Progressivism and Racism
Why did it take so long? I don’t know. But it’s happened.
Students at Princeton University have discovered that the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs on their campus is named after … well … after Woodrow Wilson.
Why is that important? Because, say the students, Wilson was a racist. And he wasn’t just a garden variety racist. He was the most racist US President of the 20th century. Maybe the most racist president ever.
In an editorial in The New York Times by the grandson of a victim of Wilson’s purge of blacks from all management responsibilities in the federal government, Gordon Davis writes:
Wilson was not just a racist. He believed in white supremacy as government policy, so much so that he reversed decades of racial progress. But we would be wrong to see this as a mere policy change; in doing so, he ruined the lives of countless talented African-Americans and their families.
It is this legacy of humiliation that the Princeton students demand the university, and the country, confront.
We must listen to them.
There are important lessons to be learned here. But we are unlikely to learn them from Princeton students. More than any other single figure (with the possible exception of Teddy Roosevelt), Woodrow Wilson was the father of American progressivism. And, in case you haven’t noticed, liberals don’t call themselves liberals anymore. They call themselves “progressives.”
So what is progressivism? To Woodrow Wilson and the intellectuals of the Progressive Era, progressivism represented a complete rejection of classical liberal thought — embedded in the Declaration of Independence and in other writings of the founding fathers. Progressivism was full blown collectivism, along with its wholesale rejection of the idea of individual rights.
In his book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, Jonah Goldberg, describes progressivism this way:
The first appearance of modern totalitarianism in the Western world wasn’t in Italy or Germany but in the United States of America. How else would you describe a country where the world’s first modern propaganda ministry was established; political prisoners by the thousands were harassed, beaten, spied upon, and thrown in jail simply for expressing private opinions; the national leader accused foreigners and immigrants of injecting treasonous “poison” into the American bloodstream; newspapers and magazines were shut down for criticizing the government; nearly a hundred thousand government propaganda agents were sent out among the people to whip up support for the regime and its war; college professors imposed loyalty oaths on their colleagues; nearly a quarter-million goons were given legal authority to intimidate and beat “slackers” and dissenters; and leading artists and writers dedicated their crafts to proselytizing for the government?
Ayn Rand once described racism as “barnyard collectivism.” It was an apt term. Collectivists aren’t focused on individuals. They only see individuals as members of groups. And it’s only natural for them to suppose that some groups are superior to others. In fact, virtually all the intellectual leaders of the Progressive Era were racists, to one degree or another. Goldberg writes:
The interests of progressive era intellectuals was not limited to economics. They saw the state as properly involved in almost every aspect of social life. Herbert Croly envisioned a state that would even regulate who could marry and procreate. In this respect, he reflected the almost universal belief of progressives in eugenics. These days, there is a tendency to think that interest in racial purity began and ended in Hitler’s Germany. In fact, virtually all intellectuals on the left in the early 20th century believed in state involvement in promoting a better gene pool. These included H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb (founders of Fabian Socialism), Harold Laski (the most respected British political scientist of the 20th century) and John Maynard Keynes (the most famous economist of the 20th century). Pro-eugenics articles routinely appeared in the leftwing New Statesman, the Manchester Guardian and in the United States in the New Republic.
Back to college campuses. It’s always confusing when people use the terminology of one point of view to advance the opposite point of view. But many modern college students are fully up to the task. They use the language of individualism to promote collectivism and deny people their individuality. They use the language of diversity to promote non-diversity and exclude unwelcome viewpoints.
Do you know what a “micro aggression” is? Since I live in Texas I might think of myself as a Texan. Now suppose you told a joke involving cowboys. I might respond by saying, “People associate cowboys with Texas; and since I am a Texan I feel disrespected.” You might respond by saying, “Lots of cowboys aren’t Texans. Therefore you can’t equate the two. That’s Logic 101.”
I respond, “Logic has nothing to do with it. Micro aggressions are about feelings. I feel dissed. That’s all there is to it.”
Then you say, “But you’re not even a cowboy.” I respond, “People are not isolated individuals like Robinson Crusoe living on a desert island. People get their identities from groups they associate with. So if you dis the group, you are dissing me.”
You might respond by saying, “If individuals don’t count, your feelings don’t count either.” But you would be wiser not to continue this silly conversation.
Here is the bottom line. Many college students today are just as collectivist as Woodrow Wilson was. In a way, they are just as racist. They refuse to allow individuals to be individuals and insist on treating everyone as a member of a group. The rights and privileges people are entitled to depend upon their group. So black students have rights and privileges that white students don’t have. Females have rights and privileges that males don’t have. And so forth.
The proper response of universities to this silliness is to insist on treating students as individuals who have their own separate identities. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, students should be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.
In the meantime, if people feel aggrieved by seeing Woodrow Wilson’s name somewhere on campus, that’s a psychological problem — best dealt with by a therapist. Wilson’s name isn’t doing harm to anyone. Wilson himself is in a grave somewhere.
Yet, there is a lot to be learned by studying the thinking of Woodrow Wilson — how it caused so much harm and why it was so very, very wrong.
Wilson’s views on race and other matters have been widely recognized and discussed in right-of-center circles for quite some time now. Yet it apparently took the dust up at Princeton for such left-of-center publications as Vox and Salon and the editorial board of The New York Times to discover Wilson’s racism and denounce it — reflecting, I suppose, the tendency of people on the left to talk only to each other.
Condemning racism is the easy step. The much harder task is for these folks to self-reflect and discover how many other of their ideas have been inherited from progressive-era thinking. I suspect that on a whole range of issues, the thinking of the students and faculty at Princeton is much closer to the thinking of Woodrow Wilson than it is to the common sense thinking of ordinary Americans.
Woodrow Wilson’s name prominently displayed at Princeton might actually be a helpful reminder of that fact.