Lord knows it is true that, as one Catherine Schuler wrote in this newspaper's letters column last week, "the white male experience is not universally interesting." As one with more than a half-century of such experience under his belt, I am ready to testify that not merely is it "not universally interesting," it is often downright boring. Compound being white and male with being Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, even if as in my case lapsed Protestant, and you have all the ingredients for terminal tedium.

Still, it's the lot into which I've been cast, so however dreary it may be I try to make the most of it -- go with the flow, as it were, even if the flow rarely musters much more than a trickle. Truth to tell, being white and male isn't something I spend a great deal of time thinking about, even though statistics tell me that I'm rapidly fading into the tapestry of American minority groups and even though word came to me not long ago of a lawyer's warning: "If you're a white male, forget it. That's the one group in our society that no longer has any legal rights at all."

Which is why you could have knocked me over with a feather when I read Schuler's letter, which was provoked by an excerpt in The Post's Outlook section from Alvin Kernan's new book, "The Death of Literature." The letter began:

"Isn't it enough to subject readers to Jonathan Yardley's white male paranoia every week without adding a Yardley clone on Sundays? I refer to 'Literature: R.I.P.' by Alvin Kernan. When are men like Messrs. Yardley and Kernan going to drop their defensive posturing and stop blaming women and minorities for the decline of Western culture? When are they going to acknowledge that the white male canon is just that: white and male. That doesn't necessarily mean the canon is worthless, but it does suggest that the criteria for selecting 'classics' was {sic} devised by and favors {sic} white males."

For a couple more paragraphs Schuler, a professor of theater history at the University of Maryland, went on in the same vein. She said that "woman-hating has never kept a book from being included in the canon," and then attacked The Post itself for failing, as she sees it, to publish "a full discussion of curriculum transformation," for which, she said, "plenty of qualified women and minorities can present a cogent argument."

No doubt that is true -- just as it is doubtless true that The Washington Post would happily publish such a document should someone submit it -- but Schuler's letter struck me as having a lot less to do with cogency than with spite. "White male paranoia," "defensive posturing," "woman-hating" -- this isn't the stuff of reasonable debate, much less cogent argument, but rather that of ad hominem attack; as such it debases, rather than elevates, the points Schuler was attempting to make.

As such, further, it would not be worthy of comment, except that it is all too representative of the style debate is assuming these days in literary and academic circles. Rather than dealing with the issues -- and I am quite ready to acknowledge that real issues do exist, all of them worthy of vigorous discussion -- it shunts them aside in favor of slurs and misrepresentation.

In this matter I can speak only for myself and not for Kernan, though I am delighted to be convicted of guilt by association if, as seems to be the case, published agreement with many of his arguments is sufficient cause for the accusation. Kernan says that literature is becoming irrelevant to American life and thus is dying a rapid death; among the reasons he cites for this is the prevalence within literature departments of a new scholarship that emphasizes not the literary quality of works under study but their political correctness, especially in regard to radical feminism and hothouse Marxism.

Mea culpa: I think Kernan is right. But just what does thinking this, and having the temerity to say it in public, have to do with "white male paranoia"? Nothing at all, and to say that it does is merely a cheap, easy shot. Rather than dealing with the merits and/or weaknesses of arguments made by the likes of Kernan and me -- by no means all of us white males -- the charge of "white male paranoia" dismisses them as mere prejudice, which is to say irrational and thus beneath discussion.

By what bizarre contortion of logic can a journalist who has publicly stated that such serious American literature as is now being written is almost entirely the work of women be dismissed as a victim of "white male paranoia"? How can this same journalist, who believes Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" to be the masterpiece of postwar American literature, be accused of "blaming women and minorities for the decline of Western civilization"? How does "woman-hating" connect with a journalist most of whose professional relationships, all of them happy, are with women?

As the journalist in question I can only say: Beats me. Schuler's accusations, like so many fired from her side of the Great Literary Divide, have nothing to do with the facts as I know them and everything to do with distortion. Not being privy to the mental processes of those who make such representations, I cannot say whether they are the result of willfulness or mere ignorance. But whatever the explanation for them, the net effect is the same: They tar the opposition with the brush of prejudice, narrow-mindedness and paranoia.

It's loony. I could fill reams of column space praising the work of women writers from Jane Austen to Kate Chopin to Edith Wharton to Ellen Glasgow to Eudora Welty to Flannery O'Connor to Pauli Murray to Susanna Moore -- through the years I've done precisely that, over and over again -- but let me wonder aloud just for a moment whether conformity to feminist orthodoxy is a legitimate measure of literary distinction and ... bang! Down comes the gavel: Guilty as charged of "white male paranoia."

It's the same as being accused of "racism" if you have the temerity to take issue with the proponents of Afro-centric education. The charge is utterly false, but once made it sticks like the most tenacious glue, coloring and distorting everything that the accused party says or writes. The result is that a civilized discussion of difficult and interesting issues is made impossible, smothered as it is under a blanket of emotion and, inevitably, mistrust.

Certainly it's true that throughout most of the Western past, literature and education were dominated by white males; so was just about everything else. This may well have been undesirable, but it is a fact of history that we deny only by fabricating a land of make-believe. With lamentably few exceptions, the great work of Western culture has been done by white males; it constitutes the heart of our literary and artistic heritage, and to imagine otherwise is mere self-delusion. It is the work that must be taught from grammar school through university, if future generations are to understand the essence of their cultural birthright; to shove it into the background as worthless is breathtakingly irresponsible.

That is what I believe. It is a conviction, not a prejudice; to dismiss it as "white male paranoia" and "woman-hating" is, in the end, not debate, it's insult, the intellectual equivalent of a pie fight. Laurel and Hardy did it better.