No one reading this would be surprised, twenty years from now, to hear this current period called the Era of Political Correctness. For some, these are years of outrage over relatively little; for others, these are years of long-overdue inclusiveness, or as Chris Rock put it, “white people have gotten less crazy.” There are two extant media narratives to explain how we got here. One, advanced by Caitlyn Flanagan writing at The Atlantic, suggests that political correctness has enjoyed roughly a three-decade metastasis from elite university enclaves into the broader culture, something like farmer’s markets. Another, advanced by Ben Shapiro at Dailywire, suggests that the election of President Obama triggered latent racism and long-suppressed battles over pluralism.
But what if neither narrative is correct? What if political correctness hasn’t been on a steady three-decade march? What if this decade would have been considered the “PC era” even if John McCain had been elected President in 2008?
Perhaps I should define the ever-fraught term “political correctness.” On some level, the impulse to flatten power relations in universities — for example, the recent overhaul of sex-crime procedures that would place less burden on a rape victim — is related to the impulse to put women on $20 bills, to remove Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from Democratic Party literature, to diversify the casts of Star Wars and Saturday Night Live, to support same-sex marriage, to have more inclusive public toilets, to take down Confederate flags, to question the so-called “cultural appropriation” of twerking Miley Cyrus and geisha-dressing Katy Perry, etc.
But if it didn’t start in the 1980s or 2008, when did it start?
Certainly, political correctness enjoyed an early 1990s heyday, back when it first appeared on a magazine cover (Newsweek’s), the first President Bush decried it, Anita Hill put “sexual harassment” into common vocabulary, and Fox put minority-led shows on the air. But by the late 1990s, Drew Carey had replaced Margaret Cho, Jeff Foxworthy had replaced Will Smith, hip-hop had become less conscious, and outside academia, casual prejudice was back to 1980s levels. “Feminist” and “fag” remained common terms of stigma; police brutality was business as usual; no one was questioning the white-male normativity in the Fortune 500, in Silicon Valley, in Hollywood, or really anywhere else. Perhaps the 1995 not-guilty verdict in O.J. Simpson’s trial gave people permission to be jerks again.
As much as the American right-wing decries the current hegemony of “identity politics,” I’d like to posit the suggestion that they are partly responsible for it, because of the reaction to 9/11. Many have pointed out that since 9/11, more Americans have died in bathtubs or from lightning strikes than because of terrorists. Ginning up fear of terrorism is, among other things, identity politics: we might be killed not because of lightning or shower tiles, but because of who we are. Because we are Americans. Because of our identity.
If 9/11 encouraged a certain kind of identity politics, it was a circumscribed, even repressive one: they hate us for our freedoms, so let’s act the way they hate. On some level, this is part of why Howard Stern and “Girls Gone Wild” had their best ratings in 2003 or so; a fearful nation is a nation more likely to objectify women.
I’d like to suggest that the year that’s mostly missing from the two PC-explaining narratives is 2006. This year, 2016, is the ten-year anniversary of the time that Bush’s war on terror ran out of momentum, that we lost our post-9/11 America-first-ism. Why? Well, there were at least sixteen reasons. In more or less chronological order:
16 Reasons 2006 Began the PC Era
The Danish Cartoon Controversy – The year began with protests against a Danish newspaper’s cartoons about the Prophet Muhammed that eventually claimed more than 200 lives. Read that again, because it’s still incredible: more than 200 people died because a cartoon caused offense. One might have thought that America would have reacted to this by doubling down on free speech. Perhaps some of us did. But for most, it’s as though we tried to empathize with the protestors by finding our own causes of offense. Instead of aligning with South Park, who made fun of the controversy in April 2006, we seemed closer to Comedy Central, who censored South Park. Who amongst us used Mohammed as an avatar, then? Takeaways: words are dangerous, Americans ought to care about something as much as the people who killed those 200 people
Memoirs of a Geisha, Crash, and Brokeback Mountain – All 2005 releases that got more press in 2006 because of the annual January-to-March Oscar season. Geisha cast Chinese people in Japanese lead roles, as though this was still the 1960s, as though we hadn’t learned any better. Brokeback Mountain was the first gay romance melodrama that got any kind of awards attention, and it seemed Hollywood was well on its way to giving it Best Picture – but then, on March 5, Jack Nicholson opened that Best Picture envelope and said almost apologetically, “Crash.” The outstanding “gay movie” crashed into the sort of high liberal racial pieties of Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?), which were fine for the 1960s but were now somewhat patronizing. Takeaways: really? That’s it? That’s how far we’ve come in the 21st century? We can’t do better?
The Dubai Ports World Controversy – For about four years after 9/11, George Bush was basically bulletproof; any criticism of him was linked to criticism of America, because we were infantilized and Slavoj Zizek was eventually proved right that the best metaphor to describe 9/11 was “a sedative.” George Packer wrote in The New Yorker that Hurricane Katrina (August-September 2005) punctured Bush’s aura of invincibility (clearly, competence was not Bush’s main hiring criteria), and that’s true, but the February 2006 fight over the Dubai shipping company’s access to American ports was different because Bush’s best friends turned on him – including Lindsey Graham, Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, Peter King, Laura Ingraham, The John Birch Society, and many more. Bush threatened to issue his first-ever veto. And yet, the episode also showcased ongoing anti-Muslim racism that Bush had (ironically?) nurtured as part of the Iraq war rationale. Charles Schumer, a Democrat, was the lead divider on this one. Takeaways: Bush is no moral compass, but our other leaders weren’t exactly bringing forth an era of happy pluralism either
The Duke Lacrosse Case – In March 2006, three white Duke lacrosse players apparently raped a black woman who had worked as an escort and stripper. At the dawn of the social media age, this case made a lot of journalists look bad in their statements as evidence seemed to eventually weigh against the rape victim. And that was nothing compared to the grandstanding of the participants; North Carolina District Attorney Mike Nifong made several statements criticizing the lacrosse players that later proved to be so fatuous, Nifong was removed, disbarred, and jailed. The North Carolina legislature passed several laws in response. Takeaways: reverse racism exists, and you can ruin people’s lives with enough internet accusations – in both directions
Immigration Reform Bills – In May of 2006, the Senate passed immigration reform in response to the House already having done so; but the two chambers couldn’t agree on reconciling the bills, and they died at the end of the year. In and of itself, the legislation may not have said much about race in America, but the rhetoric around the bills revealed a few gems. One of them was white Fox News host John Gibson who told fellow whites: “to put it bluntly, we need more babies…[do] your duty, make more babies.” An Alderman in Springfield, Tennessee, proclaimed the need to ban Latinos from public parks on weekends, explaining, “If they’re speaking Spanish, I tend to think they are illegal.’” University of Michigan Republicans sponsored a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day.” And two white students at Colorado University sent a Latino student an email calling him a “river rat,” “border hopper,” and “bean eating piece of shit.” Even the less disgraceful comments surrounding immigration reform could often be patronizing and paternalistic toward Hispanics. Takeaway: if we’re in post-Latino-hating America, we thought it would look different
Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld – This case, in June 2006, was the first time that the John Roberts-led Supreme Court disagreed with President George Bush’s policies on Guantanamo Bay detainees. The specifics were that Bush/Rumsfeld were wrong to assert that the detainees could get fair trial within the secret confines of Guantanamo, but the larger implications were that Bush had far exceeded his executive authority – legal analysts felt Hamdan had undermined Bush’s case for warrantless wiretapping, also being revealed around that time. And because the press was hammering Bush over use of torture and waterboarding, it mattered that a Republican-dominated Supreme Court suggested that Guantanamo detainees would have to have more public trials. (These trials never happened, but we didn’t know that then.) As with the Dubai case and the Duke case, the racial roles were, if not exactly reversed, at least not predictable, tempting others to change up other narratives. And another takeaway: you can’t just keep dumping feces on Muslim prisoners and call it chocolate ice cream
The Hunting of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears – this doesn’t have a wikipedia page, which means that many students and current pundits don’t realize it happened. But women who have been stalked remember: every week in 2006, the tabloids found a new story on either Hilton, Lohan, Spears, or Nicole Richie. One might argue that Hilton and Richie brought this attention on themselves with their show The Simple Life, that Lohan induced the press with her underage drinking, or that Spears shouldn’t have driven with her toddler on her lap (February 2006). All true, but the tenor of coverage was absolutely manic, driven by PerezHilton.com and TMZ, both of which were founded in 2005. In many ways this frenzy led to Spears shaving her head (February 2007), and the hysteria didn’t really die down until Lohan turned 21 (July 2007) and The Simple Life was cancelled (August 2007). When the fever broke, it was like we’d been on a two-year bender. Takeaway: maybe don’t hunt women like dogs chasing foxes
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube – Twitter was launched in March 2006; Facebook began in 2004 but set its minimum age to 13 in mid-2006; YouTube was founded in 2005 but bought (for $1.65 billion) by Google in October 2006. There is absolutely no underestimating the power of these seismic changes in setting the table for the decade that followed them. (Time sensed this at the, uh, time; at the end of 2006 Time named “You” – pictured by a reflective computer screen – its Person of the Year.) More than any other three sites forces in the world, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have established the bottom-up, democratized, high school-vindictive nature of our current climate. Before 2006, most people felt that most Americans didn’t want to share most of their private information; as it turned out, Facebook “beat” MySpace partly because of the what-do-you-have-to-hide? mentality fostered by Facebook’s teen-friendly policy and by breakout stars from YouTube, Twitter, and others. And what-do-you-have-to-hide? quickly became a blessing-curse: anyone can say anything that can go viral, and it didn’t take long for some to realize that someone else’s questionable statements (as an example, let’s say, associating gay men with Liza Minnelli) was a ticket to viral infamy. In 2006, people hit their roughly 10-year anniversary of having email, and by then knew that email can follow you for 10 years to life; now people woke up to – oh, now everything is as permanent as that (including the lowest ring of Dante’s Inferno: YouTube commenters). Takeaways: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have made our world, we just live in it
Mel Gibson’s Jews and George Allen’s Macaca – Sure, other celebrities had said stupid things. But something about Gibson’s July 2006 comments felt new: perhaps it was being arrested while being off-color, perhaps it was the magnitude of Mel Gibson’s stardom (with Hanks and Cruise, he basically owned the 90s), perhaps it was what he said: “Fucking Jews…the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. Are you a Jew?” and “You mother fucker. I’m going to fuck you” and “What do you think you’re looking at, sugar tits?” Mel Gibson became the first high-profile casualty of the PC era when his film Apocalypto bombed later in 2006 and Hollywood pretty much turned its back on him (as it never did with Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, who arguably made greater moral transgressions). Meanwhile, over in Virginia, two weeks after Gibson’s arrest, Senator George Allen twice called an Indian-American a “macaca” – an apparent euphemism for monkey that most Americans hadn’t heard of. As with Gibson, the axe fell in the fall, when Allen lost his locked Senate seat pretty much based on one stupid, near-inscrutable comment. (Prior to macaca, many had considered Allen a frontrunner for the 2008 Presidency.) Takeaway: shaming someone for what they said can ruin the biggest of careers – that could be fun
Ongoing White Man’s Burden of Africa – From Darfur, Sudan to Madonna’s adoption in Malawi to Jessica Simpson’s SMILE campaign to the Bono-led RED Campaign to Jay Z and Beyonce’s work on potable water to the Gates campaigns to Angelina Jolie giving birth in Namibia to Oprah Winfrey’s $40 million school for South African girls to the “I Am Africa” campaign (celebrities posed with those words under them, to raise money for AIDS relief), 2006 saw a resurgence of what has historically been called the White Man’s Burden. Or as Dr. Marc Lamont Hill explains, “My worry, however, is that such acts are prompted by a paternalism that undermines African agency and prosperity. Instead of advocating the development of infra-structures for increased self-governance and self-reliance, these acts reinforce the dominant notion that Africa needs to be saved by White heroes. Additionally, much of the philanthropic work being done obscures more profound and causal structural factors such as globalization, neo-liberalism, and environmental racism.” But then, what are we supposed to do instead? Takeaways: we’re bad even when we’re trying to be good, so let’s watch out (for more structural factors, and otherwise)
Rush Limbaugh Makes Fun of Michael J. Fox – Just in case anyone thought the disabled community had overcome discrimination, Limbaugh was videotaped flapping his arms as he said, “He is exaggerating the effects of the disease, He’s moving all around and shaking and it’s purely an act. . . . This is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn’t take his medication or he’s acting.” Yes, Rush Limbaugh says stupid stuff all the time. But Limbaugh may have only learned of YouTube that week, because in the ten years since he’s done nothing quite so barbaric…on video, anyway. He learned something about forever-online with that incident (for which he apologized); maybe everyone did. And another takeaway: even if you’re the most beloved disabled person on the planet, you can’t expect all people to treat you as human
The Iraq War’s 2006 Catastrophes – The war in Iraq was never the promised cakewalk, but everyone agrees that 2006 was its worst year for many reasons. First, more people died than in any other year. Second, we saw a considerable distance between hope and reality – after all, the year had begun with still-purple fingers from the December 2005 elections. Mid-February brought the bombing of the al-Askariya Mosque; five US soldiers raped a 14-year-old Iraqi in March and tried to cover it up; the average amount of homicides per day tripled (from 11 to 33; according to the US military); in June, new President Nouri Al-Maliki confidently met with Bush (in Washington) to announce Operation Forward Together which would supposedly squelch the violence…and it was a terrible failure. Looking at 400,000 refugees since the Mosque bombing, the U.N. declared a civil war in October. One felt that Bush, his post-9/11 bubble burst from Katrina and other problems, was trying and failing to keep Iraq together long enough for the November 2006 midterm elections – and that America saw right through that, and punished Bush and his party accordingly. But Iraq wasn’t content to just run out the clock; in late November came bombs in Sadr City which killed/wounded more than 500, and on December 30 Saddam Hussein was killed very messily. Takeaways: Muslim-killing doesn’t solve everything or perhaps anything; let’s not pretend we can fix the world’s problems, and maybe focus on our own
The Killing of Sean Bell – In November 2006, NYPD officers fired 50 rounds into a car in a few seconds, killing Sean Bell the night before his wedding, and wounding two of his friends, all black and unarmed. An officer told the jury that he had heard threatening remarks and flashed his badge, which was ignored; Bell and his friends tried to drive away and struck a police vehicle, precipitating the shots. The case wasn’t the first time an unarmed black man had been killed by a cop, but this was New York in the Michael Bloomberg era, an ostensible time of healing; even Mayor Bloomberg said “it sounds to me like excessive force was used.” Al Sharpton led the many rounds of protests, the cops were acquitted, a street was eventually designated Sean Bell Way, and the police were eventually terminated in 2012, which may say something about our more race-conscious subsequent era. Takeaway in 2006: somehow, things like this keep happening, but apparently there’s no way structural racism exists (a false takeaway)
TV Takes on Prejudice, Undercover and Otherwise – Black.White on FX, produced by Ice Cube, put a white family in blackface and a black family in whiteface, starting in March 2006 and lasting 6 episodes before cancellation. Lost, the biggest multi-cultural show on TV since its 2004 debut, proved how little race mattered (or did it?) by turning its lead black villainous (he escaped with his kid, stranding the others), and introducing a lead Latina and (another) lead black only to kill off both of them. Survivor, seeing Lost stealing its desert-island thunder, very publicly divided four tribes by race (white, Black, Asian, Hispanic) in September 2006. Also that month, to much fanfare (and $15 million a year, the highest salary of its kind to date) Katie Couric became the first solo female anchor of an evening news broadcast. To much less fanfare, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart hired its first non-white correspondents, Aasif Mandvi and Larry Wilmore, and promptly called them “Senior [fill in race] Correspondent.” Tyra Banks donned a fat suit to show prejudice against overweight people; Tyra Banks put on a disguise to show prejudice against exotic dancers; Tyra Banks sent black women out posing as white to…well, you get the idea. Oprah Winfrey checked out “The Human Race Machine” to see how she’d look white, Asian, and Hispanic. Norah Vincent went undercover as a man and wrote/promoted a book about it. Dr. Phil put a white person in a black family for 2 days to “cure” their racism. Neil Patrick Harris in October 2006 became the first “undercover” gay to come out while playing (very) straight on a hit show, How I Met Your Mother. Flavor Flav, who some call a “21st-century Stepin Fetchit,” got VH1’s highest-ever ratings for his show Flavor of Love. Takeaways: we either live in a post-prejudice America or we have a lot more work to do, and TV is one place to do it and/or play around
“Hipster Racism” Coined by Carmen Van Kerckhove – her examples included “Kill Whitey” and blackface parties where whites denigrate their own privilege (if this still happens in 2015, it’s only in frats), Sandra Bernhard taking credit for Mariah Carey’s success because Bernhard had once joked that Mariah is “black only when it’s convenient,” John Mayer’s apparent use of the word “nigger” while onstage in June 2006 at a comedy club (!), and Gwen Stefani’s use of Asian females dressed as schoolgirls (the “Harajuku girls”). She might have included Michael Richards, who shouted “Nigger! Nigger!” at another comedy club in November 2006 and found that his career wasn’t quite as durable as Mayer’s. The term hipster racism has since been expanded to include things like Bill Maher and South Park’s general humor level (like making fun of Asian drivers or gay or disabled stereotypes) – it’s okay when they do it because it’s in quotation marks, right? Riiiiiiiiight. Takeaways: exposing people and their hipster racism in the forever-ness of the internet is fun
The invention of the iPhone – Technically Steve Jobs first appeared onstage with an iPhone on January 9, 2007, but it seems safe to say that 2006 was the year the project went through most of its final stages. What would the age of outrage be without smartphones, and their ubiquitous cameras to capture our every mistake? Moreover, pre-2006, most of us weren’t wired at all times in all places; most of us weren’t perpetually ready to turn snap judgments into judgments that would last on the internet forever. Consequently the internet was a (very slightly) more thoughtfully considered, intentional place, where opinions tended to be have some oven time before being served. Now it’s all raw data, raw outrage, raw emotion. Takeaways: none. We want our smartphones like we once wanted our MTV, and we’re going to keep using them to make the culture more offensive and more offended.