The past as a battlefield

What does the French Revolution and the Khmer Rouge have in common?  Upon achieving power, both tried to make a clean break from the past, as though man had entered a new era of perfection.  For the Khmer Rouge, it was now “Year Zero.”  For the French revolutionaries, everything from the names of the months to the way anything was measured was fair game for change.

This is a dangerous tendency for radicals, and even more dangerous for those — including the living — they feel a need to ‘erase.’  So it should be with great seriousness that we confront the new anti-historiography on college campuses.

A student group called the Black Justice League is demanding that Princeton University, which Wilson molded in his image first as professor, then as the school’s president, acknowledge “the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson” and move to strip his name from both the public policy school and the residential college. For good measure, these student radicals want Princeton to institute courses on “the history of marginalized peoples” as well as “cultural competency training.”

As the linked article points out, Wilson’s racism was a product of his times, in the same way the author of the Declaration of Independence (that would be Thomas Jefferson, college students) was himself a slaveholder.  There is but One person who can be honored for a perfect legacy.  So the tendency to “unperson” historical figures who do not live up to modern sensibilities is simply a quest for perpetual outrage, yet another version of Orwell’s “Two Minutes’ Hate” to fire up the revolutionary vanguard.

It also reveals the shallowness and fragility of today’s college students, some of whom apparently require therapy upon being ‘victimized’ by merely seeing a Confederate flag sticker!   Is it any wonder with such drama queens running amok that at least some university leaders have (finally) reminded the public higher education is “not a daycare center?” 

The ironic thing about these fans of the fainting couch now targeting Woodrow Wilson is that he’s one of the founders of their modern American ‘progressivism.’  His racist views aside, in my mind his legacy is far more tarnished for having advocated the theory of a ‘living constitution,’ laying the groundwork for an income tax and vastly expanded government, and for taking a very reluctant America into the First World War — a war in which we had no vital national interests.  Recall that Wilson was reelected in 1916 on a campaign slogan “he kept us out of war,” but then declared war on Germany five months later, mobilizing an unprecedented American propaganda machine to paper over the whiplash for the public.

So on the one hand it’s nice to see modern progressivism begin devouring its own.  On the other, we need to be aware of just how much higher education has become incubators for totalitarian impulses.  Very little separates the modern progressive who wants to airbrush Wilson out of Princeton from the actions of Joseph Stalin or Joseph Goebbels, who literally airbrushed ‘nonpersons’ from photos as though they’d never existed.

Deleting history prevents learning from it… the very OPPOSITE of ‘progress.’  One final thought: it’s not just past evils that ‘oppress’ today’s generation.  The past can also show just how self-absorbed and self-destructive the present has become.  Sometimes, what people call ‘oppression’ is merely a response to their conscience being pricked, as Dr. Everett Piper pointed out:

At OKWU, we teach you to be selfless rather than self-centered. We are more interested in you practicing personal forgiveness than political revenge. We want you to model interpersonal reconciliation rather than foment personal conflict. We believe the content of your character is more important than the color of your skin. We don’t believe that you have been victimized every time you feel guilty and we don’t issue “trigger warnings” before altar calls.

Despite all human efforts to erase or obscure it, Truth endures.  And it sometimes hurts.  It hurts even more when you insist on “kicking against the goads.”