Political Correctness or Political Code?

June 10, 1994

It should come as no surprise that in this time of rising fear over crime, the rhetoric is soaring right alongside people's concerns. Whether you believe the campaigners are well-intentioned or simply indulging in cheap pandering, don't underestimate the issue's attraction to those feeling their way along the political trail.

Dick Mencken is a case in point.

He is a candidate for the state House of Delegates in District 12A, which includes Elkridge and southwestern Baltimore County.

He is also a Baltimore deputy sheriff, which gives him a good vantage point from which to critique the current crime problem.

"People are tired of being politically correct," intoned Mr. Mencken at a Columbia Democratic Club forum this week. "They want what makes them feel secure."

Mr. Mencken was short on specifics, but he did pledge himself to strengthening public safety and a "return to family values."

While the concern over crime is real -- though not always reflected in statistics showing a decrease in the crime rate -- the political response to this is fraught with land mines.

"Political correctness," while often derided as an artificial constraint on free speech, is also a term used to color legitimate attempts to build consensus within institutions over what is acceptable dialogue.

Mr. Mencken's twinning of the crime issue and "political correctness" the other evening carried ugly racial overtones with it.

One is reminded of past campaigns where conservative candidates engaged in crass race-baiting that inflamed people's fears and cleaved communities. It is not such an old story.

In neighboring Anne Arundel County, for example, John G. Gary, a three-term Republican delegate who is one of the leading contenders for his party's nomination for county executive, shows no signs of backing off his call to seal off Anne Arundel's borders to stop "an invasion of crime" from Baltimore City.

Such talk, including campaign slogans that stress "family values" and blame "political correctness" for an epidemic of crime (or at least of fear), sounds suspiciously like the old code words of divisive campaigns of the past.

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