Jewish World Review April 21, 2005 /12 Nisan, 5765

Paul Greenberg

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Campus life | STANFORD, Calif. — The good news is that a sense of humor can survive political correctness. Here's how it happened:

Once upon a time, long before this Age of Political Correctness, Stanford's football team was named the Indians, but — Lo! The Vanishing Indian! — a new name had to be imposed on the team.

This time the redskins were vanquished not by the U.S. Cavalry but ideological fashion, which decreed that American Indians henceforth be called Native Americans. It was a kind of Indian Removal Act, but imposed on the football team. The change was particularly wrenching for the mascot of Stanford's marching band. He would have to go, feathers and war dance and all. Call it ethnic cleansing.

I can sympathize. I myself have felt snubbed by the choice of Native American as a euphemism for American Indian, since I'm a Native American, too, but somehow I know the census-takers exclude me when they use the term.

Stanford's teams must now go by the unobjectionable name of the Cardinal — it's for the color, not the bird. But you can't very well train a color to go prancing about with the band. Hence the search began for another mascot.

The band, whose antics regularly result in suspension, finally settled on the Tree. That's right: the Tree, as in a giant redwood in nearby Palo Alto. Long the unofficial emblem of the university, it was made the band's official mascot.

The university itself has no official mascot, prudently preferring to stay out of the name game and ideological fray. Which is a great pity. I've always thought Robber Barons would be a great name for a team representing the university founded by Leland Stanford, the 19th century financier, intercontinental railroad builder and general visionary. What better name than Robber Barons for a team out to monopolize the field?

Instead, poor Stanford must now be represented by . . . a tree.

Tree Week, which actually lasts 10 days, is held every year to pick the new Tree on the basis of who can pull the most far-out stunt. By what rules is the Tree chosen?

Former Trees were happy to divulge them — out of whole cloth. Said one: "Everything has to be somehow related to non-linear algebra or non-Euclidian geometry."

The bad news is that a great deal of comedy is committed on campus unintentionally. For example, Stanford's president joined those of M.I.T. and Princeton to take a jab at poor Larry Summers, the president of Harvard who may go down in history for daring to throw out a provocative idea at an academic conference. The poor man said something about women being under-represented in the sciences maybe because of innate genetic differences. Uh oh. Thoughtcrime!

Here's the indictment the three university presidents issued against their colleague at Harvard: "Speculation that 'innate differences' may be a significant cause of under-representation by women in science and engineering may rejuvenate old myths and reinforce negative stereotypes and biases."

What was most revealing about the three presidents' criticism of their colleague (besides their cliché-ridden prose) wasn't so much that they disagreed with Larry Summers' stray thought, which is easy to do, but that they objected to his voicing it. They weren't so much arguing with the substance, if any, of what he'd said but his right to say it. To sum up their statement in a few words: Shut up, they explained.

Welcome to the politically correct American university. The first thing I noticed here was that none of the clocks in the various towers on campus work. Stanford's clocks appear forever stopped in admiring contemplation of their own, arbitrary idea of the time. It gives the place a nice, surreal touch. And adds to its distance from the real world. No wonder the students I got to talk with spoke of a Stanford Bubble.

All of which may be why the competition for the Stanford Tree struck me as more intellectually significant and politically daring than the oh-so-serious pronunciamentos of its president and fellow enforcers of goodthink on campus. In American academe today, there are those who set out to be funny, and those who are funny without knowing it.

So congratulations to the new Tree! Where there's humor, there's hope.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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