Trolling Woody

>> Tuesday, July 07, 2015

One of the wonderful things about social networking sites is discovering, through your friends and connections, that things are things.  F'rinstance, it was thanks to a friend's Facebook feed that I encountered a Washington Post opinion piece by Randy Barnett about removing Woodrow Wilson's name from public places, which turns out (upon further Googlification) to be the tip of some kind of iceberg composed of several people suggesting we do this with levels of actual seriousness ranging from apparent sincerity to a trolling troll's just gotta troll.

The underlying notion in all these pieces appears to be that if we're going to have a national dialogue about tearing down the treasonous Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and possibly also the various statues commemorating various traitors who opened fire on their fellow Americans, who stole taxpayer property, who damaged personal and public property, and/or who agitated for or coordinated such activities, and renaming various public places like schools that have been named after these figures, then we ought to discuss what a terrible President the 28th was.  Which, unfortunately, doesn't follow, though it happens to be a fair-ish point in its own right.

I mean, Woodrow Wilson was hardly a "model progressive" (as he's sometimes mislabeled), unless you redact the parts of the American progressive plank that were egalitarian, pacifist and isolationist: Wilson's presidency was notable for his rabid racism, his imposition of segregation on the Federal bureaucracy, and his military adventures in Mexico and Russia.

The dominant fact of his Presidency, America's late entry into the First World War, is a bit harder to grapple with: we tend to take it for granted that it was necessary, and it's one of the milestones in the United States' ascension to world power status along with the Spanish-American War and Teddy Roosevelt's diplomatic intercession in the Russo-Japanese War; we don't really grapple with the fact we entered it late, as a consequence of European meddling and politicking, that we arguably had little legitimate reason for getting into it, that our ascension into global importance may have cost us our Constitutional government, and that we may have played some small role in achieving the false peace that caused World War II to break out less than twenty years later.  That is, we don't really grapple with the bad parts of our intervention and really lay out the costs alongside the benefits in order to come to truly reasoned conclusions about whether the whole thing was worth it and (even if it was) how much we paid for it.

Wilson wasn't the worst President in American history, mind you.  He didn't get Washington D.C. razed, precipitate the Civil War, worsen the Great Depression, or narrowly avoid not just impeachment but indictment.  (The popular, wholly political and partisan misapprehension that either our current President or his predecessor are or were "the worst President ever" is a laughable yet sad indictment of how short and skewered our collective historical perspective is.  Our contemporary Presidents have yet to be judged by history, but it's unlikely either of them would qualify for the bottom five, much less the nadir slot.)  But he was undeniably a terrible person and a pretty bad President.  And talking about whether his name belongs on a high school any more than Richard Nixon's does is a legitimate conversation.

But when Randy Barnett writes something like this in the WaPo, it's so lacking in seriousness that I have to figure he's trolling--he can't possibly be so clueless:

No doubt there are others whose names should also be expunged. But because of his record of official racism and betrayal, Wilson’s name should be first on any such list. Those who oppose its removal from government buildings should explain exactly why whatever principle of tolerance they apply to so extreme a purveyor of racist policies as Wilson should not be applied equally to memorials to other historical figures as well.

What I suspect he means, from the context of current events and his mention of the Confederate Battle Flag early in the piece, is why single out Stonewall Jackson or Jefferson Davis for opprobrium and not Wilson?  Of course, as you might gather from my proceeding paragraphs, I fully endorse giving the skunk eye to Woodrow Wilson, talking earnestly about his legacy of racism and military gallivanting, and renaming high schools and cash prizes that currently bear his name.  So the question Barnett asks is... well, it's fairly stupid even if taken on its own terms.

But if Wilson deserves infamy, he deserves it on his own terms and not because of some inane apples-and-penguins comparison between an awful American president and someone who committed acts of treason against the United States and only avoided hanging by being shot in battle or because of Reconstruction-era amnesty policies that seemed (and perhaps were) necessary to effect national reunification and a permanent end to a long and bloody insurrection.  And if--if--Wilson's name remains on public buildings or associated with public institutions, it's because he was--for better and mostly for worse--Our American President of These United States, In War and In Peace, for awhile, and he didn't get run out of office; in other words, if we're going to have airports and schools and things named after Andrew "Trail of Tears" Jackson and Ronald "Iran-Contra" Reagan, one supposes we may as well have Woodrow Wilson's name here and there, though that doesn't change the need for frank conversation about what kind of man and what kind of President he was.

As I waited about this morning for things to happen, I read the Barnett piece and I also turned for a little while to one of the books I happen to be reading--President Ulysses S. Grant's memoir--and synchronicity or serendipity caused my eyes to land on these lines, which perfectly explain why Jeff Davis and why-not (perhaps) Woody Wilson:

The 4th of March, 1861, came, and Abraham Lincoln was sworn to maintain the Union against all its enemies. The secession of one State after another followed, until eleven had gone out. On the 11th of April Fort Sumter, a National fort in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, was fired upon by the Southerners and a few days after was captured. The Confederates proclaimed themselves aliens, and thereby debarred themselves of all right to claim protection under the Constitution of the United States. We did not admit the fact that they were aliens, but all the same, they debarred themselves of the right to expect better treatment than people of any other foreign state who make war upon an independent nation.

They "debarred themselves of the right to expect better treatment than people of any other foreign state who make war upon an independent nation," indeed.  The problem with roads and schools and government buildings named after the likes of Jackson, Lee, Davis, Stephens, Forrest and others isn't simply that they were terrible racists, though that's relevant to how we judge them.  (An unfortunate truth of our heritage is that if we're going to expunge historical figures for racism, this country will have hardly any history at all, since a vast number of our country's heroes and villains were racists by almost any objective standard, even ones who weren't nearly as virulent or activist in their bigotry as Woodrow Wilson was.)  The bigger problem with these national exhibits, rather, is that these men were all traitors who waged war against their nation; on top of that, and salting the wound, they were traitors who waged war against their nation for the cause of preserving racial chattel slavery.

The great sin in having these public monuments to our self-proclaimed aliens is a compound sin, a knotted insult, an interwoven shame.  It's not merely that they were racists.  It's not merely, for that matter, that they were traitors--there's an argument, I think, that we should lionize John Brown for trying to seize the armory at Harpers Ferry; if he was a criminal and insurrectionist, at least he was a criminal and insurrectionist on the right side of history and humanity who was attempting in an unfortunate way to make good on the failed promises of the Declaration of Independence.  It's not merely that we are a shallow and history-less people who have spent two centuries wrapping ourselves in a self-aggrandizing, semidelusional automythology that is starting to look embarrassingly shabby these days.  It's all of these things, taken together: it's that we have a lot of memorials to men who betrayed their nation in their defense of racism, memorials which we have erected and tolerated in our defense of gauzy fables about "Lost Causes" and "states' rights" and "honor" and "heritage" and "tradition."  We haven't bothered to deal with who these men really were and what they did and why, much less what our continuing elevation of them to honored status after they so ignobly dishonored themselves says about us as a people.

By all means, let us talk about what a horrible little prick Woodrow Wilson was.  Don't let me stop you.  But if you think the problem with Woodrow Wilson is the same problem we have with Robert E. Lee, you're either a fool or a troll.  Sorry.


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