On May 23rd, Princeton University fired classics professor Joshua Katz after a re-examination of an affair he had with a 21-year-old student beginning in 2006. Katz contended that his termination was actually a result of his online critique of “anti-racist” policies pursued by the school in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder two years ago. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Free Speech: What IS Cancel Culture?” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman explored questions of free speech and popular censorship, from the exile of Loyalist Thomas Hutchinson during the Revolutionary War to the 2003 controversy surrounding the Dixie Chicks’ condemnation of the Iraq War. Another inflection point in “cancel culture” came in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush came out as an opponent of “political correctness.” 

On May 4th, 1991, President George H.W. Bush delivered the commencement address at the University of Michigan. After a brief review of his foreign policy accomplishments and of his America 2000 plan for public education, Bush suddenly pivoted into new territory: condemning political correctness on college campuses. 

“The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land,” Bush said. “And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones.”

Bush argued that the fights over diversity and appropriate speech at school fit an age-old pattern:  “Throughout history, attempts to micromanage casual conversation have only incited distrust. They have invited people to look for an insult in every word, gesture, action. And in their own Orwellian way, crusades that demand correct behavior crush diversity in the name of diversity.”

The speech was initially overshadowed by the President’s admittance to National Naval Medical Center the next morning after experiencing shortness of breath during a Camp David jog. In the following weeks, however, pundits recognized in Bush’s remarks the emergence of a new strategy. 

Bush’s critique of political correctness came largely from his new Chief Speechwriter, the 35-year-old Tony Snow. The office of Bush’s Chief of Staff John Sununu had brought on Snow, the former head of the conservative Washington Times editorial page, in March 1991. “They said they wanted speeches with a little more edge, as they put it,” Snow told the Newport News Daily Press, where he had written in the early 1980s. 

In a June 1991 Washington Post Snow profile entitled “For Bush, a New Word Order,” former Reagan speechwriter Leonard Parvin praised the anti-p.c. crusade, saying, “It pushed a frontier. A good speech should engage an audience rather than flatter and soothe them.”

Snow was latching on to a growing cultural reckoning. The phrase “politically correct” entered the mainstream lexicon as a descriptor on October 28th, 1990, in a New York Times article by “Ideas & Trend” columnist Richard Bernstein. The piece, “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct,” was a taxonomy of the types of college-centric ideologies that had started to infiltrate the mainstream. As Bernstein stated, “The cluster of politically correct ideas includes a powerful environmentalism and, in foreign policy, support for Palestinian self-determination and sympathy for third world revolutionaries, particularly those in Central America. Biodegradable garbage bags get the p.c. seal of approval. Exxon does not.” 

Bernstein was responding to a dramatic increase in on-campus speech battles over curricular and behavioral norms. The most significant was Secretary of Education Bill Bennett’s 1988 battle with Stanford University over the school’s decision to diversify the syllabus of their vaunted Western Civilization course. 

Several conflagrations also accompanied the decision by several students at top colleges to hang Confederate flags from their dorm rooms. In early 1991, Brigit Kerrigan, a Virginia-born Harvard junior who would later get a co-copyright credit on the novel that became the Harvard Law School-set comedy film Legally Blonde, fought against the administration for her right to fly the flag. “If they talk about diversity, they’re gonna get it,” Kerrigan told the press. “If they talk about tolerance, they better be ready to have it.”

Another high-profile controversy came in February 1991, when Brown University President Vartan Gregorian supported the expulsion of Douglas Hann, a white, male junior who drunkenly yelled both “n____” and “f____ Jew”–the latter at a fellow Brown student who asked him to be quiet–while drunkenly celebrating his 21st birthday in an on-campus courtyard. 

In a May 15th Newsday piece praising Bush’s crusade (and claiming that he hadn’t gone far enough in his criticism), columnist Mona Charen argued, in a jarring attempt at an equivalency, that the Brown expulsion revealed a double-standard: “A student at Brown University was expelled for shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans during a drunken outing. Yet the politically correct are permitted to brand others with the epithets ‘racist’  and ‘sexist’ without fear of retribution. They are not rebuked, much less expelled, on the ground that their speech erodes the civility of discourse within the campus community.”

Civil rights leaders, meanwhile, argued that Bush’s turn signaled a more disturbing trend toward dog-whistle politics designed to appeal to the right wing of the GOP. Just months before the speech, in October 1990, Bush vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990, arguing that new racial and gender hiring quotas would be too onerous for businesses and would inflame racial tensions. Bush touched on the legislative showdown in his commencement address, proclaiming, “Let’s tell our people that we don’t need an ‘America by the numbers’; we don’t want a land of loopholes, we want a community of commitment and trust.”  

A May 12th Chicago Tribune feature called “Bush on Diversity: His Critics Fear a Harder Line on Civil Rights,” traced the potential linkage between Bush’s increasingly obstructionist response to social policy and his sudden preoccupation with political correctness. Georgetown University Law Professor Peter Edelman argued that the two acts were part of a cynical turn by the Bush administration away from race-based legislation: “I think they see a politics they can play into, appealing to the lowest common denominator. It gets them votes and keeps people from focusing on their lack of domestic policy. It is sheer demagoguery.” 

Richard J. Perry, a Professor of Anthropology at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, also condemned Bush’s address in a May 27th letter printed in the New York Times. Perry argued, “The beauty of it is that the politically correct sound like an organized, oppressive movement, yet there’s no way they can ever mount such a threat in reality. Sort of like witches in the old days. And you can hurl the p.c. epithet at just about anybody who comes on with that whining, liberal rhetoric on just about any subject– it’s your call.”

While many in academia defended their shifting norms, the GOP began to unify around an anti-political correctness message. A particularly vocal new Bush ally was National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Lynne Cheney, a prolific writer and a Doctor in 19th-century British literature whose husband Dick was Bush’s Secretary of Defense. On September 25th, 1991, Cheney appeared at the National Press Club to rail against the climate on college campuses. 

Cheney singled out the University of Texas at Austin, which in Spring 1990 introduced the textbook Racism and Sexism to its required freshman year English 306 course. Alan Gribben, an English professor who organized an academic movement against the shifts to English 306, left the school for Auburn University after students spoke out against him at campus rallies and denounced him as a racist in late-night phone calls. Cheney quoted Gribben’s reason for leaving UT Austin: “If I continued to live here, I’d have to live under siege.” 

Cheney offered a close-reading of the 1987 textbook, edited by Philosophy and Women’s Studies Professor Paula Rothenberg, arguing that Rothenberg’s approach turned young Americans not only toward more careful speech, but against American capitalism at large. “The overwhelming impression that this textbook leaves is that every injustice of race or gender that human beings ever visited upon one another happened first and worst in this country,” Cheney claimed. “And the only way we can redeem ourselves, the textbook tells us, is to change fundamentally the way we produce and distribute wealth. Abandon capitalism, in other words.”

Alaska Senator Ted Stevens entered Cheney’s full speech into the Congressional Record on October 8th, 1991, adding, “Quite frankly, I am amazed at the lack of press coverage of this speech.” 

Cheney’s connection of political correctness to the erosion of American prosperity spread. President Bush, too, soon began tying “political correctness” to economic and social policy. During a February 1992 speech before the Chamber of Commerce’s Action Committee, Bush positioned a quest by congressional Democrats to raise taxes on Americans making more than $35,000 per year within the terms of the burgeoning culture war: “The Capitol Hill liberals have already made up their minds where everyone fits in some politically correct caste system. Well, that’s not the way I see America. I don’t apply a means test to the American dream. I want to increase opportunity for everyone. That’s what fairness means.”

The political correctness debate, then, had left the confines of the academy and was becoming a tool within broader debates over the direction of American democracy. Thirty years on–albeit with “cancel culture” and “wokeness” emerging as preferred descriptors of the p.c. phenomenon–the Bush-like use of cultural speech norms for partisan ends has reached a new fever pitch. 

For more on the origins of political correctness, check out Moira Weigel’s 2016 The Guardian article, “Political Correctness: How the Right Invented a Phantom Enemy.” And for an added treat, check out Vox Media Podcast Network colleague Kara Swisher’s 1991 Washington Post piece on the emergence of a Washington D.C. storefront called “Political Correctness.” 

And head to the Twitter account of author and Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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