Entry from February 10, 2016

Number me among those who think that the Trump phenomenon is very largely a revolt against "political correctness" — especially if you count (as you should) as a manifestation of p.c. the disastrous, pacifist-inspired foreign policy pursued by the Obama administration under both Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. I don’t think I would go as far as Tim Stanley in today’s London Daily Telegraph who writes that "Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have blown up political correctness in New Hampshire." Apart from anything else, if he thinks those who flock to Bernie Sanders’s standard are reacting against political correctness, his definition of the term differs significantly from mine.

Yet an article in the Times Literary Supplement, for which I used to work, suggests that maybe that definition does need to change. Barton Swaim, whose brilliant book The Speechwriter I reviewed for The Weekly Standard last summer, reviews Stephen Fender’s book titled The Great American Speech: Words and monuments (Reaktion) in the TLS’s January 22nd issue and finds it instructive in explaining the appeal of a man like Trump who, we may confidently predict, will never deliver a Great American Speech, whatever other virtues he may have.

Mr Fender’s book, thinks Mr Swaim, is all too predictable in its choices of the allegedly "great" political speeches of recently years. There is mention, among others, of JFK’s inaugural, Lincoln’s first inaugural, RFK’s speech on the death of Martin Luther King, Barack Obama’s first inaugural and even James Stewart’s senatorial peroration about — what was it again? oh, yes, a boys’ camp — in Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Taking the Obama speech as a springboard, Mr Swaim writes:

The Great American Speech, at least in the hands of modern politicians of all ideological persuasions, is constantly prone to this kind of linguistic trickery. Average citizens may not be inclined to parse its language, but many have begun to sense its meaninglessness and dishonesty. On the Republican side, at the time of writing, a plurality of voters are expresssing their preference for a vicious and unprincipled billionaire — Donald Trump — who shows very little interest in political conservatism of any kind, and in fact rejects key positions of the Republican Party, whose nomination he seeks. What’s the appeal?

The answer, my friends, is no more nor less than the thing you hear — and hear with what we might almost call robotic regularity — from Trump supporters across the country: "He says what he means." Unlike, that is, certain great orators we could mention whose gassy platitudes have in recent years been revealed as something quite other from what they mean. And as Bernie, too, is nobody’s idea of a great orator, in this respect he could also represent a reaction against political correctness, as partially redefined. It’s something to think about anyway.


The old joke about the media’s reflexes — "World Ends; Minorities and women seen as worst affected" — repeats itself with some regularity, as in this headline to an article in The New York Times by someone who rejoices in the name of Anemona Hartocollis: "New, Reading-Heavy SAT Has Students Worried." Leave aside the fact that it was fairly common for students to be worried even about the reading-lite SAT and consider the following:

Chief among the changes, experts say: longer and harder reading passages and more words in math problems. The shift is leading some educators and college admissions officers to fear that the revised test will penalize students who have not been exposed to a lot of reading, or who speak a different language at home — like immigrants and the poor.

I wonder if Anemona would have written this if she had thought for a moment about what she was saying: namely, that tests to discover who is good at reading discriminate against those who are bad at reading. Well, yes. Yes, they do. That’s the point of them.

But she has taken for granted the further proposition that minorities are bad at reading to arrive at the conclusion that tests to discover who is good at reading discriminate against minorities. That would suggest that the tests should be made easier, so that more people can pass them, when the point of taking them in the first place is arrive at fewer people from among whom colleges have to choose whom to admit. But of course the unwritten assumption here is that of the proponents of affirmative action: namely, that race, ethnicity and sex should trump exam results in the competition for college entrance. Wouldn’t it be simpler just to say that?

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