THE BIG SURPRISE in the culture wars this month is not that nationwide protests by Asian-Pacific-Americans against a new line of Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts bearing racial stereotypes persuaded the clothing giant to pull the T-shirts from shelves. It’s that nearly no one — one exception being right-wing syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, who accused the protestors of playing the "race card" — has come forward to criticize the protestors for being humorless, politically correct lefties. For 15 years now, the backlash against "political correctness" has been one of the defining features of the so-called culture wars. Can it be that the lack of support for Abercrombie & Fitch’s right to sell whatever it wants signals a new cultural shift? Is it okay again to be politically correct?
Earlier this month, in its nationwide chain of 311 stores, Abercrombie & Fitch began selling T-shirts featuring cartoony images of Asian-American men with "jokey" punch lines. The humor quotient teetered between burlesque and bathroom. The T-shirts carried aphorisms such as WONG BROTHERS LAUNDRY SERVICE — TWO WONGS CAN MAKE IT WHITE and WOK-N-BOWL — LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL — CHINESE FOOD AND BOWLING, surrounded by slant-eyed, coolie-hatted caricatures of Asian men. These kinds of images of Asian-Americans thrived in the late 1800s and persisted in various forms, from Charlie Chan movies to TV series featuring "oriental" houseboys, until the 1960s. For at least 40 years, such stereotyping has been widely viewed as racist and offensive.
It’s therefore difficult to see how Abercrombie & Fitch — a clothier known for having its finger on the pulse of the wide, but shallow, pool of culturally hip consumers — could have thought these T-shirts, which retailed for $24.95, would sell. In remarks quoted widely in press reports on the brouhaha, company spokesman Hampton Carney, through Paul Wilmot Communications, A&F’s public-relations firm, said, "We personally thought Asians would love this T-shirt." Well, since Abercrombie & Fitch is in the business of selling clothes, not making political statements, it probably did think it had identified a potential new consumer base. Who knows? Maybe the company is so far ahead of the cultural curve that it should keep the shirts on hand — for sale sometime in the next decade or so.
But for now, the company had a problem on its hands. Shortly after the shirts appeared on store shelves, Asian-American students at Stanford University protested the company’s decision to sell the offending garments. The protests were quickly replicated on campuses nationwide. By April 18, just days after the shirts’ appearance in some A&F stores, the company had stopped all shipping and pulled the shirts from shelves as well as from its Web site. "We are very, very, very sorry," company spokesman Carney told the media. "It’s never been our intention to offend anyone. These graphic T-shirts were designed with the sole purpose of adding humor and levity to our fashion line."
As far as culture-war battles go, this was a minor skirmish. But as a cultural moment it may mark an important turning point and herald a new level of discussion about popular-culture politics.
FOR MANY, the question of whether the Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts are racist or insensitive is a no-brainer. Like nappy-haired, watermelon-eating Sambo cartoons, images of hooked-nosed Jewish pawnbrokers, and she-liked-it rape jokes, they seem like relics of an ignorant and lamentable past. Yet it is quite conceivable that a few years ago, in the early ’90s, a cultural critic like Camille Paglia — incensed that culturally ignorant PC activists were on the rampage — might have rushed to the Web pages of Salon and launched a defense of the shirts, claiming that they were the most recent artifacts in a long, rich tradition of racialized caricatures that include Egyptian wall paintings, Picasso’s use of African motifs, and "Mammy" cookie jars. (This is the woman, don’t forget, who wrote that if Matthew Shepard was going to cruise for straight trade he should also take responsibility for what might happen later.)
Paglia, of course, was not alone in her fury against political correctness. During those same years, Katie Roiphe, author of The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism (Little, Brown, 1993) made a career of claiming that feminists made too big a deal of sexual assault and rape. Dinesh D’Souza, a founder of the conservative Dartmouth Review and author of Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (Free Press, 1991), complained that traditional Western culture and ideas were being driven from universities. And various shock-radio talk shows — Howard Stern’s being the most famous — blithely used racial, sexual, and ethnic stereotypes to both rile and amuse their listeners. Suddenly the very concept of sensitivity to racial and ethnic issues, feminist concerns, sexual identity, or religious belief became suspect. The anti-PC backlash clearly embodied a political and cultural response to too many years of expecting people to be sensitive to the rights and feelings of a host of minorities. This sensitivity, nurtured in the liberation movements of the 1960s and early ’70s, had by the Reagan years run into a wall of empathy fatigue and overt antagonism.
Fueling the anti-PC backlash in the 1980s and ’90s was the white majority’s anger over losing social and economic power. The same feelings that gave rise to attacks on government programs such as affirmative action and created right-wing myths like the "welfare queen" prompted George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign to indulge in fear-mongering, deploying images of Willie Horton as an emblematic black rapist. Such feelings also fed the notion that the American economy was under siege by Japanese millionaires and poverty-stricken Mexican peasants.
If nothing else, the PC backlash sought to render social inequalities negligible. This charming period in American social relations saw anti-feminists declaiming, "Well, if they all want equality, why should I give up my seat to a pregnant woman on the bus?" and Republicans publicly ignoring statistics attributing an explosion of single motherhood among young African-American women to intractable poverty, so as not to ruffle their they-just-want-to-have-kids-to-become-welfare-cheats analysis. Complicated, honest, and empathetic discussion of these issues was squelched.
Indeed, the language used by those complaining of "political correctness run amok," to use a well-worn phrase from the culture wars, tried to turn the tables: they felt "oppressed" by political correctness. Rush Limbaugh complained endlessly about his archenemies, "the feminazis," and Paglia offhandedly referred to "leftist nazis." (Interestingly, we’ve never heard the "PC nazis" refer to their cultural antagonists as "First Amendment nazis.") Howard Stern had a wide array of insults for people who found his humor offensive (typical remark: "I bet she hasn’t gotten laid much lately"). While Roiphe, D’Souza, and company were more moderate with name-calling, they shared Limbaugh and Paglia's exasperation: they were clearly fed up with having to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others, usually those people who claimed some form of minority or oppressed status.
It is no accident that so much of the anti-PC backlash centered on higher education and American intellectual life. Michelle Malkin, in her screed against the Abercrombie & Fitch protesters, claimed that they had learned their tactics from "their professors" ("It’s Ethnic Extortionism 101"). Paglia, a tenured professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, blamed all of PC on postmodern theories and French intellectuals. Limbaugh, who earns millions from his books and radio show, claimed to speak for the common man against "know-it-all intellectuals." Even privileged Ivy Leaguers like Roiphe (Harvard) and D’Souza (Dartmouth) railed against new intellectual constructs and forms of thinking that had supplemented more traditional ones. The heart of the anti-PC backlash was profoundly anti-intellectual — a replay of the 1950s attacks on "eggheads" that informed so much of McCarthyism. It was a full-fledged attempt to stop an emerging public conversation about gender, sex, race, economics, politics, and citizenship. The charge "Don’t be so PC" generally means, as Howard Stern so beautifully puts it, "Oh, shut up."
It was a stroke of genius for the right to appropriate the term "political correctness" (which had been used in a self-deprecating way by progressives for years) to dismiss minorities' concerns as simply a form of fascistic social-thought control. It was a one-size-fits-all put-down that could be applied as easily to Spike Lee’s movies as to a speech by a moderate feminist like Gloria Steinem or to basic constitutional arguments for anti-gay-discrimination bills. Yet some fights over "political correctness" have focused on important and complicated issues such as speech codes on college campuses; freedom-of-association issues such as whom the Boy Scouts or the organizers of St. Patrick’s Day parades get to exclude; and constitutional questions concerning how far free speech can go before it becomes "hate speech" or incites physical violence. Even all-American projects like boycotts have come under scrutiny, as when both right- and left-wingers debated the appropriateness of conservative Christians' economic boycott of Ellen or liberals' boycott of Dr. Laura. In the face of political disagreement, isn't it best to start public conversations about the meaning of ideas like "democracy," "citizenship," and "freedom," rather then yelling "nazi" at people with whom you disagree?
IT WOULD BE a grievous mistake to downplay the importance of these cultural debates. The anti-PC backlash was a deeply felt response to changes taking place so quickly that they were bound to encounter resistance. In the constitutional democracy under which we live, there is an ongoing struggle to balance First Amendment rights to free speech with efforts to sustain civil society. Freedom of expression and cultural sensitivity are often at odds — whether the issue involves the freedom to burn a cross in a black neighborhood; the rights of Nazis (the real ones ... well, the American Nazi Party) to march in predominantly Jewish Skokie, Illinois; the rights of anti-abortion groups to picket abortion clinics and place death-target lists of physicians who perform abortions on their Web pages; or the rights of people to use racial or homophobic slurs on the airwaves. Or, for that matter, on T-shirts.
As a culture, we’ve rarely discussed such issues openly, honestly, and civilly. To be sure, there are exceptions to that rule, such as Randall Kennedy’s book Nigger, an extraordinary explication of the social and political uses of that most contentious of words, and Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled, a shocking and painfully entertaining history of racist images in popular culture. But what has been clear throughout the last 15 years is that the lines between freedom and respect, honest expression and hurtful utterance, become blurred when people vindicate speech that others find painful by claiming it’s just joke. That assertion trivializes the issue and willfully ignores the fact that all jokes mask serious meaning.
Abercrombie & Fitch’s willingness to admit a mistake — that it overstepped an important boundary and that it should have taken people’s feelings into consideration — signals a remarkable shift in a culture marked by diminished empathy and heightened defensiveness. Maybe, finally, this is a step in the right direction — away from political correctness and its dissenters and toward really looking at how people try to live their lives with both humor and dignity.
Michael Bronski is the author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom (St. Martin’s). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org