Bush sees threat in 'political correctness'

May 05, 1991|By Maureen Dowd | Maureen Dowd,New York Times News Service

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- President Bush, delivering commencement address at the University of Michigan yesterday, joined a growing political backlash against the idea that free speech should be subordinated to the civil rights of women and minority members.

The president attacked what he called the "notion of 'political correctness,' " saying it had led to "inquisition," "censorship" and "bullying" on some college campuses.

"Ironically, on the 200th anniversary of our Bill of Rights, we find free speech under assault throughout the United States, including on some college campuses," Mr. Bush told 8,300 graduates and more than 55,000 others gathered in the University of Michigan football stadium.

"The notion of 'political correctness' has ignited controversy across the land," he said. "And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism, sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudices with new ones.

"It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expressions off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits. What began as a cause for civility has soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship."

Mr. Bush's speech, his first on an issue that has divided campuses around the nation, reflected the influence of his new head speech writer, Anthony Snow, a former editorial writer for the Washington Times, who was hired to bring a harder edge and ideological spirit to the president's speeches as he moves toward the 1992 election.

White House officials said it fit into a pattern of presidential positions on civil rights. For instance, in opposing the congressional measure that would have made it easier to sue employers for job discrimination, Mr. Bush said the government should fight bigotry but not if that meant court-imposed quotas for women and minority members.

At Michigan yesterday, Mr. Bush said that Americans should be alarmed at the rise of intolerance and bigotry but that they should also be alarmed at the "growing tendency to use intimidation rather than reason in settling disputes."

"Neighbors who disagree no longer settle matters over a cup of coffee," he said. "They hire lawyers and go to court. Political extremists roam the land, abusing the privilege of free speech, setting citizens against one another on the basis of their class or race. Such bullying is outrageous. It's not worthy of a great nation grounded in the values of tolerance and respect. Let us fight back against the boring politics of division and derision."

"Political correctness" originated as an ironic term for a broad range of generally liberal attitudes, especially in support of expanded rights for women, minority members and gay people. But it has been seized by many conservatives and traditionalists, on campus and off, as a term of derision for those who espouse such attitudes to the exclusion of other rights, especially free speech.

In one celebrated case this academic year, Brown University expelled a student who shouted racist slurs, touching off a debate about freedom of speech on campus.

In New York in March, a City College faculty committee rebuked two professors, one black and the other white, for comments about racial superiority; the case raised the question whether academic freedom included the right to espouse inflammatory teachings and beliefs about race and culture.

In a third case, Nina Wu, a sophomore at the University of Connecticut, was ordered to move off campus after gay students protested a sign she had posted on her dorm room making fun of "preppies," "bimbos," "men without chest hair" and "homos." After a federal lawsuit was threatened, the school let her move back and revised its code of conduct.

Mr. Bush said yesterday that he would focus on "the nature of freedom," and he praised Americans such as Henry Ford and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for having the "vision" to "transform a world."

"When governments try to improve on freedom, say by picking winners and losers in the economic market, they fail," he said. And he criticized programs that "have tried to assume roles once reserved for families and schools and churches."

"This crusade backfired," he said of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society" program to fight poverty. "Programs designed to ensure racial harmony generated animosity. Programs intended to help people out of poverty invited dependency."

Mr. Bush has been attacked on the issues of free speech and divisiveness to which he devoted most of yesterday's speech. In 1989, critics said he was interfering with the Bill of Rights when he proposed a constitutional amendment against burning or destroying the American flag.

And in the 1988 campaign, he and his campaign manager, Lee Atwater, were accused of practicing the politics of racial division with the advertisements focusing on Willie Horton, a black convict who raped a white Maryland woman. Before Mr. Atwater died this year at age 40, he apologized for that campaign tactic.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.