Fresh Dispatches from the Frontlines of Indignation

March 09, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. -- Come for a walk on the wild side, in the hostile environment of the law pertaining to hostile environments. Actually, ''law'' may be a misnomer, as we shall see in the controversy concerning Chief Illiniwek, yet another example of how compulsory compassion threatens freedom.

At halftime of a University of Illinois football game in 1926 a student of Indian culture performed a dance dressed as a chief. Since then Chief Illiniwek has become the symbol of the university that serves the state where once lived the Illini tribe that was virtually annihilated by an enemy tribe in the 1760s.

In 1930 the undergraduate then portraying Chief Illiniwek traveled to South Dakota to receive authentic raiment from the Oglala Sioux. In 1967 and again in 1982 representatives of the Sioux came here to present outfits for Chief Illiniwek to wear in his performances at halftimes of football and basketball games. Until the mid-1980s the chief was an uncontroversial and revered tradition keeping alive the memory of the vanished Illini tribe.

Then came the rise, particularly on campuses, of identity politics, with grievance groups claiming special rights as reparations for historic wrongs. This produced in government a compassion industry backed by sensitivity police and thought vigilantes. Since then Chief Illiniwek has been under attack. Compassion, contemporary liberalism's core value, involves the prevention or amelioration of pain, including the pain of offended sensibilities. Groups compete to be the most offended, and compassion referees must decide which offenses to which groups matter. A few people, mostly but not exclusively Indians, say Chief Illiniwek is offensive, a racist Little Red Sambo who must be banned in the name of tolerance and respect for multicultural diversity. Permanent exclusion of the chief is ''the only ethical solution,'' according to a university body called the Inclusivity Committee.

In a complaint to Illinois' Human Rights Commission, an Indian student activist cited the state law making it a civil-rights violation to ''deny or refuse to another the full and equal enjoyment'' of any public accommodation. He said the symbolism of the chief as ''mascot'' was so offensive to him that he could not enjoy himself at the stadium or elsewhere on campus.

The commission replied that the relevant definition of ''enjoy'' as used in the law is not ''to get pleasure from'' but ''to have the use or benefit of.'' The commission noted that if the complainant prevailed, African-American groups could get the state to prevent showings of the film ''Birth of a Nation,'' Jewish groups could wield the law against ''The Merchant of Venice'' and Native American groups could prevent screenings of many cowboy movies.

The chief's tormentors have tried to thwart him with The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, but unfortunately for them that law does not make it illegal to impersonate an Indian. They tried the Migratory Bird Act, which makes some possession of eagle parts illegal, but it turns out the chief's headdress is made of turkey feathers. So now the chief's enemies are turning to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in federally assisted educational institutions.

In democratic theory, a law's legitimacy depends on its authorship by elected representatives. But in America now, after representative institutions do their work, regulation writers, unelected and anonymous, take over, filling page after page of the Federal Register with additional ''law,'' as on March 10, 1994, when the Department of Education said Title VI prohibits not only discrimination but harassment; that harassment includes the existence of a ''hostile environment;'' that the environment is hostile if it would seem so not just to a reasonable person but to ''a reasonable person, of the same age and race as the victim, under similar circumstances.'' That comes close to making any claim of felt hostility in the environment a self-validating charge of racial discrimination.

Chief Illiniwek probably will survive because the arguments against him are so strained, and because many Indians recognize in his role a compliment from the university to their heritage. But attempts to wield the government against him demonstrate how freedom is under siege as spurious ''rights'' are asserted. (Says one Indian, ''Native people should have the right to determine how their image is used.'')

The controversy illustrates how the forces of political correctness pressure government to grow in size and arbitrariness in order to pursue a peculiar compassion mission. That mission is to assuage the hurt feelings of groups for which taking offense is a political agenda, and to reform the psyches of any individuals slow to conform to the new sensitivity. No wonder liberalism's work is never done.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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