File spoon-archives/modernism.archive/modernism_2004/modernism.0404, message 3

Date: Thu, 15 Apr 2004 13:14:31 EDT
Subject: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities-EXCERPT

Excerpt from the first chapter of a work 
[Find it here:]
arguing that "political correctness" and alienated cultural criticism are 
inherently Western notions, and always were.

Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities
by John M. Ellis

Chapter One: The Origins of Political Correctness

What we now call "political correctness" may seem to be nothing more
than a modern fad, and one that will pass, but to see it only this way
is to misunderstand it. Its particular shape may be specific to our
time, but its basic impulse is one that recurs regularly in the
history of Western society. Herein lies a deep irony. Those in the grip of
this impulse are critical of the Western tradition and define themselves by
their opposition to it, yet the impulse itself is so much a part of
the Western tradition that the attitudes it generates can be said to be
quintessentially Western. One reason for studying the Western
tradition is to learn some important lessons about this recurring phenomenon 
so avoid mistakes that have been made many times before. In this
chapter I shall look at some prior episodes to show more clearly what kind of
thing this impulse is, what produces it, and what its dangers are.
Rather than carp at the absurdities of the current scene, we can
understand them more fully as part of the history of Western

Those who study German culture, as I do, usually get their first
account of the early Germanic peoples from the Roman historian Tacitus, who
wrote a short treatise entitled Germania in the first century A.D. By
the standards of civilized Rome, the Germans were barbarians, which is
what Tacitus calls them; in modern terminology, they were part of the
Third World of their day. But in Tacitus' eyes they were quite
remarkable people. They seemed to be instinctively democratic; all
major affairs were discussed by the entire community, and only minor matters
were delegated to chieftains. Even the views of a king were heeded,
Tacitus tells us, "more because his advice carries weight than because
he has the power to command." Similarly, in war, commanders relied on
example rather than on the authority of their rank. These natural
egalitarians were apparently not bothered by questions of social
standing and power. And if they seemed to have the sin of pride well
under control, the sin of greed seemed to give them no problems
either: Tacitus notes that "the employment of capital in order to increase
it by usury is unknown in Germany."

Nor was sexism one of their vices, for they had a high regard for the
opinions of women and treated them with the utmost respect: "They do
not scorn to ask their advice, or lightly disregard their replies." In
fact, these Germanic tribes, though primitive, exhibited high moral
character, a point Tacitus stresses repeatedly, with remarks such as "They 
uncorrupted by the temptations of public shows or the excitements of
banquets" or "No one in Germany finds vice amusing, or calls it 'up to
date' to seduce and be seduced" or "Clandestine love letters are
unknown to men and women alike. Adultery is extremely rare." Tacitus' Germans
were also brave, honest ... and just about anything else one could

Tacitus sums up his idyllic picture by saying that "good morality is
more effective in Germany than good laws are elsewhere." That is, of
course, because the Germans were a naturally good people who did not
need laws to keep their behavior in check. If Tacitus had been
speaking about a tribe that had vanished without a trace, we might simply
regret that we had never encountered such a splendid and admirable people.
Unfortunately, we actually know a great deal more about those Germans
than Tacitus did, and they do not seem so admirable in other recorded
accounts. Moreover, Tacitus never actually traveled among them. What
is going on here?

That vague word elsewhere in Tacitus' summary, suggesting as it does
an unspecified place where people must be governed by laws to keep their
depravity in check, gives the game away. It refers, of course, to
Tacitus' own society, to the first world of the time: imperial Rome.
What Tacitus really has on his mind is less the virtue of Germans than
the corruptness of civilized Rome--its sexual depravity, greed, and
obsession with rank and conquest.

We are surely familiar with this situation in our own time. A
sophisticated man of letters, disillusioned and even embittered by the
flaws, inconsistencies, and retrogressions of a great civilization,
deludes himself that a world of primitive innocence and natural
goodness exists in peoples who are untouched by the advances of that
civilization. So intense are his hostile feelings toward his own
society that he is unable to see the one he compares it to with any degree of
realism: whatever its actual qualities, it is endowed with all of the
human values that he misses in his own. Consequently, he sees his own
culture not as an improvement on brutish natural human behavior but
as a departure from a state of natural goodness. This recurring Western
fantasy runs from Tacitus' idealized Germans all the way to such
twentieth-century versions as Margaret Mead's sentimentalized Samoans
and ultimately to one of the most far-reaching outbreaks of this
illusion--the political correctness of our own day.

Anyone reasonably knowledgeable about the history of Western culture
knows that some of these episodes were major factors in the historical
development of Europe. Both Jean-Jacques Rousseau's adulation of the
Noble Savage and the nineteenth-century German Romantics'
glorification of the German Volk had serious repercussions. Karl Marx was 
in a similar frame of mind when he imagined the end point of his
transformation of society to be the withering away of the state. He
must have fantasized, just as Tacitus did, that morality could substitute
for good laws.

John Searle recently defended Western thought against the criticisms
of the politically correct by pointing out that it is uniquely
self-critical. But an even stronger point can be made: political
correctness itself is a thoroughly Western phenomenon. From earliest
times, Western society has been prone to recurring fits of this
self-doubt. Those who are seized by this mood may imagine that they
are taking an anti-Western stance, but that is all part of the same
pattern of self-delusion.

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