Princeton, Woodrow Wilson and a debate about campus activism

    Here is the New York Timeseditorial reflecting an on-going debate on many campuses about naming buildings for celebrated racists – a racism understated in most academic discourse or forgotten.  No multiracial campus community with mutual respect among persons of differing comprehensive or conscientious views – John Rawls’ formulation – is possible with this devotion to such bigots, whatever their accomplishments ostensibly on behalf of white folks.
    The Times’s editorial has sparked some debate (though the Times has, interestingly and lamely, not included black voices, notably those of black students involved in its commentaries – see here, for example). 
New York Times
The Case Against Woodrow Wilson at Princeton


Student protesters at Princeton performed a valuable public service last week when they demanded that the administration acknowledge the toxic legacy of Woodrow Wilson, who served as university president and New Jersey governor before being elected to the White House. He was an unapologetic racist whose administration rolled back the gains that African-Americans achieved just after the Civil War, purged black workers from influential jobs and transformed the government into an instrument of white supremacy.
The protesters’ top goal — convincing the university to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the residential complex known as Wilson College — has drawn heavy fire from traditionalists. But the fact that racist policies enacted during Wilson’s presidency are still felt in the country today makes it imperative that the university’s board of trustees not be bound by the forces of the status quo.
Wilson, who took office in 1913, inherited a federal government that had been shaped during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when thousands of African-American men and women passed Civil Service examinations or received political appointments that landed them in well-paying, middle-class government jobs in which they sometimes supervised white workers. This was anathema to Wilson, who believed that black Americans were unworthy of full citizenship and admired the Ku Klux Klan for the role it had in terrorizing African-Americans to restrict their political power.
As the historian Eric Yellin shows in “Racism in the Nation’s Service,” Wilson stocked his government with segregationists who shared his point of view. The man he chose for the postal department, which had the most black employees nationally, had campaigned on the promise that the Democratic Party could be counted on to keep black people out of its own ranks and out of the government affairs of the Southern states. In this way, the administration set about segregating the work force, driving out highly placed black employees and shunting the rest into lower-paying jobs.
For John Abraham Davis, a black midlevel manager in the Government Printing Office with 30 years’ experience, the change came almost overnight. Just months after Wilson was sworn in, Davis was demoted to a succession of menial jobs and ended up as a messenger making half his original salary. As his grandson, Gordon Davis, wrote on the Op-Ed page on Tuesday: “By April 1914, the family farm was auctioned off. John Davis, a self-made black man of achievement and stature in his community at the turn of the 20th century, was, by the end of Wilson’s first term, a broken man. He died in 1928.”
The steady attrition of black white-collar workers like Davis from the federal work force went far deeper than the customary turnover when one party succeeds the other in government. It was a premeditated attempt to impoverish and disempower a small but growing class of black middle-class professionals. This subversion was not limited to Washington. In a few short years, Mr. Yellin writes, the Wilson administration had established federal discrimination as a national norm.
None of this mattered [to the powerful…] in 1948 when Princeton honored Wilson by giving his name to what is now called the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Black Americans were still viewed as nonpersons in the eyes of the state, and even the most strident bigots were held up to public adulation. This is certainly not the case today.
The overwhelming weight of the evidence argues for rescinding the honor that the university bestowed decades ago on an unrepentant racist.”
    The Times’s editorial is a straightforward and true, moral assessment.  The quality of the argument and evidence, central to reasonable moral judgments as I argue in Democratic Individuality, Cambridge, 1990, is high; the alternate arguments are largely based on illusions about Wilson.
     Black and white students fighting for decency have pressed this issue through a sit-in at the President’s office.  Peter Minowitz, my friend, author of Straussophobia(a defense of Leo against irrational attacks, unfortunately not taking in that Leo was at best a Jewish fascist – an admirer of Mussolini – and quite possibly much further to the Right, a partisan of national socialism), and a devotee of Leo Strauss’s philosophical writings, as well as, unusually for a Straussian, a supporter of Obama and now Bernie Sanders, wrote the following:
    “In celebrating the campaign to remove Wilson’s name from the Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, the NY Times editorial never stops to question whether it was appropriate for such a campaign to move beyond petitions, rallies, and other legal means. The protesters occupied the university president’s office for 32 hours. For additional details, see here.  

There was no emergency at Princeton, e.g., a series of racial assaults. Frivolous resort to civil disobedience sets a precedent for people tempted to act violently on behalf of all sorts of causes, e.g., protecting fetuses against abortions. And although I regard police shootings as a grave problem, I think anti-racism protesters at Dartmouth acted inappropriately when they capped off their demonstrations on November 12 by marching through a campus library and screaming “black lives matter”; the article ( in the Chronicle of Higher Education includes a vivid clip of this incident. If we condone such protests, what gathering place anywhere in the U.S. would be immune from comparable disruptions that demand reforms concerning terrorism, global warming, gun control, drunk driving, drug abuse, homelessness, hunger, unemployment, ballistic missile defense, and comparable issues?
In the following article, Damon Linker likens the Trump campaign to the campus protests at Princeton (and elsewhere) that imply that people “who fail to conform to a rigidly and narrowly defined standard of moral purity should be fired, demoted, cast out, blocked, and erased from university life” here.  
Here, finally, is an interesting take on campus segregation from Fareed Zakaria.
        My rejoinder:
       “Why should the Times beforehand have warned
about unrealized possibilities.  The editorial, I thought, 
was thoughtful and decent. Also, the report is of a sit-in 
by concerned students – concerned about the demeaning 
of black students, and all decent students, by the large 
fact of the celebration of Wilson – and a thoughtful 
university response, proposing for the most part, further 
discussions to be held in authoritative bodies.  What 
is the problem with this?  The issue is, in fact, of
enormous importance, as has been underlined by 
campus protest and a controversy now extended 
even to the Times, and the students were deeply 
concerned about it – enough to risk their Princeton 
     Does nonviolent civil disobedience invite violence?  I 
fail to see the connection.
       The hunger strike by Jonathan Butler at Missouri? 
       You forgot yourself in writing about “police shootings” as “grave” and not taking in their significance for discontent at Princeton.  Wilson admired the Ku Klux Klan, i.e. the now 4,000 lynchings of named individuals Brian Stevenson and the Equal Rights Initiative have painstakingly catalogued and begun working to put up plaques to those individuals in the South.  Celebrating Wilson is also praise for lynch law and lynch “picnics” (racists brought their children to “educate” them in this form of public festival).
      Today’s “shootings” are deliberate police murders of those whom they regard as non-persons.  Their lives matter.  Go watch some of the videos, now fortunately recorded on police cameras though suppressed by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel for 400 hundred days to get himself reelected – what a contemptible person… – and see if you want to juxtapose these words, incidents.  The students are brave and honorable.
    Trump, the billionaire racist screamer, and black civil disobedients are likened in the Linker article you sent…Now that similarity is “obvious”…I would stick carefully to particular issues.
    And while I am opposed to certain kinds of disruption, I do not think, about very important issues, that civil disobedience ought to be punished, let along punished harshly.  We have too little seriousness about great issues in both campus life and scholarship, too easy a rejection of current concerns, some of which are of overriding importance, too little understanding of the risks such students – many long demeaned by racist patronization – are willing to take.  We are in no danger of going overboard in the direction you fear.
   Worse yet, I was part of the movement – separated from Harvard for two years for it – which protested the war in Vietnam.  More unwilling to make argument about University involvement or consider student protests against that war than most Harvard administrators were (and many professors), one will not find…  Disruption made people attend to the issue; the only attention Harvard gave to it otherwise was the smooth propagation of mass killing (Samuel Huntington’s tours of South Vietnam for the State Department on the supposed wonders of urbanization – Saigon “hit hard by the Honda Revolution”), McGeorge Bundy and Kissinger, inter alia).  Smooth war criminality…
      Stanley Hoffmann was an honorable exception…See here.
      I don’t know about the Dartmouth protest, but will check into it.  I am not sure chanting black lives matter in a library would be productive, but on the other hand, without disruption, as of this moment, in Wisconsin and Chicago and everywhere else even in the year 2015, do black lives matter?
     Would they matter around here if nobody said anything (by the way, how do you know there are no racist assaults at Princeton recently?)  And if you are right, wouldn’t it be better for that campus to take steps to head them off by action now?  Why do we have to even talk about such things right now, all these years after the Revolution and the Civil War and the civil rights movement?  It certainly isn’t because the normal functioning of academia means Black Lives Matter.   
     Was it wrong for the black women to seize the stage at the Bernie speech?  
     Hasn’t Bernie to his great credit thought about their 
issues and agreed with them (and see the Killer Mik
video introducing his speech in Atlanta here?)
       All the best,
      Peter responded
     “Occupying someone’s office puts you on the threshold of violence. Occupying someone’s home or land crosses it–as does shoving your tongue down someone’s throat or even screaming in their ear.
Although I often feel that you tend to address issues with Armageddon-level rhetoric, I like the methodical reasoning you deploy above. Butler’s hunger strike? His body, his food.
I worried about the second line, but I thought I made my view clear my describing the problem as “grave”–and contrasting these emergency circumstances (unarmed civilians being gunned down by cops) with protests about a portrait of Woodrow Wilson. For the record, do you know enough to proclaim that in every one of these cases the cops regarded the victims as “non-persons”?
Civil disobedience or even violent resistance directed against segregation, against lynching, against the Vietnam War, and against other horrors is one thing. The existence of the “Woodrow Wilson School,” however, doesn’t belong on this list.
I’m impressed, finally, that you see the connection to Sanders in Seattle. Yes, I think it was wrong for the BLM activists to hijack Bernie’s meeting. If I thought otherwise, I might retire soon, move to Denver, and insert myself into all of your classes, lectures, and meetings. After a few weeks of my kvetching and nitpicking, you too would retire.
P.S. I’m still planning to tackle the 11/17 posting you made about Missouri and other campus-climate issues; thank you for having called it to my attention.”  See here and here.
   I responded:
    “I am glad you affirm civil disobedience and even violent resistance in cases of major and continuing injustice. Such things are the only hope of a decent, equal individual rights-sustaining regime, something that US government oppression/genocide towards blacks, indigenous people and Chicanos makes distant even now.  And that is, unexpectedly given your initial letter, a large area of agreement between us.
      I also agree with you that the name of the Woodrow Wilson school is not close to those.
     Yet it still seems very large to the Black Justice movement and others who are protesting a man who loved the violent destruction of Reconstruction – admired the Ku Klux Klan and lynching – and systematically re-segregated the civil service, a man who is idealized/”moralized” and for whom the international studies school is named at this quite Southern school (when I taught at Princeton, it was called by campus denizens the ‘most Southern’ of the Ivies, even though Penn was 80 miles further South.  The latter was, to some extent, inoculated by Quakers, however).
       Have you read or heard Ta-Nehisi Coates,  Between the World and Me?  He talks from the experience of fear every day growing  up in West Baltimore and what happened even to his son, who has a much wider, middle class world, after the murder of Mike Brown (sorry, I don’t take phony grand juries summoned by cop-related DAs like McCullough who has never, in 25 years, indicted a cop for murder seriously; his “world” and the world statistics reveal in the suburbs of St. Louis are wholly other).  Coates’s story of Prince Jones, a fellow student at Howard, murdered by a cop (chased across three counties, dressed as a thief, in an unmarked car, trapping Prince in a cul-de-sac…) and his conversation with Mabel Jones, Prince’s mom and a radiologist originally from a sharecropper family, is heartbreaking.  Listen here to Ta-Nehisi’s talk at a Baltimore Church (his father was a Black Panther; he is not, as he says, a churchgoer). 
       Perhaps the issue for young blacks would make more sense to you if you imagine yourself in Weimar Germany where studious Jews like Leo Strauss and Jacob Klein had to pretend not to be reading Nietzsche in a restaurant and Strauss could make a peculiar joke about it (Leo suddenly shouted “Nietzsche!” at Klein).  And in Germany until the Nazis and Kristallnacht, it was not yet open season for killing Jews as it has always been on blacks (Your tendency to elide lynching with Straussophobia, whatever the prejudices of some liberals – though Harvey Mansfield has long been at Harvard, no? – is remarkable). 
     Any black male student, on any campus in the country, might be shot by a cop (I posted on a story by Charles Blow about his son Tahj, a Yale student, last year who. fortunately, when a cop approached him on the Yale campus, with gun drawn, simply submitted…).  See here. That is not incendiary language, just the plain truth (just as that Washington is an insane, war-making place, breeding ever more horrible results, and even Obama has not made a deep dent in this is, unfortunately, the case; or that American climate change deniers endanger human life on this planet, as Paul Krugman underlines here).
       Being regarded as a nonperson by cops, even non-murderous ones, is close to the rule, not the exception…
      These protests spreading across the country on campus after campus are about this level of physical threat and the constant demeaningness of much campus/academic life.  There is a parallel case at the University of Denver of Simon Moya-Smith, an indigenous journalist, his first day on campus five years ago.  Two white males accosted him on the brick walk way, forced him off, shouting “You don’t belong here.” 
     On the Dartmouth case, was there any coverage (aside from racist hoopla in the bizarre Drudge Report, Malkin, etc.) of what students were protesting about?  There is no justification for insulting or swearing at others – King and Gandhi rightly say that this is no part of nonviolence which aims to stop injustices but does not demean, let along harm those responsible –  or for the clearing of “safe space” by intimidating a reporter in Missouri, but the exaggeration of this, at the expense of what the protests are about in major media including often the Times, is dishonest).
      The idealization of major racists – Woodrow Wilson destroyed blacks in the civil service in Washington, a rare place of flourishing after the Civil War; Evans was a big advocate and initiator of the mass murder of innocents at Sand Creek – needs to end.  I wouldn’t be happy going to a school named enthusiastically for Hitler or Heidegger, the camps kept in the dark, even if I learned from the latter’s philosophy or noticed the former’s concern about cigarettes and cancer.
    I say all this because you don’t seem to absorb the monstrousness of police murder of innocents.
      You and I share an affection for Bernie.  But Bernie needed the words of Killer Mike. He needed to reach out to the black community with his 50 years of experience, not hang back expecting acknowledgment of his role in sit-ins against segregation at Chicago long ago.  There was nothing wrong with the students disrupting him.  To the contrary, it got him to think, and then to hire a woman in Black Lives Matter, also named  Sanders, to reach out. 
     Say her name, they chanted, and at the first debate, he named Sandra Bland, illegally “arrested” for questioning a cop’s traffic stop and dead three days later in a Texas jail, and spoke rightly of the systemic racism that permeates “all our institutions.” See here. That flexibility may yet make him President (people really underestimate his flexibility, given principle).
    A University President’s office at a school is often a public place. It is not your office.  It is not her home.  On issues of great public importance, students may need to come there (or to other administrative offices).  The reaction of President Eisgruber and others at Princeton does take seriously the issue of racism – and at least allows questioning  the awfulness – the retch-inducingness – of Woodrow Wilson, defender/initiator/extender of Jim Crow, and all of this without even taking into account Wilson’s many invasions of Central America.  For instance, Wilson installed a clerk in an American mining company in Nicaragua in 1913, and as a consummate gesture of anti-black racism, overthrew the black republic in Haiti in 1916…. 
    There are some good things about Woodrow Wilson, but it is hard to outweigh or balance these horrors, particularly for non-white people.  I fail to see anything good about Wilson for blacks…, and also for ordinary white people who want a democracy. Let Trump et al find a soul-mate in Wilson…
     ‘”Occupying someone’s office puts you on the threshold of violence.’
      Do black bodies experience fear at Universities?   Is that fear of a violence, already existing, already experienced, written into their lives in blood (consider again the story of Coates and  Prince Jones)?  I met a black pre-med student at Harvard long ago from Talladega College; the star pitcher on the campus baseball team, his best friend, had been crippled by shooting by a cop…  
     Talk to people today in Black Lives Matter or the Black Freedom Riders and you will hear a thousand such stories, some of them on campus.
    Are the symbols of this so “innocent” that you can speak of President Eisgruber alone as fearing “the threshold of violence” in an occupation – though Eisgruber, once again, didn’t think so apparently – when the stakes are, for black students, so immediate and sometimes so high?”
     See here for a parallel story of protests in South Africa against the statue of Cecil Rhodes, recently taken down at University of Cape Town (h/t Sage Bard Gilbert).