Out of America: Buffaloes muddy the waters of political correctness

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - Only a couple of months ago in this space, it seems, I was on about the lunacies of political correctness. I hesitate to return so soon to the topic, but a case so absurd has cropped up at the venerable, ultra-liberal University of Pennsylvania that I cannot resist. It revolves around a first year student called Eden Jacobowitz, his injudicious use of the term 'water buffalo' and a fine point in Hebrew etymology. Just possibly, too, it could spell political embarrassment for the White House.

The facts of this new Philadelphia Story are these. Late one January evening Mr Jacobowitz was struggling to complete an English essay. It was past midnight and his room-mate was asleep. On the pavement outside his dormitory block, a group of black female students were making a din. Furious, Mr Jacobowitz leant out of the window and shouted out words to the effect of 'Shut up, you water buffalo; if you want to have a party, there's a zoo nearby.' From there on, both for the student and the reputation of Penn University as a haven of free speech, it has been downhill all the way.

In the process, President Bill Clinton's selection of a candidate to head one of the country's worthiest intellectual institutions is on the way to becoming a very American cause celebre. Within minutes the phrase had been reported to the campus authorities. Mr Jacobowitz, 18, freely admitted uttering the words. But, he told investigators, he was a practising Jew, who was born in Israel. He had intended no racial slur, having merely rendered what he thought was the English equivalent of the Hebrew word behemah, usually translated as 'water oxen'.

For the guardians of Penn's strict speech code, however, that explanation did not wash. Mr Jacobowitz stands accused of racial harassment. If an in-house university court agrees he could face expulsion. In the meantime, a dispute as farcical as it is bitter has broken out among scholars of racial insults.

According to the 'assistant judicial inquiry officer' in charge of the case, the epithet was deliberate and inexcusable - were not water buffalo 'large, dark, primitive animals that live in Africa?' Well, not exactly. The water buffalo is found all over South-east Asia but not, apparently, in Africa. The behemah Mr Jacobowitz had in mind, he told the Washington Post, was a common term of abuse among Jews, meaning roughly 'idiot' or 'fool'.

Incidentally, if my OED's account of the origins of 'behemoth' is correct, behemah has found its way into English, too. Even black sociologists and ethnographers sprang to Mr Jacobowitz' defence, saying that for all the wealth of America's vocabulary of racial insults neither 'water buffalo' nor 'behemoth' was among them.

But the zealots who decide such things at Penn were unmoved. The most the thought police would offer was a deal. If Eden Jacobowitz confessed, the charges would be entered in his university record but they would not be pressed. Instead - shades of what was once known in the old Soviet Union as 'political re-education' - he would have to lead a 'racial sensitivity' seminar in his class. But the student said no thanks, and opted to go for trial. A politically charged co-incidence, however, may get him off the hook.

The man President Clinton wants to name as the next head of the National Endowment for the Humanities is Penn University's own president, Sheldon Hackney. In normal times the NEH makes few headlines. But the job is a prestigious one; since its foundation in 1965, the NEH has disbursed no less than dollars 2.4bn ( pounds 1.6bn) of public money to fund scholastic projects, and delivery of its annual Jefferson Lecture is the highest official honour that can be bestowed by the government for 'intellectual and public achievement in the humanities'.

Mr Hackney's liberal bent, not least his championing of publicly- funded exhibits of the explicitly homoerotic work of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, has long- since made him a bete noire of conservatives. That antagonism deepened with the row over the Jacobowitz affair - further evidence that Political Correctness, especially in its campus strongholds, was just a one-way liberal street.

Now, all of a sudden, Mr Hackney is backtracking. Two days before the 'water buffalo' trial was to have started on 26 April it was indefinitely postponed, ostensibly because the black female students did not yet have an adviser for the hearing, in fact because of the embarrassment publicity for the case might bring upon the university, the career aspirations of its president, even upon Mr Clinton himself.

Autumn seems likely to be the new date for the trial, by which time Mr Hackney would be installed at the NEH and the fuss forgotten. There's one snag, however. The Senate has to confirm his nomination. That hearing could be fun.