The battle is joined.
On college campuses everywhere, the fight is furious. On the one hand -- more or less the left hand, or the New Left hand -- we have the Politically Correct, in regimented rows, armed with the best of intentions and more fashionable jargon than you can shake a stick at.
On the other hand is the miscellaneous band that opposes them -- many political conservatives, but also growing numbers of others, including old-line liberals, irritated students and in some instances even the American Civil Liberties Union.
The P.C. have the best trained troops, no doubt about that. They all know better than to call a Native American an Indian or a he/she a he, and they are on the side of the world's victims, whom they tend to define as women, people of color, homosexuals -- and animals with handsome furs, according to one wag.
Their battle cry is "multiculturalism," and they believe that Western culture in general and American society in particular is inherently racist, sexist and in need of some really serious bodywork when it comes to the distribution of power. They also believe their opponents are frightened reactionaries who are trying to set the clock back to a time when minorities knew their place -- under somebody else's heel.
Their hodgepodge opponents -- what can we call them? The Incorrects? How about the P.I.? -- in the past have tended to splutterings and fulminations from high places in Republican administrations, but they have been gaining more widespread support. They've also gained an organization: the National Association of Scholars, formed in 1987 to fight for their cause. And in recent months a spate of articles in national magazines from New York to the Atlantic has presented their case in generally favorable terms.
The battle cry among the varied P.I. membership is "free speech," which they believe the P.C. are limiting by regulations such as campus speech codes and by labeling anyone who doesn't agree with them as sexist, racist or homophobic.
Other P.I. charges against the P.C. include preferential hiring and admissions, political indoctrination of students, and committing unspeakable acts upon the canon, the once-commonly-agreed-upon body of literature and art that is taught to students. In their less even-tempered moments, the P.I. also tend to mutter that the P.C. have no respect for truth, beauty and the American way -- that they have no values, for heaven's sake.
OK, THOSE ARE THE TYPES. Now let's move into reality with an example:
When faculty members at Duke University moved to establish a chapter of the National Association of Scholars there, Stanley Fish, chairman of the Duke English department and formerly a professor at the Johns Hopkins University, wrote a letter to the Duke student newspaper saying the organization was "widely known to be racist, sexist and homophobic."
Well, says Don Avery, chairman of the history department at Harford Community College and a member of the local NAS affiliate, "Obviously NAS is against racism, sexism and homophobia. What we're for is a logical and free discourse of all ideas."
Well, says Dr. Fish in his turn, nobody has kept the NAS from speaking freely -- it's been quoted often enough in media stories about the P.C. -- and the reason he called the organization racist, sexist and homophobic was "because they are."
"You can tell the orientation of an organization by the ends which it wishes to effect," he continues, saying that at the founding of NAS it "denounced" women's studies and black studies "and called for their expulsion from the campuses." And that, he insists, is racist and sexist.
But that's a false charge, says Stephen H. Balch, president of the NAS and associate professor of government at Manhattan's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
"We've never come out against women's studies and black studies per se," he insists. "We've said that many of those studies are pursued tendentiously," that is, with the objective of raising students' consciousnesses rather than with academic goals.
Back to Dr. Fish: If an organization "labors in every way to prevent women's studies and minority literature and black literature from entering into the curriculum, then that's sexist and racist," he says. "If it looks like a duck, talks like a duck, it's a duck."
Which brings us to a remark by Deborah S. Rosenfelt, professor of women's studies and director of the Curriculum Transformation Project at the University of Maryland at College Park.
"This can get to be an 'I am not,' 'you are, too,' 'I am not' situation," she says.
THE PROBLEM AT THE ROOT of the P.C.-P.I. dispute is a big one, perhaps the quintessential American problem: How to make true for minorities and those who have been without power the nation's ringing promises of equality.