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Culture

Naming Names

I spent part of the morning listening to the Michael Smerconish program (incidentally, now the most entertaining thing, certainly the most bearable thing, on political radio) and the subject was the controversy at Princeton over the fact that a school is named after that university’s and this nation’s former president, Woodrow Wilson. The complaint is that Wilson (Democrat, in case you’ve forgotten) was a racist, which is of course true: The father of American progressivism was an admirer of the Ku Klux Klan, among other things. This will come as no surprise to those of you who read Jonah Goldberg (which should be all of you). One of Smerconish’s callers wondered whether such ahistorical standards (Wilson’s opinions were horrifying, but they were not unusual for his time, nor unusual among progressives) would be applied to figures who were not white, male, American political leaders?

The obvious answer is: No.

I put before you the case of a man whose published works are full of ugly racial slurs — slurs that were considered offensive even at the time he was writing them — whose political activism was built on demands that the government create and reinforce legal distinctions between the “civilized” races and blacks, who was utterly indifferent toward modern slavery, who denounced blacks as “savages,” who in fact went so far as to demand the forcible relocation of blacks away from non-black communities as a matter of public sanitation, and who supported segregation in housing, education, and hospitals. Asked about apartheid in South Africa, he said: “We believe as much in the purity of races as we think they do.” He held horrifying opinions about the Holocaust. His opinions about women were antediluvian. He participated in a campaign of anti-gay “sexual cleansing,” using the state to enforce traditional religious values. His personal life was thoroughly creepy in ways at least as bad as Thomas Jefferson’s.

Which leaves us with the question: What new name are we going to choose for James Madison University’s Mahatma Gandhi Center?

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