from the conservative movement for the unpardonable offense of thinking for himself.

Will might benefit from the outside reading considering that in the Washington Post he once again delivers a broadside against one of his favorite bugaboos - rampant "political correctness" in American academia.

Will has two obsessions in life: Campaign finance laws that restrict the ability of corporations and billionaires to buy America's democracy; and "PC" speech codes that promote multi-culturalism on American college campuses and so constrict the freedom of conservative white guys to say offensive things about racial, ethnic, religious and other "protected" minorities.

One of my favorite George Will lines, which I have quoted many times since I first ran across it as a college sophomore in the introduction of Will's 1978 book, Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts, suggests that men and women are biological facts but "ladies and gentlemen are social artifacts, works of political art" who carry within them "the culture that is sustained by wise laws and traditions of civility."

And so, at the end of the day, says Will, "we are right to judge a society by the character of the people it produces," which is why statecraft is, inevitably, "soulcraft."

Either I totally missed the point or the guy who makes tens of thousands of dollars per speech to right wing audiences is unwilling to put his money where his mouth is.

Either way, Will has once again penned a manifesto against college administrators who seek to create a safer and more hospitable culture for all their students, regardless of background, based on the very same traditions of civility that a younger George Will once celebrated.

And so, college professors and administrators who Will once wittily disparaged as a "herd of independent minds" he now menacingly equates to a totalitarian "mob."

In his column, Will goes to exquisite lengths to illustrate how average, hard-working Americans (read: Republicans) are harassed by academic officiousness. Will champions the plight of Keith John Sampson, a middle-aged student who five years ago was working his way through college as a janitor when suddenly he was found guilty of racial harassment by the school's PC Thought Police.

Sampson was "convicted" (whatever that meant since the punishment was not mentioned) for "openly reading a book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject." The book, Notre Dame vs. the Klan, celebrated the 1924 defeat of the Ku Klux Klan in a fight with Notre Dame students but it's cover was deemed offensive by Sampson's fellow students since it depicted a Klan rally from long ago.

Will laughs hysterically at other examples of political correctness he considers to be absurd, such as: prohibiting the use of campus e-mail to forward political humor/commentary that might be offensive; banning the use of the Internet to "annoy or otherwise inconvenience" anyone; proscriptions against "verbal harm" from damaging "assumptions" or "implications;" the "freedom from indignity of any type;" the outlawing of "patronizing remarks;" the forbidding of "inappropriately directed laughter;" the sanctioning of "sexism," including "the perception" of a person "not as an individual, but as a member of a category based on sex."

Okay, let's stipulate from the start that all bureaucracies are stupid and attempts to systematize the behavior of 18 to 22-year olds constitutionally conditioned to defy conformity are certain to end badly. Further, giving too much power to little people with little minds invites excesses which cannot be excused when that power is exercised in predictable and despicable ways.

Given time I am sure we could all assemble evidence to prove all bureaucracies, all organizations, all governments are a nuisance.

Having said that, this is not the point George Will wants to make. Instead, Will argues that codes of conduct adopted by college administrators to sanction conduct that treats minorities as second class citizens puts America on a slippery slope to the Gulag.

Since "liberals are most concentrated and untrammeled on campuses," says Will, we should look to colleges and universities for evidence of the damage liberals would do to American freedoms if "given the opportunity."

Curtailment of culturally-insensitive behavior, says Will, is "a natural augmentation of censorship." And the very next step, he insists, is "mob rule."

What happens on campus does not stay on campus because censorship has "downstream effects," says Will, quoting a sociologist whose data Will says demonstrates that "those with the highest levels of education have the lowest exposure to people with conflicting points of view." And this, he says, encourages "the human tendency to live within our own echo chambers."

As George Will is wont to say: "Gracious!"

Once upon a time there existed a George Will who worried about the slow-motion barbarism these "politically-correct" speech codes are meant to arrest and who recognized these codes are also an important barricade which stands between a culture that prizes civility and another that fabulously rewards those who use the public airwaves to call women whose ideas they dislike: "sluts."

I confess. When I was young and ideologically reckless I too believed that the assault against "political correctness" was a righteous cause to end ideological bullying and censorship of all kinds. It wasn't until much later, after right wing conservatism had become politically triumphant, that I recognized complaints against PC thinking were really just another way for conservatives to shame liberals into unilateral disarmament so that conservatives could then create their own monopoly over what people thought and said.

Bruce Bartlett is one of those conservatives whose motto might be: "I have met the enemy and he is us."  

A man of impeccable Republican credentials, Bartlett found himself "adrift, politically and intellectually" during the George W. Bush years as he began to take a much more critical view of the policies enacted by this Republican administration and Congress.

When some of those criticisms of Republicans found their way into Ron Suskind's article in New York Times Magazine that famously coined the phrase "the reality-based community," Bartlett braced himself for an onslaught of negative reaction from his conservative friends.

It never came. Instead, Bartlett discovered none of his friends on the right had even read it. In fact, they never read the New York Times or cared what it had to say about anything because they viewed America's newspaper of record "as having as much credibility as Pravda and a similar political philosophy as well."

Some of Bartlett's conservatives friends were even indignant he suspected them of reading "a left-wing rag such as the Times."

Bartlett announced himself "flabbergasted." Until that moment, he said, "I had not realized how closed the right-wing mind had become. Even assuming that my friends' view of the Times' philosophy was correct, which it most certainly was not, why would they not want to know what their enemy was thinking?"

Bartlett said that was his first exposure to what has been called "epistemic closure" among conservatives - the idea of conservatives "living in their own bubble where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction."

Bartlett's employers, however, were not so dim-witted or forgiving. Not only was Bartlett fired from his job at a conservative think tank, but word came down from Fox News that his books were "to receive no publicity whatsoever, not even attacks."

The Cone of Silence extended to all parts of the Murdoch empire, says Bartlett, as reporters and editors of the Wall Street Journal were also instructed never to mention Bartlett in the future as Bartlett was to receive the same silent treatment given "other dissident conservatives" such as David Frum and Andrew Sullivan.

The Rubicon was crossed when Bartlett refused to label President Obama "a leftist" but insisted instead the President was "barely a liberal."

It was only because the political spectrum has moved so far to the right, said Bartlett, and moderate Republicans "are now considered hardcore leftists by right-wing standards today," that President Obama is not assigned his proper place along the historically-accurate political spectrum, which is: "center-right."

"The blind hatred" that conservatives felt for Obama was the straw which finally broke the camel's back as Bartlett said he was pushed away from "allies and comrades" and every friend he'd ever had on the right.

"Some have been known to pass me in silence at the supermarket or even to cross the street when they see me coming," said Bartlett. "People who were as close to me as brothers and sisters have disowned me."

George Will can try his best to counter perceptions that intellectual rigor mortis has set in on the right. He can also take his even more ossified complaints against liberal "political correctness" out of cold storage.

But more clear-eyed Republicans like Bruce Bartlett see today's conservatism for what it is: a movement in decline, trapped by its own "PC thinking," condemned to ever-diminishing influence in American politics since it is incapable of "serious introspection" and disinclined to rethink or rehabilitate either its philosophy or its strategy.

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I don't really think George Will, or any other Republicans for that matter, give a flying fart about political correctness. I think this has been part of a highly sophisticated strategy to recruit white blue collar men to vote Republican. Another part of this strategy was to portray George Bush as a plain speaking, anti-book, anti-intellectual all American - in contrast to all the liberals who were trying to set up a nanny state by passing laws against smoking and guns and making them change their lightbulbs. In my professional experience, educated liberals who correct their grammar and moralize how they ought to live are an absolute anathema to working class people. Wills, Karl Rove et al played on this deep seated antagonism very nicely to persuade white men to vote against their own economic interests.
Excellent as always, Ted. I'm reminded of the late John Hughes's wonderful book "The Culture of Complaint," where he talked about "the two PCs": "political correctness" and "patriotic correctness." Two sides of the same coin, I'd say.

Thanks Alan, I will have to check out the book.

And Dr. Bramhall, I agree with everything you said. I have fundamentalist friends who insist we owe our "freedom" to conformity-demanding religion and that it is the democratic state -- or as they always put it, the "big government" -- that steals our freedom by protecting us from these American ayatollahs. And so, when conservatives like George Will complain about liberal "censorship" it is because censorship of heretical ideas is a job conservatives have reserved for themselves.
All societies have rather a lot of structure, as to the need to organize what debates one could have that would be useful to decision-making, because of the Condorcet Paradox issue.
Some people want things a certain way tied to the past, in the old days on the grounds like Burke that if one didn't maintain those ties, bad things would follow as to anarchy. That might be too literally conservative, although Plato wasn't a moron, and had basically the same rationale for "The Noble Lie," and Aristotle wasn't too far from him, nor was Madison in Federalist 10.
There is a difference between the political correctness that you find in the Republican party and conservatism in general, and the PC that exists on many university campuses. The PC you (rightly) discuss has to do with the expectation that well-known members of a political party or movement should "toe the line" in their writing and public appearances.

The PC that exists on university campuses is, I think, much more insidious and harmful. Campus PC can operate down to the microscopic level, all the way down to a student being rebuked for "openly" reading a book with an "offensive" cover, even though the book itself was not offensive; quite the opposite. For campus political correctness the net is woven so tightly that the slightest comment, attitude, expression, or image can be found "offensive" enough to trigger an investigation and punishment.

With all due respect, this is NOT your garden-variety bureaucratic stupidity. It's more like 1984 or the Red Guards in that it attempts to turn everyone into an agent of the Thought Police. Campus PC finds offense where there is none and turns individuals who truly have done nothing wrong into offenders who must in some way atone for these imaginary sins.

There's something very totalitarian about it, and I am personally very thankful that the power of certain college administrators does not extend beyond their ivy-covered walls. But I'm concerned about the students who are the inmates of such a system, some walking on eggshells for fear of persecution, and others turned into hypersensitive snitches who cannot tolerate the slightest hint of a contrary idea.

I will not doubt that going to college in the 1970s and 80s as a student with conservative beliefs I felt some pressure to conform to the larger liberal consensus. But to describe that pressure in 1984-like terms is vastly overwrought. The real censors, as I tried to show in my piece above, are on the right who attack the PC nature of liberals in order to discredit liberal values of open-mindedness and tolerance so as to impose their own rigid right wing conformity. The behavior of the Republican Party and conservative movement today are defined by their dogmatism, as any number of exiled conservatives like Bartlett show. Conservatives attack speech codes on campus meant to prevent some from feeling unwelcome within the academic community at the same time they attack a Fairness Doctrine as a form of censorship because that law tried to give audiences the benefit of hearing both sides of an argument. And conservatives freedom of speech is the freedom to convert and to enforce group solidarity. George Will is no thought-control right winger but in criticizing what he sees as the homogenization of the intellect on college campuses he empowers those whose idea of freedom is the freedom to obey. The truth will set you free, they say, and there is only one truth -- ours.
I have missed your writing, since switching over to Our Salon. Now that I blog on both, it will be good to read your stuff. I have made the same observation about political correctness not being an exclusively liberal-academic phenomenon.
I have missed your writing, since switching over to Our Salon. Now that I blog on both, it will be good to read your stuff. I have made the same observation about political correctness not being an exclusively liberal-academic phenomenon.
I have missed your writing, since switching over to Our Salon. Now that I blog on both, it will be good to read your stuff. I have made the same observation about political correctness not being an exclusively liberal-academic phenomenon.
"Intellectual rigor mortis" as you call is exactly what America needs! Liberal scums are ruining this country with all this intellectual and science stuff. We real conservatives know that we need only two things-the Bible and a gun. All of this other stuff is just corrupting the great Christian nation. College professors are bad. We need to close these colleges and get people back into church ASAP! Colleges encourage women to get jobs and talk back to their husbands. We need them at home making babies and getting dinner ready. College also promotes science and that climate change myth-among other things. My advice is to stay away from college, read the bible and be thankful for the $7 an hour that your boss graciously pays you!
There was another liberal (anti-Viet Nam activist) who turned conservative and organized right wing groups on campus to obstruct the "commie" professors. I forget his name, haven't heard of him recently. His hook was Israel, sensing it was only a matter of time before liberal consensus turned against them, which has now happened, but still to no avail.

PC is one of the perrenial rhetorical footballs. More fashionable copy than any substantive contribution. Look at how easily it is used by right or left to cast stones.

The thing it may be time to ask about Will is what makes the poor man run. For most of us, politics is a mere projection of deeper trauma. I wonder what happened to the guy that made his so bitter?
You can tell who the actual genius' in politics are because they are not subject to ideological cant.

I ran into an old childhood friend over the holidays. We grew up together. He's become an arch-conservative. His father was a union man in Detroit, and without it, they'd have had even less than they did. The family then suffered terribly when the father died young from drinking.

Like many, his "conservatism" provides the defense from being as vulnerable as he knew himself to be. There is nothing that serves him in the policies of the GOP except that, and while it is entirely unspoken and unconscious, makes him ardent in his views, and no reason will change that and provide the safety his projection provides. It makes him somebody.

How many do you suppose are like that? Even the august Mr. Will.
To the Real Conservative:

You're the best satirist we've had in a long time. You know what that word means, don't you?
Thanks Ben, glad you are still around and made it through the dark period of OS "lots of errors." I think the guy you are thinking of is David Horowitz. Awful fellow. A good example of how someone can move from the far left to the far right and still remain an ideological thug, like the neoconservatives who never lost their Stalinist tactics of politics even as they moved to the far right. What is fascinating is how these right wingers try to discredit liberalism for not living up to its ideals and being more open and tolerant of a vicious kind of reactionary conservatism that tolerates no dissent.
Yes, Horowitz. The message came through loud and clear: he was going to be totally intolerant of whoever didn't agree with him and it was as true when he was a lefty as when he became a righty.

That's what I look for now--if in their speaking or writing I think: Now, that's somebody I can communicate with or I realize for one reason of another that would be impossible. It all began for me in the 60's, and now those few years and insights are still with me, and if I remain true to them I feel I still have a voice.

When they're nutters, I'll give 'em a pass taking them seriously, see if they understand what a dialogue is, but then I have fun with them. Life is too short to waste on fools.

You? Hell, I'd have a beer with you and know damn will at this point it'd taste good. Glad to see you're still here too. I've been directing all my energies at selling my novel.
Opps, RC is not a satirist, strange as it sounds. He lives in the woods and eats bark and steals nuts from the squirrels. He has a gun. Seven dollars really is a lot of money to him. I'm not afraid he'll come after me because he'd have to take the subway. Maybe we should send him a donation.
I'll argue that there are not two but three primary colors of correctness on the American ideological palette: (1) liberal (or social democratic) correctness, (2) traditional conservative correctness (Hughes's "patriotic correctness"?), and (3) libertarian (both economic and civil) correctness.

George Will, whose columns I've been reading for decades, seems to represent some classic and refined blend of 2 and 3 on our ideological colorwheel. (I'll call him red-yellow, or a tastefully understated yet richly remunerative shade of orange.)

Writing as a civil (but not economic) libertarian and social democrat, I find Will's 19th-century conservatarian correctness offensive, just as he finds liberal correctness offensive.

My hope is that gentlewomen and gentlemen of the future will evolve standards of cosmopolitan correctness (a.k.a., 21st-century etiquette) that enable them to live peacefully alongside those whose tribal colors and customs vary from their own, as Will's Anglo-American conservatarian orange varies from my own progressive blue-green.

Teal Democrat

Thanks for your comment. We are not a red America and a blue America but a yellow, orange, and green America! I agree, a lot of conservative PC talk is just reverse tribalism. It is like Brent Bozell accusing the mainstream media of harboring a "liberal bias" when they practice a journalism that tries to hold all institutions publicly accountable rather than serving as the servile handmaidens of approved conservative elites, institutions and authorities in church and business.
Now that you've come this far, you might want to take the next step into the abyss. The "spectrum" of "left" to "right" is magical thinking. It doesn't exist, except in men's minds. Just on simple logical terms, what is "left" left of? Why, "right" of course. Both exist only in reference to each other, or to the equally illusory "center." When you are driving, and make a left turn, it is in reference to where you are, but once you have turned, it is no longer left, it is where you are. In the same way, one cannot be "left," except in the view of someone who is "right," except neither is a stand-alone position, and therefore nonexistent.

None of these terms can be clearly defined, and any movement along the so-called spectrum assumes an equal movement of an entire collection, or syndrome, of attitudes, issues, biases and fears.

Another problem with the so-called spectrum is that it has dual meanings, or non-meanings - the collection of ideological biases, and the adherents to these biases. So one could be of "the left" in ideas, but might hate all "leftists." Or, one might not like "rightists," but love their "ideas," such as they are.

A good example is me. Self-perceived "rightists" would see me as a "leftist," but "leftists" where I live, in Madison, Wisconsin, see me as either a heretic or, as I was accused on a radio show, "right wing." Either way, definitely not one of "us."

The reason for this confusion is that political identities, especially extreme ones, are a form of group psychosis. I favor progressive taxation and even a maximum income, not for reasons of ideology, but for practical reasons. We will have a better civilization if there are limits to greed, and if the extremes of wealth distribution are minimized. There will be less crime, homelessness, despair, suicide and social polarization. This is provable, and in the couple of decades after World War II we had a situation close to this reality.

I believe in the Divine, but not in organized religion, though I occasionally go to a Buddhist temple and a Zen center. I believe in conserving the ecosystem, and also in adopting a zero-growth (steady state) economic system. This last perspective is anathema to both "left" and "right," which is fine, since, as I mentioned before, they don't exist. I believe criminals should be punished, especially ones who violate the public trust, pollute the air and land, and lie the country into war.

George Will doesn't exist either. I think I read a few of his columns decades ago. I remember Mike Royko saying who would read a guy who looks like his grandmother. Now he really looks like his grandmother, which is fitting, since he is closer to the nonexistence that he already has attained. I never found it a worthwhile use of my time to pay any attention to anything he said.

There are some voices that need to be heard - Herman Daly, Jeremy Rifkin, Amory Lovins, Fritjof Capra, Bill McKibben, many others. These people are unencumbered by the myth of "left" to "right." You can be too.

You have certainly given me a lot to chew on! But I could not agree with you more about the inadequacy of the "political spectrum" to describe reality. In fact I wrote a whole piece on it back in March 2011 on how the spectrum concealed GOP extremism. A sampling of it is below.

The more I have thought about it, I think what separates Right and Left is not so much individual policies about taxation and such as the basic conception of community, nationhood, political legitimacy and sovereignty. Liberals think of America as a single community to be governed wisely with sovereignty located in the people themselves acting through the one thing they all share in common which is their government.

The Right attacks "Big Government" not for its size or cost -- because they keep making it bigger and more expensive when they are in charge -- but because Big Government at the national level is a symbol of the E Pluribus Unum they reject. We are not one community, they say. We are separate tribes of like-minded people and politics is not about building bridges it is about building walls.

Sovereignty is therefore not located in The People. It is located in whatever community we define for ourselves (religious, ethnic, state) or in the fact that we own property, or in ourselves. It is all very neo-Confederate and pre-Civil War.

I have written in the past that we now have a GOP composed of two basic factions -- Plutocrats and Populists -- who want nothing to do with the American nation-state. The rich because it taxes and regulates them. The populists because it makes them co-exist with people who do not look or think like them. This is why the American right wing resembles fascism, which is tribalism writ large. The Tea Party anarchists who would destroy the full faith and credit of t he US as leverage to dismantle the government they hate have the same warrior mentality as those who refuse to give up their military assault weapons because the guns represent the spirit of the citizens militia they imagine themselves to be protecting hearth and home from that tyrannical government in Washington that bares its fangs by giving health care to people who do not have it.

Anyway, here is a sampling of my essay on the deficiencies of the political spectrum to describe the extremism that now exists in our politics and thanks for writing:

Perhaps no metaphor has ever produced more political misunderstanding and mischief than the left-right political spectrum. Arrayed along a single dimension, every conceivable political impulse, from the inspired to the insane, is thought to find expression here along this line's imagination-imprisoning limits.

This is the spectrum the public and political class immediately have in mind whenever they designate a party or a position as "extreme" or when they advise political leaders they must move toward some mythical "Center." And for much of our history, this spectrum has served as a useful if deficient shorthand for comparing and categorizing the full range of political views.

No longer. The limitations of this convenient measuring device is exposed in polarized and fractured times like these. With political extremism now invading space once safely occupied by a deteriorating American consensus, it becomes painfully obvious that the familiar convention of a political spectrum obscures the existence of wholly different worldviews -- political systems which cannot be located along this line at all because they do not share the basic democratic assumptions upon which this spectrum was created in the first place.

More experienced political cartographers like Professor Theodore Lowi of Cornell know better. For much of American history, he says, disagreements between our parties could be accurately plotted along a left-right spectrum distinguished as much by what it left out as by what it contained. The conventional spectrum delineated a politics in which there was fundamental agreement on the liberal institutions of capitalism, democracy and rule of law and where there was also broad consensus among the parties about the operative definitions of such foundational values as liberty, equality, freedom and democracy itself.

The "left right political spectrum" that most people mistakenly believe describes all political possibilities in fact only encompasses a small slice of them. In the popular view, extreme libertarianism leading almost to anti-statist anarchy resides on the right side of the scale, while the preference for positive government leading nearly to "the corporate state" inhabits the left side of the line. While the right side generally describes Republican "small government" preferences, and the left side contains the Democratic Party's more publicly-minded orientation, the important thing to keep in mind about this particular "left-right" measuring stick, says Lowi, is that everyone on it is a liberal.

There really is a "Left" and a "Right" in the political universe, says Lowi. They just don't exist in a world occupied by America's traditional brand of democratic/capitalistic liberalism but instead inhabit a world all of their own. And so neither of these totalistic belief systems - whether fascist or socialist -- appear anywhere on what most Americans would think of when they consider the range of possible positions and ideas in American politics.

It occurs to me I should have provided a link to the article I mentioned in case you wanted to check it out. Here it is:

You nicely put your finger on an issue that has been irking me for some time now.

And I so admire Bruce Bartlett.

As for George Will: a long, long. long time ago I used to enjoy reading him and sometimes even found some sense and wisdom in things he said. And then in 1976, upon the opening of the Washington DC Metro system, he wrote that it would definitely bankrupt the entire seven county metro area in short order. That was when I realized what a fool he was and he hasn't gotten any better.

Been to DC lately? Can you imagine it functioning day to day without the Metro? Is any division there anywhere near bankrupt. No.
Blindered zealotry is repugnant, no matter the perpetrator. Thanks for calling out the zealotry of the conservative flavor.