by Glenn Garvin
The Miami Herald
I know it was hard to hear anything last week over the cacophony of the White House roof falling over Benghazi, the IRS and spying on reporters. But still, I was surprised there wasn’t more fuss about the Obama administration’s war on Shakespeare.
That’s right: Obama’s Justice and Education departments effectively banned America’s universities from teaching the works of the playwright generally considered the greatest writer in the history of the English language. In an order to the University of Montana that they labeled “a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country,” the two departments created a sweeping new definition of sexual harassment as “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including “verbal conduct.” (Or, as those more familiar with the English language call it, speech.)
Who gets to define “unwelcome”? The listener and the listener alone — no matter how high-strung, neurotic or just plain pinheaded that person is. I can understand why you might suspect I’m extrapolating or exaggerating here, but really, the feds’ letter is quite explicit: the words don’t have to be offensive to “an objectively reasonable person” to be considered harassment.
Given that standard of guilt, it’s perhaps not very surprising that the government says anybody accused of harassment can be punished even before he or she is convicted. Seriously: “A university must take immediate steps to protect the complainant from further harassment prior to the completion of the [investigation or hearing]. Appropriate steps may include separating the accused harasser and the complainant, providing counseling for the complainant and/or harasser, and/or taking disciplinary action against the harasser.”
Under these circumstances, it will be a brave (or crazy) professor indeed who assigns his class to read William Shakespeare, whose works include 113 synonyms for genitalia. (That’s an actual count in an academic study that, under the new rules, can probably never again be read on an American campus.)
Juliet’s enthusiastic anticipation of her wedding night with Romeo (“Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night . . . Lovers can see to do their amorous rites”) is bound to strike some student, somewhere, as either excessively lewd or male-hierarchically sexist. The reference to “Cupid’s fiery shaft” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is like a flashing neon KICK ME sign. And the multiple themes of incest in Hamlet? Why not just put a gun to your head, professor?
Shakespeare won’t be the only casualty. The Diary of Anne Frank, with its casual teenage musings about sex, is definitely out. To Kill A Mockingbird, a novel about a rape accusation undergirded by fears of miscegenation, no way. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, with its description of a sexual encounter in a cornfield, gone. Practically the entire works of Chaucer, Tennessee Williams, Vladimir Nabokov and Alan Ginsberg will disappear from U.S. universities. Even Robert Frost will have his problems: Putting In The Seed is not a poem about agriculture.
Professors, of course, won’t be the only potential targets of the new policies — maybe not even the major ones. When I was a college kid, the biggest risk associated with asking somebody on a date was the possibility of a humiliating “no.” Now the stakes have been raised to an accusation of “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature” if the askee is offended. Even a casual comment like “nice pants” or “pretty eyes” is a potential harassment charge.
But surely, you say, surely nobody will take the letter of the law to such absurd extremes. And surely you are wrong: They already have. Brandeis University went after a professor for uttering the word “wetback” during a lecture — no matter that he was criticizing its usage. (Maybe he should have said “the W word.”)
A janitor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis was disciplined for reading a disapproving book on the Ku Klux Klan. Marquette ordered a graduate student to remove a “patently offensive” quotation by Dave Barry from his door. (Let’s see if my editors are brave enough to print it: “As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government.”)
Governed largely by Baby Boomer radicals left over from the 1960s who have elevated political correctness to a religion, American college campuses are rapidly becoming free-speech-free zones where ideas are reduced to doctrinal shibboleths and all liberties are subservient to a fundamental Right to Not Be Offended. The Obama administration’s new policy, which will apply to any college receiving federal aid — that is, all of them — will enshrine that right in law. The quicker somebody gets this thing before a court that has read the actual U.S. Constitution, the better.