BY now, anyone who knows anything about the literary world is aware of the almost daily incidents that roil us in America. To outsiders having nothing to do with the literary world, these frequent outbursts of indignation about something insulting someone has said about someone else, followed by a wave of abject apologies by the accused, seem to have something of the ceremonial feel of Stalinist or Maoist purges. The literary world cannot seem to work itself into a pure enough froth to get on with the actual business of writing.
Let me briefly mention a few incidents to provide a taste of what’s been going on.
American writer Lionel Shriver, who likes to write about cultures and peoples other than her own, put on a sombrero hat to provoke the audience at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September. She railed against those who are offended by “cultural appropriation” — the idea that writers should not imagine characters and incidents outside their own immediate experience. An activist in attendance named Yassmin Abdel-Magied got so angry that she walked out of the lecture after 20 minutes, writing in the Guardian that Shriver’s words are just the kind of thing that lead to “genocide.” Abdel-Magied argued that Shriver did not have the right to “exploit” other cultures for fictional purposes.
The Association of Writers and Writing Programmes (AWP), the leading literary association of the US, draws upwards of 10,000 people to its convention each year, offering hundreds of panels and presentations, most of which seem to be about political correctness in some form or the other — writing, learning, and teaching seen from the point of view of different racial or sexual minorities. Publisher Kate Gale of the Red Hen Press in Los Angeles wrote a tongue-in-cheek article in the Huffington Post, satirising the insatiable demands made upon AWP by those living and dying by identity politics. Her own writers of colour withdrew their manuscripts from the press or otherwise disassociated themselves from her.
Calvin Trillin has been writing on politics and penning terrible ‘humorous’ verse for the New Yorker, The Nation, and other liberal magazines for more than half a century. He saw fit to write an ironic poem about the multicultural cuisine choices overwhelming the typical white American bourgeois. Though he is a respected food critic, he was charged with racism evoking the darkest fears of the “yellow peril,” as calls went up for firing this harmless octogenarian versifier.
A white Midwestern male writer named Michael Derrick Hudson had the notion that he’d have a better chance of publication if he passed himself off as a Chinese writer named Yi-Fen Chou. Indeed, he got into The Best American Poetry anthology, a most prestigious annual compendium, guest-edited by Sherman Alexie, a Native American writer. Alexie was in a bind once Hudson revealed his deception, twisting himself into a pretzel with his apologies. But he was accused of having played an insidious role in a racial crime, depriving a deserving author of colour of his rightful place in the anthology. Hudson was charged with benefiting from stereotypes of Asians; he was racist anyway for thinking that minorities have an easier time getting published.
Not only are these frequent call-outs and ritual self-criticisms and purges limited to the literary world, but they now constitute a major part of all public discourse.
I have been warning for about 15 years that identity politics, divorced from economic issues, was a deadly game that was bound to lead to the white majority eventually claiming for itself victim status and engineering a neo-fascist revolution. Precisely this outcome, which I have been consistently predicting, has now come about in Donald Trump’s presidential victory. The economically insecure white majority feels that it, too, should play identity politics because it is the only game in town.
Indeed, liberals tried to convert the 2016 election into a national referendum on ‘rape culture’— the signature issue in the literary world for quite some time now — but it backfired badly; the country was not in the mood to put aside genuine economic grievances. The white working class was excluded from liberal discourse as irredeemable deplorables, and they duly extracted their revenge by electing someone who claimed to be their tribune. The entire reactionary campaign was based on political incorrectness personified.
So identity politics in the literary and intellectual world is no mere sideshow. It has already had dire consequences for the health of the body politic. It has become self-fulfilling, as minorities have chosen to segregate themselves intellectually, feeling that to empathise with their condition, even in literature, is an act of racism or cultural appropriation.
To appreciate literature today, one need not be concerned with any traditional aesthetic criteria — whatever has been the substance of criticism from Aristotle to Samuel Taylor Coleridge to T.S. Eliot. The only thing that matters today in judging literature is how well it performs the rhetorical functions of political correctness, if it provides minorities with the boost of self-esteem that they deserve. And since, by definition, a writer of a particular identity cannot possibly empathise with someone of another identity, writers should only write about themselves.
Following from cultural appropriation, there have been such developments as mansplaining, whitesplaining, and straightsplaining. The idea is that any member of a dominant culture cannot possibly speak to someone of an opposed minority, and if they do so it is only to assert their intellectual superiority.
There is the pervasive worry about microaggressions. These refer to subtle, unconscious, deeply rooted stereotypical insults in every discourse; the only issue is to identify and root them out.
Trigger warnings are multiplying everywhere, for example the argument that in order to create safe spaces, or educational environments free of hostility, students should be warned any time something likely to trigger trauma — discussion of rape, sexual assault, or violence — is about to come up in the classroom. Indeed, students at liberal arts colleges have been demanding that trigger warnings be affixed to classic literary works such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (suicide trigger warning) or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby(domestic abuse trigger warning).
One notices that trigger warnings are never demanded for discussions on hunger, malnutrition, economic violence, imperialism, environmental destruction, or even death. Only personal sexual traumas seem to get people worked up. Now imagine that any new piece of writing has to contend with this matrix of assessments: it must not trigger any negative feelings in the reader, it must not unconsciously offend any sensibility, it must present likeable characters ascending the neo-liberal economic order with their hard work and personability and optimism, and so on.
The first thing to understand about how this terrible state of affairs has come to pass is that literary writing has been almost completely assimilated into academia. Most literary writers do not make their living from selling books in the marketplace; they live by teaching would-be writers in creative writing programmes numbering in the hundreds. So if academia, over the last 30 years, has been transformed into a bastion of cultural diversity, and has been riven by controversies over speech codes and censorship, literary writing, too, finds itself remade into the platform the liberal academy has conjured up. Again, call-out culture never engages with class issues. When dealing with aggrieved subjects, such as undocumented Hispanic immigrants, the issue of class injustice of any sort is never the focus of liberal tirades. This is not coincidental.
I have long held that multiculturalism (or identity politics or political correctness — the terms have indistinguishably blended into each other) is a devil’s bargain offered to previously excluded minorities: you shut up about class, and we will give you formal cultural recognition so that you can move ahead economically, provided you follow the example of quiescent model minorities everywhere. Just don’t ever bring up economic revolution, or even economic justice.
The first wave of political correctness took off on American campuses around the time the Cold War was ending, reaching critical mass in the 1989-1992 period — precisely the period when the Soviet Union and its satellites were unravelling and putting the dream of socialism to rest in our lifetimes. I believe it was the helplessness, the sheer impotence and powerlessness of liberal academic elites including authors and artists, which compelled them to make the linguistic turn at that time.
Literary deconstruction had already put in place a theoretical framework for the wider academic world to latch on to. Instead of action on the streets or in the workplace, instead of demands for economic equality, the literary world turned to demands for linguistic fairness, rhetorical justice acted out in the classroom or the textbook, novel or poem. In the succeeding quarter-century, as identitarians threw in their lot completely with the neo-liberal Democratic party, they staked everything — the health and vitality of democracy itself — on this one gamble of identity politics, shunning any traditional political economy ideals.
During the George W. Bush years, political correctness reached new heights in writing and in the classroom, even as immigrants, Muslims and minorities were being assaulted in real life on a massive scale. In the age of Trump, too, political correctness, the only weapon of the defeated, will escalate to new levels. Crimes against humanity will begin anew, while literary folks will feel righteous as they wear safety pins to acknowledge solidarity with Muslims and immigrants, volunteer to register as Muslims should there be a registry, and hunt out every linguistic offence among the avant-garde.
It is usually not the conservative troglodytes who are the targets of the call-out culture — they are irredeemable, after all — but those whom one expects to be sympathetic to the cause of racial and economic justice. It is always the truest of believers — writers, editors, critics — who come in for the worst expressions of rage on the part of the literary vultures.
This is no longer a harmless fad restricted to the literary world. Political correctness in the Obama years expanded wildly and prolifically. Having elected the first black president, liberals took a pass on economic or social justice because white guilt was easily assuaged. This is the kind of trap identity politics leads to: the drone warrior par excellence who refused to close Guantanamo and who did not wish to pursue war crimes retribution, was given a free pass because of who he was, not what he did.
The same thing happened with Hillary Clinton. The entire literary world (and I mean everyone who’s anyone vocally supported her) fell in line with the warmongering neo-liberal candidate. She stood for for mass incarceration, banking deregulation, illiberal trade agreements, the erosion of welfare, anti-immigrant and anti-terrorist paranoia, and she never met a war or an assassination or a surveillance tool she didn’t like. But to criticise Hillary was to be a misogynist, or even a sexual predator by default since she was taking on the “sexual predator” Trump. Meanwhile, the literary world mocked the genuine democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. Playing the convoluted game of identity politics, which reminds one of nothing so much as communist doctrinal labyrinths, has life or death consequences.
It is important to talk about what just happened in politics because literature in America has volunteered to be a handmaiden of politics. In its university incarnation it explicitly claims to have no objective independence, no aesthetic ideals, aside from the pursuit of certain pre-designated neo-liberal Democratic-party goals.
You may still be an independent writer, particularly in the genre of fiction, or you may be one of the last remaining literary writers operating outside the academy, in which case you are free to pursue any aesthetic vision that strikes your fancy. But if you’re like most literary writers, established in the academy and deriving your livelihood from teaching, then you cannot go against the identity politics consensus; you cannot help but support the neo-liberal narrative.
This is a desperate, increasingly totalitarian situation for the arts in America. The entire establishment thinks as one. The force of public condemnation immediately descends, violently and unforgivingly, upon anyone who dares to question the orthodoxy. If the ritual purgations, confessions, and rehabilitations sound eerily similar to what went on in Stalinist and Maoist cultures, it is not coincidental — this is the pattern such upheavals follow.
The political economy of writing, the sociological grid in which writers are caught up, explains why there have been hardly any American novels of note in the last decade. Mohsin Hamid, Joseph O’Neill, Aleksandar Hemon and some others have done excellent work, but they tend not to have been born and raised in America. They tend to be ‘foreigners’ who have a tough time with political correctness, which they see as too close for comfort with the authoritarian political systems they may have left behind or are familiar with.
Consider the novels and poetry collections from Muslims or Hispanics or African Americans that come down the pike from the country’s big and small publishers. The subtext for approval seems to be this: I, the writer, have rooted out every element of false consciousness, every subterranean prejudice and hankering. I have considered my moral options vis-à-vis our public consensus and here I take my stance, via this text I am offering you.
The texts in question offer clear dividing lines between the good and the bad (immigrants, Muslims, various sexualities), setting up juxtapositions and conflicts to arrive at the ‘right choices’ to progress in a neo-liberal meritocracy. In effect, it’s a colossal propaganda effort, the vast publishing and media apparatus shunning the complexity of human reality. The neo-liberal corporate overseers couldn’t be more pleased.
The aesthetic values of the actual text have ceased to matter; what matters is the verbal performance of ritualised loyalty to politically correct ideals that precedes and follows publication. Publication lives in oral memory, if you will; writing is almost besides the point. What matters is the politically correct persona of the author vouching for his or her text, vouching for the ‘marginalised’ communities for whom the author speaks.
So the next time you hear of a calling out, a burst of moral righteousness — as if human desire could be reduced to politically correct regulations, minutely defined for possible violations of code — know that this is not something benign or of limited application. It is the rude, hard, clashing sound of a dead intellectual culture coming up against its own limits, rising in anger at its own impotence, mocking and harassing and condemning, in a spirit that seems to me the antithesis of why anyone would want to get into the forgiving, humane, open-minded vocation of writing in the first place.
These are very scary people, these politically correct social-justice warriors. I, for one, want to stay as far away as possible from their madness if I am to have any hope of not having my imagination crushed, infected by their fantasies of a totalitarian order where the only words that can be heard are the ones duly approved by the moral authorities, and the only texts written are the ones that are censored before the fact, offending no one, and therefore dead on arrival.
Anis Shivani is the author of Karachi Raj and Soraya: Sonnets. His next book of criticism, Literary Writing in the 21st Century: Conversations, will appear in early 2017.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 18th, 2016