Expansive Poetry & Music Online Essay 
Reflections on Political Correctness in Art
essay by Arthur Mortensen

The trouble with lying and deceiving is that their efficiency depends
entirely upon a clear notion of the truth that the liar and deceiver
wishes to hide. In this sense, truth, even if it does not prevail
in public, possesses an ineradicable primacy over all falsehoods.

                           Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (1968)

As the writer waited outside a carelessly opened door, his friend, the math professor, stood in his classroom quietly speaking to a young man.  One could just overhear a few sentences and phrases:  "Work you are capable of doing; set your mind to it, and sure enough, you will get where you want to go; no one but you is capable of telling you what you can or cannot do;" and so on.  The young man did not seem overly impressed with the professor's advice but, nodding his head, and saying a muttered "thanks for your time," he departed with neither debate nor recrimination.   As soon as his footsteps had echoed out of the tiled hallway, the professor joined the writer under a flickering fluorescent.

"You heard that?"


The professor smiled ruefully:  "Listen, when he applied for the program you would have thought, from his grades, that he was the second coming of Murray Feigenbaum.  Well, grades -- you know about them. You have heard of grade inflation, haven't you?  Or a pedagogy that proposes an educational experience in place of an education?   This student came out of a public high school in the Bronx and expects that record to qualify him for advanced placement in mathematics.  He can't even handle moderately complex algebra.  And on this he expects to learn the calculus or statistical analysis?  You've either got it or you don't.  Look at me.  I can see a little of what someone like Feigenbaum can do, but that's all and that's why I teach.  It takes an extravagent effort for me to reach what a great mathematician routinely holds in mental images.  In fact, I'm certain that a talent for mathematics is inborn. I was given some, but while this kid may have some skills, he hasn't got that sense -- I don't know how else to describe it -- that even a teacher at my level requires."

"Why didn't you tell him that?"

The professor laughed, as though the writer were a naif newly arrived from Westchester.  "Oh, come on.  The only way he'll ever realize he's mathematically incompetent is to find out for himself.  And, if I tell him outright, I might get sued. Besides, I need another student to run the third session of Advanced Algebra."

One supposes a good response would have been to gag.  The professor had lied to placate a potential danger by making him responsible for a judgment that the professor had already made, all to protect the professor from a torts suit and to gain a third session for a course the young man should have never considered taking.  But did the professor himself have a good sense of the truth?  Was the young man's incompetence with more than moderate algebra a consequence of a "math" teacher in a public school whose qualification for teaching the subject was post-graduate reading of textbooks?  Had the professor tried to find out?  The writer knew that his friend probably had.  The young man was also obviously poor and clearly black.  Was this a factor?  As the professor was himself black and had been born to a family whose source of income was his mother's sewing for the rag trade in Chelsea and his father's operating a freight elevator in the Chanin Building, and who themselves had escaped the desolate agricultural life of rural Alabama, the likelihood of prejudice was low.  In fact, it seemed likely that the writer's friend would have gone out of his way to ascertain the student's real talents.   And, he had decided the young fellow incompetent.  But, to protect himself and to gain an extra class, and its income to him or to an associate, he had lied, promising a young man a potential future which the professor knew he would never enjoy.  One can imagine the consequences.

Once the young fellow got over a brief fling of self-hatred, he might have looked into what that professor had told him and decided, with justification, that the soothing phrases were self-serving propaganda, and that the professor hadn't believed a word.  False hopes have, on occasion, been occasion for murder.   What exactly is the difference between this real, if slightly fictionalized, example, and a politically corrected story line, diction and thought in a movie, novel, or narrative poem, where the "message" is at odds with what not only the creator but the recipient knows to be true?

Doubtless, a producer or editor who encourages such work presumes that the viewers and readers of this new work will be ignorant.  How else could they proceed?

One imagines that Soviet tractor paintings, dismal socialist realism, played especially well in Moscow.  To a city dweller, these pictures of agricultural life, even in such workmanlike demeanor, would be akin to the romances of 18th century poets (with the notable exception of Crabbe), how one imagines life on the farm.  Certainly, no farmer or anyone who's spent time in a field would be fooled.  Where's the sweat, the smell of cow manure, the dust, the clouds of grasshoppers, and the goddamned flies?   The presenter of such work might also miss an obvious problem.  In putting a communist-correct woman on the tractor, he might well have proposed to a viewer that bouncing all day in the heat on a metal seat was perfectly suitable work for a woman.  In fact, the promotion of women in Soviet medicine had the unwitting effect of making medicine one of the most scorned professions in the Soviet Union.   And that was not the only place you could witness such phenomena.  When the writer's father visited Moscow in the 1970's, he was perplexed to find that women did most of the visible physical work, from offloading luggage from the Aeroflot jet to cleaning the floors to driving the taxi cabs.  Old sexist pig that he is, he noted: "it's almost as if the Soviets had figured out a way to con women into being slaves."  One guesses liberation is a relative term.

After a lengthy visit to China in the 1980's, a friend who had spent decades learning two dialects of Chinese so that she could do business there, showed the writer pictures of billboards passing for street art in Shanghai.  Amid the budding factories, narrow alleyways of shanties, and 19th century imperial buildings were numerous pictures which might have passed for poster art in the United States.  Done in a cheerful, Norman Rockwell manner, from the corner store crayon colors to the vacuous, happy faces, one might have expected the titles, in broad Chinese characters, to be ironic.  For instance, beneath a giddy pair of airheads, one might see a quote from the woman: "I'd be happier if I weren't six months pregnant by Ding Lao."  Or "Mao and Li ran up the hill and were eaten by a tarantula."  There was a brief period in the 70's where such stuff was done as a movement in New York -- maybe it was only on Soho television.  But, no, beneath each work was a slogan such as "Men and Women As Equals Make A Good Team," though not noting equal to whom, or "Mao Would Like Workers To Be More Friendly To Their Rural Friends," neglecting to note whether the slogan referred to human beings or to what wildlife is left in China, or "To Be A Peasant Does Not Mean To Be Ignorant," which might be regarded as high irony in some parts of the United States.  The recent traveler noted that, in conversation with Shanghai locals, the general public attitude toward these posters was how wonderful they were, but that, over a shared pot of steamed rice and vegetables, and beyond the eyes of the Red Army, the works were the subjects of jokes, most of them lewd.  One wonders if such art is in the eye of whom one is beholden to.

In the old USSR, ignorance in some parts of education was national policy though, thankfully, not in mathematics or the sciences, where Russians have excelled for generations, and which were, for some reason, with the exception of Stalin's obsessions, exempt from communist-correctness.  In China, a far more complicated place -- the old xenophobic notion that in a room with two Chinese there will be at least three arguments is probably true, ignorance in education has been a Maoist ideal since 1948 but, fortunately, one more honored in the breach than in the observance, in case you hadn't noticed where the clothes and watch you're wearing were manufactured.  In both places, socialist realism and didactic art, or communist-correctness, have by and large been replaced by more urgent concerns, such as making a living, getting the government out of decision-making where possible, shaking the criminals out, and enjoying the fabulous riches of national cultures far older than almost any others on earth as well as of those considered alien and incorrect by the old regimes.  Cheerleaders in the State Department will probably tell you that this is only because they're emulating the United States, land of the free, but is this true?

Vladmir Putin, the current President of Russia, what's left of the old USSR, noted a few years back that freedom of expression and many other aspects of democratic liberty, seemed to have come to Russia just as they were disappearing in Europe and the United States.   What could he possibly mean by that?  Is it just the grim world of the academic, where knowledge workers, even, sadly, in mathematics and the sciences, labor under a ruthless regime of political correctness?

In the old days of the NEA, town squares had odd objects inflicted on them by government fiat.  Some of them looked like they'd been dropped by a passing 747, or were parts of a 747.  This wasn't really political correctness, but a bureaucratic presumption that only Modernist or post-Modernist work was art.  Call it a right of patronage, call it what you like, but it wasn't political correctness.  In most cases, it was either boring or irritating.  However, most of that stuff has either been removed or redecorated by the locals into something more palatable.  In fact, the new NEA no longer funds individual artists at all; having taken the brunt of criticism for boring or irritating government-sponsored art, at the behest of Congress it passed responsibility for such things on to local arts organizations.   Many of them sponsor artists who do the same kind of boring and irritating work, but in communities where such is considered high art.  Where is PC art likely to be found today?

Oddly enough, it is most likely to be found on commercial television or emitting from universities.  If for the sake of argument, we temporarily merge private universities and commercial television so that both become media outlets, this begins to make a great deal of sense.  This is especially true if you understand media outlets as being primarily audience-response mechanisms.  If that sounds like the theater, well, the theater was the original audience-response mechanism in the arts.  And while this will trouble devotees of Elizabethan, French, Spanish, Italian or Greek drama, both of which left behind fabulous artifacts that are celebrated by living productions across the world to this day, it is true that very little art of enduring value has ever been produced in what old hands ironically describe as "legitimate theater".  Most plays, a far higher proportion than Robert Silverberg's famous "90% of everything," are little more than the efforts of a producer, writer, and actors to gain approval of an audience.  In that perennial phrase of success in the theater, "what works" to gain that approval is usually little more than pandering to expectations, prejudices, suspicions and superstitions.   Why that is so has to do with an illusory intimacy, where, because the actors in a story are actually there -- living beings in front of others, appeals may be made directly to audiences in a way that is simply unavailable in opera, the rare poetic drama, or in the theater's odd child, the movie.   In the latter three, the conventions of music, poetry, and mise en scene, as well as the deliberate separation of audience and artist, in both opera and poetic drama through radical heightening of dramatic elements so that even living actors seem superhuman, and in film by the very nature of a fixed artifact being substituted for living actors, such intimacy is not possible and is rather a gross interruption of the art's method.  Television, on the other hand, and this is not original -- see McCluhan or a variety of other commentators -- creates an illusion of intimacy that, despite its technological distance, seems as close as that which one used to find in the "legitimate" theater, where the story seems to be going on almost inside one's own home.  And in the university, of course, there is the illusion of intimacy in the "learning circle" of a class, where students demonstrably ignorant of a subject are encouraged to participate in discussion of it as equals with a professor who has a PhD.

One cannot honestly say in either case that the apparent intimacy, or the equality of actor and audience, are anything but illusions.  Nor can one ignore that the only way such intimacy could succeed would be to leave audiences, whether TV watchers, or students, feeling somehow satisfied that they were at one with the magic.   And one can hardly say that without observing further that this could not succeed unless media -- the TV program, or the university "learning circle" -- were not deliberately skewed toward the desires of audiences, where specators believed they were co-equal as creators of the material in question.   Is this an unreasonable suggestion?

In commercial television, the focus group, market research, and what are variously described as "legal concerns," are the primary keys to how television writing is shaped for virtually all network programming, including the news.   If enough focus groups react negatively to a character or to a storyline in a proposed program, the character will be expunged or the storyline changed.   If market research reveals that most adults in the target group for advertisers have neither interest in nor knowledge of a profession, there will never be a program written about a character in that profession.  If market research and focus groups reveal that a suspicion in targeted audiences is that women are often victims, you can depend on programming to appear to satisfy that suspicion.  If the legal department suggests that the network will be sued by one group or another, it may be considered good programming to add representative members of that group to a program.  The result is television programming that can be popular, because of its appeal to audience prejudices and superstitions, and safe, because no one will complain about it, but which may be as remote from doing drama's job of imitating the real world as a fashion model is from imitating a real woman.   It isn't politically correct art in the sense that a Chinese poster of good behavior was twenty years ago, but is instead art whose shape is distorted by pandering to audiences and by defending the network from potential lawsuits for not seeming correct.  But could this apply to a university?

It has been a long time since the notion of the ideal university imagined by intellectuals such as Humboldt in the 18th and 19th centuries has existed, particularly outside of the sciences.   People don't take classes to fulfill an ideal of well-roundedness, or to become better citizens.   Students take required courses, regardless of what they are, because they want to pursue other courses for a  degree in a field which will lead them either to a graduate program and a career or to graduation and a job.   The trouble comes not from this transformation into "relevancy," but from the dissolution of the old conception of required courses.  What was that?

Until the 1970's, required courses were in the liberal arts and in history.  Mathematics, the study of another language, the reading of literary works from a variety of eras and places, study of philosophy and of science, and a grounding in history, particularly of the West, were considered indispensable tools for anyone, regardless of their career interests, not so much for what people remembered of them later on but for a habit of mind -- call it tuned-up intelligence -- which could be applied to any field or interest.  While to anyone who has taken (or been required to take) the trouble, these eventually proved enormously valuable, to the very young of any era, they were rarely welcome subjects.   Mathematics is difficult and abstract.  Another language may not seem important to an American whose only exposure to difference is from a Mexican day-laborer or a Chinese nanny.  Literary works are most often written by adults for other adults.  History is about dead people.  "Where's the relevance to my life?" may not have been explicitly asked at Jesuit schools in the 17th century, or at American public schools in the 1930's -- who would have dared? -- but don't doubt that it was asked.  Why else has such such work, like certain ill-tasting medications, been required?  If students had historically volunteered to undertake these studies, it would never have been necessary to demand their passage.

Unfortunately, with the increasing ease of American life from the late 1950's onward (where else was it so simple to make so much money, not just the millions of an entrepreneur, but the salaries of a secretary or clerk?), the required course succumbed to "relevancy," as that pedagogical crusade was called in the 1960's.  Why do we need these literary works?  What are they but the recorded prejudices of other times and places?  What do we need mathematics for when we've got computers?  Why do we need another language when we can import translators from Brasil and Korea?  What do we need history for when all it represents is one class's view of events that we can never really know?  What do we need to study science for, as only geniuses understand it?  What's philosophy but the pre-scientific dreaming of dead people; everybody's got an opinion -- why not mine instead? These questions were considered enlightened during the Sixties.   They stemmed from people, including the writer, insulated from the consequences of ignorance by a wealthy age, relatively undisputed national power, and the pacific illusions of television and of a national politics reduced to rarely-heard discussions among experts on the one hand and a beauty contest between personalities and phraseologies for public consumption on the other.  It was so easy that people with BA's in English were international loan officers with hundred million dollar portfolios, and someone whose ignorance would be a deficit on a sanitation force could seriously entertain ideas of becoming the President of the United States.  It was that way.  Should it be surprising then that old standards of education would be considered silly, or "irrelevant?"  Such questions were asked not only by radicals, but by corporate officers and by academics.

If someone whose educational background was discussion and writing about Chaucer could take on major responsibilities at a money center bank, why should we study any of that old stuff?  If someone with a high school education could become an SVP at GM, why bother with the liberal arts?   History was over.  English was the international language.  Anybody could do anything; everything was possible.   No one asked an obvious question, such as "isn't it possible that the liberal arts introduced habits of mind that made students who'd studied them competent for more complex work?"   Or, "even though a graduate might never again look at discussion of logic, Vergil, or the calculus, might the absence of that quality of mind seriously compromise adult intelligence?"  These were long-term questions, however, and in the impatient Boomers'  youth; the short term triumphed, as did quarterly planning in business over long-term business strategies.  Relevancy, the immediate application of knowledge to a job or career, was viewed as both real and saleable; the long-term was held as inappropriate for the attention span of a teenager and for the future.

And something strange happened. Things went wrong; the experts, checked by neither the general population nor by leaders, screwed up.  Absent a well-conceived policy of means and objectives, they fumbled a near victory in Viet Nam into one of the worst disasters in American history.   Contemptuous of a public they rightfully considered ignorant, they fumbled into a decade-long recession and double-digit inflation.  Paying no attention to human intelligence gathering, they calculated themselves into nearly losing the Cold War to the Soviets, a system already approaching bankruptcy and lurching to the brink of disasters at Chernobyl and in Afghanistan.  Scornful of local political organizations, they brought a system of "politics" whose leaders were unknown quantities outside of national committees and the news media, whose function was to cheerlead people who had no public to answer to but themselves.  One can argue forever about the specifics of this mess, but one can't escape a terrible truth about the 1970's, that rather than leading to a re-investment and re-invention of education that produced graduates able to think and judge for themselves, it led to the substitution of political indoctrination for the old liberal arts requirements, as if feeling correct were more significant in avoiding the world's problems than being able to judge and act with effect.

It is popular nowadays on the right to describe this as a leftwing political scheme, and in part it was and continues to be, but it was driven by the market in students and their tuition-paying parents, markets in selling notions about glossing over the bumps in society which were as popular in corporate offices as at faculty meetings and in an episode of Star Trek.  We can dismiss this notion only at our peril.  Parents didn't want the uncertainties and violence of the Sixties, or the disintegration of Seventies to happen to their children.  What they bought was the proposition to satisfy this need with a set of indoctrinated social skills, modern "deportment" not much different from a Victorian finishing school's admonitions about good breeding.  These, they were told, and which they bought, were promised as a means to eliminate all frictions between races and genders, and lead to a promised land where happily cooperating teams of amiable co-workers would demonstrate the irrelevancy of those old notions about judgment, objectivity, clarity of expression, coherent argument and objectives, reason itself -- all held as artifacts of a past comprising only war, depression, hatred, and oppression.   This program in the universities, in fact, so closely mirrors the illusions perpetuated by network television programs (and bought by their viewers), both fiction and "news," and in both hope and effect, it's astonishing that comparison of the two media outlets hasn't been made before.   The program of indoctrination at universities, at least a great many of them at the undergraduate level, may be viewed as the serial comedy that has been made of our university and public education systems; they have become studios where professors execute politically correct art.  And its primary artifacts were its own graduates, many of whom believed, as one young woman loudly expressed near the writer in a cafe recently, that "I accept free speech, but you should never make anyone feel uncomfortable; people who do that should be kept apart."  She could have walked out of a Henry James novel.  But was this all so bad?  Aren't our children our best works of art?  Shouldn't they feel good? And shouldn't we feel good about them being so contrived as to be superior to what preceded them?

As September 11th brilliantly illuminated, works of art, even if they have living human hands, cannot confront a tyrant with a will to murder any more than TV show about murder can confront a real killer.  Only citizens can -- contentious, opinionated, irritable, educated to be capable of independent thought, aware of who they are and where they come from.  No maestro would expect a symphony to conduct foreign policy; only a fool or a psychopath would expect an artfully contrived idiot to do so either.  And only a pathological liar, a cynic or a Marxist with a program to sell would tell a student whom he knew would fail that anything is possible, if you try.

                     Arthur Mortensen

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