Revisionist or balanced personal history?

August 17th, 2016
by Chris

Malcolm Gladwell podcasts at “Revisionist History”, and episode 9 is titled “Generous Orthodoxy”. Much of the episode revolves around Chester Wenger, a Mennonite clergyman, and his dealing with his son’s coming out as gay. He displays there what Gladwell calls “Generous Orthodoxy”, and I might add that it also displays costly discipleship.

His proposed alternative action for protestors at Princeton is also an example of costly discipleship (and one I approve of; if you desire that something take place and argue for that, you must take into account the thought processes of the people you’re trying to persuade, otherwise you’re just venting and will not get what you want), but what I want to focus on here is what Princeton should do. The root of the protest was the naming (many years ago) of a building after Woodrow Wilson, who was a major benefactor of the university (along with a lot of other “rich white guys”) and also, of course, a notable president of the United States.

What I hadn’t known before listening to this was that he was also a segregationist who set back the cause of black equality significantly. I plead in my defence that I’m not American, and the history of the States in the 20th century tends only to interest me where it bears on the history of my home country or where it displays some major historical trend, though I’m tempted to quote “1066 and all that” and say “the Americans became top nation and history ended”.

The issue was that black students at Princeton felt uncomfortable and excluded by having to study in a building named after a prominent oppressor of black people. Now it’s difficult for me to put myself in their position – I’m white, male, English, British and European, and all of those are “privileged” categories. I’m also comfortably off by the standards of my relatively rich country, which also probably doesn’t help. OK, I do also have a number of features which move my “privilege” score down to something more median, but still, I must consider myself as being in a privileged position. Could you make me feel uncomfortable and excluded by the naming of a building I had to use? I’m not sure. Maybe the “Adolf Hitler Cultural Centre”, or the “Joseph Stalin Centre for Political Studies” might give me pause, but probably no more than a very mild discomfort. That’s a thing I’ll come back to later.

I have two main problems with removing Wilson’s name from the building. The first is that he did make a huge contribution to Princeton and to the fact that there is a building there at all. Gladwell’s suggestion of various other Wilson’s to name it after ignores that rather fundamental fact; those others didn’t make that contribution. In removing the name, you are erasing the building’s history (but then, the podcast IS called “Revisionist History”); with that, you are erasing both the good and the bad aspects of Woodrow Wilson. I have no problem with looking at history anew and finding new ways of interpreting it, but I have a huge problem with throwing away chunks of it in the process – generally when new historical ideas are proposed, they have some truth to them, but they are also a reaction against the previous dominant historical ideas, and have a tendency to overreact – very often, a better analysis is found in a synthesis of the two. Rewriting history is, of course, always the project of the winners of any conflict, but as Orwell described in “1984”, it makes a mockery of any search for truth.

Secondly, though, I challenge whether it’s Christian to do this. One essence of Christianity is the willingness to admit fault and ask for forgiveness (which, I concede, Wilson never did) but another is to offer that forgiveness to everyone. All that is left of Wilson is his memory, and erasing a chunk of that memory is a kind of death penalty (and as he has passed beyond earthly sanction, we can perhaps consider that he has already been adequately judged and, as appropriate, sanctioned and forgiven; “Judgment is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay“, with the subtext that we don’t need to and perhaps should not). Yes, that memory is at the moment only (at Princeton, at least) of the good he did, following the principle “de mortuis nil nisi bonum“. Clearly that memory is inadequate, and needs adding to – but not in the half-hearted and apologetic vein suggested by the Princeton graduate whose comment is on the podcast. Equally, though, I think it inappropriate that we should follow Shakepeare’s somewhat sarcastic “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones; so let it be with Caesar”.

The thing is, we extol the virtues of famous people but fail to mention their bad qualities. Often this leads to meteoric rises and falls – the public (often through the press) latches on to someone and puts them on a pedestal, and then finds flaws and brings them down again. It also leads to the idiocy of thinking that (say) a pop star is worth hearing about politics or economic theory.

What we should, I think, do is always hold in mind the fact that everyone is “simul justus et peccator“, Luther’s phrase to indicate that everyone remains a sinner while being justified or righteous. Or, indeed, forgiven. What we need is a balanced view of everyone; they will have their virtues and good deeds, they will also have their vices and evil deeds. Perhaps the best exposition of how I think we should view people is described in Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker for the Dead“; his invention of the “Speaker for the Dead” attempts to give just such a balanced view of those who have passed away, presenting them as a human being and inviting understanding rather than adulation or condemnation, and there are now some people who, following Card, will act as Speakers for the Dead at funerals.

So what should Princeton do? At present, they have an unbalanced testimony to Wilson’s good actions. I suggest a plaque is sufficient, not just giving a nod to his bad side but giving it equal weight with the good and recording that the bad is not approved while yet the good is celebrated.

And, as one should always “follow the money”, that might allow Princeton to assuage student’s anxieties while still not putting off future donors who are afraid their own contribution will end up on the scrap heap of history due to a reassessment of their character in the future…

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One Response to “Revisionist or balanced personal history?”

  1. Chris Says:

    I mentioned in the main post that some namings do make me slightly uncomfortable. Mostly, these are the naming of public buildings after people who have had no connection with the building or even the area in question. Both the examples I gave would fit that description, but there are also (for instance) a plethora of “Nelson Mandela House” namings. He has never had a serious connection with any particular area in the UK, so is not part of our history. Are we showing solidarity with his aims and objectives there? Would the Princeton protestors like something like that as a name for a Princeton building (as Mandela is an icon for at least some black people)? These are, I suppose, laudable objectives. But Mandela is still foreign to us here.

    Also, Mandela was an example of the process I described above – he died after some years of being hailed as a hero by a large number of people, but in his earlier years he was imprisoned by the South African government as a terrorist – a part of his history which is now generally considered just oppression by government. The thing is, he actually was, if not a terrorist himself, a supporter of terrorist actions, and his party (the ANC) have not distinguished themselves in the distant or, indeed, recent past by eschewing violence. There is a whole, interesting, discussion arising out of that as to how much terrorism is actually to be denounced and how much it is to be applauded – and naming buildings after him actually works against having that discussion.

    Unless you “Speak for the Dead” on a plaque attached to it…

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