It’s easy to forget that the term “politically correct” wasn’t always a punchline. In the late 1970s and early ’80s young liberals used the term straight-faced, which is kind of frightening in a pluralistic society when you think of it.
“Have you seen the China Syndrome yet?,” one might have asked another circa 1979 about the anti-nuke thriller. “OhmyGodJaneFonda . . . and politically correct, too!,” would have been a typical response.
Political correctness as a pejorative only came about from the term’s overuse. It went from serious description to an air quote — I’m sorry I’m not being “politically correct” — to what it is today, a stale insult employed by the political right. So goes the transmutation of language in politics.
In March 2011, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer was caught by reporters on a conference call instructing fellow Democratic senators to use the word “extreme” when speaking about Republicans and their positions. “I always use the word extreme,” Schumer said, unaware that journalists were on the line. “That is what the [Democratic] caucus instructed me to use this week.”
It’s hard to believe that was only three years ago, because “extreme” and “extremists,” terms once reserved for terrorists and daredevils, have become ubiquitous in American politics. And there’s little question that they’ve been used effectively, heretofore, against Republicans.
But have we reached the point where “extreme” in all its variations has been used once too often? Have we reached the critical mass of overuse that sunk political correctness.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have suggested that conservative candidates for office are “extreme” and therefore unwelcome in New York. The pushback on those comments has been striking in their breadth. (Disclosure: I have a client who may challenge Cuomo in this year’s gubernatorial race.) That reaction makes me think that “extremism” is now a word in transition. Republicans, freaked out by the term a year ago, are now jokingly greeting one another with: “My fellow extremists . . .” In other words, the adjective is losing its sting. It’s on its way to becoming a late night show punchline.
Conservative comic and radio host T.J. McCormack jokes that biting political language used by the political left is cultivated in a petri dish in a Czech lab and flown to the United States under strict temperature controls and emergency-room-quality care. True or not, there’s little question that political terms are coined and test marketed for effectiveness by both sides in America. But everything has its shelf life, even words hydroponically grown and tested.
As happy as I’ll be to see the defanging of the word “extreme” in electoral politics, there’s another I’d be happier to see go: “Fairness.” The top 5 percent of earners in America are paying about 60 percent of all taxes, yet they never seem to be paying their “fair” share. But that’s a subject for another day and another column. Until then, I look forward to the agonizing death of “extreme.”
Somewhere in the Czech Republic, a light is turning on in a lab.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a columnist and a Republican political consultant.