Kai Weiss considers Lord Acton's timely essay "Nationality" to better understand our current political fevers.
The recent news that New Jersey legislators are demanding that Huckleberry Finn, a redemptive tale of interracial friendship, be removed from public school curricula on grounds of racial vulgarity provides a sobering reminder that political correctness is about more than free speech. It is about the divide between permanence and progress.
To see why, instead of striking one canonical work of American literature from the curriculum, New Jersey lawmakers might consider adding, and reading, another: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s dystopian story “Earth’s Holocaust,” which depicts an orgy of progress in which everything old, starting with “yesterday’s newspapers,” is thrown on a bonfire and consumed.
Hawthorne narrates a sequence of futile attempts to achieve progress by expunging the past. The marauders throw implements of war on the fire, the narrator inquiring of a skeptical “old commander” (note the “old”), “Do you imagine that the human race will ever so far return on the steps of its past madness as to weld another sword or cast another cannon?”
“There will be no need,” the commander replies in an enduring locution. “When Cain wished to slay his brother, he was at no loss for a weapon.”
Money, deeds to property, books of philosophy—everything burns. But the revelers, we learn, have neglected to torch the one thing that will regenerate all the rest: “the human heart itself.” A “dark-visaged” and red-eyed stranger who appears at the story’s end laughs: “And, unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery—the same old shapes or worse ones—which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes.”
Hawthorne’s point is not merely that sin is endemic to man but also that the frenzy for progress at the expense of what Russell Kirk—half a century ago this year—called “the permanent things” is self-consuming.
The bonfire is an important dimension of what travels under the label “political correctness”: the war on permanence. The label, to be sure, can obscure as well as illuminate. It has been deployed to protect patent incivility and to assail simple decency. But it also denotes a genuine phenomenon according to which language and policies that were widely employed and endorsed yesterday are, with astonishing suddenness, execrable today.
The essence of the genuine phenomenon distills to this: Progress starts today, on the basis of today’s moral standards, and anything that precedes it is ipso facto suspect.
Huckleberry Finn has faced a perennial indictment—the book burners in this case do not know how retro they actually are—but this mania has also recently extended to calls to dismantle monuments to the slave-owning founders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Now, let us specify what, in an age of political correctness, is obligatory: the N-word that Mark Twain stands accused of using too often in his masterwork is objectively offensive, and Washington and Jefferson are accountable for enslaving people, which must be weighed opposite their ample virtues. But the phenomenon of political correctness, as Hawthorne teaches, is nonetheless fundamentally about progress at the expense of the past. What frustrates those accused of violating the tents of political correctness is that the goalposts are constantly moving in the name of progress. The moral authority is never Burke’s “collected reason of ages.” It is always the omnipresent now, oriented toward the glorified future.
This faith in the now arises from a boundless confidence in contemporaneous reason that in turn implies a conception of man as the measure. It is not possible, or perhaps it is not necessary, to believe in reason’s limitations when man is not accountable to anything that transcends himself. The notion of permanence, and its transcendent nature, imply limits to human reason that the cult of progress cannot accept, for permanence declares there are some things reason cannot change or fully comprehend.
Progress, by contrast, rejects the past by necessity. Terminology that was commonplace in what Hawthorne called “yesterday’s newspapers” is consequently offensive today. The same is true of political positions. Barack Obama could not win the Democratic nomination for president in 2020 because the health-care reform he signed in 2010—then considered revolutionary—left too much room for the private insurers that the champions of Medicare for All deplore today. Among elements of the right, the issue is less progress than the present: Fealty to the sitting president can upend long-standing norms because the standard is not tradition but rather today. On either account, whether progress or presentism, there can be neither heroes—they come from the past, a foreign country—nor traditions.
Genuine opposition to political correctness—as opposed to using the term to cloak incivility—must be anchored in a respect, arising from modesty, for the authority of the past. Burke’s respect for the collected reason of ages was about the idea that the accumulation of human experience might contain more wisdom than the smartest professor in the room right now. Political correctness rightly understood, by contrast, regards today’s standards as de facto superior to yesterday’s because today’s are steps on the road of progress.
The issue is thus not a freedom to say whatever one wants whenever one wants. Yes, within reason, such is a principle of free speech. But while the principle of open debate is vital, free speech alone leaves opposition to political correctness rootless, or at least not fully rooted. Excoriation, after all, is an exercise of free speech too. The real issue is that we do not know everything in the here and now. We are not by definition smarter than those who preceded us.
That a work of literature has endured in the canon (itself now an offensive term) for more than a century might suggest there is something to it that is not wholly evident if it is held up merely to the standards of the moment. The same is true of custom.
The internal logic of progress dictates the opposite. That something is old makes it prima facie retrograde. Progress cannot tolerate the traditional because it is a barrier to the future. The goalposts must move. Today’s champions of purity of thought and speech will themselves be excommunicated from the church of progress tomorrow.
In “Earth’s Holocaust,” after tobacco is tossed into the flames, an “old gentleman”—again, “old”—laments: “Well, they’ve put my pipe out . . . . What is this world coming to? Everything rich and racy—all the spice of life—is to be condemned as useless. Now that they have kindled the bonfire, if these nonsensical reformers would fling themselves into it, all would be well enough!”
Hawthorne writes: “‘Be patient,’ responded a staunch conservative; ‘it will come to that in the end. They will first fling us in, and finally themselves.’” They will. The politically correct today will be intolerable tomorrow. At its core, progress demands it.