Woodrow Wilson and the Difficulty of History

How do we negotiate history?

The aforementioned question is at the heart of the debate between students at Princeton University and the administration about the role of the nation's 28th president, Woodrow Wilson.

Prior to becoming commander in chief, Wilson also served as New Jersey's 34th governor, an alum of Princeton who went on to become the school's 13th president. But it also appears that Wilson was an intolerant racist, certainly by 21st century standards, and perhaps even the standards established in Wilson's day.

From the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to self-effacing humor, Princeton has unabashedly intertwined itself with Wilsonic fervor.

But the Black Justice League, using some of Wilson's most vitriolic quotes on race to justify their position, demand that Princeton "publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson." Moreover, they would like to see the public policy school renamed.

I certainly support any attempts to authentically and dispassionately examine our past. False historical narratives can stagnate us. It is a one-dimensional view of three-dimensional episodes.

These narratives either ignore or, in some cases, obfuscate the past, creating an either/or scenario of events and people that fail to correspond with reality. The false historical narrative benefits no one, but neither does excommunication.

Earlier this year I wrote a book review on Rage to Redemption in the Sterilization Age, John Railey's account of North Carolina's systematic participation of eugenics -- a practice particularly malicious for low-income whites and people color.

North Carolina, a state known for its progressive tradition, especially in comparison with some of its Southern counterparts, was led for a time by Terry Sanford, the former governor who in 1963, one week after Alabama's then-Gov. George Wallace declared, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever," was publicly calling on the white people of North Carolina to end discrimination against Negroes.

But Sanford also served as governor at a time when the macabre practice of forced sterilization was in effect in the Tar-Heel State. It is part of his legacy along with his progressive record.

To expunge Wilson from Princeton is to suggest that his racist views cancel any contributions he may have made to the nation. Should we ignore that on September 30, 1918 Wilson went before Congress and spoke in favor of women's suffrage, which contributed to ratification of the 19th Amendment?

Though Wilson's vision of American membership in the League of Nations never came to fruition, the spirit that gave it momentum could not be extinguished. On June 26, 1945, 50 days after German surrender in WWII, representatives of fifty countries meeting in San Francisco adopted the Charter of the United Nations.

If racism is to be the ultimate disqualifier, given its entrenchment into the American narrative, I fear the nation's pantheon might become somewhat stark. Could we not find cogent arguments to remove Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, or Dwight Eisenhower from the hallowed walls of greatness for various infractions that run counter to our moral sensibilities?

This is the slippery slope of immediate gratification that is fortified by arrogance. It sees only the infraction before it, so certain of the virtue of its position, it is unable factor the unintended consequences of its actions.

Suppose another group, citing the Princeton efforts wanted Martin Luther King's name removed from its wall because of his alleged marital infidelity, would that be okay?

History is not an examination of what should have occurred, it is the account of what happened. It does not, nor should it, always meet with the enlightenment of today's understanding.

With few exceptions, we are functioning paradoxes, a breathing concoction of high and low moments.

As Walter Benjamin stated, history is indeed written by the victors, but that does not insure its accuracy. Wilson's contributions, in my view, are too important to ignore. But it is equally significant that the 21st century perspectives of Wilson's 20th century racism also be acknowledged.

Without any such acknowledgement, praise for Wilson is tantamount to idol worship -- the empty calories of deification. It is the failure to understand that the students who attend Princeton in the 21st century are not the students that attended when Wilson served as the university's president. In fact, some of those students would not have been allowed on the campus in his day.