Woodrow Wilson was terrible.
On this, we can agree. Under his administration, the federal government re-segregated departments and facilities that had formerly been integrated. When a contingent of black professionals protested, he replied that “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.” He screened “Birth of a Nation” in the White House (he was friends with the author of “The Clansmen,” the book on which it was based, and the film incorporated multiple quotes from his academic work.) He favored — and, as governor of New Jersey, signed into law a bill to require — the sterilization of criminals and the mentally disabled.
His wife Edith nicknamed him “Tiger” and he wrote a lot of oversexed overwrought letters to her. (“There was urgency in The Tiger’s pursuit, fueled by the gratitude that he had been granted one final stab at love.” — actual quote from a Woodrow Wilson biography.) He also loved golf. (Neither of these facts is on par with his segregation and sterilization stances, but each is objectionable in its own way.)
But the thing about history is that it is full of ugly people, running the gamut from Woodrow Wilson to John C. Calhoun to Andrew Jackson to Thomas Jefferson. People who were outright awful, people who simply fell short of modern standards of decency, people who did many good, even remarkable things but had blind spots in critical areas. In a word: people.
As our values evolve and the stories we tell ourselves change, remembering them becomes a tricky business.
And this is made even more complicated by the way history is a continuous battleground. The raw material of history seems objective enough — a series of facts — but the way you pull a narrative out of this mass of dates and names and statistics is an art, not a science. What gets remembered is a product of the people who do the remembering. What is the story that you tell yourself about yourself? Whose statue do you put up in your square? Which events form a part of the main story, and which ones are momentary setbacks or aberrations? Which ones were more characteristic: the moments where we fell short or the moments where we succeeded? What is the signal of history and what is the noise?
This is a decision every generation makes for itself, and the results are not always pretty. If your priority is reconciling the South to its defeat and bringing it back into the fold, you paper over things that should not be papered over, romanticize things that don’t deserve it, honor the wrong people, turn “Gone With The Wind” into a mass phenomenon, say.
But when you reevaluate the history you have inherited you must deal with two things: the raw material — people and dates and events, but also the story past generations have handed you. If your ancestors honored something that you would rather forget (Woodrow Wilson, say), putting it somewhere that you must bump into it every day, in the form of a statue or a building or a tribute, what do you do?
Students at Princeton have called on the college to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the Wilson School and Wilson College on the grounds that he was, as Joe Scarborough paraphrased it, “a racist pig.” There is little to dispute in that characterization, but I think there’s a case to be made for not expunging Wilson.
In general, I am not a huge believer in slippery slopes. They are often invoked by people who can find nothing obviously wrong with the thing you are proposing, in order to link it to something that most people find obviously wrong (“Gay marriage will inevitably … lead to marrying dogs and robots!”) But erasing problematic history is one such slope. Where do you stop? People whose morals and actions lived up to modern standards are remarkable and rare. Events happened in context. Most of the good things we have now were the products of flawed people doing their best. “All men are created equal” was a great ideal that came from the pen of someone who certainly failed to live the words in his own life. But the phrase retains its power nonetheless.
When you erase the ugly parts of history, you run the risk of forgetting that someone lousy can do something worthy of honor. You divide the past into obvious heroes and obvious villains. And that’s dangerous. Then you forget what good and bad people are capable of. Then you forget that most good and bad things are not unmixed. History is a grey area.
So I would make a plug for keeping the thing but putting it in context. Put an asterisk next to the monument. Put a note at the entrance to the hall. Put a plaque next to the statue explaining exactly who and what this is. The more context, the better. Acknowledge what actually happened. Put a statue of a disrespectful pigeon on top of the original statue. Put another statue next to the first statue that points angrily at the original and says “SHAME, SHAME!” when activated by a motion sensor. (Are there any big donors fresh out of ideas? I think this could really hit.)
Denounce and contextualize away, but don’t erase.
History is full of things we would rather forget. But removing them is not the way to go.
Besides, if you take the name off every building and institution named for a historical figure who was Wilson-level lousy, we’d have few institutions left.