Unlike other industrial nations, the United States has rarely been a hospitable home for politically leftward culture. But because it is traditionally an incubator of radical thinking, the U.S. university has proven a haven for an American left that remains impotent in electoral politics. The fire of political correctness is now burning in that haven, however, and the aftermath may further scar radicalism.
Although producer-director Michael Pack’s 90-minute “Campus Culture Wars: Five Stories About ‘PC’ ” (at 10 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28) never analyzes why the left dominates the groves of academe as it does virtually nowhere else, this quintet of reports clearly indicates that the PC movement may become the PC Waterloo.
The persistent issue here regards where control of so-called offensive speech begins to run up against First Amendment rights. As Pack travels across the country, from Pennsylvania (both Penn State and the University of Pennsylvania) to the West Coast (Stanford and the University of Washington), he smartly employs that ubiquitous legal commentator Alan Dershowitz to explain when PC goes over the line.
Thus, when Archibald Epps (dean of Dershowitz’s school, Harvard) identifies an anti-homosexual essay in the conservative publication Peninsula as “hate speech,” Dershowitz says Epps is jumping the gun. On many campuses, hate speech is a punishable offense, yet Epps couldn’t point to examples of it in the essay.
Epps may have committed a faux pas, but “Campus Culture Wars” suggests that something more pernicious is going on. Professor Murray Dolfman’s own unfortunate word choice--referring to his black students as “ex-slaves"--forced him to take “sensitivity training.” Penn State professor Nancy Stumhofer succeeded in removing Goya’s nude masterpiece, “Maya,” from a classroom on grounds that it was sexually harassing. After Pete Schaub faced off once too often with teachers in his women’s studies class, he was removed from the lecture room by campus police.
Dramatic re-creations are employed in some of the cases, along with subdued narration by Lindsay Crouse and interviews with those involved. While actor Philip Baker Hall deeply humanizes Dolfman’s story, Schaub’s tale verges on a cartoon: Big, business major white guy vs. angry-looking, openly lesbian ideologues. The staging may be scrupulously accurate, but it blunts Schaub’s important argument that some feminists are not interested in the free exchange of ideas. It also deflects from the program’s case that leftists have joined rightists with a taste for dictatorship, not democracy.