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Political Correctness on the Populist Right

An eruption of political correctness on Eastern Europe's populist Right helps clarify the source of political correctness on the American Left.

Poland has just passed a law that imposes jail time for any claim about Poles or Poland “being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich.” Poland suffered horribly at the hands of the Nazis, but plenty of individual Poles collaborated with them and helped exterminate Jews. My father's first cousins murdered some of them.

In the first days of the German invasion of Russia in 1941, my relatives lived in a village between Slonim and Baranovich, close to the 1939 Russo-German line of division. When the Germans marched in, my father's teenage cousins Dvora and Moishe ran into the woods behind the house; their parents followed with the baby, but couldn't reach the woods and instead hid in the tall grass. A Polish neighbor pointed them out to the Germans, who killed them on the spot. Dvora and Moishe joined the Bielski partisans, and returned to their town not long after. They barricaded the Pole in his house and burnt him alive. Telling that story might make me a criminal in Poland, but I've seen it before and have no need to see it again.

The U.S. government, the Israeli government, the president of France and most of the Western world deplored the Polish law. As it happens, similar laws already are on the books in Ukraine and Latvia. As the Jerusalem Post reports:

[Ukraine's] Law 2538-1 criminalized any rhetoric insulting to the memory of anti-communist partisans. And it celebrates the legacy of such combatants -- ostensibly including the ones who murdered countless Jewish and Polish citizens while collaborating with Nazi Germany ... In 2010 Lithuania -- a country where Nazi collaborators virtually wiped out a Jewish community of 250,000 -- amended its criminal code, prescribing up to two years in jail to anyone who “denies or grossly underestimates” the crime of genocide or “other crimes against humanity or war crimes committed by the USSR or Nazi Germany against Lithuanian residents.”

Similar legislation in Latvia from 2014 imposes up to five years in jail for those who deny the role of “the foreign powers that have perpetrated crimes against Latvia and the Latvian nation,” without mentioning the involvement of Latvian SS volunteers in murdering nearly all of the country’s 70,000 Jews.

Poland's Law and Justice Party government is right wing, Catholic and nationalist. It strongly opposes the European Community's attempt to impose immigration quotas on its members, in alliance with other right-wing populists: Hungary's Viktor Orban as well as the Czech Republic's Miloš Zeman. But there is no difference whatever between the American Left's witch hunt against "micro-aggressions" and the imposition of speech codes at American universities, and the new Polish law. They both criminalize speech that injures self-esteem, and they do so for exactly the same reason.

One doesn't talk about rope in the house of the hanged, or the soon-to-be-hanged. The Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Latvians are hyper-sensitive because their prospects for national survival are dim.

The Poles may call themselves Catholic but they don't have children the way Catholics used to. In fact, Poland's total fertility is just an average of 1.3 children per female, among the lowest in the industrial world. Ukraine is at 1.5 births. Eastern Europe's population of people up to 44 years of age will drop by more than half during this century; by 2100, there will be one person of working age for every prospective pensioner.

None of this is written in the stars, to be sure. Fertility rates might improve. The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, as Damon Runyon wrote, but that's the way to bet. The odds for Eastern European cultural survival don't look good. Meanwhile, net immigration continues to erode the population of higher-earning couples of child-bearing age. Any Polish or Czech engineer who can speak ten words of German has a dozen job offers from labor-hungry German firms at double the local pay scale.

The leaders of Eastern Europe are responding in different ways. To reject large-scale Muslim immigration is perfectly legitimate. But to attempt to cultivate self-esteem by leaving the nasty bits out of one's national history suggests desperation. It's a recipe for failure. After all, Poland claims to be a Catholic nation: biblical religion teaches repentance of sins, not the pretense that the sins never were committed. It behooves the West to understand the existential dread that underlies the misguided Polish law. But we are not doing our Polish friends any favors by humoring them. In Yiddish, es soll ihr gor nisht helfen.

Desperate measures to shore up self-esteem always proceed from the fear of failure. The Poles really do face a catastrophe, which is why the nasty side of their history is too painful to talk about. Exactly the same fear motivates the politically correct witch hunt against objectionable speech at American universities, as I argued in a November 2015 essay:

Unlike previous witch-hunts, the event that motivates the exercise remains unspoken. But that is easy to identify: black American college students, especially men, are failing at a catastrophic rate.

Little more than a third of black male college students obtain a bachelor’s degree (ideally a four-year program) after six years of university attendance. The college entrance rate is identical for white and black high school graduates at about 70%, but graduate rates diverge. Sixty percent of white male students graduate within six years, almost double the proportion of black males.

A 2006 study in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education [reported], “High dropout rates appear to be primarily caused by inferior K-12 preparation and an absence of a family college tradition, conditions that apply to a very large percentage of today’s college-bound African Americans.” That seems like a reasonable assessment. But at most American universities, merely to repeat this statement–printed originally in a respected journal of black university educators–would be considered prima facie proof of witchcraft.

When JBHE surveyed the damage in 2006, the cohort of black students failing to graduate after six years were born in the late 1970s or early 1980s, when the proportion of children born to unmarried non-Hispanic black mothers was a bit under 50%. By 2013 the proportion had risen to 72%. Without stigmatizing unwed mothers, children born in one-parent households are more likely to face the “inferior K-12 preparation and an absence of a family college tradition” cited by JBHE. Things have gotten worse, in fact much worse, for black children.

The failure of universities to graduate more black men has wide implications. Black illegitimacy rates are high in part because so many black men of marrying age are incarcerated, as the New York Timesnoted in a widely-quoted study early this year. “Remarkably, black women who are 25 to 54 and not in jail outnumber black men in that category by 1.5 million. For every 100 black women in this age group living outside of jail, there are only 83 black men. Among whites, the equivalent number is 99, nearly parity.” Black university students are the ones who escaped the cycle of violence and incarceration, and the low graduate rate is tragic. It implies that the well-intended efforts of universities to reach out to minority students too often have failed, and that the educational system will not interrupt the continued decline of conditions of life of the black American minority. In that case one might as well hunt witches. It will do as much good as anything else.

The trouble is that generations of university students have been reared on the presumption that clever and beneficient social scientists can engineer desirable outcomes. If the outcome is undesirable, it must be due to racism; if the racism is not overt, it must be covert, and if blacks are not subject to racist aggression, the “micro-aggresion” of subtle deprecation. This quickly reduces itself to absurdity. The University of Wisconson’s new speech code declares that the statement “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” is racist. The university says that this is a coded statement that “People of color are given extra unfair benefits because of their race.” It is also racist to say that “Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough,” because it really means, “People of color are lazy and / or incompetent and need to work harder.”

Tragically, black Americans have not realized the promise of the 1965 Civil Rights Act and related legislation, and feel betrayed. One may argue about the reason for this failure; I abhor the notion that genetic differences in intelligence are to blame, and believe rather that the cultivation of a culture of rage in hip-hop and other media is the source of the problem. But that is beside the point. The universities attempt to control speech because the facts of the present situation are too painful to contemplate and the future too bleak to think about. It may be in poor taste to tell the soon-to-be-hanged, "You're going to die." Forbidding the use of the word "rope" won't do him any good, either.