There I was, in the basement of the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta, enjoying a private tour of the place. (I was there pushing my great new book, Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons and the Search for a Room of My Own, just out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The Nation has a policy of not reviewing its columnists’ books, but none against columnists doing so themselves. Hence, the gracelessness of this graceless intervention.) Anyway, Lynda Hawkins, the curator, pointed out a photo of the movie set of Gone With the Wind, taken in 1939. There was the grand, pillared facade of Tara, with Vivien Leigh as Scarlett and Clark Gable as Rhett, standing on the porch, surrounded by all the other cast members, including a fanned assortment of black actors impersonating slaves. Sitting cross-legged at Vivien Leigh’s feet is none other than Martin Luther King Jr., 10 years old then, who, with other members of the children’s choir of his father’s church, had been brought in to sing at the premiere of the movie.

It’s one of the weirder historical conjunctions I’ve come across, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. Just to round out the who’d-a-thunk-it picture, Ms. Hawkins informed me that in later years Mitchell was a supporter of the civil rights movement, personally intervening to help integrate the police department and setting up a scholarship fund for African-American medical students.

What does one make of this, these two lives so iconic in their own respective corners, yet whose paths are so criss-crossed, even intertwined, if toward distinctly oppositional cultural polarities? The ultimate Southern-belle vehicle cum minstrel show as incidental theatrical launching pad for one of history’s greatest spokesmen for human dignity. The Atlanta police department desegregated at least in part because of political pressure exercised by Margaret Mitchell, daughter of a Catholic suffragette, who done birthed Mammy, Melanie, Prissy and Pa. Nothing in life is simple. Indeed, the very surprise I feel is a testament to the endlessness of irony, if not our ability to reinvent ourselves over time.

The week I went to Atlanta was not a high moment for the rosy optimism with which we have tended to shellac our memorials to Dr. King and his aspirations for the Beloved Community. The culture wars have been flaring again, with new intensity, and this time against the backdrop of real wars, frontal assaults on affirmative action and civil rights, a rapidly diminishing sense of trust within the body politic–either domestically or internationally–as well as poisonous disregard for anything like civility.

At Harvard, President Lawrence Summers added to his lengthening list of self-described “provocations” by asserting, at a gathering of biologists, that women just might be genetically hobbled in math and science. The flap that ensued was a civil one, comparatively, with concern that women at Harvard were more hobbled by Summers’s own management style than their genes. There was a weariness to the debate: How many times must one prove one’s ability, even down to the molecular level?

The debate on my own campus, by contrast, has been anything but weary. Columbia University–like a number of other universities in recent times–has been divided by heated encounters between students and professors on opposite sides of the conflict in the Middle East. These debates have been fiery, with poisonous name-calling. There has been hurtful and overly broad categorization, with lots of conflation of “Israel” and “Zionism” or of specific policies of the Sharon government and Jews generally, of “American” with specific policies of the Bush Administration and, rather ominously I think, a conflation of “fundamentalism” and “left wing,” “liberal” and “anti-Semitic” as well as of “academic freedom” and “intolerance.” And that’s before we get to the calls for firing, expulsion, deportation and death threats. The debate is as seemingly unwinnable and trauma-driven as the war itself. All I will venture to say is that to the extent there is any hope of reconciliation, if just within the bell jar of the campus, it has not been helped by the amplified shrieking of the New York tabloids, whose dehumanizing, sensationalized, zero-sum descriptions make it much harder for the institution to consider these events for the academic issues they raise, i.e., the limits of academic freedom for professors, the ability of students as “purchasers” of education to influence content, the question of whether all courses must be “fair and balanced” or neutral or impartial, and what is truth anyway. Even the usual discussions of whether the First Amendment is absolute or whether we can enforce civility through speech or conduct codes seem to have flown out the window in the heat of this moment. The hoopla and rage have also eclipsed the hypothetically quieter in-house channels of dispute resolution set up to deal with questions of power and claims of harassment.

When I listen to these kinds of discussions of late, I no longer see the venting whose excesses are part of what I understand to be the usual academic or sophomoric viciousness. There is a redefining of in-group and out-group in a way that is rapidly superseding the smaller subjects around which the controversies originally swirled. It’s not about political correctness anymore; it’s about a rising nationalism that has consequences with teeth. Ideologues–right, left, extreme or moderate–seem to have lost their coherence. Websites that have always denounced “PC-ness” and hate-speech codes have now begun to denounce certain speech as criminal, as genocidal. Equality is described as a dangerous myth. Interning the Japanese was an idea ahead of its time. There are few calls for institutional discipline but rather a running out of town. The dissenter has become a heretic. The grief is contagious. The rage is blind. I wonder what commitment it will take to hew to our principles, to retain a sense of direction in a world that seems to have entirely lost its compass. I hang on to the idea that from somewhere in the wings of all this drama waits a Margaret Mitchell, tortured but seeking redemption, and a Martin Luther King Jr. waiting for his cue.