01 December 2015
Woodrow Wilson: Enemy of the people?
Apparently the far right in America and many of the country's black radicals can agree on at least one thing: Woodrow Wilson was a bad man. Yet I doubt that the right will join the radicals' campaign to purge Wilson's name from Princeton University, where he served as president before launching his political career. Tea Partiers dislike Wilson because he was a progressive and a father of Big Government. The Federal Reserve and the modern income tax came into being under his watch, and he was the first to try entangling us in World Government as an advocate for the League of Nations. Just last week, George Will sneered at Wilson in passing, while praising Clarence Thomas, because Wilson, "the first President to criticize America's founding," (heresy!!!) believed that a complex society required government by experts. None of this, of course, has to do with the Princeton radicals' case against Wilson. They would more likely be points in his favor had Wilson not been an indisputable racist under whom racial segregation in the government grew worse. While right-wingers will most likely condemn the Princeton campaign as more "political correctness" run amok, they'll probably accept the radicals' complaints as further proof of their own case against Wilson, his racism being just another manifestation of the elitism they claim to deplore. More liberal critics of the Princeton campaign object to the "presentism" that seems to hold a President from 100 years ago to an impossible standard, though the heart of the objection is a belief that Wilson's racism neither defines the man or his place in history nor outweighs what many still consider positive achievements of his Presidency. A popular overreaction to the controversy jumps to the conclusion that the radicals want to write Wilson out of history books altogether. I don't think anything of the kind is intended, though some Princeton protesters might want the books rewritten with new emphases. The object of the campaign, as I understand it, is not to make Wilson an unperson, Stalinist style, but to repudiate racism wherever it is found, in the past as well as the present, in dramatic, institutional fashion. What's radical about the campaign is its insistence that racism is something that disqualifies public figures from honor, regardless of any or all achievements. This isn't about anyone's feelings, as the popular ad hominem argument against political correctness assumes, except insofar as the campaign deliberately irritates the feelings of those who object to its premise by arguing, implicitly if not explicitly, that they have no right to revere people like Wilson, and that any reverence correlates with an unacceptable indifference to racism. If that's "presentist," so are all revolutions. If it's not democratic, insofar as it pressures us to bow to an aggrieved minority, neither are revolutions. I don't make these comparisons to label the Princeton campaign a revolutionary event, since from a larger perspective the controversy looks pretty petty. Instead, consider these reminders that this is what revolutions feel like for those who aren't wholly with the program. Some people must have felt the same way in Wilson's own time, given all that happened during his Presidency. If some feel that way on Wilson's behalf now, maybe that's progress. But if the Princeton campaign inspires people to attempt a more objective appraisal of Wilson's career and its consequences, or to attain a more objective perspective from which to appraise him, then it will have proven educational after all.