January 8, 2001

A Year of Correctness

by Dan Seligman

The news about political correctness—properly defined as a rigid adherence to progressive orthodoxy—is still not good. Another year has come and gone, and we have still not got to the point at which ordinary people, wishing only to go with the flow and not make waves, feel free to talk back to the PC fanatics. Or even to bar a 300-pound pig from flying first-class on US Airways.

This was the airline whose legal and consumer affairs departments three months ago decreed, apparently over the objections of flight attendants, that a large Vietnamese swine should fly free in the first-class cabin on a six-hour flight from Philadelphia to Seattle. Was it really credible that—as claimed by the pig's two human companions—"Charlotte" was needed because one of them found the pig's presence calming and might get nervous and have a heart attack if the pig was not on board? What about flyers who need cows or camels to keep calm?

Plausible answer to above questions: Those corporate bureaucrats did what they did because they have observed that it is politically incorrect to resist anybody claiming disabilities; also that folks making wildly unreasonable demands frequently sue and don't always lose in this country; also that the government tends to come down on the side of political correctness—which is exactly what the Federal Aviation Administration did in this case. Its spokesman told the media that the airline had "acted in a reasonable and thoughtful manner, based on a legitimate request to transport a qualified individual with a disability and her service animal."

The political correctness phenomenon has been an inescapable part of the culture since 1960s-era radicals established a sizable base in higher education and began the job of assigning victimhood to scores of new categories. Occasionally, the PC activists have setbacks. The Mount Lebanon, Pa. school district has in recent months dropped sexual-harassment education in its elementary schools. And the courts have generally been tough on campus "speech codes." But on and off campus you cannot help observing that yesterday's absurdity keeps turning into today's sacred cause.

Currently inspiring comparisons to Kafka is the newly established Office of Sexual Misconduct, Prevention & Education at Columbia University. The office, which has a broad range of punitive powers, including expulsion, does not allow students accused of "misconduct" to confront or cross-examine their accusers, or be represented by lawyers, or listen to witnesses or receive transcripts of hearings. How accused harassers might go about defending themselves is hard to figure out, especially given the codicil that complaints may be filed at any time up to five years after an alleged incident.

Another PC absurdity heating up these days is the bathroom issue. At its center is the "transgender community," especially men who have had, or are planning to have, sex-change operations. In Minnesota the state Court of Appeals recently held that a transgendered male had the right to sue an employer who had barred him from using the women's rest room. A current court case in Brockton, Mass. centers on one "Pat Doe"—a boy said to be suffering from gender identity disorder—who has been wearing a dress to school and asserting a right to use the girls' bathroom. In a recent interview in a New York University publication, "transgender activist" Leslie Feinberg was asked how to make our culture more "trans-inclusive." Electrifying answer: "The first step is the bathrooms."

It continues to be maddeningly difficult to accede to PC demands without creating new problems. At the Republican Convention in July gay activists naturally wanted a speaker representing their movement. Christian conservatives naturally wanted no part of gays. Hilarious to behold was the party's solution: a prime-time speaking slot for the only Republican in Congress who is openly gay, Jim Kolbe of Arizona. But he wasn't allowed to identify himself as gay, and his speech was a nonthriller on international trade. On my own scorecard the GOP lost both gay and Christian conservative votes as a result of the whole exercise.

So it was another boom year for political correctness. Miscellaneous other PC absurdities of 2000:

• On National Public Radio's celebration of the Declaration of Independence last July 4, the celebrants started off by bemoaning a passage that (as the guest expert put it) "I am actually ashamed to say out loud." This was the reference to King George's incitement of "merciless Indian savages" to prey on frontier settlers.

• The reviewer in the Washington Post of Jon Entine's Taboo, a book arguing that black domination of so many different sports reflects genetic advantages, offered an alternative explanation: "Maybe the black athletes are just psyching the white guys out."

• After the Supreme Court held that the Boy Scouts had a right to bar gay scouts and scoutmasters, United Way chapters across the land withdrew their support for the Scouts.

• The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a city ordinance barring bias against people who might be considered too fat—or too thin.

• The U.S. Justice Department ruled that it could not allow the Confederate flag to fly over a Confederate cemetery because this would imply the government supported racial discrimination.

• The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service halted construction for nine days on a $1.5 billion project to extend train service to San Francisco airports, because an allegedly endangered garter snake was crushed by construction equipment and found dead on a road last summer.

Copyright 2001