Silly Debates over History

Princeton students recently discovered that Woodrow Wilson was a racist, which induced a "No shit, Sherlock" response from just about anyone who took US history in a public school. I'll overlook ignorance, I guess, though Princeton should reconsider the policy of admitting unprepared dummies from hoity-toity private schools. I'm less sympathetic to the belief that renaming things bearing Wilson's name is a good way to address racism in American society.

Okay, Young Tigers, vocabulary lesson: History = the study of events from the past and the various interpretations of those events. Sociology = study of social behavior, social groups, social problems, and social institutions. One studies the past to learn from it but—news flash—you can't change it. That's why we also study sociology. You put the two together to work out an agenda for the future. Got that? Past, present, future….

Wilson was indeed racist; so much so that a body of speculative history postulates he would have been a future president of the Confederate States of America, had the South won the Civil War. It didn't and we ended up with a racist president. Want to demonize him further? He put his signature on the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, which rode roughshod over the First Amendment during World War One. After the war, Wilson cooperated with a vicious Red Scare that sent a very decent man, Eugene Debs, to jail. Wilson also sent US troops into Mexico during its civil war, so let's add Hispanophobia to his vita. For all of that, Woodrow Wilson was also a monopoly-buster, and signed into law such landmark bills as the Clayton Antitrust Act, an improved Interstate Commerce Act, the Federal Reserve Act, a landmark federal farm loan bill, and another that would have outlawed child labor had not the Supreme Court struck it down. Insofar as reforming presidents go, Wilson ranks just below Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Kennedy. He was also an idealist whose League of Nations was the forerunner of the United Nations.

None of this excuses his racism, nor does the fact that he was in the white mainstream during the days when Jim Crow reigned supreme. We should—from a sociological perspective—deplore his bigotry. Then we should move on because there is simply no changing the past. We can (and should) hate his racism, but Wilson was also a distinguished academic, an ambassador, the president of Princeton, the governor of New Jersey, and two-term POTUS. That makes him important, whether we like him or not.

I've had it with the PC push to sanitize history. Human beings shaped the past and one simply cannot rewind and make it cuddly. Sainthood is not required to make history. Karl Marx famously remarked, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please…." Ooops, scratch Comrade Karl from future discussion—he made gender-specific references. We've had a solution to history's warts for decades—it's called "teach the controversy" (and I don't mean it in a silly Creationist way).

What would sanitized history look like? Step one is reworking state competency exams because there's a host of folks we can't talk about anymore. Banish the slaveholder presidents—all 18 of them, including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Polk, Andrew Johnson, and U.S. Grant. (Yes, the last had control over slaves owned by his Missouri-born wife. I'm not sure whom we will now credit for commanding the winning Union troops with Grant out of the running, but one mustn't offend.) We could consider dumping all the racist presidents, but that would only leave Obama, so perhaps we settle for tossing active racists like Pierce, Buchanan, Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Nixon, and Reagan. Oh, shoot: Abe Lincoln and FDR probably have to go as well.

How about other sinners? Martin Luther King Jr. cheated on his wife. Bye, bye. Ditto FDR, JFK, Bill Clinton, that divorcee Reagan, and all of Congress for all of time. Very few groups were as sexist as the Black Panthers, so thou shalt never reference them. The Radicalesbian movement often slammed men and straight women, which brings me personal pain, so I can't allow any mention of lesbians in my courses. Betty Friedan said terrible things about housewives. Be gone, insensitive elitist. Walt Disney was racist, sexist, and a snitch, so padlock those theme parks. The GOP claims that labor unions are anti-capitalist, so no more labor movement, but it works both ways. I frickin' hate those robber barons and the heartless employer class that kept my ancestors and parents in economic thralldom. I cannot allow you to discuss exploiters like Henry Ford, Andy Carnegie, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, or The Donald. Let's just skip economic history.

Oh sheesh, I forgot to mention mistreatment done to Native Americans. Custer's practically a choirboy compared to folks like Chivington and Sheridan. The safe thing is to never mention any white male who ever set foot on Indian land, as well as banning everyone that exclusively uses the term "Native American." Many indigenous people actually prefer the term "Indian." How could anyone be so racist as to not know that? Now let's (not) discuss nativism related to immigration history. Being of Scottish heritage I must insist that England not be part of any discussion near me, and I bet a lot of those with Irish ancestry feel the same way.

We have two viable options: teach PURK history (Puppies, Unicorns, Rainbows and Kittens); or grow up and wrestle with history from the perspective that bad shit happened, but lots of decent folks tried to make things better. They didn't always succeed for two reasons: they don't get to write the script, and they are a flawed species. Just like history students and their teachers. That's why we teach the controversy. Otherwise, silence writes history, but not a pleasing one.

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