Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Since the 1960’s, American academic departments of humanities have gradually displaced core Western literature with a new orthodoxy, one that emphasizes the goals and tenets of political correctness. John Ellis contends that this trend has caused severe damage to the contemporary university. Not only is the methodology of political correctness flawed, he argues, but its pursuit also vitiates the very ends to which it is committed. The courage of strong leadership in academia is required to reverse this regrettable trend.
Ellis explores the causes of political correctness. Accepting a Hobbesian view of the world, he sees Western culture as transcending a negative “read” on nature through the establishment of law and democratic government and the ascendance of Enlightenment values. Conversely, political correctness is rooted in an illusory and regressive belief in a simplistic image of humanity as “noble savages” living in a kind of primitive harmony. The author sets up a straw man (not likely a straw woman or a straw person) and begins to take his shots. The missiles hit the mark, but one is vaguely suspicious that the hunter has picked the wrong target.
The book is spirited, exposing Ellis’s passion for literature. Good literature— especially and perhaps exclusively the work of dead white males, as he himself notes—can be mined again and again for new insights into the complexity of humanity and the culture humankind has erected along the highways of history. It is Ellis’s opinion that the spotlight of political correctness does not illuminate adequately the field on which it focuses, but rather narrows its expectation of what literature has to offer, thereby missing the rich and diverse realities it contains.
Ellis examines the three areas—race, class, and gender—that drive the politically correct approach to literature. He agrees that all analysis has a definitive political content, but those who emphasize only the political constituent, as expressed in gender, race, or class, miss the point. Writings that concentrate on gender, race, and class yield only that which is useful as politics. Furthermore, because literary critics are not trained in political analysis, they do it badly. This use of the academic for political ends is not the novel invention of the modern era, however, but “has been an equal opportunity pastime for despotic regimes of both left and right” throughout history.
Feminism in particular, accuses the author, “has taken a wrong turn.” He asserts that although the early goals of the movement were “sensible,” the current phase emphasizes what he calls “outlandish, wildly unrealistic ideas.” Ellis tends to lump all feminists into a single category, an army of angry—likely lesbian—women attacking traditional family structures and heterosexual relationships. The impressionable young woman on campus falls for this agenda, although the greater public is not taken in. Ellis laments that this preoccupation with a feminist agenda prevents potentially successful female scholars from producing good work.
The author must be given credit for some insightful observations. Correctly, I think, he articulates the radical inconsistency that floats beneath the surface of some (but not all) feminist rhetoric. Along with the assertion that women are as good as men and should share equally what men have, there is an assumption that women possess unique qualities and abilities (such as women’s unique ways of knowing, which have captured the imagination of the trendy). Incorrectly, I believe, Ellis characterizes patriarchy and its resultant oppression of women as a conscious conspiracy and an ingrained prejudice. Rather, it is precisely the unconscious nature of oppressive attitudes and behaviors that feminists attempt to articulate and to uncover as they take their peculiar lens to literature.
The author dismisses much of what feminists address, suggesting that their agenda has marginalized the movement from the rest of the world. Minimizing the problems they document, he notes that women are not really so bad off in Western culture. This is particularly clear when comparison is made to non-Western cultures that, for example, practice mandatory suicide for widows, genital mutilation for young girls, and other gender-specific horrors. Oppression of women in the West, therefore, easily can be dismissed. Besides, as human life evolves and such problems as infant mortality, lack of birth control, lack of social security for women, and limited life spans dissolve in the face of improved culture, things are getting better for women and for others; there is no need to press the point.
With regard to race, Ellis believes that too much angst is spent on the issue, resulting in an uneasy guilt and little action. How contemporary writers deal with racism, labeling it genocide, constitutes a misrepresentation of the facts, he...
(The entire section is 2007 words.)
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