The wrongness of political correctness

Marty Rochester

By Marty Rochester

What do Notre Dame Cathedral, Kate Smith and Joe Biden have in common? All are famous names from the past, threatened recently with erasure from our collective memory because they do not stand up to contemporary sensibilities.

In short, they have each fallen victim to political correctness.

Let’s start with the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, the 850-year old Catholic church in the center of Paris that was devastated by fire April 15. 

A couple of summers ago, I was in France visiting the Normandy D-Day beaches and made an obligatory stop in Paris, which meant an obligatory stop at the Notre Dame Cathedral as one of the 13 million tourists attracted annually to the shrine. I also visited the nearby Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation, an underground Holocaust museum dedicated to the 200,000 people who were deported from Vichy, France to the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Both are sacred ground, although the memorial was built in 1962 and the church’s foundation was laid in 1163. 

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Awe-inspiring, the church is an iconic symbol of Gothic architecture, the French nation and ultimately Western civilization. It was the site of Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation as emperor of France in 1804, a special mass celebrating the liberation of Paris from the Germans in 1944 and numerous other historic events. Such is its central importance to France that all distances in the country are measured in relation to “kilometer zero” in front of the church.

President Emmanuel Macron has committed France to rebuilding Notre Dame, hopefully within five years. Two of the richest families in France have each pledged over $100 million to the project. 

Yet even Notre Dame is not immune to PC criticism, not only that the money could be better spent fighting poverty but also that the building is unworthy of reconstruction. 

In an April 16  Rolling Stone article “How Should France Rebuild Notre Dame?” EJ Dickson writes that “for some people in France, Notre Dame has served as a deep-seated symbol of resentment, a monument to a deeply flawed institution and an idealized Christian European France that arguably never existed in the first place. ‘The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation,’ says Patricio del Real, an architectural historian at Harvard University.” 

The destruction of one of the wonders of medieval architecture is an “act of liberation?” Really? And “any rebuilding should be a reflection not of an old France — a nonsecular, white European France — but a reflection of the France of today?” 

Victor Davis Hanson of Stanford’s Hoover Institution has rightly called this “ignoramus” thinking. Jeffrey Hamburger of Harvard likewise calls such thoughts “preposterous”: 

“It’s not as if in rebuilding the church one is necessarily building a monument to the glorification of medieval Catholicism and aristocracy. It’s simply the case that the building has witnessed the entire history of France as a modern nation. You can’t just erase history.”

Ah, but yes you can, these days, as has happened with Confederate statues and many other historical objects that are not in synch with modern, liberal views of race, gender, religion and other categories of identity politics. 

Another example of PC out of control is what has just happened to Kate Smith, whose 1938 rendition of “God Bless America” had been the gold standard of the patriotic classic idolized by many generations. Her voice could be heard during the seventh-inning stretch at every New York Yankees home game since 9/11. It was heard often prior to Philadelphia Flyers ice hockey games since 1969, and a statue of the singer was placed outside the Flyers’ arena in 1987. The statue has now been removed and her voice stilled at Flyers’ games. 

The New York Yankees also have suspended playing Smith’s version of “God Bless America.” 

And we are unlikely to hear her again anywhere, from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam.

Smith’s removal from the public square is due to the rediscovery of two songs she recorded with racist lyrics in the early 1930s: “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and “Pickaninny Heaven.”  

There is no question that the lyrics are awful and deserving of condemnation, as were so many statements made by any number of Americans in the Jim Crow era. One need only watch “Gone With the Wind,” released in 1939, to understand the virulent degree of racism that marked portrayals of blacks in popular culture at the time. 

Still, even though some critics have called for banning the film from future screenings, it is still shown often, and the American Film Institute continues to list it in its Top 10 among the “greatest movies of all time.” 

Should we never again be allowed to hear Smith’s glorious voice at patriotic events because she unfortunately reflected the racism of her day in two out of about 8,000 recordings she made, evidencing no other demonstrations of racism that we are aware of? 

We seem increasingly willing to forgive criminals, nonviolent or violent, for all kinds of transgressions — an April 21 New York Times article reported on a woman who advocates abolishing prisons — but there is little compassion for those who violate PC norms even in the slightest.

Note the case of poor Joe Biden, who is 76. He had not yet even formally announced as a 2020 presidential candidate before many Democrats had already dismissed him as a near “dead white male” of the sort that the party of inclusion has ranted against for the past couple of decades. 

Biden’s masculinity became ever more “toxic” after a former Democratic Nevada Assembly member named Lucy Flores revealed in a March 29 New York Magazine article that at a 2014 campaign rally supporting her unsuccessful candidacy for lieutenant governor, then Vice President Biden hugged and kissed her in a way she found “demeaning and disrespectful” and made her feel “uneasy, gross and confused.” Several other women added their own stories about similar Biden encounters. 

Few people who had followed politics were surprised to hear about Biden’s behavior. He had always come off as a bit goofy at times with his uber-effervescent personality and warm embraces. But it had always seemed innocent enough, as a genuine display of connectedness. 

As he replied to the #MeToo critics, “In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort. And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately.”

One would think he was Harvey Weinstein or worse, given the condemnation that followed Flores’ complaint. Biden tried to show contrition, saying, “Social norms have begun to change. …  The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it.” 

No, he does not get it. He might well have more chance of gaining the support of liberal media and party elites if he were black and transgendered. 

I am not necessarily a fan of Biden, but he seems an improvement on most presidential candidates currently — a throwback to Hubert Humphrey, George H.W. Bush and others who at least were decent, civil, relatively middle of the road politicians rather than promoters of extremist populist views and obsessed with political correctness. There seems little space left for those types today.

A recent New York Times headline read: “Should a White Man Be the Face of the Democratic Party in 2020?”  

It would really be refreshing, not to mention intellectually honest, if U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris, Corey Booker and Elizabeth Warren, or Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., or any of the other Democratic presidential candidates were willing to admit that such thoughts are no less racist than Kate Smith and sexist than Joe Biden. 

Is it possible anymore to treat people as individual human beings rather than members of oppressor and victim groups and to evaluate one’s qualifications based on something other than PC?

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including his latest: “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”