Take down of a liberal icon

Higher Education
by D.C. Innes

Posted on Monday, November 23, 2015, at 3:41 pm

College and university campuses from Claremont McKenna on the West Coast to Yale in the Northeast are astir with protests over what some students feel is intolerable cultural or racial insensitivity and what they perceive as historic and institutional racism.

Princeton University, for example, is under pressure from the Black Justice League, a student group, to remove the name and image of Woodrow Wilson, whom they accuse of being a racist, from every public space. This would mean renaming the university’s Wilson College and its prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, as well as removing a dining hall mural. Princeton University’s president has agreed to consider these demands.

This would be no small concession since Woodrow Wilson, the most highly accomplished Princeton alumnus, was the university’s president (1902–1910), governor of New Jersey (1911–1913), and then president of the United States (1913–1921). As the godfather of the modern progressive movement, Wilson was also one of the most (disastrously) consequential presidents of the 20th century.

“Racism” is a carelessly used word these days. There is still a lot of actual racial prejudice and racial hatred among us that merits our vigilance. But the word is also used as an effective weapon where merely the accusation is sufficient for conviction.

But Woodrow Wilson really was a racist in the worst possible way, because his racism was made respectable by the voice of science and the hope of progress. The scientific establishment of his day held that some races were better than others. Wilson was a Darwinist and a social Darwinist, and thus an advocate of eugenics, the belief that we can improve the human race—purge it of the “feebleminded” and “other defectives”—through the legally sanctioned and coordinated application of science by selective breeding and sterilization. Wilson’s 1889 book, The State, reads in places like a textbook of Nazi race theory, celebrating “progressive races” like the Aryan and Semitic as opposed to weaker and stationary ones.

This was a popular and academically respectable position at the time. Adolf Hitler’s “master race” theory and his nationally organized Jewish Holocaust had an intellectual setting. And Wilson was not the only liberal icon who held these views in the 20th century. Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood (and whose bust is in the National Portrait Gallery), advocated sterilization or segregation for “the constantly growing stream of the unfit,” “human waste,” and “certain dysgenic groups,” such as she targeted in her “Negro Project.”

The Black Justice League may be an anti-intellectual, self-satisfied gang of bullies and naïve revolutionaries, but they have done us all a favor in exposing this object of near religious veneration at Princeton for the fool he was.

Woodrow Wilson’s views were appalling—his published, philosophically founded, intellectually consistent views. But if the campus activists were at all interested in understanding, not just denouncing, they would follow the trail from Wilson’s racial views to the progressivism and scientism of his day that continue to misshape our own views of human worth.

D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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