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Truths You Cannot Utter

The phrase politically correct has its origins in the Stalinist left. Its revival not so long ago by America’s New Left was an ominous development. Its pertinence to the present discontents points to a propensity visible now, even among mainstream liberals, for politicizing nearly everything.

There was a time, however, in American life when the personal was not considered political and the political was not regarded as personal. The distinction was, in fact, a principle central to American life – for the modern liberal republic stands or falls on the conviction that religion and politics are separable. It is this notion – that what is primordially personal (religious faith, first and foremost, but other things as well) can be made for the most part politically irrelevant – which distinguishes the limited government peculiar to modern times from all prior government, which assumed the contrary. When the personal is made political and the political, personal, it is no longer theoretically possible to distinguish public from private, and it is no longer politically possible to restrict the government’s reach. This inability brought with it considerable disadvantages in earlier times. In an era in which modern technology has extended the reach of surveillance in manifold ways, it is a catastrophe.

It is, of course, an open question whether these distinctions can in practice be sustained. In the eighteenth century, figures such as Denis Diderot presumed that it was possible to sustain a civil society in which the citizens were atheists. Diderot’s erstwhile friend Jean-Jacques Rousseau harbored grave doubts about this. The history of the 20th century suggests that Rousseau may have had a point, for the totalitarian movements that first emerged in Europe in the wake of World War I – at the very moment when the world had purportedly been made safe for liberal democracy – were secularized religions. Communism in Russia, fascism in Italy, and National Socialism in Germany were all-encompassing. All three subscribed to a secularized vision of salvation history. All three denied the distinction between private and public, between the personal and the political. All three re-occupied the space from which, within liberal democracy, religion had been made to withdraw.

None of this would much concern us today, all of this would be a matter of mere antiquarian interest, were there not powerful indications that the totalitarian temptation persists – not least in the countries never subject to communism, fascism, or National Socialism. I was put in mind of all of this by a trivial but nonetheless revealing, recent event – a tempest in the teapot of surgical science.

In the February issue of Surgery News, a distinguished surgeon named Lazar Greenfield, the lead editor of the journal and president-elect of the American College of Surgeons, published a light-hearted editorial regarding St. Valentine’s Day regarded as so offensive by some of his fellow surgeons that he has been forced to resign his editorship and may tomorrow be barred from assuming his presidency. Since the editorial has been suppressed and the pertinent issue of the journal is no longer available online, I will reprint it, as others have, in its entirety. The offending passage can be found in the final two paragraphs:

One of the legends of St. Valentine says that he was a priest arrested by Roman Emperor Claudius II for secretly performing marriages. Claudius wanted to enlarge his army and believed that married men did not make good soldiers, rather like Halsted’s feelings about surgical residents. But Valentine’s Day is about love, and if you remember a romantic gut feeling when you met your significant other, it might have a physiological basis.

It has long been known that Drosophila raised on starch media are more likely to mate with other starch-raised flies, whereas those fed maltose have similar preferences. In a study published online in the November issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, investigators explored the mechanism for this preference by treating flies with antibiotics to sterilize the gut and saw the preferences disappear (Proc. Nad. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2010 Nov. 1).

In cultures of untreated flies, the bacterium  L. plantarum was more common in those on starch, and sure enough, when L. plantarum was returned to the sterile groups, the mating preference returned. The best explanation for this is revealed in the significant differences in their sex pheromones. These experiments also support the hologenome theory of evolution wherein the unit of natural selection is the “holobiont,” or combination of organism and its microorganisms, that determines mating preferences.

Mating gets more interesting when you have an organism that can choose between sexual and asexual reproduction, like the rotifer. Biologists say that it’s more advantageous for a rotifer to remain asexual and pass 100% of its genetic information to the next generation. But if the environment changes, rotifers must adapt quickly in order to survive and reproduce with new gene combinations that have an advantage over existing genotypes. So in this new situation, the stressed rotifers, all of which are female, begin sending messages to each other to produce males for the switch to sexual reproduction (Nature 2010 Oct. 13). You can draw your own inference about males not being needed until there’s trouble in the environment.

As far as humans are concerned, you may think you know all about sexual signals, but you’d be surprised by new findings. It’s been known since the 1990s that heterosexual women living together synchronize their menstrual cycles because of pheromones, but when a study of lesbians showed that they do not synchronize, the researchers suspected that semen played a role. In fact, they found ingredients in semen that include mood enhancers like estrone, cortisol, prolactin, oxytocin, and serotonin; a sleep enhancer, melatonin; and of course, sperm, which makes up only 1%-5%. Delivering these compounds into the richly vascularized vagina also turns out to have major salutary effects for the recipient. Female college students having unprotected sex were significantly less depressed than were those whose partners used condoms (Arch. Sex. Behav. 2002;31:289-93). Their better moods were not just a feature of promiscuity, because women using condoms were just as depressed as those practicing total abstinence. The benefits of semen contact also were seen in fewer suicide attempts and better performance on cognition tests.

So there’s a deeper bond between men and women than St. Valentine would have suspected, and now we know there’s a better gift for that day than chocolates.

Let me preface my remarks by saying that I have no idea whether the most recent of the studies referred to in the penultimate paragraph is sound. We live in the era of junk science. But what got Dr. Greenfield in hot water was not his citation of any particular studies. It was his presumption that the “bond between men and women” is natural and runs deep. In short, what every student of biology knows – that within nature there is a teleology having to do with the survival of the species which underpins the distinction between the two sexes and produces between them a natural affinity for one another – no surgeon who knows what is good for him may now say.

It is telling that Dr. Greenfield has not defended himself and that he is abject in his apologies. It is even more telling that, within the community of surgeons, no one has stepped forward to speak up publically in his defense. To an ever-increasing degree – in the academy and in the professions – we live in a moral and intellectual atmosphere that is stifling. We live in a time in which those who want to advance in the professions must pretend to believe what we all know to be untrue. The totalitarian temptation persists. I doubt that it will ever go away.

UPDATE: On Sunday, Lazar Greenfield resigned his position as president-elect of the American College of Surgeons.

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More By Paul Rahe:

Krugmanitis Fells Another Nobel Prize-Winner

Tyranny’s Allure

Lazar Greenfield Takes the Fall

  1. SMatthewStolte

    The description of the phrase “politically correct” in the first paragraph is certainly contrary to my experience. I rarely hear it uttered from the political left, and even less rarely hear it uttered in a positive light. Given this, I would have thought that the phrase was an invention of non-leftists. But phrases have a way of changing their meaning.

    Can someone tell me when the phrase was in use by the Stalinist Left and how long it took for it to become into a term with almost purely negative connotations?

  2. david foster

    Pretty disturbing. The politicization of everything on earth sucks much of the spontaneity out of day-to-day life, and in addition does serious harm to economic growth. “Political correctness” seems particularly strong in academia, in government, and in businesses which are closely connected to either of these: in a midwestern manufacturing company, for example, you’re usually going to find a lot less of it.

    Paul, regarding religion (decline thereof) and the totalitarial temptation, there is a 1950 novel by Arthur Koestler that addresses this topic at what I think is a fairly deep level–I reviewed it at length here: sleeping with the enemy.

  3. Abdiel

    I had no idea the the A.C.S. is so politicized. This seems to be radical feminism gone-a-muck. It’s sad that so many people today are still so opposed to any rational discussion of the S-word.

  4. tabula rasa

    One of the most disturbing developments in post-modern history is that, while anything goes in almost everything, our social discourse is anything but that.  We have to walk on eggshells.  No one can render a judgment (unless it’s the judgment pre-approved by leftist secular religions based on gender, class, race).  For example, you can’t get in trouble with obvious falsehoods like, “all men are bad,” “patriarchy is evil,” “America in an evil imperialist power.”  On the other hand, watch out if anything you say is even mildly critical of gays (for example).  On issues related to race, gender, and class, Theodore Dalrymple put it well,  ”The only permissible judgment in polite society is that no judgment is permissible.” 

    Dr Rahe:  Do you agree that secular religions operate in much more compulsory ways, because they have the power of the state behind them?  Also, are you familiar with English historian Michael Burleigh’s two volumes on the intersection between politics and religion, Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes?  In my opinion, he does a marvelous job of exposing the nature and dangers of allowing political and cultural movements to assume the status of a religion.

  5. KC Mulville

    What strikes me about the episode above is that a scientist actually made a solid case for a fact, but the fact itself annoyed his fellow scientists. Therein lies a lesson: for these politically correct fascists, truth doesn’t justify itself. We are only allowed to identify and focus on conclusions that they want to “find.” Here, a scientist was making a point about an established and tested fact, but he was pressured to repent.

    The one thing that keeps humanity sane is that we’re all connected to the same reality. When connecting with reality doesn’t matter, the system is insane, by definition. 

  6. Abdiel
    KC Mulville: What strikes me about the episode above is that a scientist actually made a solid case for a fact, but the fact itself annoyed his fellow scientists. Therein lies a lesson: for these politically correct fascists, truth doesn’t justify itself. We are only allowed to identify and focus on conclusions that they want to “find.” Here, a scientist was making a point about an established and tested fact, but he was pressured to repent.

    The one thing that keeps humanity sane is that we’re all connected to the same reality. When connecting with reality doesn’t matter, the system is insane, by definition.  · Apr 16 at 5:07pm

    Actually, from what I gathered reading the article the science was tenuous at best. That’s not what is at issue though. He lost the position because of an aggressive feminism that has come to dominate much of the workplace.

  7. KC Mulville

    I also want to comment on the blurring of the distinction between public and private. 

    We all remember the twisting of the Commerce Clause, whereby the Constitution empowered Congress to regulate interstate commerce. However, during the Depression, a private farmer was penalized for growing more of his crop than was allowed, even though the extra was for his private use. The rationale they used to justify their intrusion was that the man’s private life had public ramifications, so that opened the door for government control. 

    Well, of course, every private action can be construed to have public effects. 

    But what’s even more disturbing is the assumption lurking beneath, that government is assumed to control everything unless a private citizen can show that something is purely private. 

    To answer Obama — that may be the America that we’ve come to know, but it isn’t the America as designed. And, further, we want to go back to that old way of thinking. Government isn’t the focus of our lives. 

  8. KC Mulville
    Abdiel  He lost the position because of an aggressive feminism that has come to dominate much of the workplace. · Apr 16 at 5:28pm

    That’s the point. The feminism trumped the fact. What they should have been debating was the validity of the science.

  9. david foster

    James Lileks..”I was probably communicating with the wrong frequency”

    But isn’t “frequency” a social construct, too?…

  10. liberal jim

    The tendency you describe seems to run rampant among the elites, ie: doctors, lawyers, professors, journalists.  I seldom if ever encounter it when speaking with truck drivers, factory workers etc..  Could it be that it indicates something about the individuals who submit themselves to what is termed “higher eduction. “   Could it be that the higher education process requires that at least some backbone be removed?

  11. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    KC Mulville

    Abdiel  He lost the position because of an aggressive feminism that has come to dominate much of the workplace. · Apr 16 at 5:28pm

    That’s the point. The feminism trumped the fact. What they should have been debating was the validity of the science. · Apr 16 at 5:32pm

    Precisely — and a letter to the editor would have been perfectly sufficient. Instead, they aim to silence him.

  12. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    tabula rasa:

    Dr Rahe:  Do you agree that secular religions operate in much more compulsory ways, because they have the power of the state behind them?  Also, are you familiar with English historian Michael Burleigh’s two volumes on the intersection between politics and religion, Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes?  In my opinion, he does a marvelous job of exposing the nature and dangers of allowing political and cultural movements to assume the status of a religion. · Apr 16 at 4:59pm

    I need to read Burleigh’s books. The key fact is the power technology gives the modern state (I have communications technology chiefly in mind). It can be used to enforce the tenets of secular religions. But consider Iran: it can be used to enforce the tenets of genuine religions as well. Totalitarianism is a modern phenomenon. Tyrants in the past had limited reach.

  13. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    david foster: Pretty disturbing. The politicization of everything on earth sucks much of the spontaneity out of day-to-day life, and in addition does serious harm to economic growth. “Political correctness” seems particularly strong in academia, in government, and in businesses which are closely connected to either of these: in a midwestern manufacturing company, for example, you’re usually going to find a lot less of it.

    Paul, regarding religion (decline thereof) and the totalitarial temptation, there is a 1950 novel by Arthur Koestler that addresses this topic at what I think is a fairly deep level–I reviewed it at length here: sleeping with the enemy. · Apr 16 at 4:54pm

    Thanks for this.

  14. Jimmy Carter

    Perhaps Jonathan Last nbsp;missed these studies.

  15. The Mugwump

     Q.  How many lesbian feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

    A.  Oh! So you think that’s funny &%#$?!!! 

  16. david foster
    liberal jim: The tendency you describe seems to run rampant among the elites, ie: doctors, lawyers, professors, journalists.  I seldom if ever encounter it when speaking with truck drivers, factory workers etc..  Could it be that it indicates something about the individuals who submit themselves to what is termed “higher eduction. “   Could it be that the higher education process requires that at least some backbone be removed?

    See my comment #25 above.

  17. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    SMatthewStolte: The description of the phrase “politically correct” in the first paragraph is certainly contrary to my experience. I rarely hear it uttered from the political left, and even less rarely hear it uttered in a positive light. Given this, I would have thought that the phrase was an invention of non-leftists. But phrases have a way of changing their meaning.

    Can someone tell me when the phrase was in use by the Stalinist Left and how long it took for it to become into a term with almost purely negative connotations? · Apr 16 at 4:44pm

    Here is a more or less accurate potted history of the term’s use. It originated with the Communist Party’s attempts to provide ideological discipline within its ranks. It was revived in the late 1960s when the New Left became increasingly sectarian. And it eventually became a term of derision deployed by conservatives.

  18. Nick Stuart

    Great stuff, glad I caught the colloquy.

  19. Michael Labeit
    Paul A. Rahe: In the eighteenth century, figures such as Denis Diderot presumed that it was possible to sustain a civil society in which the citizens were atheists. Diderot’s erstwhile friend Jean-Jacques Rousseau harbored grave doubts about this. The history of the 20th century suggests that Rousseau may have had a point, for the totalitarian movements that first emerged in Europe in the wake of World War I – at the very moment when the world had purportedly been made safe for liberal democracy – were secularized religions. 

    To what extent were the citizens of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Maoist China atheists? This is important because if widespread acceptance of atheism is a sufficient cause of socio-economic decline, then those making this clam will have to explain the progress made in Europe, particularly Scandinavia (see the indices that I often refer to). Now much of modern commentary on Europe emphasizes the travails and tribulations of the European people, but within their broader historical context they have never been better off and, baring unforeseen catastrophes, will continue to progress. Simultaneously, the popularity of atheism is on the rise.

  20. flownover

    Anyone wandering off the narrative in search of truth will be severely reprimanded.

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