Blasts from the past

by John Q on October 8, 2007

I’ve been working a bit on the Political correctness article in Wikipedia and I ran across the best “PC beatup” story ever, starting with a claim from last year that nursery school students in Oxfordshire had been banned from singing “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. Among the ramifications were the foundation of a new political party (with a plug from Harry’s Place), and worldwide circulation leading to a claim in the Adelaide Advertiser that “black coffee” had fallen under a similar ban. Having visited Adelaide recently, I can assure anxious coffee-addicts that this is, like the rest of the story, a load of old bollocks. (I will admit that “doppio” has displaced “double-shot short black” in Australia over the last few years, a boon to addicts like me who are really in a hurry for their fix).

Going back even further, I once ran a contest to find a Mark Steyn column without either a gross error or a distorted or misattributed quotation. There weren’t any entries, though I gave an award to Tim Dunlop for coining the term “Steynwalling” (failure to respond to repeated demonstrations of error). But now thanks to Tim Lambert and TBogg, we have a winner. It’s Steyn himself, who states “incidentally, I stopped writing for the (New York) Times a few years ago because their fanatical “fact-checking” copy-editors edited my copy into unreadable sludge.” (John H has a little bit more fun with Tim’s debunking here)



Chris Bertram 10.08.07 at 8:57 am

It isn’t quite true that it is bollocks, John. What is true is the nursery workers, having read in the press that this was council policy, started implementing it as if it were.

Here’s what I wrote on Junius a few years ago:

“Back in 1987 I had a job as a member of a media research team at Goldsmiths’ College in London led by James Curran. In the run-up to the general election we were particularly interested in a Tory campaign to discredit Labour as being in the grip of the “loony left”. The epithet “loony left” was the term used, in Britain at least, for “politically correct” before that term was imported from the US.

The press, particularly the Daily Mail but also the Daily Express and the London Evening Standard ran a whole series of stories detailing the “loony left” actions and policies of London Labour-controlled councils. Sometimes the stories were true, but often they weren’t and, indeed, appeared to have been fabricated by journalists. In one case the Daily Mail ran a story claiming that one council had banned the singing of the nursery rhyme “Baa Baa Black Sheep” as racist and had instructed nursery workers to change the song to “Baa Baa Green Sheep” (there being no Martians resident in the borough). The interesting thing about that story is that it came true! Once nursery workers had read in their newspapers that “Baa Baa Black Sheep” was “racist”, many of them assumed that they must have missed the memo or something and started implementing the non-existent directive. (It will be interesting to see if this has happened in the hot cross bun case).

Another episode concerned an alleged ban by Hackney council on the use of the word “manhole”. “Drainage inspection cover” or something similar was the “correct” terms. In this instance there had, again, been no council decision or directive and when we published our report we made this clear. But here again, there were complications. Our report was picked up by agencies and reported in all kinds of trade magazines. A few weeks later I had a call from a reader of Drains and Sewers Monthly (or something like that!) who was adamant that an instruction had been issued to ban “manhole”. It turned out that a remark by a councillor at a committee had been taken by officers as indicating how they ought to conduct themselves and that they had thought they ought to stop “manholing” even without a directive.”


Ken C 10.08.07 at 3:19 pm

The tag “politically correctness” is used for just about anything:

A column by Ralph Peters that attributes it to army counter-insurgency doctrine;

A review of a book on Civil War history, that attributes it to historians who don’t see enough union atrocities;

A book that attributes it to almost everything non-white-supremacist;

A “dictionary” attributes it to using the word “torture” to describe torture.

I could’ve sworn I saw it used sometime to describe revulsion at Iraq war atrocities, but I can’t find it.


chris y 10.08.07 at 4:47 pm

had instructed nursery workers to change the song to “Baa Baa Green Sheep”

In fact, IIRC, the nursery workers had (on their own initiative) sung “Baa Baa Green Sheep”, and any other colour anybody could think of. The point being that this sort of thing is hilarious to nursery age children, as any fule kno except the editor of the Daily Mail, who was probably beaten if he laughed audibly as a child.


harry b 10.08.07 at 4:57 pm

Where did the term “politically correct” come from? It was widely used in left circles in the mid-to-late 80’s (US) as a slightly derogatory adjective applied to comrades who seemed to take things a bit too literally and humourlessly (rather as “right on” had been used in left circles I was in in the UK before that). I’d been hearing it used for several years within the far left before I ever heard it publicly applied to us. Does anyone know what the real origin is?


Chris Bertram 10.08.07 at 5:14 pm

Chris Y. I think you maybe read the sentences you quoted from my comment too quickly. But I can assure you (we investigated) that there were nursery workers who read the Daily Mail and thereby acquired the false belief that the council they worked for would disapprove of BBBS as racist. At least some of them led the singing of BBGS as a direct result.


jayann 10.08.07 at 6:13 pm


John Quiggin 10.08.07 at 8:25 pm

As regards Chris v Chris, rightwing sensitivity on the subject is so great that the story keeps on keeping on. The incident I linked to was in 2006, the one Chris B is talking about much earlier.

As regards the history of the term, Harry is about right (though in Australia we said “ideologically sound”). The Wikipedia article gives most of what can be found on this.


Kiril 10.08.07 at 11:09 pm

I first went to college in 1987 at the Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison, which was at the time a veritable hotbed of liberalism (which I loved). And that was where I first heard the term “politically correct.” At the time, I remember considering exactly as the Wikipedia entry describes it, as an ironic put-down of dogmatism of the left, by the left. I was, by my lights, liberal as hell, but when put upon by the minority of colleagues as being insufficiently liberal by, say, not buying exclusively Nicaraguan coffee at the local food co-op, that was derided as being politically correct. There are many other instances of college radicalism overreaching, but as I say, it was simply a matter of liberals having a laugh at other liberals going a little too far.
I also remember being surprised at hearing right-wingers blast political correctness as some sort of liberal conspiracy to destroy academia five years later.
“It’s a joke,” I used to think. “Are they seriously taking this silly joke by liberals against liberals as some sort of conspiracy?” Of course they weren’t. But it served them well to pretend that they were.


Seth Finkelstein 10.09.07 at 12:16 am

“harry b” – it was a old Chinese Communist term, then was used ironically by Western leftists to mean roughly lefter-than-thou ideologues, then adopted by wingnuts with the overall idea than anything even slightly liberal was communism.


Megami 10.09.07 at 6:08 am

The whole ‘no more baa baa black sheep’ also had its moment in the sun here in Australia last year when a columnist used the use of various coloured sheep on a children’s tv show:

Of course the idiot got it wrong, but why let the facts get in the way of a good old-fashioned PC-bashing story?


chris y 10.09.07 at 7:19 am

But I can assure you (we investigated)

I believe you! But I was referring to the prior incident that the Hate Mail picked up and spun into the (false) story that gave rise to the other peoples’ misapprehension. That part was reported by the BBC at the time.


abb1 10.09.07 at 10:27 am

Not to have a correct political point of view is like having no soul.


Backword Dave 10.10.07 at 2:57 pm

I can’t tell if this story is for real or another example of “political correctness gone mad” journalism.

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