Correction: A clarification on an earlier version of this column regarding Japanese American internment during World War II wrongly suggested that all those affected were U.S. citizens. Both citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent were interned. This version has been corrected.
Christine Emba edits The Post’s In Theory blog.
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
— Some notorious racist, probably
On Wednesday, student members of the school’s Black Justice League began a sit-in in President Christopher Eisgruber’s office, demanding that the school remove the name of Woodrow Wilson (its 13th president and the United States’ 28th) from all the programs and buildings that bear his name, including the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson residential college, because of his “racist legacy.”
Thirty-two hours later, the sit-in ended in compromise, with Eisgruber agreeing to consider changes to the institutions’ names.
The protesters have been accused of being juvenile, and perhaps they are. (Well, some certainly are — it is a college campus, after all). Their demands are outsized and melodramatic, failing to take into account both historical context and current feasibility. Wilson did a bad thing! Tear his statue down! Never mind the complications, the cost or the larger repercussions.
But the commentators who reflexively reject the students’ demands — aren’t their actions childish, too? It’s naive to insist that things forever remain the same; petulance is visible in the refusal to consider that new understandings can appear or that sensitivity can be a virtue. An extreme unwillingness to confront uncomfortable truths speaks to a lack of maturity as well.
Eisgruber’s answer to the protesters was the very model of a measured and adult response. Speaking to the students, he said, “I agree with you, Woodrow Wilson was a racist. . . . The right way to approach Wilson is to acknowledge what is good about him and what is terrible about him.”
Historical figures are human, too. And in all humans, virtue and vice mix. To pretend that isn’t the case is to be willfully blind. Wilson was an incorrigible racist, a champion of the Ku Klux Klan who resegregated the federal civil service and signed bills making sterilization compulsory for criminals and mentally ill people. Yet he also prohibited child labor, appointed the first Jewish Supreme Court justice (against strong objection), sponsored the League of Nations and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
The United States is a complicated place, with at times a horrible history. Our sins contend daily with our merits. Yet the ability to accept these competing ideals is part of living in the real world, of being a thoughtful participant in a pluralistic and open society.
Some still worry. If we erase Wilson, who goes next? Will we need a reckoning for every public figure everywhere? Will buildings be renamed around the country, and statues torn down from their plinths?
Maybe. But maybe that isn’t so bad. Maybe it is finally time for a discussion, a reckoning with our past and our present. We can decide what we value and what we relegate to the dustbins of history.
Perhaps some will come down from their pedestals (there is no way to justify honoring Jefferson Davis, whose greatest achievement was splitting the Union), but a mixed legacy may not prevent a great many more from staying up (FDR enthusiastically interned 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent but also brokered the New Deal).
Though the process might be painful, pain is often part of healing and reconciliation. And fair exploration of our heroes and villains need not necessitate desecration. We can acknowledge the contributions of even greatly flawed individuals. Understanding our failures should not lead to the erasure of history.
In China, a portrait of Mao still overlooks Tiananmen Square — a legacy that as yet brooks no discussion or critique. But that frozen society isn’t who we want to be. To take part in debate — about morality, ethics, historical circumstance, the weighing of good against bad — is to be fully engaged in the community you have helped build.
As a black Princeton graduate who studied at the Woodrow Wilson School, it’s easy for me to sympathize with the protesters and condemn a man who wouldn’t have wanted me at his university at all. But then again, maybe I contribute to a new understanding every time my name is paired with his.
Wilson may not be worthy of one of our pedestals. But in making that decision, we can own our history’s failures and successes, as adults and citizens must.