This is a tight, taut, tough little book. I say little – it isn’t particularly – but somehow I see it as a squat, pugnacious and muscular little fighter. The main text is less than fifty pages but the endnotes are like the trainer rubbing down the fighter, applying the gum-shield, the important back-up…Okay, this metaphor’s getting stretched – but as you read you must flick back to the notes and get further and deeper information; rather than the usual lists of “ibid”.
I imagine Frank Ellis to be somewhat of a pugnacious fighter too – I could be wrong. I got hold of a copy of this book shortly after Doctor Ellis landed in trouble with his university for comments made in an interview with his university’s student paper – The Leeds Student. I heard Ellis on Radio 4 (a snippet at the end of the Today Programme) and was impressed with his stalwart refusal to back down in a three-way interview including the writer of the article – Matt Kennard – the contents of which caused the ensuing and inevitable fury. Regardless of the nature of the spar on radio I was subsequently sent a copy of the article and I wrote a letter to Matt and the editor (Jessica Salter) laying out my own views (alas something of an “in-between” position – a veritable Bantam to Frank’s Heavyweight!). I was drawn to a reference at the end of Kennard’s article which said:
With me he [Ellis] is forthright and open, and his book sits collecting dust in Edward Boyle Library on our campus with a world of bigotry available to any student with the right appetite.
Naturally, having written previously about censorship and the writer of fiction (though interested in all forms of censorship and writing) I was intrigued to get hold of this “world of bigotry” – not because I wanted to read bigoted writing but because I wanted to see if Kennard was being fair. Also because my entry into the realm of politics, however reticent, was helped by more than a push from my own time at university. Entering as a mature student (in my mid-thirties) I was puzzled that the observations I had made back in the seventies when at college still existed: white, middle-class young adults guilt ridden and self-hating turning on their own kind – a kind and an upbringing, I, as a working-class child would dearly loved to have experienced. I noted too that free-speech was not king – and neither did my metaphorical one-eyed passion for literature fit me for being king when all around were blind to opposing points of view. Only in a comparative literature class (my degree was in English and American Literature) did I feel in tune with the lecturer (a Polish chap). Reading writers later cited by Ellis in Political Correctness (including Solzhenitsyn and Milosz) and discussing with my Polish mentor the opposite nature of the university in Poland and England; the former a place of free-speech within a society under the yoke of communism and the latter a place of doctrines and doctrinaires (with some who didn’t quite toe the line or join the race) within a ‘free’ society got me well and truly thinking. My experience of the withdrawal of certain books and the suppression of certain views (documented elsewhere) led me to contemplate writing my own book relating political-correctness (which I first encountered in 1980) to life under communism and in the Soviet States. I didn’t write that book but I got politcised!
So in Political Correctness we have a world where there is a continuum drawn from the early thoughts and writing of Lenin through Mao and the cultural revolution to the sixties and seventies New Left (in the Western World) to be deposited in the citadels once of free-speech and debate; the modern universities. Here academics are able to plant their intellectual spores into the young and outwards into society. And the academics Ellis identifies are those he sees poisoning the world with their political correctness.
Here’s a Soviet maxim: If you don’t know we’ll teach you, if you don’t want to know we’ll force you. Or let’s consider Harry Wu (a prisoner of the Chinese concentration camps: laogai) who saw political correctness in its Chinese manifestation as a mental form of feet binding. Thought, like the toes of a Chinese woman, must be bound rigid into an ideological shoe – tight, constricting and compulsory. He called this Chinese Gulag the Auschwitz of the Mind. The connection with modern day political correctness and Lenin is all about theory. Lenin: without a theory there can be no revolutionary movement. And only with a theory could the revolutionary movement maintain its correct path. And the theory underpinning this revolutionary movement is one of superior wisdom. This is of course very un-pc! But the New Left safely camped inside the Ivory Forts of universities knew that the old Marxist control of the means of production had now become control and regulation of the means of expression – language.
Contrast Coleridge’s definition of poetry as: the right words in the right places with: the right-thinking people in the right positions of influence and authority. The correct thinking comes from the shepherd Lenin and his various sheep-dogs have kept the great flock of sheep in order ever since. Having said that Doctor Ellis might have gone into some detail of how and why the Soviet Union and communism collapsed and how things are in contemporary China (this is my ignorance of Chinese dissidence since the atrocities of Tiananmen Square). The good news is that political correctness (Politicheskaya pravil’nost’) has been defeated in Russia and the old Soviet States but is mushrooming here (through political correctness) according to Ellis.
Writers in the Soviet Union had to learn (or be ‘instructed’) on how to be correct. Censorship of all writing was fully justified to obtain: the correct thoughts in the correct mind and the correct words in the correct writings. Writers were regarded as the “engineers of human souls”. Control the means of expression and…well in Modern Britain and the Anglo-Saxon Diaspora publishing houses, editors and (most obligingly) writers themselves conform to modern pc ideals. And if these willing agents dissent then although they don’t (necessarily) get murdered or locked away (though some do – pace an editor during the Rushdie affair and David Irving) they do get marginalised, over-looked, un-reviewed – kept out of reach. Un-published. Un-read. Un-influential.An Un-writer.
As Ellis points out though the concept of correctness was (and is) not confined to literature: by the time of Lenin’s death in 1924 [or certainly by the late twenties] the concept of correctness was pervasive in ideology, politics, education, literature, history, jurisprudence, culture and economics…Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, for example, stressed the need for “hygiene, personal and social” in education. (Sounds like modern British education.) And she went on to attack literature that was not social-realism but rather harked back to the old’ as functioning “as a kind of poison”. Protection from such literature is necessary. All of this bespeaks the importance of the correct application of the teaching of literature in our schools.
Projecting the above to Mao’s China, Jing Lin writes: The main task of the highly centralised education system was to inculcate the ‘correct political orientation’. “Without correct literary and art criticism it is impossible for creative work to flourish” – (from Important Documents on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China). Correct is the word that permeates Ellis work – quite obviously. The communists of Russia and China were obsessed with what was or was not correct. And as Francoise Thom points out: Ideology turns the world into language. Men who do not conform must be broken then re-made so they are no longer “enemies of the people”. They must be de-constructed. Post-modernism deconstructs the Western Canon and is an implement that – like a Trojan Horse – brings in relativism; moral and intellectual. Break down the work, break down the writer. Break down the old. Put in the new correct way of looking at things. In the Chinese Gulag in order to achieve thought-reform new prisoners were forced into the degrading ritual of bai lao men (paying respects to the cell god) which involved a new prisoner being made to suck up excrement from a bucket through straws and then saying that the excrement tasted delicious. Here is another important fixation of political-correctness from Lenin onwards: there is the truth which must be gained – an ideological truth – and the truth that is objective and real but does not conform to pc ‘reality’. Contemporary British (et al) pc has many examples (some cited by Ellis) of attempts – through language – to deny reality.
There is something craven and abject about pc and its adherents. They despise authority and yet suck up to it. They suck from the excremental bucket of filth that is pc. Now I think there is a case for good-manners (and aren’t we English and we British renowned for this?) and if it is not absolutely necessary then a spade does not necessarily have to be called a spade. Also, I differ from Ellis’s notion that pc is limited to its roots in Leninism and that the left’s attempts to draw other parallels is simply more moral-relativism. I do think that pc is an instinct deep in human beings and has sought expression throughout history. Don’t religions rely on one-lineism? Correct thinking? Everyone thinking the same thing and in unison – and isn’t religion an ideology, perhaps a political ideology?
The Soviets believed man was culture. That he could be re-made with an imposed ideology. Frank Ellis argues that with the accumulated wealth of the West and our loss of belief in God we have allowed others both the ability and power to be our new gods. Who do we seek guidance and morality from? In steps the ideology of political correctness and that particular Marxist driven leftist thought that can raise Lenin and Mao from the ashes of a decadent Western World. But all totalitarianisms and especially pc can be countered and defeated (eventually) through bravery and humour. Ellis cites John Grieve’s (director of the Metropolitan Police’s Racial Task Force, on The Macpherson Report – cue canned laughter):
I am a racist. I must be because Sir Willima of Cluny said that I am.
And on it goes. I thought, when reading this, that Grieve was being ironic – covertly mocking. But apparently he was being deadly serious. Hasn’t he got a mind of his own? Doesn’t he/didn’t he know he was a racist – did he need someone else to point this out? Or is allowing his internal beliefs to be manipulated by the beliefs of others? Quick, seize that window to the soul, keep it prized open, patent and manufacture it then sell it (compulsory) to the rest of the population. If only we could see into Men’s hearts and minds – O Brave New World!
We humans are susceptible to ideology. What’s clever about pc is that it has tricked us and wrong-footed us so that we don’t know whether we’re being polite or manipulated. I’m a polite and sensitive chap – I trust. But I don’t want to be told what to think, say or write even if the threat for so doing is more covert than overt. I disagree with some of Frank Ellis’s comments in the Leeds Student. But so what? As I said in my e-mail correspondence at least his views made me think! At the time of writing (31/03/06) he has been suspended from teaching at Leeds University. The question to find out is: exactly on what grounds? Frank, I suggest, will not fall to the ground and seek forgiveness or allow himself to go through a Show Trial. How often have we been exposed to a politician or personality grovelling to be allowed back in the fold after baaing out something deemed un-pc? They would have been better keeping quiet in the first place.
Freedom is not easily bought nor easily maintained. I do think that Doctor Ellis might have been more prudent in structuring his arguments in the Leeds Student as well as he does in Political Correctness. That’s my view. But I imagine Ellis wouldn’t care much what I thought – he’s a man who knows his own mind. I doubt he will back down. How could he? To quote Matt Kennard again: With me he [Ellis] is forthright and open, and his book sits collecting dust in Edward Boyle Library on our campus with a world of bigotry available to any student with the right appetite – I would urge all correct-thinking students to visit the library (that would make a change!) get Ellis’s book, blow off the dust and allow a different viewpoint into their mind. It’s healthy. That’s diversity. For the rest of us who believe in freedom – buy it and read a warning from history. We have no Lenin or Mao at the moment – but with pc in place we certainly could have.
Frank Ellis, Maxim Institute, Auckland, New Zealand, 2004, pb, 86pps, �10, available from Right Now Press, Box 361, 78 Marylebone High Street, London W1U 5AP.
TP Bragg (Tim Bragg on internet search engines) writes novels, short-stories and songs; he also edits the cultural/political magazine Steadfast. His latest novel OAK (set in England in 2009) is now available.