Our Imperfect Eponyms

President Woodrow Wilson c. 1916 (Hulton Archives/Getty)
Toward a simple standard of historical evaluation

Princeton University is convulsed at this moment in 2015 over the fact that its school of public affairs, established in 1930, was renamed for Woodrow Wilson in 1948. The objection is to the fact that President Wilson was a horrifying racist with backward attitudes about black Americans, a fact that has been known for more than a century. The life and thought of Woodrow Wilson are not the question here; what is at issue is the devolving sensibility of the American undergraduate, which has regressed from the mere illiterate puritanism of the original era of political correctness on its way back to naked totalitarianism, having acquired a Taliban-like taste for disannulment of historical artifacts.

The irony here is terrific: President Wilson was a self-identified progressive, the father, in fact, of American progressivism. In practice he was a more or less straightforward fascist who used xenophobia and the threat of mob violence to silence critics — when he wasn’t simply jailing them — and who attempted to put the entire economy under political discipline and dreamed of censoring the nation’s newspapers.

Modern progressives have come around on every point: Journalists covering the protests at the University of Missouri were physically assaulted, Gawker and the attorney general of New York dream of locking people up for having the wrong views on global warming, Democrats in 2014 voted to repeal the First Amendment in order to bring all political debate under direct federal supervision, Bernie Sanders rages that American economic problems are the result of greedy capitalists’ getting into bed with scheming foreigners, and that the government must be empowered to intervene in all economic matters, etc.

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Woodrow Wilson won, and his epigones, who embrace his philosophy entirely — he resegregated much of the federal government while they want to resegregate the college campuses — seek to destroy their master, i.e. to reenact the oldest story in politics, from The Golden Bough to Star Wars.

As I wrote yesterday, the application of such ahistorical expectations about social thought would preclude us from naming anything after Mohandas K. Gandhi, who said (and wrote, and believed) horrible things about black Africans — his main objection to discrimination against Indians in Africa was that it lumped them in with “kaffirs,” a racial slur that appears throughout Gandhi’s work and is roughly equivalent to the infamous one from American English. Gandhi had absolutely daft ideas about economics, health, and sex, and he had fairly backward beliefs about women, homosexuals, and the like. It’s not at all clear that Gandhi’s beliefs regarding blacks were the same at the end of his life as they were at the beginning of his career in public life; but neither were Strom Thurmond’s, and it is difficult to imagine the average Princeton man-child sitting still while a building was named after that reprobate.

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The difference between Gandhi and Thurmond was that Gandhi, for all of his intellectual and moral defects, was right about one big important thing, something that was, at the time, the single most important question before the civilization of which he was a member. The same cannot be said about Thurmond. He was right about many things — the Soviet threat, the disastrous decay of American domestic life, the carcinogenic character of the welfare state — but his was hardly the sole voice, or the most important one, on any of those issues. There isn’t really any moment in history where one looks back and says: “Thank God for Strom Thurmond.” He was, at best, an opportunist whose opportunism led him to the right side of some questions.

#share#What to make of, say, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.? On the question of civil rights, he was indispensable. He had ignorant, destructive ideas about economics, his relations with women were exploitative and abusive, his indulgence of moral equivalence between the Soviet police state and the flawed American republic was grotesque. The litany of his errors and misdeeds in public and private is not inconsequential. Toward the end of his life, he was flirting with outright socialism. But America did not descend into socialism — it ascended from Jim Crow.

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The Reverend King has, in very short order, become a practically Olympian figure, on par with the Founding Fathers, if not with the saints. Those with the instinct for vandalism might insist that this should not be so. But that would be wrong: That we honor the Reverend King for having been the great hero of the great battle of his time is proper. Of course the scholars and the curious should take note of the rest of it, but history is not psychology, and the Martin Luther King Jr. of “I Have a Dream” — the man we honor — is distinct from the man sneaking around those grubby motel rooms.

#related#Yes, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and fathered a child with one of them. He also invented the modern institutions of political liberty that were known nowhere else in the world, that the descendants of those slaves eventually would inherit. George Washington is not on Mount Rushmore because of his achievements in agriculture. Abe Lincoln was far from a perfect apostle of racial equality, but he did order the release of Southern slaves; William Tecumseh Sherman was not a great humanitarian, but he saw to it that Lincoln’s order eventually was carried out. King, Jefferson, Gandhi, Washington — they spent their lives doing things that mattered rather than merely cultivating their virtue, which for the 21st-century progressive is unhappily undistinguishable from merely cultivating self-regard. You can sneer at Dwight Eisenhower after you’ve overseen the deployment of troops both to Normandy and to Little Rock.

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Someone at Princeton in 1948 believed that the achievements of Woodrow Wilson, that institution’s former president, merited the naming of a school of public administration after him. The year is not insignificant — the closing of World War II no doubt had left the nation feeling a little sentimental about the man who saw it through World War I. My own belief is that Princeton was wrong, that President Wilson was a bad seed who is, through the persistence of the baleful ideas and assumptions he introduced into the body politic, still flourishing in undead malevolence. But I was not consulted on the question. I suspect that one’s estimate of President Wilson depends greatly on one’s evaluation of the wisdom of the American entrance into the Great War and, secondarily, on one’s feelings about the wisdom and goodness of the proprietary managerialism that came to Washington with Wilson and never left.

That’s the sort of thing that might have made an interesting debate at Princeton. Instead, the students chose to turn the president’s office into a bawling nursery of expensively diapered howling half-wits. The illiberalism of that is a fitting tribute to Woodrow Wilson, but it is no less lamentable for its poetic justice.


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