A Response to a Letter
by Mr. Paul M. Weyrich*
A friend e-mailed to me a letter by Mr. Weyrich, thinking that I would find it interesting, because I had recommended abandoning ruling class institutions, in my pamphlet Getting Free, and Weyrich is seemingly saying something similar. Weyrich recommends withdrawing from mainstream culture, since he has become disillusioned with politics, because even though they (Christian conservatives) were successful, and got their people elected, and gained a lot of power in government, their social program remains unfulfilled.
There is a world of difference, however, between my proposal and his. I recommend pulling out of, abandoning, or gutting ruling class institutions as a way of overthrowing the ruling class, and establishing democratic communities which control their own destinies. This is a confrontational approach. Its aim is to destroy wage-slavery and hence the profit-motive and to restructure the entire world along different lines and according to different principles. I explicitly reject ‘dropping out’ (point no. 9 under ‘Strategies that have failed’, in Getting Free).
Mr. Weyrich’s proposal is instead an escapist approach. He wants to leave mainstream institutions in order to get away from them, to escape, so that he and others can live like they want to elsewhere. It is the standard Christian idea of being ‘in the world but not of it’, and it is a strategy that has been followed again and again by utopian (religious and secular) communities throughout American and European history. It has never worked, because capitalism is a global structure, and has been from its beginnings in the long sixteenth century (1450-1650). Even isolated communities are still connected to this structure in important ways. You can see this still happening almost everyday, as the few remaining isolated tribes in New Guinea, the Kalahari, or the Amazon are absorbed into the world market (in the best of cases; usually they are simply obliterated). But Mr. Weyrich is rather mild even in his escapist fantasies. He doesn’t want anyone to go as far even as the Amish have in withdrawing from the surrounding society. He is simply seeking ways to protect himself and like-minded people from being "infected" by a decadent culture. He suggests home schooling, turning off the tv, boycotting Disney, avoiding videos and computer garbage, and so forth. Far from trying to overthrow an evil system, he is looking for "some sort of quarantine" from the "cultural rot."
He wants people to withdraw from the "culture." Will they also quit their jobs? He never once mentions the economy, or corporations, in this letter. He uses the word ‘greed’ only once, and in a very general way. He talks about a ‘cultural war’ having been fought and lost. He mentions the academic community, cultural institutions, the entertainment industry, but he is completely blind to the largest, wealthiest, most pervasive, most dominating institutions in American life, institutions all of us have daily, almost hourly, contact with -- corporations. (His opposition to Disney is because it is anti-religious and anti-Christian, and not because it is a corporation per se, let alone that it is monopolistic and imperialistic.) And this of course shows the weakness of the strategy. The idea that a community of people could live the way they want to without getting control of the land they live on and their workplaces (not to mention their schools, hospitals, banks, police, community governments) is ludicrous. Even in the nineteenth century, when such communities could control their land and most of their community institutions, they were still deeply embedded in the surrounding profit-oriented market, the surrounding national legal system (created by capitalists), the surrounding labor market, and so forth. These connections worked to severely restrict the autonomy of these communities.
What is most distressing, and incredible, to me is that Mr. Weyrich blames this "ever-widening sewer," this cultural disintegration and degradation, on the radicals of the sixties, on cultural Marxism, the Frankfurt school, on Herbert Marcuse, on "an alien ideology, an ideology bitterly hostile to Western culture." This claim is so preposterous it is hard to even know how to respond to it, but I’ll try. (It is a claim, I might add, that has been financed by millions of dollars from America’s corporate rich and propagated for the past thirty years in order to discredit and stigmatize the revolts of the sixties.)
To begin with, ‘Political Correctness’ was not invented by radicals, marxists, anarchists, or leftists. It is a phrase, or rather a whole political campaign, invented by conservatives, as a way of attacking the left. Insistence on political correctness is what leftists were accused of by conservatives. It was directed mainly against the few radicals who had managed to get hired by universities in the seventies, after the revolts of the sixties had opened up these institutions a little bit. Radicals in the universities never amounted to more than a few thousand professors out of nearly a million teachers nationwide. The right-wing attack on "political correctness" was a really vicious campaign, with an enormous outpouring of books and broadcasts, with the result that many left-leaning teachers lost their jobs. Mr. Weyrich complains that "you might even lose your job or be expelled from college" for saying the wrong thing. If you check the statistics, you will find that it was radicals, almost always, who were fired, not conservatives. By the late nineties, there are very few radicals left in the universities. Yet the ROTC is there big time, as are corporations, with the CIA recruiting on every campus. So Mr. Weyrich’s claim that "It [political correctness] has taken over the academic community" is so far from the truth as to be laughable.
Eventually a few well written responses by radicals were published. One of the best is by Russell Jacoby, called, Dogmatic Wisdom: How the Cultural Wars Divert Education and Distract America. This book is worth examining if anyone wants to read the other side’s (the left’s) take on the issue. Actually, it is instructive to compare the deluge of conservative materials attacking the ‘political correctness’ of the left, with the paltry number of published responses the left has managed to get out. This shows the disproportionate level of power and wealth conservatives have in comparison to the left. The conservatives are financed by the Olin Foundation and a dozen other foundations. They have millions. They are bankrolled by some of the wealthiest families and corporations in America. They fund conservative newspapers on the campuses. They set up think tanks. Whereas radicals are invariably broke, and few in number. It is preposterous to think that radicals are taking over the country, the government, the media, the universities, or anything else.
Universities have always been rather tightly controlled by the ruling class. After World War II the GI Bill enabled millions of ordinary Americans to go to college for the first time (and also there was a great expansion of higher education in state universities). But prior to this higher education was mostly for the sons and daughters of the rich. And now it is becoming that way again, and increasingly so, with the dramatic rise in the costs of tuition. In American history, there is just this one small window to higher education, for children of the poor, during the boom years after World War Two, when a substantial number of working class kids made it to college. I was fortunate to have lived when that small window was open for a brief period.
The really huge change in higher education during the past decades has been its take over by large corporations. They have founded whole departments, departmental financed chairs, built institutes, bought research, and so forth. Many professors move back and forth between the corporate world and the university world. Whereas before, universities were relatively autonomous (from corporations as such, but never from the ruling class in general), now they are intimately linked with the corporate world. How anyone could believe that the academic world is controlled by ‘cultural Marxists’ is beyond me. Such a belief simply shows the ignorance, bias, and blindness with which the Christian right views the world.
Mr. Weyrich presumes that Marxism is alien and hostile to "Western culture," whereas in fact marxism, socialism, communism, and anarchism are part and parcel of Western culture (and to my mind, the highest expression of that culture). They are creations of western culture, and are as much a part of it as are the profit-motive, Mozart, science, the Catholic Church, or atheism. Socialism was a movement created by working people in Europe after having been driven off their peasant freeholds and turned into factory workers, a process they resisted fiercely.
And besides, the real attack on Christianity came not from Marxism, a nineteenth century movement, but much earlier, from the Enlightenment philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. Weyrich reveals his ignorance once again, and also his alignment with the corporate rich. Ever since the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia our capitalist rulers have been trying to blame all the evils of the world on communists rather than have their own sordid and greedy practices exposed as the culprit.
Mr. Weyrich complains that "for the first time in their lives, people have to be afraid of what they say." "Certain topics are forbidden." Once again his narrow-mindedness and shortsightedness shines through, because there have long been persons who had to be afraid of what they said. The main topic forbidden in the nation’s schools and universities, not to mention cinema, tv, and radio, is any criticism of capitalism. Those persons who have rejected a social order whose fundamental law is the accumulation of capital, through profit, to the neglect of all other values, have always had to be afraid of what they said. They have been afraid because the dangers have been very real. They have been shot, hanged, beaten, fired, exiled, gassed, sued, and imprisoned, not to mention slandered and defamed. Weyrich complains that he doesn’t want to be labeled a racist, sexist, or homophobic, just because he says something that is not considered ‘politically correct’. Yet he has no problem labeling someone as an alien, or a degenerate. And of course conservatives in general are quick with judgmental, derogatory labels, the most popular being "terrorist", with "anarchist" rapidly coming back in as a favorite, now that "communist" is no longer historically viable as a smear. Even the term ‘liberal’ has been turned into a smear, so that people now refer to the "L-word."
If Weyrich knew a little more history, he would be thanking anarchists and communists for having fought for so many decades, from the Civil War to World War Two, to get in reality the First Amendment rights that were guaranteed to them by the Constitution. It was Emma Goldman, among others, who really won "freedom of speech" for all Americans, not the founding fathers. Until this struggle for free speech, waged at great cost by radicals, the First Amendment was a dead letter. Now of course, those First amendment Rights are rapidly being stripped away once again by corporate America.
One of the most amazing things about this letter is that Weyrich, after admitting openly to having waged a thirty-year-long political campaign to take over the government, and having succeeded, in order to "implement our agenda," can then complain that the country is becoming an "ideological state" (referring to ‘political correctness’). Fundamentalist Christianity, this "agenda" he was trying to "implement" (i.e., impose on the entire nation) is not thought of as an ideology I guess. His own beliefs are simply the truth, or "our traditional culture," whereas the beliefs of his opponents are a "ideology." So much for ‘fairness in media’ so avidly sought by the Christian right.
Mr. Weyrich speaks throughout this short letter about "our culture" or "our traditional culture". The arrogance of people like this always amazes me. How can they can presume to own the culture, or assume that their beliefs are the "culture" whereas everyone else’s are "alien"? We sixties radicals encountered this attitude thirty years ago, repeatedly, when we started raising a few questions about what was happening in America. Conservatives said to us: "If you don’t like this country, leave." They presumed to own the country, presumed that it was theirs, but not ours. It was their culture, but not ours. I was always especially infuriated by this attitude.
In this country, from the very beginning, there were slaves, eventually millions of them, who were not part of a "Judeo-Christian civilization"; so Weyrich implicitly excludes them from "our culture". Similarly, even after having suffered a war of extermination, there were still hundreds of thousands of Indians, eventually a million or more, living here. So he implicitly excludes all these people from "our traditional culture". And the truth is, for born-again Christians and the religious right, Jews are also excluded from "our culture". In spite of their use of the phrase "Judeo-Christian", anti-semitism is deeply embedded in fundamentalist Christianity, because the Jews rejected and killed Christ. Tens of millions of secular persons, who are not religious at all, are also excluded, in Mr. Weyrich’s definition, from "our culture." Since the middle of the nineteenth century there have been millions of Chinese living here, who are mostly Buddhists, and now there are millions of Arabs, Turks, and Persians, who are mostly Muslims. None of these people are included in "our traditional culture." In short, his is an unbelievably arrogant and bigoted attitude.
Perhaps most insulting to me though was Mr. Weyrich’s sentence: "The radicals of the 1960s had three slogans: turn on, tune in, and drop out." What a truly ignorant, weird, unbelievable distortion of one of the great revolts of the twentieth century. It was one of only two system-wide revolutions ever against capitalism, the other being in 1848. It was global in scope. It was primarily a rejection, by young people, of the prevailing ‘affluent’ or ‘commodity’ culture, that is, the materialism of a mature capitalism, and indeed, of its decadence. It was also overwhelmingly a revolt against authority, in favor of democracy. It was a blow for freedom, almost across the board, including (but not limited to, even though these later became the most famous) sexual, gender, and racial freedom. It was a revolt against fatuity and complacency. It was waged everywhere by the best and brightest, and the most moral, I might add. It was also an anti-war movement, that is, a strike for peace. It was a protest against the defilement of the environment. It was a strike against the stifling rigidities, hierarchies, and elite control of universities everywhere, and against the mendacity of those in authority, and against their complicity in crimes against humanity.
But already by the early seventies the counter-revolution had set in. The revolts were thoroughly crushed. And then, for the next thirty years, we were vilified in every conceivable way by corporate media. Next to unions and the labor movement in general hardly any group in America is hated more by the ruling class than sixties radicals. They have spent many millions of dollars discrediting us. And of course their spin has been accepted by millions of people, including Mr. Weyrich.
What Mr. Weyrich, and the Christian right in general, think of as the ‘left’ is not the left at all, but only two or three elements of it which corporate America found palatable and therefore incorporated into the mainstream. Originally, the women’s, gay, and black movements were radical, in that they sought fundamental changes in the structure of American institutions. They were trying to overthrow the system, not just get into it, or at least a very significant segment of those movements were radical. But very rapidly, already by the McGovern campaign of 1972, each of these movements became overwhelmingly mainstream. They now sought only to get into the system, and reform it from within, rather than overthrow it. Do you think that feminists, gays, and blacks would have been allowed onto national television, which is completely owned and controlled by ruling corporations, if they had been a real threat to the establishment? Would Departments of Women’s and African American studies have been set up in universities, which are completely controlled by the ruling class, if the establishment had seen these departments as threats? Do you ever see any pro-labor people on television, or any anti-capitalists? Do you ever hear anyone mention class, let alone the working class, on national television? A key feature of the new departments of women’s and black studies is that class has been eliminated from their intellectual frameworks. They are strictly ‘identity politics’ people, not people involved in class struggle. These departments are there even so as mere appendages to the curriculum, are barely tolerated, and are very far from controlling the entire university as Weyrich claims.
Here were three movements, in their de-radicalized versions, which were entirely palatable to the ruling class. So they co-opted them. Or more accurately, they simply didn’t resist them, since these reformists were there pounding on the doors of the establishment demanding to be let in. When corporate America really doesn’t want to let people in you see a different response entirely: it ignores them, slanders them, impoverishes them, disempowers them, or simply kills them. So if Mr. Weyrich and the Christian right in general hate feminists, gays, and blacks so much, they must thank the ruling class itself for their presence in mainstream culture, not radicals from the sixties or cultural Marxism. As far as radicals are concerned, these movements long ago lost whatever revolutionary content they once had. In their mainstream versions, they have done very little to establish greater equality in American life. They have served mainly to legitimate the ruling class, to take the heat off it, and to give it a breather. The President can now say, "Look, I have a rainbow cabinet." Of course its members are all as rich as Croesus. (Even so, the ruling class is incredibly afraid of these movements in their radical versions.)
Weyrich complains that "it [political correctness] threatens to control literally every aspect of our lives." Talk about not living in the real world! At a time when billions of dollars have been spent to beef up police departments in every little town in America, when new linkages are being made every day, with computers, between these police departments and vehicle licensing bureaus, tax collectors, insurance agencies, and what have you (alimony enforcers), when the ruling class, through its corporations and governments, is tightening its controls and constraints on us unruly subjects on an almost daily basis, so that we can hardly move without it being recorded somewhere, on some list or in some bank or on some camera, Weyrich thinks that his life is being controlled by "political correctness." (Are the surveillance cameras in banks, on street corners, in libraries, and in department stores because of ‘political correctness’?)
I guess it is the presence of feminists, blacks, and gays on national television and in movies, plus a few other hotly debated items, like abortion or school prayer, that leads Christian conservatives to believe that the country has been taken over by "aliens" and that they have lost the "cultural war." But how can they be blind to the overwhelmingly conservative character of the past quarter century -- one of the most reactionary periods in American history? Beginning in the early ‘70s the rich launched a very aggressive attack on the remnants of the New Left, on the paltry legislation the New Left had managed to get through Congress, on New Deal legislation itself, on labor unions, on welfare, on unemployment insurance, and now even on social security. The rich drastically reduced their own tax burden, won spectacular bailouts from the government which must be paid for by average people, siphoned off billions in subsidies for their corporations from the public treasury, bought public lands and public research for a song, wiped safety regulations practically off the books, gutted civil liberties with draconian anti-crime and anti-terrorist bills, gave pharmaceuticals a free hand, destroyed or co-opted the environmental movement, built hundreds of new prisons, turned the CIA loose on America (thinking I guess that the police and FBI needed help), gave the Pentagon a blank check, eliminated independent newspapers and publishing houses, cleared the way for irradiated meat and genetically altered food, and even pushed through treaties which nullify the sovereignty of the government itself vis a vis global corporations. And Christian conservatives believe that this has been a period of history controlled by cultural Marxists? Unbelievable!
How can anyone not see that the cultural disintegration or collapse about which he complains so bitterly is the result of the normal functioning of a profit-oriented society, of its unrelenting attack on communities everywhere, on all things not yet commodified, on all values and relationships not yet fractured through the lens of ‘profit for profit’s sake’, on all persons and peoples who resist the logic of the market? Just look at any town, at the ‘mall’-ification of America, at the emptying of the countryside, at the abandonment of schools, parks, and public libraries. What kind of evidence does it take to indict a system, I’d like to know?
Weyrich had wanted to "re-take the cultural institutions" (notice he never mentions economic institutions) that are now "controlled by the enemy." (Now I guess he only wants to escape from them.) The problem is that he has mis-identified the enemy. He has zero comprehension of the structure of power in the country. And thus he plays into the hands of our corporate rulers (if he is not deliberately and consciously in bed with them). He attacks all the wrong people. Or, from a ruling class point of view, he attacks exactly the right people.
So much for Mr. Weyrich’s take on the problems that plague us. At least he admits that the majority of people in America do not share his beliefs. Radicals had a bumper sticker for a while that said "The Moral Majority Is Neither." It was always clear to everyone but the Christian right itself that the extremely puritanical social mores and agenda which it sought to implement was a minority program.
I believe that Christian conservatives, most of whom are average persons, everyday Americans, have merely been used by the right wing of the ruling class as a smoke screen behind which to push its pro-rich, neo-liberal, corporate agenda. Here was a ready-made movement involving millions of Americans -- and very frustrated and angry Americans at that. So our rich rulers poured millions of dollars into this movement, and then under the guise of fighting for good clean Christian values they pushed through some of the most oppressive and regressive legislation in American history. Try to remember that Money is the one true religion of the rich and powerful.
Can any common ground be found between Christian conservatives and radicals like myself? Quite frankly, it’s hard to imagine finding any common grounds with the likes of Jesse Helms, Pat Robertson, or Jerry Falwell, who are really vicious and bigoted persons. But what about ordinary persons? We do disapprove of many of the same things, and there are a few common elements in our pictures of how we would like to live. But our analyses of the causes of our problems, our conceptions of who the enemy is, and our ideas of what to do about all this, are worlds apart. It might be easier for persons like myself to find common grounds with more secular, so-called ‘populist’ types, that is, with right-wing libertarians, than with conservative Christians. Right-wing libertarianism is after all a majoritarian belief system in America. I will continue to ponder this question of trying to find some grounds for a dialogue with all these millions.
So there you have it, two irreconcilable agendas. Mr. Weyrich seeks to implement his, I seek to implement mine. Of the two though, mine is the more tolerant, humane, and civilized. There is after all room in my society for people like him (up to a point), whereas there is none in his for people like me (at any point). Except for a few fragile revolutionary religious flowers which have bloomed here and there, the religious throughout history have sided overwhelmingly with the ruling classes of the world, and thus have contributed mightily for millennia to the oppression of humanity.
* A letter dated February 16, 1999, addressed to "Dear Friend," which was circulated on the web. My response, now edited for general circulation, was originally a reply to the friend who sent it to me. At the time, I had never heard of Paul Weyrich, which shows how little attention I have paid to this dimension of national life and politics, because I have since learned that he is a major figure on the Christian Right.