A Reflection on 'Political Correctness'

(This is a revised transcript of a talk given at the launch of Bruce Roberts’ In the Church of Latter Day Consumers, Cornford Press, 1994. The book was launched on Wednesday 12th October, 1994 at Hobart Bookshop).

There can be few more apparently potent campaigns currently abroad than that against ‘political correctness’. ‘Political correctness’, as defined by those who would consign it to oblivion, is about making a fetish of (among other things) calling wops ‘Italians’, and pieces of fluff, ‘women’. It is, say those who drive it along (well, not all of them - among those leading the charge against ‘political correctness’ are some well known pinkos and bleeding-heart liberals - Philip Adams, say, and Ross Fitzgerald), a left-wing conspiracy in thought control.

That such a patently ludicrous charge should be given such credence says volumes for the absence of a critical faculty among the glib, flabby minds behind the faces of The Great Australian Media Personality/Commentator. It is ludicrous for three reasons.

Firstly, in this age of economic rationalism triumphant, left-wing people happen not to be in control in any significant sphere of Australian life - and that includes the industries of cultural production. That limp-minded conservative commentators continue to believe this stems from the mistaken assumption that the latest high fashions in cultural theory - the so-called ‘new theory’ of post-modernism and its kissin’ cousin, deconstructionism - are the most recent incarnations of civilisation-threatening left-wing subversion.

In fact, the opposite is the case. Post-modernism is to culture what economic rationalism is to economics. No view, opinion or interest merits in-principle moral precendence over any other: what is ‘right’ and ‘valid’ is what the ideas/values marketplace pronounces right or valid at the point of the sovereign present. What we have in post-modernism is the economic doctrine of the sovereignty of consumer demand transferred to the worlds of ethics, beauty, principle.

Secondly, even if we temporarily grant as valid the context of assumptions within which the ‘down with political correctness’ campaign takes place, it remains dangerously silly to hold that, in any case, labelling has no impact on behaviour and thought. If women are continuously subjected to derogatory sexual labels, or if members of ethnic minorities are subjected to a continual barrage of derogatory racist slurs, that will have a significant impact upon those people, and not an impact for the better. It will also have an impact on the person who uses those epithets, and again, not for the better. It is simply not true that sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.

But I can merely assert that this is so, trusting that its axiomatic character will carry the day. For my real business today is with the third reason why the campaign against ‘political correctness’ deserves to be exposed for the fraud that it is. And this is the campaign’s patently ideological purpose. For political correctness is alive and well in this our land - but it has nothing to do with those matters to which the label currently pertains. What the current campaign does, then, is to deflect attention away from the real political correctnesses - and these real political correctnesses constitute a not inconsiderable threat to the emphysemic state of Australia’s civic culture.

I might come at my subject by suggesting what is presently politically incorrect. It is politically incorrect to believe that wage earners have a right to take collective action in defence of collective interests. It is politically incorrect to believe that integration into a remote global economy is something less than the best thing since sliced bread, and perhaps even the deathknell of the possibility for autonomous and democratic existence. It is politically incorrect to believe that there is such a thing as a public good that is anything more than the sum of all the greedy market-player parts (and this, of course, goes for the cultural realm, as well as the economy).

All these things are politically incorrect. They are beyond the pale of legitimate political opinion. The assumptions that they question are the hegemonic follies of today’s political correctness.

And you will notice that these same hegemonic assumptions are the never-questioned articles-of-faith of all those powerful people who would attribute spurious political correctness to others. You want a book of real political correctness? Go and buy one of Sara Henderson’s books. The notion that nothing stands between the individual and success other than his/her own ability to and capacity for work, and that there are no insurmountable external impediments booby-trapping the level bloody playing field - this is what is politically correct.

Now why have I spoken at inordinate length on such a subject? Am I not here to launch Bruce Roberts’ latest collection of poetry, In the Church of Latter Day Consumers? Bruce Roberts, whose verse is unashamedly, overtly, radical? And who is hence part of the dangerous conspiracy of left-subversive thought control? And who is therefore the very epitome of political correctness? Don’t laugh - that is precisely how this book would be viewed by most of Australia’s brokers and keepers of political ideas and cultural values.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. This is a book which stands virtually alone in the dishwater-dull corpus of contemporary Australian poetry - where the secret to success is to be as harmless and as inoffensive as a dusting of dandruff. Bruce is the opposite of this. Against the button-down political correctness of ALP corporatism and Liberal Party born again marketism - both philosophies of market capitalism, as their proponents are agents of market capitalism - Bruce dares to do the politically and artistically incorrect thing: to suggest that there are still transcendent standards against which we can recognise political bastardry and moral humbuggery, and against which we can do battle.

Above all, then, this poet is ambitious and passionate where others of us are not. Bruce shows that twenty years after we raged silently against the disposal of the Allende Government in Chile it is still possible and relevant to write about such a matter. And after today’s literary politics have become a mote in the dust storm of history, and the inflated reputations attendant upon those politics have fallen by the wayside, at least one poem here (perhaps more) will stand as a masterpiece - and that is the marvellous ‘Educating Artif’.

See this book here? This is the Penguin Book of Socialist Verse, and it was published in the early 1970’s. I was browsing in Fullers Bookshop one day when it was just down the road opposite Tattersalls there, and I came across this. It switched me on to poetry after a series of teachers had done their best to ruin it for me. In this book there is poetry of passion and commitment, poetry of the earth and for the earth, poetry that contemptuously eschews the preciousness of in-club references and narcissistic navel-gazing. There are Bruce’s forebears. They are all gone. All gone as poets - some of them are still alive - but now their poetry goes unremarked. It is not the poetry for the times. It is not politically correct.

I am grateful, then, that Bruce Roberts, a boy from the unpromising environment of my home town, Wynyard, up on the North-West Coast, the Deep North-West, should, in 1994, resurrect the spirit of the great ‘old theory’ poets to be found in my Penguin anthology. And I’m going to close by reading a small section from a poem in this book.

... in the fields by Huesca, the full moon
Throws shadows clear as daylight’s, soon
The innocence of this quiet plain
Will fade in sweat and blood, in pain,
As our decisive hold is lost or won...

England is silent under the same moon,
From the Clydeside to the gutted pits of Wales.
The innocent mask conceals that soon
Here, too, our freedom’s swaying in the scales.

That was written by John Cornford, a research student at Cambridge when he became the first Englishman to go to the republican frontlines in the Spanish Civil War. Shortly after he wrote this poem, on the day after his twenty-first birthday, he ws killed in action. Now I’ve not asked whether Cornford Press takes its name from John Cornford, poet and war casualty, because I didn’t want the answer to spoil a good story. Either way, this outstanding volume of polically incorrect verse could have no more appropriate publisher. I wish publisher and author every success and commend to you In the Church of Latter Day Consumers.

Poems by Pete Hay

Sunset on the Irish Festival
Flower Cone
Girl Reading Lorca at the Mirador San Nicolas
Dove Lake Tanka

Interviews with Pete Hay

Conversations: an interview with Pete Hay and Richard Flanagan (1995)
A conversation with Pete and Anna Hay (2003)
Island to island: an interview with Pete Hay (2011)


Launch speeches

MATHISON, Robyn: To Be Eaten By Mice
ROBERTS, Bruce: In the Church of Latter Day Consumers
SANT, Andrew: The Islanders


Half-Time with Stout John
Port Arthur: Where Meanings Collide
What I did on my Holidays
Notes within Shadow


Louis de Paor, Goban Cre Is Cloch / Sentences of Earth and Stone, Black Pepper 1996; Eric Beach, Weeping for Lost Babylon, A&R 1996