What happened at Harvard between Cornel West and Larry Summers is a perfect illustration of political correctness in action. You begin with two things: a lie and a political program. Mix carefully in an atmosphere of self-righteousness and, presto! You get the topsy-turvy world of euphemistic doublespeak in which truth is always negotiable and emotional blackmail triumphs with impunity.

It is sometimes thought that facts are sturdier things than ideas and theories. The history of tyranny shows that this is not the case. The empirical world of factual reality is far more susceptible to the onslaughts of power than the mental world we populate with ideas. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt observed,

facts and events are infinitely more fragile things than axioms, discoveries, theories… . Perhaps the chances that Euclidean mathematics or Einstein’s theory of relativity … would have been reproduced in time if their authors had been prevented from handing them down to posterity are not very good either, yet they are infinitely better than the chances that a fact of importance, forgotten or, more likely, lied away, will one day be rediscovered.

The real malignity of political correctness lies not in its ideals—which tend to involve little more than current clichés and slogans—but in its readiness to betray the lineaments of factual reality for political gain. “Who controls the past,” George Orwell wrote in 1984, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Or, as Mark Steyn puts it below in his contribution to our series on the survival of culture, “We are the accumulations of our past, in its wisdom and folly, and to repudiate it is a totalitarian act.”

Such repudiations can be large or small. Mr. Steyn cites Pol Pot’s declaration of Year Zero when he inaugurated his murderous regime. (Robespierre, of course, tried something similar with his Thermidors and Brumaires.) But the totalitarian impulse is also at work in more modest actions. Consider the devoted Stalinist saying to himself as he airbrushes Trotsky out of a photograph: “What does this little lie matter? I am serving history and the imperatives of Communist brotherhood.”

We imagine a similar thought crossed the minds of those responsible for commissioning the nineteen-foot bronze sculpture that was supposed to be placed in front of the New York Fire Department’s Brooklyn headquarters this spring. Meant to commemorate the 343 firemen killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, the sculpture is based on the famous news photograph, by Tom Franklin of the Bergen County Record, of three firemen raising an American flag on a pile of rubble at Ground Zero. Probably all of our readers remember that photograph, taken the very afternoon of the attacks, in which firemen Dan McWilliams, George Johnson, and Billy Eisengrein are seen hoisting Old Glory on a length of metal wreckage.

It is worth recording the names of those brave men, because, if the forces of political correctness had had their way, their deed would have been airbrushed into the amnesiac limbo of ideological expediency. Like the vast majority of firefighters in New York, McWilliams, Johnson, and Eisengrein happen to be white. How to deal with that politically incorrect fact in this age of “affirmative action”? Simple: alter the historical record. Thus the model for the sculpture depicts not the three white firemen but a rainbow coalition of one white, one black, and one Hispanic man. Just as we were going to press, the news came down that the public outcry against this effort to rewrite history had led the sponsors to drop plans for the sculpture: splendid if true.

A spokesman for a group representing black firemen emitted the usual PC-speak about the sculpture: “The symbolism is far more important than representing the actual people,” he said. “I think the artistic expression of diversity would supersede any concern over factual correctness.” Ah, yes, good old “factual correctness.” It is an extraordinary development that the mantra of “diversity” has become a favored tool of historical falsification. We agree with the firefighter who noted that it was “an insult to those three guys to put imaginary faces on that statue.” But the insult encompasses more than Messrs. McWilliams, Johnson, and Eisengrein. It is an insult to the truth. Carlo Casoria, who lost his firefighter son in the attack, put it with blunt accuracy: “They’re rewriting history in order to achieve political correctness.” In other words, so long, Trotsky.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 6, on page 2
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