“Life in the Republic grows increasingly uncomfortable to men of the more urbane and seemly sort, and, despite the great material prosperity of the country, the general stock of happiness probably diminishes steadily. For the thing that makes us enjoy the society of our fellows is not admiration of their inner virtues but delight in their outward manners. It is not enough that they are headed for heaven, and will sit upon the right hand of God through all eternity; it is also necessary that they be polite, generous, and, above all, trustworthy. We must have confidence in them in order to get any pleasure out of associating with them. We must be sure that they will not do unto us as we should refuse, even for cash in hand, to do unto them. It is the tragedy of the Puritan that he can never inspire this confidence in his fellow-men. He is by nature a pedant in ethics, and hence he is by nature a mucker. With the best of intentions he cannot rid himself of the belief that it is his duty to save us from our follies— i. e., from all the non-puritanical acts and whimsies that make life charming. His duty to let us be happy takes second, third or fourth place. A Puritan cannot be tolerant—and with tolerance goes magnanimity.
The late Dr. Woodrow Wilson was a typical Puritan—of the better sort, perhaps, for he at least toyed with the ambition to appear as a gentleman, but nevertheless a true Puritan. Magnanimity was simply beyond him. Confronted, on his death-bed, with the case of poor old [Eugene V.] Debs, all his instincts compelled him to keep Debs in jail. I daresay that, as a purely logical matter, he saw clearly that the old fellow ought to be turned loose; certainly he must have known that Washington would not have hesitated, or Lincoln. But Calvinism triumphed as his intellectual faculties decayed. In the full bloom of health, with a plug hat on his head, he aped the gentry of his wistful adoration very cleverly, but lying in bed, stripped like
Thackeray’s Louis XIV, he reverted to his congenital Puritanism, which is to say, bounderism. (“From the Memoirs of a Subject of the United States,” Prejudices, Sixth Series)
Let the record show, Princeton University, during the last wave of heightened aesthetic consciousness about public art, had a chance, just like Mayor James Kenney in Philadelphia (with the Frank Rizzo statue), to get rid of Woodrow Wilson’s name at its School of Public and International Affairs. The university, with the same president as today, Christopher Eisgruber, decided to keep the Wilson name. Here is part of Princeton’s reasoning:
The challenge presented by Wilson’s legacy is that some of his views and actions clearly contradict the values we hold today about fair treatment for all individuals, and our aspirations for Princeton to be a diverse, inclusive, and welcoming community. On the other hand, many of his views and actions – as faculty member and president of this University, as governor of New Jersey and a two-term President of the United States, and as an international leader whose name and legacy are still revered in many parts of the world – speak directly to our values and aspirations for our school of public and international affairs and for the first of our residential colleges.
… There is considerable consensus that Wilson was a transformative and visionary figure in the area of public and international affairs; that he did press for the kinds of living and learning arrangements that are represented today in Princeton’s residential colleges; and that as a strong proponent of education for use, he believed Princeton should prepare its students for lives in the nation’s service. These were the reasons Wilson’s name was associated with the school, the college, and the award.
The question that immediately comes to mind is how do the people who punted on Wilson in 2016 get to keep their jobs and positions? They looked at the evidence, and even heard from scholars who were decidedly negative in their estimates of Wilson, such as this one from the University of Richmond’s Eric S. Yellin:
Far from being merely ignorant “men of their times,” Wilson and his administration sought to do something new when they delegitimized public objections to segregation by marking any protest as both insubordinate and fallacious. African Americans and some allies never accepted this argument, of course, but the vast majority of white Americans did not question it. In this way, federal discrimination, including administrators’ explanations of it, played its part in the national institutionalization of white supremacy in the United States in the early twentieth century.
Again, for the record, Princeton’s president and board of trustees read these words and decided to keep Wilson’s name. Why don’t they too need to vacate Princeton the way Wilson has? Could you have a better indication of racism according to 2020 standards?
By the way, it was a curious group of advisors to Princeton who commissioned reactions from historians and issued a report that kept Wilson’s name. It had nary an academic on it except for a retired president of Brown University. Otherwise, the ten member committee, chaired by an African-American attorney, Brent L. Henry, consisted of executives, financiers, lawyers, leaders of non-profits, and one writer (five men, five women — cisgender I presume; five whites, five non-white). Anyone of a social justicey inclination might well wonder whether these people too need to be cancelled.
Princeton’s administration did see in 2016 the ripple effects of Wilson’s reputation. In 1948, when the school of government took Wilson’s name, Harold Willis Dodds was president (a Grove City alum). Instead of removing Wilson’s name in 2017, the University decided to move Dodds’ name within the Robertson Hall (the modernist building from 1961 designed by the same architect behind New York City’s World Trade Center. What the University did was to rename Dodds Auditorium in Robertson as the Arthur Lewis Auditorium. Dodds’ name was downsized to Robertson Hall’s Atrium.
Relatives of Dodds were not happy. John A. Dodds, a nephew of the former president, and member of the class of 1952, wrote to the alumni magazine:
it appears to me that my uncle has been inadvertently affected by some of the fallout over Woodrow Wilson 1879. This change was planned to go into effect as of July 1.
Now it appears that Princeton is even more interested in fulfilling its mission of amplifying diversity and political correctness than honoring a man who served longer as president of Princeton University (1933–57) than any other Princeton president in the 19th or 20th century. He brought the University through some difficult times during World War II, and his longevity as president attests to his inherent skills.
What next, a potted plant with his name on it?
These odd details amplify what Ross Douthat wrote about the name change as being more ephemeral than substantive:
the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs wasn’t named for Wilson to honor him for being a segregationist. It was named for him because he helped create precisely the institutions that the school exists to staff — our domestic administrative state and our global foreign policy apparatus — and because he was the presidential progenitor of the idealistic, interventionist worldview that has animated that foreign policy community ever since.
Which means, in turn, that the school will remain his school, whatever name gets slapped upon it, so long as it pursues the projects of enlightened progressive administration and global superpowerdom. Obviously there are people, right and left, who would prefer that one or both of those projects be abandoned. But they aren’t likely to be running the renamed school. Instead, it will continue to be run by 21st-century Wilsonians — who will now act as if their worldview sprang from nowhere, that its progenitor did not exist, effectively repudiating their benefactor while accepting his inheritance.
Like Nike’s turning Colin Kaepernick into an emblem of social justice while also turning a profit, so Princeton maintains its standing among the nation’s elite institutions, in a Vanna White way, by changing a few letters.
Daniel Drezner does not wince when talking about elitism in the United States. His inspiration was the David Brooks column on Italian sandwiches, about which Drezner writes:
Brooks argued that “The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.”
I agree with my Post colleague Tim Carman that outside The Anecdote That Shall Not Be Named, the column was “an otherwise temperate take on the restrictions and social codes that keep the middle class in its place.” As a fully paid-up member of this class, there clearly are expected modes of behavior, and not knowing the unspoken rules of the game acts as a barrier to those trying to enter the meritocratic class. It can still be done, but it’s like learning an additional language.
Then Drezner worries that some of the Trump clan may actually stumble their way into the elite class by being able to order the right Italian sandwich meats:
Based on my own conversations, it would seem that most traditional D.C. wonks look at most of the Trump family and see a bunch of wealthy, not-very-bright boors who do déclassé things like eat their steaks well-done and with ketchup. Indeed, there is a whole conservative genre defending the Trumps for some of their gauche tendencies. Most of the Trumps gleefully ignore the cultural codes that Brooks describes, because they are rich enough to not care.
Then we get to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and the narrative switches.
The rest of the Trumps might scream bridge and tunnel, but Jared and Ivanka have undeniably mastered the cultural codes of the educated class. It is hard to read a profile of either of them without words like “polished” or “poised” appearing.
Take the opening sentences to Jill Filipovic’s Politico essay from May: “Ivanka Trump is the poised, polished face of a chaotic White House, a bright young mother who many suspect is a voice of reason and moderation among the Steve Bannon acolytes in the West Wing, whispering socially liberal values in her daddy’s ear.” Look at the Post’s Style Section profile of Ivanka from this month: “Ivanka Trump’s office: clean, white, quiet. A zone of punctual start times and promptly offered water bottles, and a conference table at which she conducts meetings. A short, winding walk away from her father’s Oval Office downstairs.” Or as T.A. Frank noted in Vanity Fair, “let’s agree that one of the finest qualities of Jared Kushner is his tailoring. The fit is so good. Even with bespoke work, that’s hard to achieve.”
Let me posit that in mastering the cultural codes of the educated class, Kushner and Ivanka somehow fooled even veteran D.C. observers into presuming that they might actually be qualified and competent as well. Which all evidence suggests is not true.
Drezner believes that expertise on policy is what qualifies someone to rule in America, not expertise in self-promotion, food, or fashion.
As someone who values education, I am hard pressed to knock learning. But my education also tells me that in the United States, you don’t need to be educated to hold public office. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did not have college educations. Never mind going to the Kennedy School of Government. By the same token, George W. Bush went to Yale and see what good that did him when it came to America’s educated elite.
And don’t forget about those brain surgeons that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations leaned on to devise a policy for the Vietnam War. Sometimes education doesn’t make you a good administrator — just ask any egg-head professor to chair his or her department. See what snafus ensue.
The reality is that with all of Drezner’s brain power, and it is considerable, he could not be POTUS. Well, he could. But he’d have to run for office and somehow portray himself as an ordinary ‘merican because despite the number of college graduates in this fair republic we don’t very often elect Ph.D.’s as POTUS (this is why Senator Sasse where’s not Harvard but Nebraska swag). Last time we did we had Woodrow Wilson and what did he do — used all of his intellectual fire power to fight a war to make THE WORLD, not just the United States, but THE WORLD, safe for democracy (which by the way means that we fought the war not to have educated elites running things)?
Which leads to the real point of this post: the story that the press and scholars are missing is what a novel state of affairs it is to have a POTUS who has no experience with government. Why no feature stories on what it’s like to have to do so many things that you’ve never done before? Or what is it like to be trailed by Secret Service agents? Or what’s it like to live in the White House? Many Americans could possibly imagine being in Donald Trump’s shoes (though what it’s like to be a billionaire is beyond me). We would not have the first clue about running a government as massive as the federal one. And that could be an exciting set of stories. But what we seem to get is reporting about how Trump is subhuman and stupid. Imagine if Bill Gates were POTUS. Would he be prone to the same mistakes? But he’s not the kind of jerk that Trump is so the press goes Jerry Falwell, Sr.
I still wonder, though, whether any of the people criticizing Trump, even Drezner, claim to know what to do as POTUS? Do the journalists or professors of foreign policy have white papers on Iran and how to deploy the CIA or State Department? (And if education is a pre-requisite for governing in the U.S., what is our foreign policy supposed to be with poorly educated rulers of other countries? Doesn’t this way of thinking involve a kind of hierarchy that is supposed to be antithetical to social justice?)
The reality is that nothing in American government prepares you for what you might face in the White House along the lines of war and diplomacy, not to mention the vast scale of administering the federal agencies. Jim Kenney, the mayor of Philadelphia has a degree from Lasalle University? Does that mean he’s not fit to hold a higher office? The governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, has a degree from Harvard and an MBA from Northeastern. But can he stand on that great hill of U.S. foreign policy?
What I was hoping would happen with the Trump presidency was a chance to see the federal government through the eyes of a real outsider. The Trump administration might be an occasion for a POTUS self-study. What is necessary for the executive branch of the federal government? What is so complicated as to create barriers to other citizens serving in public office short of getting the right set of degrees and making the right connections? But alas all we are getting is how Trump fails to reassure many Americans that Washington is the capital of the greatest nation on God’s green earth (well, at least a few steps up from Russia).
First it was smoking. I grew up in a fundamentalist home where smoking was off limits. I have also related the story of how devastated I was when I first saw Richie (later Dick) Allen smoking in the Phillies’ dugout. But now the world has turned into the Hart home (of my parents). Thankfully, the missus tolerates an occasional cigar indoors. But everywhere else in “the worldly world,” I can’t smoke (at least indoors). Not even women, who have absolute sovereignty over their bodies in the pro-choice world, may light up indoors. When will that barrier to human freedom topple?
Now it is language. The worldly worldlings are as worried about speech and its power to hurt as my fundamentalist fellow believers were about four-letter words and references to sex or body parts. The desire to make the world a tolerant and liberated place has now extended to Princeton University where students are objecting both to associations between the institution and its former president, Woodrow Wilson, but also to the word — wait for it — “master.” (Will Princeton stop granting “Masters” degrees?)
The group Black Justice League occupied the office of President Christopher L. Eisgruber at Princeton and offered a series of demands: that the university “acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson and how he impacted campus policy and culture,” and that all buildings and programs named for Wilson have their names changed. The students also demanded that a portrait of Wilson come down from a dining hall. Other demands include having “classes on the history of marginalized peoples” be added to distribution requirements, and that a “cultural space on campus” be “dedicated specifically to black students.”
Also on Wednesday, the masters of Princeton’s residential colleges decided to stop calling themselves masters and instead to use the term “head of the college.”
At protests at Yale University, minority students have said that the word “master” is associated with slavery in ways that make it an inappropriate title for a college official.
Princeton’s announcement of the change noted that the use of “master” in the sense of an academic leader predates American slavery and has nothing to do with it.
“Though we are aware that the term ‘master’ has a long history of use in universities (indeed since medieval times), it seems to me by now to be anachronistic and unfortunate for the positions we hold,” said a statement from Sandra Bermann, head of Whitman College, Cotsen Professor of the Humanities and professor of comparative literature. “We are glad to take on the designation as ‘head of the college’ that describes our role more aptly.”
My forebears would have put “head” in Margaret Gray’s “filth file” because of its phalic associations. But everyone knows that contemporary fundamentalists give a pass to sex.
Perhaps the oddest part of this story was the following comment:
“We owe nothing to people who are deeply flawed,” the essay says. “There is an impulsive reaction to want to ignore uncomfortable or questionable legacies. However, what does it say about our society if we continue to glorify legacies without acknowledging — and at the very least caring about — the continuous promotion of unrectified inequalities and injustices? … By not recognizing the importance of this discourse, the university is telling its marginalized community and the outside world that it values its bleached-clean version of history over the prolonged discomfort and alienation of students of color. This erasure is especially dangerous in the present context of state-sanctioned violence against black people that prolongs this genocide.”
Actually, everyone owes a debt to our deeply flawed first parents, which is what we call original sin. But today’s self-righteous never recognize their own flaws or the possibility that they may have them.
And forget about all that outrage over Islamist attacks on Charlie Hebdo for its iconoclastic and blasphemous covers. The self-righteous, whether believers or tolerantists, cannot abide sin in this world.
Wait, maybe Fosdick won after all.
I know it is in my files somewhere — a letter from George Will to me in which he declined my services as an assistant or researcher. Once he wrote to me, complete with his address, I could find where he lived and one night in a somewhat creepy instance of stalking while my wife and I were leaving D.C. for Baltimore we turned down Will’s street in Bethesda. I found his house, parked across the street, and actually saw the man walk from one room to another. I did not go to the door or dig up a piece of turf.
I am reminded of this instance for two reasons. First, yesterday, thanks to a lighter load between semesters, I rediscovered the top of my desk (not to mention several interesting articles and essays that had been heaped on top). I wish I could say finding Will’s letter was that easy.
Second, (thank to one of our correspondents) I recently read a talk that Will gave at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. I do not read Will regularly. Nor do we see him on the Sunday shows since our sabbath observance has improved (but oh the motives lurking). But Will continues to sound smart, witty, self-deprecating — and he has been doing this for as long as U2 has been making recordings. Long before Rush, Sean, Fox News and other outlets in the conservative media, George Will was a sane, responsible, learned, and accessible voice for conservatism.
I’d still work for him (as long as he could pay me until retirement).
Here is an excerpt from his talk, Religion and Politics in the First Modern Nation, in which he contrasted James Madison and Woodrow Wilson and implicitly cautioned against politicians who stray too far from human nature in hopes of changing the cosmos (I wonder if Kuyper would have liked Wilson):
This is the Creator who endows us with natural rights that are inevitable, inalienable and universal — and hence the foundation of democratic equality. And these rights are the foundation of limited government — government defined by the limited goal of securing those rights so that individuals may flourish in their free and responsible exercise of those rights.
A government thus limited is not in the business of imposing its opinions about what happiness or excellence the citizens should choose to pursue. Having such opinions is the business of other institutions — private and voluntary ones, especially religious ones — that supply the conditions for liberty.
Thus the Founders did not consider natural rights reasonable because religion affirmed them; rather, the Founders considered religion reasonable because it secured those rights. There may, however, be a cultural contradiction of modernity. The contradiction is that while religion can sustain liberty, liberty does not necessarily sustain religion. This is of paramount importance because of the seminal importance of the Declaration of Independence.
America’s public philosophy is distilled in the Declaration’s second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Notice, our nation was born with an epistemological assertion: The important political truths are not merely knowable, they are self-evident — meaning, they can be known by any mind not clouded by ignorance or superstition.
It is, the Declaration says, self-evidently true that “all men are created equal.” Equal not only in their access to the important political truths, but also in being endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Next comes perhaps the most important word in the Declaration, the word “secure”: To secure these rights, government are instituted among men.” Government’s primary purpose is to secure pre-existing rights. Government does not create rights, it does not dispense them.
Here, concerning the opening paragraphs of the Declaration, is where Woodrow Wilson and progressivism enter the American story.
Wilson urged people not to read what he called the preface to the Declaration, and what everyone else calls its essence. He did for the same reason that he became the first president to criticize the American Founding. And he did not criticize it about minor matters; he criticized it root and branch, beginning with the doctrine of natural rights.
I would likely quibble with Will over lunch (if I worked for him) over some of his points, not to mention the irony of a president who conducted a War for Righteousness criticizing politicians who were not as devout as he was. But among the options in American politics, not to mention world history, the American founding is pretty darned terrific. It merits at least as many cheers as George Will.