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Opinion Wokeness in all its self-flattering moral vanity comes for a statue at Princeton

A statue of John Witherspoon at Princeton University in New Jersey. (John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Squalls of indignation gust across campuses so frequently that they seem merely performative — synthetic, perfunctory, uninteresting. Princeton’s current contretemps, however, fascinatingly illustrates how wokeness, which lacks limiting principles, limits opposition to itself.

Since 2001, a statue of John Witherspoon (1723-1794), the Presbyterian minister recruited from Scotland to be the then-college’s president, has adorned a plaza adjacent to Firestone Library. Now the woke, who subordinate everything to “social justice” as they imagine it, demand its removal because he owned two slaves and did not advocate immediate abolition.

As Princeton’s president, this “animated son of liberty” (John Adams’s description of the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence) ensured the precarious institution’s survival. His students included future congressmen, senators, Supreme Court justices and a president — James Madison stayed an extra year to study with Witherspoon.

Kevin DeYoung, now serving as a Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina, wrote his 2019 doctoral dissertation on Witherspoon. DeYoung’s judgment is that Witherspoon believed three things about slavery, two of them true: Slavery was wrong, immediate emancipation was impossible, but America’s moral evolution would extinguish it within two generations.

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DeYoung explains, without drawing conclusions from, three facts: In Scotland, Witherspoon baptized a runaway slave claimed by a member of Witherspoon’s church. At Princeton, Witherspoon tutored free Blacks. And Witherspoon’s will listed two slaves “until they are 28.” He had proposed a New Jersey law to free slaves at that age who were born after the law’s passage.

Today’s disparagement of Witherspoon is more than just another example of “presentism” — judging the past through the lens of the present. It illustrates how the woke become a suffocating, controlling minority.

Princeton’s Committee on Naming has been holding “listening sessions” to ascertain what Princetonians think about the statue. But who is speaking? Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS), an alumni organization much more devoted than the university’s administration and trustees are to viewpoint diversity, notes that “the atmosphere on campus greatly inhibits students, faculty, and others from stating their true views” on “highly politicized issues,” which nowadays most issues become.

In the Free Speech Ranking survey by the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), only 55 percent of Princeton students said it was never acceptable to block other students from attending a campus speech, only 25 percent said it was never acceptable to shout down a speaker, only 23 percent said they were very comfortable expressing their views during classroom discussions of political topics. There is no reason to think Princeton significantly differs from FIRE’s finding that only 14 percent of students nationwide would be very comfortable speaking freely in public settings, such as “listening sessions.”

PFS notes that the anti-Witherspoon cohort says Princeton is a “home,” therefore everyone should be protected from feeling “less at home” because of, say, unhappy thoughts occasioned by a statue. But a university is not a “home.” A university’s raison d’être, unlike a family’s, is civil but robust and unsettling questionings and disagreements. (Although a family without controversies sounds unlikely and unappealing.)

Looking ahead, can Princeton continue honoring distinguished graduate school alumni with the James Madison Medal, named for someone who owned many more than two slaves? If the woke get Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of George Washington banished from Nassau Hall, perhaps their moral squint will turn to Harvey Firestone, whose tire company’s labor policies on Liberian rubber plantations, and perhaps elsewhere, might make the woke feel “unsafe” when passing between the Witherspoon statue and Firestone Library. How many Princeton names will survive one-sided “listening sessions” about the human imperfections that disturb persons who cherish their capacity for being disturbed?

The fires of wokeness will soon be starved of fuel by the sterile monotony of wokeness’s achievement: enforced orthodoxy. Campuses are becoming burned-over places, sullen about the scarcity of things to deplore and cancel within their gates. Beyond those gates, society increasingly regards academia with, at best, bemusement.

Nevertheless, in their leafy quarantine, the woke will have the consolation of vanity. Wokeness has many flavors but one purpose: self-flattery. Wokeness tells its disciples how morally superior they are to almost everyone, ever. The woke have revised the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s maxim about the moral universe to: “The arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward me.”

Bent by such people, a university becomes, as PFS says, “a place where orthodoxy is imposed and only a narrow version of history and knowledge is accepted.” So, not a university.

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