On the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I want to tell you something that neither the left nor the right wants to admit, for different reasons: our current obsession with “identity politics” happened because of 9/11.
In other words, Donald Trump, who has built an entire campaign on opposition to political correctness, and Hillary Clinton, who has markedly turned away from the Democrats’ old labor coalition to embrace metropolitan priorities, pluralism, and “the woman card,” are both results of 9/11.
May I explain? Great!
See, the right wing would have you believe that identity politics basically started when that pesky Obama came into the Oval Office, convened a beer summit with a white cop and a black man he arrested, and suddenly everyone got all offended on Twitter when you said “fag” and “bitch” and “spic” and “retarded” and the next thing you knew Black Lives Matter and same-sex marriage and pop divas reversing themselves to identify as feminist et cetera.
The left wing would have you believe that identity politics have been on a nice slow steady development in America ever since the days of the initial “Thought Police” cover of Newsweek, Anita Hill’s hearings, the Rodney King riots, the AIDS quilt, and the first President Bush decrying “PC” in a 1992 speech.
Actually, they’re both wrong. Or at least, they’re both missing what really happened between 1995 and 2006, and the crucial role of 9/11.
Political correctness and identity politics – the two are as intimately linked as, say, Wall Street and the stock market – certainly enjoyed a heyday from around 1989 to 1995. But the culture retrenched, for many of the reasons I cover here. The O.J. trial, the Friends-led neutering/marketing of Generation X, the end of conscious hip-hop and grunge, the Gingrich revolution: America basically decided it had paid enough attention to previously disenfranchised groups. Forget the Margaret Cho show, bring in Drew Carey. Forget Liz Phair, bring in the Spice Girls. The AIDS quilt stopped being shown on the National Mall as the Defense of Marriage Act, 1996. Fox News began during the same year.
Now, there were some residual advances in political correctness between 1996 and 2005 that wouldn’t have happened if not for the heyday of 1989-1995. Sexual harassment training. Changing all the “-man” job suffixes to be more gender-neutral (e.g. “firefighter,” “police officer,” “spokesperson”). More black people in better film roles, especially Will Smith.
But the culture was basically conservative, especially regarding homosexuality. Black people were killed disproportionately by police with impunity; certainly it never came up, as it does now, in “respectable” places like The Today Show. Many, many workplaces were run like we now know Fox News was run – and weren’t afraid to admit it. Campus rape wasn’t an issue. Hispanics and Asians were almost invisible on the national level. Our cultural leaders in the late 90s and early 00s were Howard Stern, South Park, Britney Spears, and then George W. Bush, all of whom acted as though “PC” had never happened or was laughable. “PC” and identity politics as we now think of them were basically dead, early-90s relics, like plaid flannel shirts. The idea of Harriet Tubman on $20s would have been as ridiculous then as taking down Confederate flags.
So the left-wing version of PC’s steady ascendance is ridiculous. Turns out history waxes and wanes; America had over 600 elected “Negro” officials in 1870, and zero in 1900. If PC wasn’t so oddly ephemeral, we’d have other stats like that for 1992 and 2000.
9/11 didn’t change Howard-Britney America. If anything, 9/11 made much of it worse, by putting white privileged Americans into a defensive crouch, by affirming our worst instincts.
But along with that came a rather severe form of identity politics. This is the politics of “you’re either with us or against us” as Bush said. This is where all Muslims became somehow anti-American. This is the politics where 30,000 gun deaths a year don’t matter, but even one person killed by a terrorist does, because…and this is the tricky part…terrorists are killing us (supposedly) because of who we are. Because we are Americans. Because of our identity. Get it yet?
To protect our American identity, no cost was too great to bear. PATRIOT Act? Department of Homeland Security? Trillions for war in Iraq? All this because of 9/11 and the idea that our American identity was at risk. Never mind how often 3,000 people died in a year for other reasons, like cancer, or drunk driving, or guns, or climate.
This is the great irony that the right wing refuses to acknowledge: they decry identity politics, but they invented 21st-century identity politics. By putting our identity as Americans ahead of everything else, including, of all things, the Constitution.
Yet my analysis suggests that my opening statement was wrong…that indeed the left’s version of PC gradualism is wrong, but turns out the right was right: Obama revived PC, didn’t he?
Nope. PC was coming back with or without Obama. PC was coming back under the last eight years of a hypothetical McCain administration. Obama probably did intensify certain aspects, and it’s hard to imagine who else could have established such common cause betweeen black lobbyists and gay lobbyists, but it was coming anyway…because of 9/11.
Well, more specifically because of the right’s reaction to 9/11. Because of the right’s hoisting of identity politics above all other things. They didn’t realize that the left would eventually play along, by appropriating and expounding “critical race theory” and gender politics that had been simmering in academia for decades.
The event that really catalyzed our currently dominant PC culture after 9/11 wasn’t the election of Barack Obama, but Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Whether or not Kanye West was right that Bush “doesn’t care about black people” (Bush’s memoir would call this the most painful accusation of his Presidency), it was hard to look at the floating black bodies of New Orleans, left to rot by a slow federal response, and think: yeah, racism is over in America.
In response, the culture in 2006 really re-founded PC, as I explain here. The founding of Twitter in the same year was also important, as well as the domination of Facebook over MySpace by 2008 (before Obama’s election). People were favoring more transparency as well as more clickbait in the form of name-and-shame wars. It’s harder to be un-PC when everyone on Twitter is laughing at you about it.
Today, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the media is filled with opinions about whether we’re safer, and about how we changed. But they’re mostly missing the story I just told you. 9/11, in a circuitous way, brought back political correctness and identity politics, including more justice for women, minorities, and the disabled. The worst day in memory had no greater consequence.