by Russell Johnson
Clint Eastwood was in the news this week, not for remaking Denzel Washington’s “Flight,” but for some comments he grumbled angrily during an interview with Esquire.
When asked about Donald Trump in an interview, Eastwood said, “He’s onto something, because secretly everybody’s getting tired of political correctness, kissing up. That’s the kiss-ass generation we’re in right now. We’re really in a p**** generation. Everybody’s walking on eggshells. We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.”
Eastwood criticized some of Trump’s comments but more strongly bemoaned the public outcry that followed them, “The press and everybody’s going, ‘Oh, well, that’s racist,’ and they’re making a big hoodoo out of it. Just f****** get over it. It’s a sad time in history.”
Eastwood is far from the first to criticize PC culture, though he is undoubtedly the grittiest and most intimidating. But he is certainly right that part of Trump’s appeal is his stark refusal to bow to the standards of political correctness. Trump supporters who praise Trump’s honesty and straightforwardness aren’t so much referring to his factual accuracy as they are lauding his willingness to say things that might offend delicate sensibilities. What makes us respect Harry Potter for being willing to say “Voldemort” is what makes many Americans respect Trump. Because whatever Trump does walk on (leopard skin rugs?), it’s certainly not eggshells.
Now, I probably don’t need to say anything about the claim “When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.” Eastwood is certainly right about that, but he’s wrong to think that the 1930s can stand in judgment of the 2010s on this issue. If I had to list things that have gotten unequivocally better since Eastwood’s childhood, near the top of the list would be “Americans are now more willing to identify and confront racism.” Ironically, it’s in large part due to Eastwood’s own generation—Martin Luther King Jr. was born the year before Eastwood—that the American public has the courage to call out Trump’s racist rhetoric.
But what I really want to challenge is the idea that our generation is somehow more censorious of people’s speech than Eastwood’s. When Clint Eastwood was growing up, people could get blacklisted, arrested, and brought before a congressional committee just for saying things that sounded Communist. Life magazine published a whole issue accusing various public figures of anti-Semitism and sympathy with fascism. In the 1940s, after the Smith Act, being too critical of the government could land one in jail. It was also the era of the Motion Picture Production Code, which prohibited films that used curse words or even took the Lord’s name in vain. Famously, CBS producers wouldn’t even let the cast of I Love Lucy use the word “pregnant” on television. The very magazine Clint Eastwood was interviewed in, Esquire, was censored by the U.S. Postal Service when Eastwood was a kid because it contained pin-ups which offended the Postmaster General.
I don’t mean to pick on Clint Eastwood. (In fact, the moral of almost every Clint Eastwood movie is “don’t pick on Clint Eastwood.”) I am simply saying that we misunderstand the problem of political correctness if we treat it as something new. It’s not as if Eastwood grew up in a golden age of free speech but this present generation is one of faultfinding and hypersensitivity. Eastwood’s era—perhaps every era—had its fair share of accusations, speech-policing, and eggshell-walking. Each era has –isms that aren’t tolerated, forms of expression that are condemned, and groups who get offended.
I’ll say more about political correctness in my next post, but for now I’ll end with this question: which is the sadder time in history? An era when a presidential candidate has to answer for accusing a judge of bias just because the judge is of Mexican descent… or a time when Ricky Ricardo can’t say “pregnant?”