Jeff Shesol's college strip reflects debate on `political correctness'
BOSTON — WITH a Brown University diploma in hand and a full summer before he begins a two-year stint as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, England, Jeff Shesol should be able to kick back and enjoy himself. But it's not that easy. Mr. Shesol, a brown-haired, bespectacled 21-year-old cartoonist, has found himself and his cartoons in the middle of the hottest issue in higher education - political correctness (PC). The debate over how to treat issues and policies of race, class, gender, and free speech on campus has spilled into the national press, with columns by George Will, a new book by Dinesh D'Souza (``Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus''), and a May 4 speech by President Bush a t the University of Michigan.
The debate began as some professors, students, and administrators fought to ``broaden'' core curriculums and sought alternatives to traditional Western study. Critics charged that with these changes came a left-wing form of cultural imperialism.
Unlike some who criticize PC, Shesol is not a Reagan-generation conservative. The New Republic-toting senior, whose history thesis was on Bobby Kennedy, sees himself as ``a frustrated liberal who sees a group of crazy extremists on the far left discrediting a lot of the causes I'm trying to fight for.''
Shesol's cartoons about PC first appeared in the Brown Daily Herald in 1989 and are now syndicated in more than 200 college papers nationwide. The strip, which some have called ``the next Doonesbury,'' has recently been published as a book, ``Thatch - Featuring Politically Correct Person,'' released in April by Vintage Books.
J. (Thatch) Thatcher, hero of the strip, occasionally dons tights and a cape and becomes PC Person. He takes it upon himself to root out all the social ills he sees on campus: sexism, racism, elitism. When Thatch is not imposing PC standards on others, he's trying to sort out the increasingly complex world of political correctness for himself.
Many of Shesol's ideas came from real-life examples on campus. ``Brown's a pretty funny place,'' Shesol says. ``It's never too tough to come up with something absurd.'' Although the strip - influenced by Garry Trudeau's ``Doonesbury'' and Berkeley Breathed's ``Bloom County'' - deals with such issues as dating and fraternity life, one of its main thrusts is a good-natured attack on PC. It is Shesol's way of dealing with a phenomenon he sees becoming ever more pervasive.
WHEN arch-enemy (Insensitive Man) tells a young boy to call girls ``chicks,'' PC Person races to the rescue: ``Hey! We don't call them `chicks'! Or `girls'! They're women!'' he says. ``They're nine years old,'' the boy observes. ``Well, they're pre-women,'' PC Person replies.
``The PC are a small group of students who have been given a much louder voice than maybe they warrant,'' Shesol says. ``They've been able to change the climate on campus and have shut down dialogue to a great extent.''
Shesol says he first got a grasp on PC last summer as an intern for Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado. He introduced PC Person to his strip that fall.
He seems surprised by the attention he and his cartoons have received. ``I expected to get a lot of really nasty, spiteful letters to the editor - and I have gotten a few of those - but the majority has been positive.'' Such response has come from all over the country, proof to him that he is not just addressing a Northeast Ivy League clientele, as some of his critics charge.
``Groups who have felt oppressed are releasing their outrage,'' he says. ``Anything even vaguely controversial along the lines of ethnicity or gender or sexual preference just doesn't get discussed, because there is so much hypersensitivity and outrage.''
It bothers Shesol that he's been labeled a conservative by those who believe he's attacking the causes he professes to support. ``People try to channel this as some sort of liberal vs. conservative issue, and it doesn't work that way,'' Shesol says. ``Most students are in favor of more ethnic diversity in the curriculum and in the school's population. It's difficult to attack PC because you feel you are attacking the goals you are working for.''
It is PC tactics, not necessarily its ideology, that Shesol opposes. Letters to the editor, printed in the Brown Daily Herald, complain that Shesol's strip attacks PC tactics without putting the tactics together with the goals. ``But in this case,'' Shesol says, ``the tactics are obscuring the goals and are counterproductive.''
Despite some anti-PC sentiment, there has been no right-wing backlash on campus, Shesol says.
Shesol's not sure if a career as a cartoonist is in his future. He has spoken with a cartoon syndicate about a contract after he returns from England. On the other hand, PC Person may find some wrongs to right in the venerable halls of Oxford.