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No More Witch Burnings for PC Offenses

By Daniel Henninger

Don Imus, Bernard McGuirk, Trent Lott, Larry Summers, the Duke lacrosse team, Jimmy the Greek, the kid who yelled "water buffalo" at Penn, Howard Cosell, Jon Stewart, Chief Illiniwek, Jackie Mason and "South Park" all have in common only one thing: They have not been Politically Correct.

Some were brought down by it, and some have made a living from it. Today, there are people who even say that the satire on shows such as "South Park" or the "Daily Show" have made political correctness a harmless amusement. We have become so cool that we can simultaneously abide PC's merciless strictures against saying the wrong things about the right people even as we laugh at our subjugation to PC.

Despite the ironic mockery, political correctness still packs a punch. Say the wrong thing today and you can be gone tomorrow, your status as a top broadcaster, university president or politician obliterated. It happens in the small space of a sentence--defrocked, banished, gonzo. Outside a courtroom, I'm not aware of many other forces in American life that can do that.

Don Imus thought he had banked enough social capital to call black women "hos" for a laugh. Weirdly unplugged from the two-second tape delay in the back of his brain ("Don't do it"), he blurted something only black hip-hop singers get to say about black women.

In what for our time is the equivalent of burning witches, the broadcasting careers of Mr. Imus and of his producer Bernard McGuirk were then put to the torch. It took them about a week to die, but with Al Sharpton stoking the flames and the parsons of the press pouring on gasoline, they finally expired, allowing most of us to disperse back to jobs and careers whose abrupt termination generally requires a statutory felony rather than merely hurting someone's feelings.

Then last week the Imus incineration took an abrupt and unexpected turn: Russell Simmons, a famous hip-hop music promoter whose stature in recent years has swelled to cultural wise man, announced to the hip-hop "community" that it was time to retire the "h", "b" and "n" words. For the eight or nine Journal readers who don't listen to the rhymes of hip-hop, "b" rhymes with witch, and "n" rhymes with bigger.

Few would disagree that it would be a good thing if Don Imus became the last man in public to call a black woman a "ho." Few in the civilized world would miss hearing rappers rhyme women with "witch" and "bigger." And as a result, some would say, see, political correctness really does have its uses. It bans what nearly anyone would consider hateful, tasteless, insulting, abusive, disgusting language.

Right. That used to be known as good taste before the left delivered PC into the world. Over the years, political correctness has seemed to wax and wane, without ever disappearing. It was a relief when it offered a few laughs. What has never gone away, though, is the fact that ultimately political correctness is toxic.

Exhibit A is the Duke lacrosse team. Exhibit B is the annihilation of Harvard President Larry Summers. All the other exhibits are the forgotten professors, DJs and commentators whose jobs ended with a wrong phrase.

Duke was a particularly virulent strain of PC. It was breathtaking how fast the Duke incident broke into a politically correct scenario: privileged, women-baiting white males humiliate and assault a disadvantaged black female. Once rooted in the press, this "narrative" crushed the lives of the accused students, ruined the career of the team's coach and almost trumped the criminal justice system. For a falsity, that's pretty potent.

At a scholarly meeting two years ago, then-Harvard President Larry Summers suggested that women are underrepresented at the top of science and engineering because of what he described as the evidently more men than women who are "three and a half, four standard deviations above the mean." I recall back then reading the transcript of Mr. Summer's remarks, which is filled with caveats, obeisances, impenetrable prose and tangled logic. From this morass, it was possible to extract a big PC faux pas. But to think Mr. Summers was led from this turgid speech to the pyre, where his entire career as president of Harvard was immolated is, well, striking.

This is the way we live now: The only place where speech can occur without fear of job loss is on a cartoon show or in stand-up comedy. This means only the self-identified nuts can say what they want. Welcome to the asylum.

The left doesn't mind if comedians savage PC. So what? You get to laugh at the cartoon version but they use the real stuff to fire and eliminate whomever they wish. Thus do we all become their sheep.

Most people subscribe to the soft form of PC, which holds that the world will be a better place when we all have a little more equitable love in our hearts. Fine. But the hard form, played out at Duke and Harvard, is not about evening the odds; it's about exercising power, about reversing the odds. Thus, when a Larry Summers or Trent Lott trips up, the velvet glove of niceness comes off and the enemy is annihilated, abetted by a First Amendment media OK with executions for wrongful speech.

The result is that people sympathetic to PC's nominal goals are taken aback at its virulent results. Kind of like hip-hop. So in the spirit of Russell Simmons's overdue H-B-N ban, a proposed PC truce: Short of prosecutable acts, violations of PC should not lead to loss of livelihood. No more summary executions. No more firings. No more allowing the Al Sharptons to decide who makes a living and who doesn't. Don Imus is financially set, but not so the average college prof or schmo sports commentator. With this no-job-loss rule in place, Mr. Summers's enemies would have had to overthrow him on the merits of his presidency, not PC.

This won't solve all the depredations of political correctness, or its penchant for imposing lifelong stigma on offenders. But it would stop the zombies who serve as administrators, executives and advertisers from being instruments of career destruction. Sanctions or suspensions can be meted on a case-specific basis. "Nappy-headed hos" deserved at least a pistol-whipping.

Imus is hardly a casualty to mourn, but Duke was a PC travesty, which we shouldn't allow to slip down the memory hole. So was the Summers case. It's long past time to make political correctness politically correct.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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