What We Owe the Students at Princeton

by Corey Robin on November 21, 2015

On Wednesday, students at Princeton University occupied the president’s office. They had a list of demands regarding the status of students of color at Princeton. One of them was that Princeton remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from all campus buildings and programs because of Wilson’s enthusiasm, expressed in word and deed, for white supremacy.

Having been an undergraduate at Princeton in the late 1980s, I knew this demand would generate a lot of heat. Unlike John C. Calhoun, whose name adorns one of Yale’s residential colleges, Wilson is Princeton. He was an undergraduate there, a professor there, and the university’s president. It was from Princeton that he launched his national political career, first as governor of New Jersey, then as president of the United States. I thought to myself: no matter what your position is on the politics of naming, campus protests, discussions around race today, this is going to be interesting.

On Thursday, after a 32-hour standoff, the students’ occupation ended with, among other things, Princeton committing to opening a dialogue about possibly removing Wilson’s name from some parts of the campus. While the agreement brought the occupation to an end, I suspect the controversy has only just begun. Yale can easily get rid of Calhoun; his name was only attached to Calhoun College in 1932. Wilson is different: in part because of his national stature, in part because of his embeddedness at Princeton, in part because Princeton is, in some ways, still a Southern university.

Wilson’s past is Princeton’s present. Not just in terms of race—one need only eat at the university’s Prospect House, where many of the servers are black, to get a sense of just how many buttons are now being pushed—but in terms of how Princeton conceives itself politically. Princeton’s motto, “In the Nation’s Service,” originated with Wilson, and is fundamental to Princeton’s sense of itself as a training ground for the country’s ruling class, particularly in government. There’s simply no way Princeton can extricate itself from its entanglements with race without revisiting its entanglement with national power. Not just domestically but also internationally: Wilson did not leave his race politics behind when he headed for Versailles; they went there with him. Likewise American power and its Princeton servants.

How far Princeton is willing to bend on this issue, in other words, will tell us something about the outer boundaries of a leading university’s willingness to confront its racial past.

I dedicated my Salon column to the controversy and its resolution. I focused less on these issues I’ve discussed here, than the politics of free speech and memorialization on campus, and the contributions these students have made to our national consciousness.

And that’s why we owe these students at Princeton a debt. Universities are supposed to be educational institutions: Their first educational constituency is their students, of course, but their second is the nation. Most of us are fairly ignorant about how central race and racism were to Wilson’s politics. By forcing this question, not only on Princeton’s campus but throughout the country, Princeton’s students are actually doing the job that Princeton itself is supposed to be doing: they’re educating all of us.

Too often in our debates about freedom of speech, we assume that it already exists and that it is campus activists, particularly over questions of race, who threaten it. But what Princeton’s students have shown is that, before they came along, there was in fact precious little speech about figures like Wilson, and what speech there was, was mostly bland PR for tourists and prospective students. Even more important, Princeton’s students have shown us that it is precisely the kinds of actions they have taken — which are uncivil, frequently illegal and always unruly — that produce speech. Not just yelling and shouting, but also informed, deliberative, reasoned speech.

Besides, there’s any number of ways to take Wilson’s name off a campus building — without erasing the past. Princeton could put up a plaque that says, “This building was once named after Woodrow Wilson in honor of his achievements as president of Princeton, governor of New Jersey and president of the United States. In 2015, after lengthy campus discussions of Wilson’s racial policies — including his decision to segregate the federal bureaucracy — the university decided to remove his name from this building and to rename it the W.E.B. DuBois School of Public and International Affairs, in honor of Wilson’s most formidable critic on matters of race.”

And then we could have another debate: about how DuBois would have been appalled to see his name adorn a building on a campus where dining hall workers, many of whom are black (it’s telling that the demographic on campus that has the highest percentage of African Americans is “all other staff”), make less than a living wage if they are parents and are often treated as if they were servants.



Frank Wilhoit 11.21.15 at 3:34 pm

If naming a building after W. Wilson is an endorsement of racism, then performing the music of Tchaikovsky is an endorsement of homosexuality. Do you see how it goes?


Lynne 11.21.15 at 3:41 pm

Corey, I am interested to hear this about Woodrow Wilson. I didn’t know, and it does seem right that this should be more generally known. I had a thought that I don’t really know what to do with but I’ll throw it out there anyway: How many older universities were not built on the idea of men’s superiority over women? What should follow from that? Personally, I’m in favour of note being taken, but after that, maybe we should live with the past, eyes open, and try not to repeat it.


luke 11.21.15 at 4:14 pm

@1: hurr…because Tchaikovsky was a political leader…durr…and homosexuality is a bad thing like racism…durr…


Jim Harrison 11.21.15 at 4:44 pm

If we’re going to have a conversation about Wilson’s memory, we ought to consider his political appeal in its totality. His racism certainly helped him in the South and probably didn’t hurt him in the North, but he was also perceived as the champion of the common man, albeit the common white man. Racism and populism were braided together in our history, and they still are—it’s odd to think of the starchy, professorial Wilson in the same light as a coarse buffoon like Trump, but part of the attraction Trump has for working class men and especially Southerners is the way he mixes support for popular government programs with his nativism, just as part of Wilson’s success was due to his support for unionism and other “progressive’ causes.

I have a personal connection to all this because I’m Woodrow Wilson’s nephew. My grandfather on my mother’s side was so impressed with Wilson, so fervent in his support for his re-election in 1916 that he vowed that he would name his next child Woodrow Wilson. He fulfilled his promise, which is how my aunt came to be Woodrow Wilson Harrison. It makes for a great bar bet. More to the point, my grandfather’s enthusiasm for Wilson’s brand of politics got passed down along with the name to many of his descendants to the third generation. I grew up hearing their politics and social attitudes declaimed over the dinner table at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

There’s more to Wilson’s legacy than the racial stain or the commitment to internationalism, which is why both left and right can find reasons to commemorate or demonize him. I was amused to notice that the usual suspects over at the National Review have mostly come to his defense. A couple of years ago, most of what I heard from that corner suggested that Wilson was an evil figure, a sort of occidental Fu Manchu planning the subversion of the country what with the Fed and the League of Nations and other nefarious doings. If college students are going to attack his memory, though, he couldn’t have been all bad.


Bruce Wilder 11.21.15 at 4:51 pm

Purity is a damn silly thing.


Glen Tomkins 11.21.15 at 5:44 pm

How about not naming buildings after anyone, or erecting statues to anyone?

This is a democracy. We are supposed to be beyond the belief that “great men” are the center around which the universe turns. Those statues of George III we pulled down should not have been replaced with new idols.

If it’s too visionary to imagine that we will pull down all the public statues and pull the name plaques off all our public buildings, yes, the least we can do is not have statues and public buildings that honor “great men” who weren’t quite great enough to avoid supporting the Confederacy or Jim Crow.

We don’t have buildings named after Benedict Arnold, despite the fact that without his service to this country at Saratoga there might not be a country for him to be forever remembered as betraying. We overcame Arnold’s later treason easily. We still haven’t overcome the betrayal of the Jim Crow system that Wilson defended and extended.


JanieM 11.21.15 at 5:45 pm

How about not naming buildings after anyone, or erecting statues to anyone?



Glen Tomkins 11.21.15 at 6:06 pm

Frank Wilhoit,

For one thing, even if being gay and supporting Jim Crow were on the same moral plane, no one is forced to live in or transact business in, the music of Tchaikovsky.

But of course they’re not on the same moral plane. Jim Crow was evil and destructive, being gay is not. We’re allowed to make such distinctions. Scalia can’t seem to make a distinction between being gay and child molestation, and imagines that if we have to allow one we have to allow the other. You seem to think that if we should accommodate the feelings of people still afflicted by de facto Jim Crow who are forced to endure public honor to one of the architects of de jure Jim Crow, then we should accommodate the feelings of homophobes. I don’t have any trouble at all making the distinction. What’s your problem?


Watson Ladd 11.21.15 at 6:14 pm

Interestingly, these defenders of integration demand separate housing for black students, insisting that people not be forced to associate with those of other races. They also demand that some ideas not be expressed because they harm higher goals, once again an idea that Woodrow Wilson would have approved of.


Mike Schilling 11.21.15 at 6:17 pm

Next, they will petition the car company to take the anti-semitic name “Ford” off their cars.


Mike Schilling 11.21.15 at 6:21 pm

My son is part of a college called “Warren”, named after Earl Warren. The main library at his campus is called “Geisel”, after Dr. Seuss. This subliminal indoctrination into the worship of dead white males is unacceptable!


BBA 11.21.15 at 6:47 pm

Given how poorly his “internationalism” turned out, what exactly makes Wilson any better than the likes of James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson?


Anon. 11.21.15 at 7:13 pm

>there was in fact precious little speech about figures like Wilson, and what speech there was, was mostly bland PR for tourists and prospective students.

People have been shitting on him for single-handedly starting WW2 for ages. Who cares whether he was racist or not?


Kiwanda 11.21.15 at 7:22 pm

Glen Tompkins: “How about not naming buildings after anyone, or erecting statues to anyone?”

Thirded, especially if that includes people who are corporations. Enough with “Enron Field” and “Depends University”. (OK, there’s no “Depends University”. Yet.)

The question of how to judge the moral qualities of past people is murky to me. Most clearly, we should recognize and remember the aspects we see as negative, Jefferson and Washington holding slaves (and worse), JFK and most male politicians to this day being “womanizers” treating women badly, MLK plagiarizing and cheating on his wife (if true). But even as we remember the negatives, can’t we still honor these people for the good they did? And we don’t (or shouldn’t) honor these people as singular Heros, but as symbols of larger events: MLK Day should as much about the civil rights movement as about King himself, Jefferson and Washington were a part of the progress of democratic governance, etc.


geo 11.21.15 at 7:24 pm

Glen@6: This is a democracy. We are supposed to be beyond the belief that “great men” are the center around which the universe turns.

What is the center around which the universe turns?


Kiwanda 11.21.15 at 7:35 pm

“Too often in our debates about freedom of speech, we assume that it already exists and that it is campus activists, particularly over questions of race, who threaten it. But what Princeton’s students have shown is that, before they came along, there was in fact precious little speech about figures like Wilson…”

This is disingenuous if not sophistic. The concern is not about being “uncivil” or “unruly”, the concern is the promotion of the suppression of the speech of others, including “zero tolerance” policies for broadly and vaguely defined categories of speech, attacks on journalists, bomb threats, false fire alarms, newspaper theft, physical intimidation, Title IX accusations, threats to jobs. It is not a defense that some right-wingers are hypocritical and opportunistic in attacking protesters on these grounds.


Marshall Peace 11.21.15 at 7:39 pm

Instead of trying to fixup the past (as if Wilson were more than an artifact thrown up by the history of the day, as if our problems were merely bad nominalism), better to work for social justice today. “Feed my sheep” sort of thing.


Bruce Wilder 11.21.15 at 8:14 pm

BBA @ 12: Given how poorly his “internationalism” turned out, what exactly makes Wilson any better than the likes of James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson?

Did his liberal internationalism turn out poorly? In what sense? That seems like a question on which scholarly, intellectual energy could be productively spent.

The moral and intellectual confusion that leads people to imagine that Great People are Good People, by some kind of saintly standard is a kind of naïveté that may be excusable in a high school sophomore or (stretching the bounds of adolescence a bit) a college freshman, but education ought to cure it.

I doubt that much of anything can be said about Wilson’s deep-seated racism that won’t be heard by the righteous radical today as excusing him or his times. It is sad, really, because it creates a blockade against understanding human nature.


Mike Schilling 11.21.15 at 8:42 pm

> People have been shitting on him for single-handedly starting WW2 for ages.

What choice did he have after the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?


Bruce Wilder 11.21.15 at 9:28 pm

Once Hirohito and his boys had hoisted the banner of liberal internationalism, there was little that Francisco Franco could do to save France and the Gold Standard. Sad, really, but that’s the way the Illuminati roll. And, so few know. So few.


heckblazer 11.21.15 at 9:29 pm

“Given how poorly his ‘internationalism’ turned out, what exactly makes Wilson any better than the likes of James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson?”

Creating the Federal Reserve, the Federal Trade Commission, the post-16th Amendment income tax, an eight-hour day for railroad workers, signing the Clayton Anti-Trust Act and the Federal Farm Loan Act, and appointing Justice Brandeis to the Supreme Court.


bob mcmanus 11.21.15 at 10:33 pm

I almost always assume that rather than protesters being ignorant, stupid, naive, innocent priggish, and morally offended they are actually disingenuous, pretty smart, dishonest, strategic and politically ambitious. I doubt that Republicans were all that outraged by Clinton’s sin but found the scandal useful, as did Garfield’s opponents and Suetonius.

It’s politics. They’re lying to gain power. This is by far a more entertaining and I think respectful way to view these culture wars, under a Machiavellian lens as it were, but unfortunately makes civility and conversation almost impossible, if I were inclined to play.


bob mcmanus 11.21.15 at 10:40 pm

Maybe I am Nietzschean, morality has no use in itself, but is instrumental and can only be aesthetically justified in the pursuit of power and pleasure qualified with a very high Epicureanism. Maybe that’s evil, but that’s how the world-as-it-is looks to me.


kidneystones 11.21.15 at 10:43 pm

Trying to rewrite the past is a mistake, imho. The ‘original name’ of many places, not just many colleges, was much more often different from the name by which ‘we’ know the place today. I have no problem with providing a comprehensive and accurate history of any individual or place, but I see absolutely no need to try to eradicate ‘memories’ of the person, especially when visiting/attending Princeton, for example, is a matter of choice. Indeed, one ordinarily has to work extremely hard to be get into the space that evidently does so much damage to the sensibilities of the young.

Any change should be a reflection of the wishes of all concerned with the institution/place and should not be governed by any factors beyond the wishes of said community.

Re: the specifics. I find the overwhelming majority of people ready to spout off on slavery/segregation to be utterly ignorant of the fundamentals, not to mention the details. As far as feelings go, no man can tell a woman what it ‘feels’ like to grow up as a woman, or how she should ‘feel’ about her experiences. As far as facts go, these are the very stuff of university life and debate. I once saw Ali in his prime interviewed on British TV. The interviewer asked Ali about his reaction to Britain, given the teachings of the Nation of Islam. I was completely shocked and saddened when Ali observed that he had no problem with Britain because Britain had done so little to Africans in the Americas.

To demonstrate how poor the teaching of British slavery, even among CT readers, I’ll set a sample question which you can attempt without checking. Shouldn’t be too difficult. Simply name the first British monarch to sanction and pay for the taking, transporting, and selling of Africans as slaves. Bonus points if you can name the slave captain and the circumstances/dynamics of the actual captures.

I couldn’t, so don’t feel bad if you’re stumped. I now use the primary source documents and images as the starting point for my own teaching of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Against which I discuss the much older, but just as odious, east-African slave trade, and importation of slaves from Asia into south Africa by the Dutch at the outset of their activities in Africa.

Yes, give everyone the facts, but please don’t allow the ongoing protests to distract from our principal mission – education.


jonnybutter 11.21.15 at 10:47 pm

no one is forced to live in or transact business in, the music of Tchaikovsky.

Thank god!


Barry 11.22.15 at 12:01 am

Kidneystones: “Re: the specifics. I find the overwhelming majority of people ready to spout off on slavery/segregation to be utterly ignorant of the fundamentals, not to mention the details. ”

I not surprised that you’d find that.


Bruce Wilder 11.22.15 at 12:12 am

kidneystones, I’ll bite: Elizabeth I and Captain Hawkins, and something to do with pirate raids on the Spanish Caribbean. I’m not sure what the point would be, however.


kidneystones 11.22.15 at 12:43 am

Hi Bruce. You know more than I did. Yes. The documentation is here. https://books.google.co.jp/books?id=d7TVAAAAMAAJ&pg=PT23&dq=hawkins+1569&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjVxtvS5KLJAhVEjJQKHZHuDqcQ6AEIRjAI#v=onepage&q=hawkins%201569&f=false

Searchable via Google books date 1569, Hawkins. Re: the points. Think of a few. More to follow.


kidneystones 11.22.15 at 12:45 am

Oh, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to actually read the account first. (You know that, of course. Tis short).


Belle Waring 11.22.15 at 12:50 am

My mom legit did not know about Wilson’s “let’s destroy the remaining scraps of reconstruction because, basically, fuck black people” policies/attitudes until this afternoon at 4 and she’s an educated, politically interested person. So, I do understand that infinite recursive un-naming of all past double plus ungood people would be bad, that is not remotely happening or ever likely. And if people want to say “Calhoun was a right bastard, let’s re-name Savannah’s sewers after him instead of one of the mumble main streets mumble (was Eugene Talmadge such a good person NO mumble)”… Wait, I wish they would say that, but they won’t, but if they were to say, “no military bases or academies ought to be named after people who committed treason,” that would be nice also. Wait, I wish the government would say that. What I mean is, if students decide they don’t want every aspect of their college campus to be named after someone widely regarded as unusually racist in his own day, I am not losing a lot of sleep over it. Except insofar as such actions make Chait happy.


Belle Waring 11.22.15 at 12:54 am

Because I am a moral monster, obvs. Also, when they named the new suspension bridge in Savannah after Eugene Talmadge just like the old bridge in like 2000 or something that was a dick move on the parts of SC and GA. Public monument naming–when you care enough to send a giant FU message to all your black citizens.


ZM 11.22.15 at 12:57 am

In terms of memorialisation perhaps the students could ask that some of the Woodrow Wilson buildings/memorials could be changed to memorialise black people or groups that have had an impact on Princeton or the State Princeton is in etc

In the cloisters at the uni where I go there is a plaque memorialising the stone masons who built most of the cloisters – this is for them walking off the job to go to a hotel and have a banquet which won the 8 hour day for building workers in the State of Victoria in the 1850s:

“[The masons] have succeed, at least in all the building trades in enforcing [the 8 hour day] without effort. The employers have found it necessary and politic to give in, and without struggle; agreeing, we believe, to pay the same amount of wages as formerly for ten hours’ labour.” – The Herald, 1 May 1856

There was a procession to commemorate this which turned into Labor Day and our annual Moomba parade.

Sorry that is a bit off topic — but the students could research some important black people or groups or events relevant to Princeton and get some of the Woodrow Wilson memorials changed to these, and also get some sort of interpretive work about Woodrow Wilson’s racism being an issue, like some additional interpretive plaques.


engels 11.22.15 at 1:00 am

What is the center around which the universe turns?



P O'Neill 11.22.15 at 1:04 am


I was amused to notice that the usual suspects over at the National Review have mostly come to his defense.

An exception being Jonah Goldberg, who says that the awfulness of WW was all diagnosed in Liberal Fascism.

Anyway I think Princeton will be able to extricate itself from this more easily than people think. The Robertson lawsuit, which itself looked like a tangled mess at the time, and involved real money, and obliquely, the Wilson legacy, eventually got sorted out. Just put Cleveland’s name where Wilson’s was, or Bill Bradley’s, or something.


Bruce Wilder 11.22.15 at 1:18 am

BW: widely regarded as unusually racist in his own day

Were Wilson’s views “unusual” in his time? That seems untenable on its face.

The (T) Roosevelt and Wilson Administrations marked out a remarkable ebb in norms favoring racial and ethnic equality, affecting both Parties and the whole national political culture. Wilson, in his brittle idealism, could be cruelly authoritarian and reactionary, but he was hardly out of step with his times.


Bruce Wilder 11.22.15 at 1:21 am


al 11.22.15 at 1:36 am

Heckblazer in 21 lists the major accomplishments of Wilson, suggesting that at least on balance Wilson was worthy of honor. The question is, should one group of very bad deeds toward African Americans outweigh good deeds in other areas to justify the removal of Wilson’s name from buildings and organizations?

To answer that question it is informative to look at another generally progressive president, Franklin Roosevelt. In 1939 Roosevelt prevented a group of Jewish refugees from Germany on the MS St. Louis from entering the US. As would be expected, that action greatly upset Jews and other groups. So, from the Jewish perspective, should FDR be reviled? My guess is that, in fact, most Jews in the US who lived through the 1930’s and 40’s revered FDR despite his St. Louis action.

For the issue at hand, the big difference between the two presidents, I think, is that little of the progressive legislation that Wilson got passed helped African Americans, while much of the progressive legislation that FDR got passed helped Jews (and others). That is, in virtually every way Wilson decidedly hurt African Americans, while on balance FDR generally helped the Jews. So I can see why African Americans and their supporters would want Wilson’s name removed from buildings and organization while there is not a similar movement by Jews and others to remove FDR’s name.


jonnybutter 11.22.15 at 1:54 am

Wilson, in his brittle idealism, could be cruelly authoritarian and reactionary, but he was hardly out of step with his times.

Wilson was aggressively bigoted. That doesn’t put him ‘out of step with his times’, but it differentiates his racism from the more passive kind, e.g. that of TR. He was an enthusiastic racist with administrative power. Special place in hell, IMO.

It’s funny, esp. in our politically vertiginous moment, to recall that one of Nixon’s favorite presidents was Wilson (or supposedly was).


Barry 11.22.15 at 2:13 am

Bruce Wilder 11.22.15 at 1:18 am

“Were Wilson’s views “unusual” in his time? That seems untenable on its face.”

This has been covered elsewhere; the short answer is that Wilson was the person who completed the destruction of Reconstruction.


magari 11.22.15 at 2:20 am

Thanks for writing this Corey. I learned from it, and I think your political point is correct. On free speech, though, I wonder. If we treat free speech as the ability to speak and be heard, rather than the widening of the horizon of discourse, then we might think that the anti-Wilson protest has been a successful act of speech and has widened discourse, but isn’t itself about free speech per se.


Suzanne 11.22.15 at 2:22 am

“Wilson, in his brittle idealism, could be cruelly authoritarian and reactionary, but he was hardly out of step with his times.”

Wilson’s racism seems to have been beyond the norm for the times. He wasn’t alone, but it’s no excuse. (Also on the minus side: the Espionage and Sedition Acts.)

That said, there’s no reason to reduce his legacy to that and only that. He was a generally progressive president of Princeton and is entitled to have his memory honored by that institution.

I don’t think it’s been mentioned above, but Wilson was also a consistent and longtime supporter of female suffrage.


Bruce Wilder 11.22.15 at 2:41 am

Wilson was also a consistent and longtime supporter of female suffrage.

I seem to remember something about imprisonment of protesters and hunger strikes being needed to help his consistency along. He was also pro-labor when he wasn’t being violently anti-labor.


BBA 11.22.15 at 3:05 am

I admit I was being overly provocative there but I still find Wilson’s legacy overwhelmingly negative in both domestic and foreign policy.

@Bruce Wilder: I see internationalism as the optimistic view that WW1 was the “war to end all wars”, that the League of Nations would produce peaceful resolutions where there had been armed conflicts in the past, and so on. Not only did Wilson’s proposals fail, I don’t think it’s possible for any international system like that to work. I desperately wish it were possible, but no great power will ever let some conference of foreign diplomats tell it what to do.

@heckblazer: Those were all good things, but most of them were congressional initiatives in a time when the presidency had much less influence on Congress. The income tax and the Federal Reserve, for instance, were Taft-era Republican proposals.

Brandeis was an excellent pick but offset by McReynolds.


Corey Robin 11.22.15 at 3:12 am

Bruce Wilder: Up until Wilson, parts of the federal bureaucracy, even in the South, had been integrated, owing to reforms that had begun under Republican administrations in the last third of the 19th century. Wilson’s administration aggressively moved to reverse these policies and practices, which were totally out of keeping with those of Wilson’s predecessors Roosevelt and Taft. So, yeah, not really in step with his times, though he went some way to help create a new sense of those times. These moves spawned protests throughout the country, even in Congress. It also was the cause of DuBois’s break with Wilson, after having supported him in the election of 1912. This was a critical move in his presidency, and has spawned a considerable scholarly literature. Links below.

You’re right that naivete should be cured by education. Ignorance, too.




Ronan(rf) 11.22.15 at 3:36 am

DuBois was a Stalinist . Welcome to the internets never ending “debate “


Ronan(rf) 11.22.15 at 3:47 am

Wanting to purge society of any history that offends you is the just a new dominant class flexing their muscles. No tolerance anymore . Just the jumped up tyrants of the new ruling class


Bruce Wilder 11.22.15 at 3:48 am

I was aware of the Wilson Administration’s segregation of the Federal bureaucracy.


YL 11.22.15 at 4:01 am

Agreed. And after the school is named after Du Bois, students whose ancestors had suffered under communism can then protest and demand that Du Bois’s name be removed as well, as he had written an eulogy for Stalin, and had visited China during the Great Famine of 1959-1962 praising Chairman Mao as the savoir of the human race. (Don’t take me wrong. This is not a reductio ad absurdum. I think both protests are good things.)


Gareth Wilson 11.22.15 at 4:22 am

Princeton itself is named after William III of England. What’s your opinion of him?


LFC 11.22.15 at 4:31 am

Having spent too much time on a couple of threads here recently, I’ll limit myself to the observation that one reason (among others) that Princeton might balk at renaming the Woodrow Wilson School for DuBois is that DuBois got his PhD from Harvard and there is a research institute there named for him. Not to make too much of these somewhat notional rivalries, but I can’t imagine the DuBois-Harvard connection would thrill Princeton administrators. But I could be wrong.

(P.s. I wonder what, if anything, at Princeton is named for Princeton alum George F. Kennan, whose views on race issues, esp. when he was a young man, were not, um, very good.)


Glen Tomkins 11.22.15 at 4:33 am

geo @15,

The point is that you and I can have our separate or common beliefs about what center the universe turns about, or that there is no such center, but we don’t need our public institutions to try to make that call for us. And we really, really don’t need them to place statues of segregationists at that center.


geo 11.22.15 at 5:08 am

Glen @ 49: You’re right, of course. Yet I’m glad, I confess, that at Harvard the Philosophy Department is in Emerson Hall and the Psychology Department is in William James Hall. (Less happy, it’s true, that the Center for Latin American Studies is named for David Rockefeller.)

I agree with the students that the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs ought to be renamed, though I think there’s another, even more apposite reason: that “Wilsonian idealism” is a crock.

“If the history of World War I taught any lesson at all, it was that American policy had failed, not because Americans had made moral judgments, but because the moral judgments they made were so shallow. The trouble with Woodrow Wilson was that his ideals were so superficial, so crude, so circumscribed by his complacent assumption that his kind of democracy — the democracy of Walter Bagehot — represented the pinnacle of political virtue. The trouble with Wilson was not that he went off crusading for high ideals and ignored American self-interest. The trouble was that, like most statesmen, he found it so easy unconsciously to translate the self-interest of his own community into the language of high idealism. The most striking fact about the twentieth-century dream of peace and order, of which Wilson was to become the prophet, was not that it was utopian but that it was a one-sided Utopia, a world made safe not for democracy but for ourselves.

“From the point of view of three-fourths of the world, Wilson’s famous quarrel with Clemenceau, which appeared so momentous to the new realists (as to all Western scholars), was less important than their shared determination to keep that same three -fourths in its place. From this perspective, the new liberal internationalism was itself a kind of imperialism, almost indistinguishable from the old.”

Christopher Lasch, The World of Nations, pp. 213-4


bob mcmanus 11.22.15 at 5:39 am

50: We have been here before at CT about Wilson

Adam Tooze The Deluge

“Trotsky characteristically cast the scene in rather less exalted terms. If it was true that domestic politics and international relations would no longer be separate, as far as he was concerned, both could be reduced to a single logic. The ‘entire political life’, even of states like France, Italy and Germany, down to ‘the shifts of parties and governments will be determined in the last analysis by the will of American capitalism . . .’ With his usual sardonic humour, Trotsky evoked, not the awesome solemnity of the pyramids, but the incongruous spectacle of Chicago meat-packers, provincial senators and manufacturers of condensed milk lecturing a Prime Minister of France, a British Foreign Secretary or an Italian dictator about the virtues of disarmament and world peace. These were the uncouth heralds of America’s drive toward ‘world hegemony’ with its internationalist ethos of peace, progress and profit.

And there are many historians who want to see in 1918–19 a precursor to the Cold War, with Wilson squaring off against Lenin. But though this analogy may be tempting, it is misleading in that in 1919 there was nothing like the symmetry that prevailed in 1945.22 By November 1918 not only was Germany on its knees, but Russia too. The balance of world politics in 1919 resembled the unipolar moment of 1989 far more than the divided world of 1945. If the idea of reordering the world around a single power bloc and a common set of liberal, ‘Western’ values seemed like a radical historical departure, this is precisely what made the outcome of World War I so dramatic.

Whatever their military utility, battleships were the most expensive and technologically sophisticated instruments of global power. Only the richest
countries could afford to own and operate battle-fleets. America did not even build its full quota of ships. It was enough that everyone knew that it could. Economics was the pre-eminent medium of American power, military force was a by-product. Trotsky not only recognized this, but was eager to quantify it. In an era of intense international competition, the dark art of comparative economic measurement was a characteristic preoccupation. In 1872, Trotsky believed there had been rough parity between the national wealth of the United States, Britain, Germany and France, each possessing between 30 and 40 billion dollars. Fifty years later the disparity was clearly enormous. Post-war Germany was impoverished, poorer, Trotsky thought, than it had been in 1872. By contrast, ‘France is approximately twice as rich (68 billions); likewise England (89 billions); but the wealth of the US is estimated at 320 billion dollars.” Etc

Woodrow Wilson, much smarter and more evilly racist than you imagined. Not just taking over the world with American finance, but faced with the “yellow peril”, saving the entire world for American (Western enlightenment Princeton-style) white supremacy for well over a century. And yeah, faced with American capitalist dominance, the late Empires Italy Germany and Japan knew they needed to grab while grabbing was good, or become subject-nations and museums of ancient culture for American tourists. They lost. Yeah, Wilson caused WWII.

But I still don’t care about the building names, and the students et al have more immediate agendas that correcting an ancient injustice.


bob mcmanus 11.22.15 at 6:05 am

Why do whoever want to change the building names?

To see if they can, because they can, to show that they can, because the exercise of power and the submission of weaker opponents feels good and is fun.

Wow, I mean what the 3rd century BCE was about how bad the Carthaginians were, or the French Revolution lets us look at the weakness and incompetence of the ancien regime? Not what was interesting there.

Wilson is not what is interesting here. New power bloc of identitarians rising and flexing muscle, doing stretching exercises in preparation of the real work to come. Those would think it might be profitable to support the ascending hegemony will call it pretty and oh so newly morally superior. And so it goes.


geo 11.22.15 at 6:11 am

mcmanus@52: the ascending hegemony

Interesting. Could you elaborate?


LFC 11.22.15 at 6:37 am

John Kane, Between Virtue and Power, ch.9, has a pretty good brief discussion of Wilson, Lansing, and the League. Wilson had lots of faults, but he did not cause WW2. To quote F. Foundling from the other thread, “done here.”


LFC 11.22.15 at 6:42 am

mcmanus appears to mean what Ronan said @45, although mcmanus put a slightly different spin on it. But they appear to be saying much the same thing. OK, now I’m *really* done here.


Mike Schilling 11.22.15 at 7:02 am

Wilson, who did his best to reduce the punitive aspects of the Treaty Of Versailles, cause WWII? It must be opposite day.

And, honestly, I had no idea Trotsky was such a snob.


gianni 11.22.15 at 8:01 am

Do the protests include calls to increase the wages of service staff, or is this just what the OP is hoping for? It seems to be the latter, but then I don’t understand where that comment comes in otherwise (ie in that case, why not just call on the protesters to make some meaningful/concrete demands as well?)


kidneystones 11.22.15 at 9:15 am

This link: http://www.plymouth.gov.uk/hawkinsfirstvoyage gives nice concise summary of Hawkins first slave taking trip in 1562, the success of which attracted the participation and support of Elizabeth I. The link above is Hawkins own account of his final voyage. The report Hawkins makes describes the realities and priorities of the slave trade as well as colonial commerce and runs 50 short pages.

I consider Hawkins report to be a must-read, along with the Massachusetts slave laws. But I’m certain the already brilliant feel no similar obligation to apprise themselves, or their students, of core facts.

So, given that one state, Virginia, is named after the monarch who sanctioned and provided the essential first financing for the trans-Atlantic slave trade and that two others are named after a king who was every bit as keen to ship Africans to the Americas, and that another state is named after another female ruler every bit as willing to build palaces from the labor of slaves, what is to be done? Surely even seeing these names on a map must be injurious to the sensitive, not to mention living in state named after the authors of so much evil. Surely the discovery of Elizabeth’s crimes will win her the opprobrium of all, and if not, why not? Does anyone believe for a moment that if Cromwell had founded the slave trade this fact would be omitted from official history. Cromwell’s savaging of the Irish is invariably one of the first facts one learns of this Christian dictator.

What gets ERI her free pass?

And what of the native Americans? Surely there is some name in an Amerindian language that renders into: All this was once fucking ours, and we’re still being screwed by just about everyone!!!

I’m only being slightly facetious. I actually see no reason not to render the Carolinas particularly into some African words meaning the ‘lands of great suffering’ because surely that’s what these places were for the overwhelming majority of people living there from the 17th century on. Change the state names to reflect the historical reality. Might actually do some good.


kidneystones 11.22.15 at 9:25 am

On second thought, don’t. Slavery and exploitation of the weak was a worldwide phenomena. Twas arguably much worse in the Americas, but by all accounts life in colonial Africa and India was probably every bit as unhappy.

Great reminders of just how wonderful life is today!

I thank Wilberforce, Ghandi, and MLK.


Lee A. Arnold 11.22.15 at 11:50 am

What about things named after Jefferson? What about various scientific and mathematical theorems named after people who were personally vicious? I read somewhere that Felix Klein (great 19th-century mathematician) was anti-Semitic, and he’s got amazing things named after him that will be known long after all of us are dust, known into eternity if the world makes it that far… It seems to me to be truer to say that, before the 1950’s approximately, most people (in the western world) held views that could be characterized as racist, anti-Semitic, etc., and most men considered women to be second-class. Another example, there were various blogflaps in the last few years about Keynes and Mencken. Of course, Wilson actually enacted policy: is that where to make the distinction? Should we make a standard placard to nail onto these building facades after the name, with the initials AWOA? (Also wuz an Asshole…) Being a psychedelic relic, I figure that forgiveness and consciousness is better, and I think I would prefer the AOA approach, though I understand that younger people in particular need purity. Therefore: IF that’s what it takes to make them proceed further, to work on the evils in the current world, –(instead of resting on their fat laurels after expressing their outrage, in order to get a cushy job on Wall Street! — do you want to make a bet!?)– I would THEN say: rename the goddamned building!


Collin Street 11.22.15 at 12:40 pm

The dead can’t bind us. If the generations past wanted to commemorate something, that’s good, and if we want to stop commemorating what past generations wanted to commemorate and start commemorating what we want to commemorate…

… well, if they don’t like it they can rise out of their graves and stop us, can’t they? The dead do nothing, say nothing, and thus cannot currently be regarded as objecting.


LittleMac 11.22.15 at 2:13 pm

For all the people pulling reductios about how if they take Wilson’s name off a building next they’ll be stripping X’s name off of the Theorem of X or whatever, you’re kind of missing the point.

I don’t think the protests here are because Wilson had racist feelings in his heart. Abraham Lincoln had racist feelings in his heart and no one wants his name off of anything.

Wilson, using the powers of the presidency, perpetrated extremely racist deeds. As has been observed above, he put an end to Reconstruction, kicking off a period of state-approved terrorism that black Americans would suffer under for several decades.

So I think all the Wilson defenders should be a little more clear in their language when laying out his achievements. He didn’t just implement progressive policies. He implemented progressive policies for the benefit of the white race.


LittleMac 11.22.15 at 2:28 pm

Yes, I’m sure as soon as they get “the man who ended Reconstruction and desegregated the Federal bureaucracy while being on the record praising The Birth of a Nation for its historical accuracy” off a building at Princeton, it’ll be on to Abraham Lincoln, who fought the civil war and signed the emancipation proclamation but held a milder version of the racist beliefs of his day.


LittleMac 11.22.15 at 3:06 pm

Aw, dammit, “resegregated” in the above, not “desegregated.”


Glen Tomkins 11.22.15 at 4:25 pm

Lee Arnold,

“younger people in particular need purity”

That does seem to be one popular diagnosis of the problem over at Princeton. We have a set of idealistic young people impatient with the complicated reality of the real world, who can’t abide that the PoliSci building is named after someone with an impure records of beliefs and actions. They seem to think that the public honor of a statue in a public place, or a name on a public building, is only deserved by people worthy of emulation, rather than recognizing that in this complicated world, none of us are pure heroes.

Where did they get such hopelessly naïve and idealistic notions, if not from the practice of older people of raising statues to, and naming buildings after, “great men”? Why do we put anyone’s name on a public building, or raise statues of anyone, other than out of the hopelessly naïve and overly idealistic notion that some of us, the great men and heroes, literally rise above the limits of common humanity. Literally in the sense that it’s got to be a tall building or a big statue on a tall pedestal to do the appropriate honor to the pure ideal of the great man.

As usual, it’s not the young people being the immature party in this dispute. Typically their only mistake is to take the idealistic nonsense of their elders too seriously. Naming a building after Wilson in the first place was idealistic nonsense. Now that the particular theoretical frame in which Wilson might be thought of as a great man has broken down, of course he’s no longer worthy of emulation, so of course a generation that takes both racial equality and the idea of great men seriously, cannot think of Wilson as a great man, not in an era when all sorts of very ordinary people have less insane and inhuman views on racial equality than Wilson.

People who weren’t into purity and idealism would name buildings for practical reasons. Why not name it after its function, the PoliSci Building, or whatever its function might be? Why not just use its street address, which would have the practical benefit of helping people find it? If it’s important in naming buildings to ignore practicality to serve some ideological end, then it’s perfectly legitimate, necessary even, for people to insist that the right ideology is being served by the name.


anon 11.22.15 at 4:43 pm

I’m surprised anyone could choose a title like “What We Owe the Students at Princeton” with a straight face. Seriously, repeat that out loud a few times.

Who is this “we”? It surely doesn’t include my students, half of whom are people of color, working full-time to afford tuition at a no-prestige college that they will leave with crippling student debt. They don’t owe the students of Princeton anything.

And if you say that the students of Princeton are acting for the sake of my students, then why are these protest predominantly at prestigious colleges? Why are their loudest supporters predominantly affluent white academics? Why, as my students continue to get shot in the streets by police and thrown into jail for minor crimes, are “we” supposed to care more about whether Yale makes their students feel at home or leaves the names of racists on its buildings?

Why are these lists of demands (http://www.thedemands.org/) dominated by symbolic actions rather than demands for action? Some of these lists make substantive demands, but the overwhelming majority start with: “apologize” and “issue a statement.”

This is not about ending racism but ideology, and that’s why it’s no accident that it comes from the nursery and nurses of a new economic ruling class that is increasingly diverse in race, religion, sexuality and gender.

It’s about how capital, which “has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest” is indifferent to identity, and so has absorbed the left into its own goals under the guise of identity politics.

Sure, change the name. My students will continue collapsing under debt, rotting in jails, and dying in the streets.


Mike Schilling 11.22.15 at 5:27 pm

Abraham Lincoln had racist feelings in his heart and no one wants his name off of anything.

Never read anything by Murray Rothbard?


Glen Tomkins 11.22.15 at 5:40 pm

Brett Bellmore @66,

And if the slippery slope warned of in your “Yet” should come to pass, and we pull down all the statues to all our heroes, and rip all the name plates of “great men” off our public buildings, what harm, great or small, would come to pass?

Just to limit consideration to Lincoln, I think that tearing down all his statues and taking his name and image off of all our buildings and currency, would do nothing but good. If his only memorial were his words and deeds, it would be that much harder for the current Republican Party to expropriate his reputation. As a mute idol, he is devoid of content.


jkay 11.22.15 at 5:48 pm

I think this from mostly conservative lies for hatred of Wilson because his FED, UN start, and his freeing of Austria and German Empires. .Vox Day wrote that he’s sure that Wilson was an “SJW.”

Alot reminds me of Carter the Honest’s reputation after Reagan and decades of GOP liemakers. Carter did so badly that Reagan stole tons of credit for what he did.

Wilson was the first mentally disabled President, both caused by Versailles and making it worse by making him too cranky to campaign well for what he’d agreed to. That means he has no responsibility for WWII.

Yes, Wilson was seriously racist, but so were Republicans like TR and Taft whom took away Philippine democracy because they chose the wrong color President. Taft also tortured, starting US water torture; he adopted a Spanish/Chinese practice,

Taft the Torturer and racist has been taught as good to the same people whom learned of Wilson as a racist horror. Taft wrote that we Democrats whom did Jim Crow were good.


John Alexander 11.22.15 at 5:52 pm

What do we owe students? The opportunity to receive a well-rounded education which includes a working knowledge of History. Erasing History is not learning History. Removing a name changes nothing historically; it only hides what that person stood for. Recognizing the good and bad things that people have stood for (and still do) is important as we try to move our world forward to a more just one (using MLK’s definition of justice). Was Wilson a racist – ‘yes;’ it was a dominant norm of the day that many white people shared. This does not excuse his racism, but it does put it in historical cultural context. Did Wilson accomplish some good even though he was a racist? Again, ‘yes.’ So it is important to know what he did that was bad/wrong and blameworthy along with what he did that was good and praiseworthy. This is knowing History. I think it is important to remember that all of us are a mixture of good, bad, and indifference, and a good knowledge of History can help us understand ourselves by knowing from where we came. When I point out the shortcomings of another person, I try to remember that there are three fingers pointing back at me reminding me of my own shortcomings.


Glen Tomkins 11.22.15 at 5:55 pm


What keeps your students under de facto Jim Crow is the ideological inertia of which one manifestation is the unthinking idolatry of figures like Woodrow Wilson. Getting older even more privileged white people to become uncomfortable thinking of an architect of de jure Jim Crow like Wilson as a great man may be about the most helpful thing that these privileged young white people can accomplish right now. You sell them short if you imagine that they believe that getting a name change on a building would be the end of the struggle and the final victory.


John Alexander 11.22.15 at 6:03 pm

This should concern students at Princeton (and all of us) more than whose name is on a building.



John Deltuvia 11.22.15 at 6:05 pm

“DuBois would have been appalled to see his name adorn a building on a campus where dining hall workers, many of whom are black (it’s telling that the demographic on campus that has the highest percentage of African Americans is “all other staff”), make less than a living wage if they are parents and are often treated as if they were servants”

Fine. Raise the wages FIRST. Then talk about how Wilson’s mistreatments of African-Americans outweighs the rather radical changes he made in academia as well as in world politics.

Otherwise the students are just hypocrites, making a name for themselves while taking the same sorts of actions that they supposedly deplore in President Wilson.


Glen Tomkins 11.22.15 at 6:06 pm

John Alexander,

Do we have statues to Benedict Arnold in public places of honor in this country? Is the absence of such public honor due to the fact that he did nothing good? Do you know how we won the War of Independence? Have you heard of Saratoga?

We don’t put up statues of people, or name public buildings after them, to teach history. If we did, we would have a lot of statues of Benedict Arnold, who is a big part of our history. We put up statues of people and name buildings after them to give them public honor, to set them up as above the common crowd, as worthy of emulation. And it’s uncritical, unthinking emulation and admiration you’re aiming for if you let anything but a person’s words and deeds be their memorial.

We don’t pull down statues of “great men” to erase history. We pull down their idols because we have stopped being unthinking about them, because we have adopted the nuanced view you espouse that all of us are human, there are no heroes who deserve to be put on pedestals and memorialized with mute idols in places of public honor.


geo 11.22.15 at 6:25 pm

Glen @69: the idealistic nonsense of their elders

“Idealistic”? Didn’t you read @52? Wilson’s idealism was self-deluding, self-serving, hypocritical. He was not a “great man.”


Glen Tomkins 11.22.15 at 6:52 pm

John Alexander @76,

This is another common theory about this dispute at Princeton, that we need to prioritize our concerns, and not get all worked up about the name of a building at Princeton, when black people in Missouri are being denied self-governance.

I’ve never understood why anyone would think that you can only be concerned about one thing, that agitating for something symbolic like a building name change at Princeton, means that you are in any way hampering the practical struggle in Missouri. To me, it seems that this is the same struggle, and that what the Princeton students are doing is the logical practical thing that they can do in their own situation to fight the same fight as the residents of Parma, Missouri are fighting in their practical situation.

Princeton isn’t a govt of any sort. It doesn’t have a power structure that keeps blacks from political power in local govt. What Princeton does have in spades is symbols that help perpetuate the ideological inertia that lets a lot of comfortable white people think of Woodrow Wilson as a great man. People who imagine they are defending him will tell you that he was just a product of his times, that of course a white politician of a time when only whites were allowed to hold power was in favor of Jim Crow. Everyone was racist and pro-Jim Crow back then, so it’s all cool. Except of course that normalizing the standards of that era is what allows Jim Crow to continue de facto long after it has been overthrown de jure. Princeton students have clearly been able to make a lot of privileged, thought-leader type white people uncomfortable — you need look no further than this string for evidence of that. That accomplishment may not be the Second Coming, it may not bring on the Millennium of Racial Justice if it succeeds, but it isn’t nothing, either. It’s more than I’ve done lately.

Would it be better if privileged white students at Princeton were able to end de facto Jim Crow in Missouri, and chose to do that rather than take on a purely symbolic fight at Princeton? No doubt. But what levers do privileged white students at Princeton have now, in the student stage of their lives, to effect the terms of governance in Missouri, other than changing what symbols they can in their practical circumstances at Princeton? If these symbols are not important, why defend the purely symbolic naming of buildings after Wilson?

I will take the point of your link as being that we have a problem with Jim Crow continuing de facto in Missouri. But the item you link to is one, admittedly small, testimony to the success that people in at least this one corner of Missouri are having fighting their own fight in their own practical situation. This small town, which is not majority minority, elected a black woman as mayor. The 37-year incumbent was apparently a good ol’ boy who ran a corrupt and racist machine, to judge by the report that 5 of the 6 city police officers resigned when he was ousted. This is a town with population 713 in the 2010 census. It doesn’t need 6 police officers for any purpose other than good ol’ boy welfare and keeping down the blacks and browns, so good riddance to the 5 who left, probably one step ahead of being fired.


William Timberman 11.22.15 at 7:02 pm

Aren’t changed cultural appreciations very nearly always accompanied by a rectification of names? (I’m thinking of Pharaohs ordering the cartouches of their predecessors chiseled from public monuments, de-Stalinization, the Library of Congress’s penchant for changing subject headings to reflect purely cultural changes, etc.) This is seldom an entirely benign enterprise, but at least in the case of the students at Princeton, it’s a more democratic one than that of the various Pharaohs of the past. What interests me is how often this process precedes, rather than follows, the widespread adoption of the changed values which prompted it. Therein lies a political message, I think, which shouldn’t be left entirely to academic pomos to read for us.


Corey Robin 11.22.15 at 7:04 pm

geo at 78: I think Glen was referring to the people who make monuments, white-washing — idealizing — the past, constructing falsified notions of the past. I don’t think the elders in question is Wilson himself.


Glen Tomkins 11.22.15 at 7:06 pm

geo @78,

I don’t think that the usual understanding of “idealistic” includes the notion that the ideals an idealistic person believes in are necessarily right or sound, just that the person described has an unusually well-developed ideology that he or she adheres to more rigidly than the norm. People can be idealistic, as opposed to pragmatic, a description that implies that a person is more likely to either have a broader array of ideals than just one rigid theory of how the world works, or is willing to throw over all ideological considerations for practical purposes.

It is probably reasonable to think of Wilson as being unusually idealistic for a successful politician. That profession tends to require paragmatism, at least of means, if not ends. Perhaps I am overly swayed in that opinion by what Clemenceau supposedly said after Wilson had held forth at length on his Fourteen Points, that, “Le bon Dieu n’a que dix.”. “The good Lord only had ten”. That’s my idea of an idealistic person, someone who is convinced that his fourteen points are the way the world needs to work. Whether or not those fourteen simple rules tend to Good or Evil is another question.


Glen Tomkins 11.22.15 at 7:20 pm

Corey Robin @81,

Your point too, as well as my own response @82.

You’re right, there is a question of whether Wilson himself, or “great men” in general, would even want buildings named after them, or statues erected to them.

Washington was quite adamantly opposed to any such nonsense in his “honor”. I tend to agree with Washington, and to think that one quality that any truly great person would have, is that they would not be so small as to want statues or buildings raised in any sort of personality cult.

In the unlikely event that anyone should ever suggest a monument in honor of gtomkins, or to name a building in my honor, please don’t. Even a small person can see that big monuments to personal greatness are an even smaller idea than he deserves.


jkay 11.22.15 at 7:42 pm

The world was pretty racist until civil rights movements got going. The only respite, Grant’s Reconstruction, hasto’ve to’ve been pretty unpopular.

Israel and Japan are still pretty racist, and so’s alot of the the world.


geo 11.22.15 at 8:06 pm

Corey@81 and Glen@83: OK, I take your point. And I agree, substantively. I misunderstood because Glen used the wrong adjective @69. The correct descriptive phrase for “white-washing — idealizing — the past, constructing falsified notions of the past” is “idealizing nonsense,” not “idealistic nonsense.” There is nothing idealistic about idealizing the past; on the contrary.


Joshua W. Burton 11.22.15 at 8:38 pm

Belle Waring @30:

So, I do understand that infinite recursive un-naming of all past double plus ungood people would be bad, that is not remotely happening or ever likely.

The problem with unnaming is that it ends the conversation. Much more effective than a melted-down statue is one defaced and left standing by popular assent; why can’t the offending icons be disemvowelled instead? The Wlsn School can be conjured into being by just talking about it, much as Israeli academics already discuss the music of Wgnr and the matrix mechanics of Hsnbrg (U+5350).

Admittedly, when Harvard gets around to building a Hrdy School of Physical Anthropology there will be a technical problem.


Suzanne 11.22.15 at 8:46 pm

@42: Yes, and also with a little help from his suffragist daughter. Wilson did tend to get along better with the moderate suffragists than the flamethrowers, but he was appalled by the treatment of the hunger strikers.

“… well, if they don’t like it they can rise out of their graves and stop us, can’t they? The dead do nothing, say nothing, and thus cannot currently be regarded as objecting.”

@64: Good point. The hell with those dead people and what they thought. However, there are those who may choose to speak up for those who can no longer speak for themselves.


Collin Street 11.22.15 at 9:10 pm

However, there are those who may choose to speak up for those who can no longer speak for themselves.

I object to considerations of the wishes of dead people, not because they can’t express them but because they’re dead and no longer wish for anything.

Speak for yourself or for living people. The dead no longer care.


Marshall Peace 11.22.15 at 9:56 pm

Upthread I was kvetching that the renominalizers have created the names of buildings as objects, but changing the name doesn’t do any real work in the sense of feeding the sheep or setting the captives free. Thinking further, the real problem is that this is erasing history: surely we don’t want to forget John C. Calhoun (a better/worse/less complicated exemplar than WW) and all he stands for, lest we find ourselves repeating it. So best to take the given name as an architectural detail: Calhoun College is a grand old stonepile that has served generations.

Every reason in the world to take it as an occasion to comment, to understand how and in what way John C. was a Big Man. Teachable. The remedy for bad speech is more speech: Seems to me useful to inject contextual material … eg, permanent National Park type panels, anti-slavery bookstall, annual performances. Not to neglect the possibility of editorialising, eg some maximally disreputable part of the building could be formally designated as John’s Office.


Collin Street 11.22.15 at 10:36 pm

> The remedy for bad speech is more speech:

Speech is rivalrous, sadly: a building can only be named after one person at a time. You need to remove old speech to make room for new.


Tabasco 11.22.15 at 10:50 pm

Harvard has the Kennedy School of Government, the University of Texas has the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Minnesota has the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the University of Alabama has the George Wallace School of Public Affairs. (OK, I made the last one up, but there is a George Wallace High School in Montgomery AL.)

A lot of universities have buildings and institutions named after local politicians who made prime time, most of whom have mixed records at best. Should they all be purged?

Who was West Virginia named after?


Corey Robin 11.22.15 at 11:44 pm

Joshua W. Barton: “The problem with unnaming is that it ends the conversation.”

Where to start?

First, your assumption that there has been a conversation at Princeton about Woodrow Wilson. I’m not sure if you read the Salon piece or not, but as I say there, there was in fact precious little conversation about Wilson’s record at Princeton. Outside a few select classrooms. I was an undergraduate there, and the only thing I ever heard that wasn’t hagiography (and I was a history major, mind you) was that Wilson tried to eliminate the eating clubs. That was the only critical statement I ever heard. The sad fact of the matter is that until these students came along, demanding the removal of his name from various programs and colleges, there was no conversation about Wilson, except pure PR. (Take a look at how campus tour guides talked about him.)

Second, your claim that removing his name from the building would end the conversation about him. Why? As I say in my article, you could easily put up plaque on the building explaining exactly what the history of it was, how and why it was named, why and how it was unnamed.

Furthermore, your assumption that the building needs to be named after Wilson in order to talk about Wilson. Really? As I said, there was in fact almost no conversation about the man while his name adorned all manner of campus buildings and programs. And why must name be on a building in order to talk about him. Is that the only precipitant of conversation in your experience? How strange if that’s true.

There seems to be this oddly sentimental, almost Paper Chase-like, mentality in this thread that undergraduates are sitting around the campus quad, looking up at Nassau Hall or Firestone Library (yeah, that Firestone), and asking, wondrously, “Who was Nassau?” I’ve been on college campuses since 1985, and I can assure that’s just not the way things go. I mean, I teach in William James Hall, and I’ve never gotten one question as to who was William James. Actually, not so: the one time I did, it was from my seven-year-old daughter.

I’m amused by the notion that some how or another there is this deep, textured appreciation of history that’s out there, happening all the time, among alumni, newspaper readers, Crooked Timber commenters, and the like, which these students in their Stalinist zeal to rewrite the past according to standards of 2015, are somehow threatening.

But the fact of the matter is that it was precisely these students making this demand to remove Wilson’s name that generated all this discussion of Wilson. On campus, and off.
I would think if you truly care about history you’d thank them — even if you disagreed with their overall assessment of Wilson and his legacy. At least they care enough to raise the question.


Mike Schilling 11.22.15 at 11:46 pm

Adam West, as were Bruce College and Wayne State.


Lenoxus 11.22.15 at 11:54 pm

Even though I guess I support the change under discussion, I’m still more sympathetic to defenses of Wilson himself than I am to the kind of “all purpose” defenses that amount to saying that a building’s name should simply never change except under extraordinary circumstances.

As an example of one such defense, it may seem reasonable to say that memorials keep the past’s mistakes alive in our memory. But I’ve never heard of a capitalist petitioning for something to be named after Karl Marx (or fighting some other petition to un-name a Che Guevara Avenue or whatever) on the grounds that we must never forget the horrors of communism. The simple fact is that naming is an act of approval and honor. Maybe we could try to change that, but that would be a big fight. In the meantime, a Joseph Goebbels Building could be renamed in a flash with no objections from any serious people. So when it comes to Wilson, we are just haggling the price.

However, this is only sort of about the man himself. Others have pointed out that contemporary conservatives have plenty of anti-Wilson acrimony, made on solid conservative grounds. It’s when the subject of racism arises that this defensiveness is felt. This is really fascinating to me — even though modern conservatives are not anywhere near as racist as Wilson, and even though Wilson was both a Democrat and a progressive, there’s a sense in which a liberal attack on Wilson’s racism feels like an attack on today’s conservatives. And weirder still, the feeling is probably justified, though I can’t fully articulate how that all works. I guess it’s a subtext thing, and I’m just not feeling subtextual at the moment.


Van Buren 11.23.15 at 1:43 am

I’m predicting that until significant numbers of millionaires’ sons and daughters refuse to go to Princeton, or the millionaires themselves refuse to donate scads of money, then and only then will the powers that be take action.


ZM 11.23.15 at 2:04 am

Marshall Peace,

“Upthread I was kvetching that the renominalizers have created the names of buildings as objects, but changing the name doesn’t do any real work in the sense of feeding the sheep or setting the captives free. Thinking further, the real problem is that this is erasing history….

Every reason in the world to take it as an occasion to comment, to understand how and in what way John C. was a Big Man. Teachable. The remedy for bad speech is more speech”

I disagree entirely.

It depends upon the individual circumstances as to what the appropriate remedy for historical grievances should be.

Bearing in mind I am Australian and don’t know much about Woodrow Wilson, perhaps in the Princeton Woodrow Wilson case, the appropriate response would be, as I said above, to rename some of the Woodrow Wilson building or faculty etc names after appropriate African American people, groups, or events that have relevancy to Princeton or the State it is in.

Of course, with buildings it might be a waste to knock down the buildings and make new buildings to go with the new names, unless they are coming to the end of their life or are not environmentally sustainable and can’t be retro-fitted: then you could knock the buildings down and recycle the materials and build a more environmentally sustainable design to go with the new name.

However, your comment “The remedy for bad speech is more speech” could apply to more than buildings; to broaden the scope, there are other similar historical grievances that don’t involve campus buildings that you might or might not wish to demolish.

For instance in Australia there is the example of universities and museums holding Aboriginal remains and artefacts — which the Aboriginal people want returned, so they can bury the remains or be responsible for keeping their own cultural artefacts. We sing a song about this by Michael Kennedy in choir here called Possum Cloak, for the Yorta Yorta people:

The possum cloak hangs behind a glass wall
The bark canoe won’t float on that polished floor
The oven mound is cold
Fishing nets are lost or torn
Like the faces on the pictures on the wall

So — in this case where they have taken remains and cultural artefacts that do not belong to them, and turned living culture into dead objects for display like framed dead pinned butterflies, instead of just adding additional text, the universities and museums should return the remains and artefacts and can have text with photos of the university and museum staff and the account of what happened and why the university and museum no longer holds or shows the remains and artefacts.

As you can see, the appropriate response for historical grievances is dependent on the individual context, and new speech can be combined with returning the objects to their rightful owners.


js. 11.23.15 at 2:21 am

Who was West Virginia named after?

Mae West, obviously!


Corey Robin 11.23.15 at 3:45 am

Far away from the heavy breathing of a comments thread, the students at Princeton are actually discussing the question of Wilson, his legacy, and the racial present at Princeton.



js. 11.23.15 at 4:29 am

Too often in our debates about freedom of speech, we assume that it already exists and that it is campus activists, particularly over questions of race, who threaten it. But what Princeton’s students have shown is that, before they came along, there was in fact precious little speech about figures like Wilson, and what speech there was, was mostly bland PR for tourists and prospective students.

I think this is exactly right, and that the point generalizes. The status quo ante is not one that celebrates free speech in all its facets anyway, so all this pearl clutching about how these students are stifling free speech is not something I have a lot of time for.

That said, I also have more than a little sympathy for anon @70. It all just seems so symbolic. Which isn’t to say that it’s trivial—symbols are of course important, and they can be a good place to start, in certain situations. Bqut it would be nice if it also started moving past that a bit.


Joshua W. Burton 11.23.15 at 4:47 am

Corey Robin @93:

Where to start?

Oh, relax — we’re in furious agreement on this one. Woodrow Wilson was surely not the main reason I turned down Princeton twice (limited kashrut options at eating clubs, and having ended mandatory chapel eighty years later than Harvard, were more on my mind) but it was certainly a contributing factor in my considered decision to bypass the place where string theory was being born. I made my peace with Obama’s silly Nobel Prize primarily by reading it, here and elsewhere, as a witty and praiseworthy attempt to piss in Wilson’s racist skull. I strongly recommend Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen as a generally excellent and broad-minded history of 20c American power seen through the narrow but well-aimed lens of HYP admissions, but specifically to understand how much worse along this axis Princeton is than its aspirational peers, and how crucial Wilson’s decade was to that story.

That said, I stick with my view that defaced standing monuments have unbeatable rhetorical power. Here in Skokie, a Holocaust memorial outside our library was spray-painted with white swastikas a month or so after it was erected, and the coalition that erected it fought for two years to prevent the village from scrubbing it clean. So, purely as a tactical matter, I would prefer “Wlsn” or “wilson” by acclamation to any plaque by negotiation. But the difference isn’t worth quibbling about — it’s all good, carry on.


ZM 11.23.15 at 5:04 am

That article was very informative, I didn’t realise how racist Woodrow Wilson was, not being from America. I can understand why people find it so offensive that he is memorialised so much on campus:

“Raised in the South, he wrote of “a great Ku Klux Klan” that rose up to rid whites of “the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant Negroes.” During Wilson’s tenure as president of Princeton, no blacks were admitted — “The whole temper and tradition of the place are such that no Negro has ever applied,” he wrote — though Harvard and Yale had admitted blacks decades earlier. Princeton admitted its first black student in the 1940s.”

I guess one thing is that all the Woodrow Wilson memorialisation is not just names of building and schools but it contributes to the campus as an imagined realm — which I guess is the reason the black justice group want to change it, and the reason that others want to maintain it. And a university campus is perhaps an imagined realm more than a built space compared to, say, a company complex.

I would guess that Princeton is not very environmentally sustainable in its built and landscaped environment at the moment. Due to this the university campus is necessarily going to have to undergo a lot of changes in the next few decades.

So as these changes in the built form of the campus will be necessary — groups like the black justice group could advocate for these changes in their “meaning making” quality to ensure that the campus reflects their principles of, for example, diversity and equity ; rather than the Woodrow Wilson traditions of the past.

I don’t know if Princeton has current plans for redesigning the campus for sustainability and climate — but in America the Environmental Justice movement is strongly associated with the black civil rights movement, so, for instance, black environmental justice figures from New Jersey could be incorporated into memorialisation and naming or other design responses like sculptures and monuments as the campus environmental form changes over the next few decades.

Some people have said that buildings don’t need symbolic names and so on. But this is not really right, in urban design research has shown that when people think about a place the composite “image” of the place they bring to mindis made up of different factors like buildings, land marks, corridors, and symbolic and social factors etc (Kevin Lynch, Image of the City) — so the campus design should be respond to how people conceive of the places they are in, and not just name the buildings as to their functions so as to do away with problems like this one.


TM 11.23.15 at 8:39 pm

“How about not naming buildings after anyone, or erecting statues to anyone?”

Nice idea. Tangentially, I wonder how it comes that enthusiasm for idolizing “great men” has in the US gone so far that idols are erected even to living people, whereas most other countries at least wait until the idolized are dead.


Ronan(rf) 11.23.15 at 11:39 pm

“but as I say there, there was in fact precious little conversation about Wilson’s record at Princeton. Outside a few select classrooms. I was an undergraduate there, and the only thing I ever heard that wasn’t hagiography (and I was a history major, mind you) was that Wilson tried to eliminate the eating clubs. That was the only critical statement I ever heard. The sad fact of the matter is that until these students came along, demanding the removal of his name from various programs and colleges, there was no conversation about Wilson, except pure PR.”


“Which brings me to Princeton. I was the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton for seven years. I became dean roughly thirty years after I graduated from Princeton as a Woodrow Wilson School major and fifty years after my father did the same ….. As dean I had plenty of occasion to think and talk about Woodrow Wilson’s racist past and what that meant for students of color in the school. We held panel discussions with historians and looked the ugly side of Wilson’s record as President – his appointment of racist cabinet members and re-segregation of the Federal civil service – full in the face. We talked about it at Students and Alumni of Color weekends. “


john c. halasz 11.24.15 at 3:36 am

Well, given the fairly muddled and fatuous drift of this thread (and its premises), I just want to remark that, at least, there are no public monuments dedicated to Richard M. Nixon, that “pitiful, helpless giant”, who was a far more proximate cause of our current political-imperial “pathologies” than W.W., in terms of the (non)-great-man theory of history being propounded here.


js. 11.24.15 at 4:58 am

I have a barely on-topic question (and sorry for the minor derailment):

I went to college in the 90s. Identity politics was (were?) all the rage back then. I wasn’t that into it (this mostly involved me hiding under tables from the South Asian club representatives), but anyway, it was the rage. Ten years later, I thought most of this had blown over—or maybe I was just moving in the wrong circles. Now it seems like the 90s are back with a motherfucking vengeance and a half.

The question: Is it just me? Was I just moving in the wrong crowds last decade? Or have other people had similar feelings/thoughts/experiences?


Glen Tomkins 11.24.15 at 3:49 pm

“…US gone so far that idols are erected even to living people, whereas most other countries at least wait until the idolized are dead.”

I attribute it to the power stakes being higher in the US. We started out with a presidency — something a representative democracy doesn’t actually need — tacked on specifically out of concern that we needed something like an elected monarch. Then we became a great power, and then the world’s sole superpower. As that happened, the presidency assumed ever greater power within the US system, as the maintenance of standing military forces, “intelligence” services and imperial reach became an ever larger part of what the US govt does, and the unwritten constitution tilted to the Congress deferring as a matter of course to the presidency in these matters of empire.

Of course if you have a political system in which one man (always a man so far, another point of difference between the US and most places) is granted the power of life and death on a mass scale, you have to believe that that person is a great man, or the abyss opens up.

I suspect that this is why there is so much heat coming off the people who oppose dumping Wilson’s name from the institute and buildings. If a sort of idealistic, at least classically liberal, president like Wilson is actually a monster, then what are we to make of FDR, bomber of Dresden and every other city in Japan and Germany? They’re all monsters, have been since we took to empire. Presidents like FDR and LBJ may have done wonderful things apart from their careers of foreign atrocities and war crimes, but both would have met the fate of the Nuremberg defendants — and justly so — had we lost the wars they engaged in.

Too much of an abyss. The alternative is to shroud the US presidency in mystery and faith, and set up idols to our deified emperors, so that’s what we do.

And no, I’m not under any sort of illusion that taking the Wilson name off these buildings is going to result in any sort of Millennial change, that we will then overnight take down all the monuments to our god-presidents and dismantle our empire. But you have to start with winnable battles. We can’t acknowledge yet that dropping incendiaries on residential areas of Tokyo maybe means we shouldn’t have a Roosevelt Memorial, but extending Jim Crow to the federal level, that people can now accept as something monstrous that means the person who did that doesn’t get public honors.

Baby steps.


Collin Street 11.24.15 at 8:04 pm

> something a representative democracy doesn’t actually need

Law-of-large-numbers: decisions made by a large group of people amplify the tendencies of the group from which the people are drawn, while decisions made by small groups of people or individuals disperse those same tendencies. If your voting population is generally OK then parliamentarianism works, but if your voting population is Less Than Ideal having only one person will minimise those effects.

Presidential systems are your best choice, are actually superior, if you’re dealing with entrenched oligarchism in your political structures. This is why you get demands for “strong leadership”: if most politicians are vile, having only one of them matter maximises your chances of getting non-vile decisions made. I mean, sure, even with a presidential system, most of the time you’ll get an oligarch who’ll make oligarchy-favouring decisions, but that’s still a substantial advance on the “always” you’d get if congress were running things.


Glen Tomkins 11.24.15 at 8:46 pm

I don’t think the term “leadership” entered our political discourse much, if at all, before WWII, despite our having a big and dispersed population. We wouldn’t have much use for the Fuehrerprinzip, or a princeps/imperator if you want to use older terminology, if it were not the case that the US govt is now basically a big army with a pension fund attached.


Collin Street 11.25.15 at 5:11 am

Maybe not the word, but the concept’s been there since roman days, probably since greek days. Caesar was the napoleon of the day, and all that… and arose in a context of concentrated political power.


kidneystones 11.25.15 at 12:45 pm

This really is quite good, both as a read and as a practical way to bring real diversity to discussions: http://heterodoxacademy.org/2015/11/24/the-yale-problem-begins-in-high-school/

“…The only hope for…and for Yale — is to disrupt their repressively uniform moral matrices to make room for dissenting views. High schools and colleges that lack viewpoint diversity should make it their top priority. Race and gender diversity matter too, but if those goals are pursued in the ways that student activists are currently demanding, then political orthodoxy is likely to intensify… “


Mdc 11.25.15 at 1:07 pm

I hold no brief for Wilson in this case, but one thing monuments and commemorative names preserve is the fact that people once thought so-and-so was worth honoring. In the case that the memorial becomes shameful, this can occasion interesting historical reflection.


Suzanne 11.25.15 at 6:12 pm

@89: The dead are, as you note astutely, dead. The living, for very understandable and often decent reasons, do care and should care about history and memory, which is why they may speak up for long-dead figures of history or a president they once worked for who’s no longer around to fight his own corner. In that sense they are speaking for themselves – for their own sense of rightness, fairness, loyalty, or some combination of the three. (Less admirable motives may be at work as well, of course….)


dax 11.27.15 at 1:20 pm

The problem is one of futility. For most of a century Wilson was taught, in the standard histories, as being a great and a good man. Now some people are suggesting that he was so bad that his name must suffer the indignity of being stripped from a building. This seems to imply that what people widely thought was good, may in fact not be good. Apparently moral viewpoints can change, evolve, even rotate. Why then struggle to be good? When what we think is good, may in a century or less be considered bad, even heinous. This debate about renaming – which should be unimportant, what’s in a name and all that – carries such resonance because it thrusts in our noses the dictum, which we would rather avoid, that all is vanity.


Lenoxus 11.27.15 at 3:20 pm


This seems to imply that what people widely thought was good, may in fact not be good. Apparently moral viewpoints can change, evolve, even rotate. Why then struggle to be good?

I recall arguments along this line made against same-sex marriage — specifically, against changing the culture to the point where same-sex marriage is understood as a basic good and civil right — and it fascinates me.

I’m talking about variations on is “Say what you will about my belief in traditional-marriage-only — in a hundred years, your grandchildren will think you’re a bunch of bigots.” Arguably this has an implication that the future-moral-condemnation could be prevented or at least lessened by withholding condemnation today — that if we grant full respect to gay-marriage-opponents, our grandchildren will “pay it backward” by not thinking less of us just because we all ate meat or whatever.

This could be half-true — a lot of people bristle at any condemnation of our ancestors for believing things we now consider beyond a moral line, with emphasis on “It was a different time”. In a way they are paying it backward (and likely hoping that future generations do the same). Yet I can’t help notice that the same crowd tends to bristle at being directly compared to yesterday’s bigots-by-modern-standards. It’s like, on the one hand: “Nathan Bedford Forrest was guilty of no more than believing what everyone else in his social environment believed about black people, so this high school should still keep his name.” And on the other hand: “Don’t you dare compare me to the people against Loving v Virginia“, even though they were the majority at the time.)

I guess what’s missing is meta-morality, not in the sense of meta-ethics, but rather a moral-based equivalent to Moore’s paradox. “I believe in X and do thing Y daily, but I’m probably wrong about that and my grandkids will rightly despise that I believed in X and did thing Y.” I once heard thirdhand of a friend who said that if his child was murdered, he would want to torture and kill the culprit, and he would need you to stop him. (It’s a shame that Dukakis didn’t think of that one…)

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