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When an "openly gay, pro-choice, gun-owning, pro-death penalty, liberal, voted-for-Reagan feminist" becomes a cause celebre in conservative circles it tends to grab your attention. As it turns out, grabbing attention appears to be something at which the former talk-radio host and former head of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Tammy Bruce excels. Though ostensibly an argument about the value of free speech generally, the book is more of a rousing polemic, in which Ms Bruce, who was fired from a radio gig for making fun of Bill Cosby's extra-marital escapades and denounced by NOW's national governing body for drawing attention to the fact that OJ Simpson was a wife-beater and a murderer, goes after her friends on the Left with a vengeance for the way in which they stifle dissent both within and without. In the process, she makes an irrefutable case that Political Correctness is an exercise in hypocrisy by the Left, but fails to convince us that free speech is an absolute good, particularly undermining her case by reference to her own activism. But even if the book proves unequal to the task Ms Bruce has set herself, it is nonetheless an alternately amusing and troubling look at the close-mindedness of the Left; no wonder conservatives like it.
As Ms Bruce surveys the sad recent history of Political Correctness (PC) in the workplace, academia and elsewhere, she treads ground with which many readers will be familiar. Much fresher and more engaging are her discussions of how PC speech codes, either explicit or implicit, are wielded within liberal activist groups. And the book is at its very best when she deals with her own personal experiences, as when she stood up to the rest of the gay community and defended Dr. Laura Schlessinger against charges of anti-homosexual bigotry. During that dust-up there's one extended passage where Ms Bruce is first invited to appear on a panel discussion about Dr. Laura at USC, as the token "conservative", then disinvited when the other panelists object to appearing with her, and finally she's called and asked to not even attend the discussion. These types of stories, and Ms Bruce has more than her share of them, give the book an immediacy that it might lack if written by a Bill Bennett or a John Leo.
Ms Bruce is intermittently perceptive about the causes and effects of Political Correctness. For instance, assessing her banishment from the USC panel, she writes that :
The Left implements speech and mind control because
they know they cannot persuade on the issues; silencing the opposition
And elsewhere she says that because feminists and civil rights activists portray their constituencies as the "victimized", it is necessary to institutionalize their victimhood. To acknowledge that minorities and women have actually made progress in society might, after all, lead to a realization that these Left-wing activists are not serving a useful purpose. But Political Correctness campaigns perpetuate the cycle of "us vs. them" and continue the illusion of victimization. In arguments like these, Ms Bruce deftly exposes the cynicism of the Left.
Even more devastating is her assessment of the effects this kind of politics has on the very groups it is supposed to be helping :
The sense of perpetual victimhood precludes even
the concept that the members of a victimized minority could actually rise
That's pretty stern stuff; but a much needed dose of reality.
As opposed to this kind of "thought policing", Ms Bruce says that she favors an almost completely "free" society :
[A]n environment of personal freedom, at all levels,
is the only hope the members of any minority have of being able to lead
This is inartfully stated and it is here that she comes into conflict with conservatism, which is understandable enough, but eventually she even contradicts much of this herself, which suggests that perhaps she's just not fully thought through some of her ideas.
As a threshold matter, she should have recognized that there is a significant difference between the Left and the Right when it comes to the doctrine of Free Speech. First, let us accept the Left's critique of Western Civilization generally, that it is largely the product of European Christian men, and of the American constitutional system specifically, that it is the product of conservative wealthy white Christian men. It seems obvious then that our culture is premised on certain absolute truths, some revealed by God, others arrived at through human experience or scientific experiment. It is, therefore, natural that in such a system there will not be unlimited personal freedom. If nothing else, we have long required people's behavior to conform to Judeo-Christian morality. As to speech, the West has tended to allow almost all forms of political expression to go unchecked, so long as the speakers do not actually advocate the violent overthrow of the system, and even that is frequently allowed. But there's no inherent reason why other forms of "expression"--pornography, obscenity, and the like--should be protected; and they typically haven't been.
On the other hand, the Left rejects the very concept of absolute truths, believing instead that everything is relative, that all ideas deserve a kind of coequal status, and that we are each free to pick and choose from among them. For our purposes it is not necessary to rehearse the reasons why this is dangerous, it suffices to say that this belief would seem to require exactly the kind of unlimited freedom of which Ms Bruce speaks. It is hypocritical and intellectually dishonest of the Left to attack traditional morality on the basis that we can not know it to be true, but then to turn around and insist that racist, sexist, or homophobic speech should be suppressed. If we truly can not know the final cosmic validity of any idea, then all ideas must be given equal protection. If the Left is right in its advocacy of relativism, then both "2 + 2 = 4" and "2 + 3 = 5" are equally worthwhile statements and we have no means of deciding between them other than through the arbitrary exercise of brute political force, which violates their own philosophy.
All of this matters because minorities--women, Jews, blacks, etc.--have achieved all that they have in the West while working within a system that does in fact impose limits on people and where we, as a culture, make judgments about the truth or untruth of what people say; Ms Bruce appears to be quite wrong about the need for unlimited freedom. But it is important to note that the limits that have been imposed are absolute limits, that have been recognized for hundreds even thousands of years, that apply to all men and women, that have served Man, particularly Western man quite well, producing the freest, wealthiest, most scientifically advanced culture on Earth. What the Left is trying to do, as Ms Bruce ably demonstrates, is to impose purely arbitrary limits to suit their own purposes. The real problem apparently is not limitations as such, but the actual limitations that the Left advocates.
Later in the book, Ms Bruce makes it clear that even she supports some limitations, as she recounts two campaigns that she led as head of LA NOW. In the first instance, she successfully sought to get booksellers to tuck Brett Easton Ellis's by all accounts sadistic novel, American Psycho, away on upper shelves within the store, rather than in displays out front and on shelves where kids could reach the book. interview was eventually abandoned. Now, these are eminently worthwhile projects, but they are hard to square with the notion of unlimited free speech. In fact, they reflect Ms Bruce's own understanding that we should have some moral limits placed on public speech. In theory she may be with the hard Left, but in practice she does appear to have more than a little conservative in her.
This little bit of intellectual disconnect on the author's part is problematic, but it does not mar the rest of what is a really useful and enjoyable book. Ms Bruce's honesty is admirable and if she herself is still groping toward her final political destination and still wrestling with issues like these it merely adds an interesting tension to her story. For a conservative, it is necessary to disagree with much of what she has to say here, but much fun to watch her tear into the Left. Unfortunately, liberals, who stand to benefit from what she has to say, are unlikely to read the book, precisely because they do not readily tolerate dissent in the ranks. That's their loss.
See also:Gender Issues
My Brush with the Campus Thought Police: Why is it conservatives are inviting a liberal Democratic feminist to speak on campus, and Democrats aren't? A report from two campuses. (Tammy Bruce, 12/02/03, Front Page)
Book-related and General Links:
-BOOK SITE : The New Thought Police (Prima Publishing)
-ESSAY : Nothing Is Gained in Silencing Dr. Laura (Tammy Bruce, September 18, 2000, LA Times)
-Tammy Bruce's Sandbox
-STATEMENT : Statement by Board Members of the National Organization for Women
-ESSAY : FIGHTING WORDS : CONTROVERSIAL REMARKS ABOUT THE SIMPSON TRIAL SPLIT THE RANKS OF NOW (ELIZABETH GLEICK, January 8, 1996, TIME)
-ARTICLE : Crusin' for a Bruce'in : Lawsuit Ruffles KFI; Michael Jackson Returns (Tomm Looney, 1998/November/16, Downtown News)
-ARTICLE : Rumbles in the Jungle : Tremors from Dr. Laura and Tammy Bruce (Tomm Looney, /1998/August/28, Downtown News)
-ESSAY : Tammy Bruce : KFI Radio, Los Angeles 640 AM...most sexist talk radio? (Tommy Oliver, The Backlash! - July 1997)
-ARCHIVES : "tammy bruce" (Find Articles)
-REVIEW : of The New Thought Police (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
-REVIEW : of The New Thought Police (Lowell Ponte, Front Page)
-REVIEW : of THE NEW THOUGHT POLICE: Inside the Left's Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds, by Tammy Bruce (Harvey A. Silverglate, Wilson Quarterly)