Glenn Beck, Woodrow Wilson, and Liberalism

The Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank is bemused by Glenn Beck's fixation on the abiding evil influence of Woodrow Wilson, which he links to Beck's defiance of the convention against comparing political opponents to Nazis. (I suspect that if the taboo has eroded for Beck and others it's because it's hard to call people communist sympathizers any more, but that's another issue. And anyway, Beck and the Right didn't start the metaphor.)

I actually think Glenn Beck is right to be fascinated by Wilson. I am, too. But I can't agree that Wilson is still a liberal hero who needs to be unmasked. Au contraire, Wilson is a much-beleaguered figure among liberals and libertarians, who regard him -- rightly -- as a racist even by the standards of his time. Screening Birth of a Nation in the White House was typical, as Charles Paul Freund has observed in Reason. And at the Congress of Versailles in 1919, Wilson helped the British delegation block a Japanese proposal for a racial equality clause in the League of Nations Covenant. As Hugh Purcell has written in History Today (July 2009):

Woodrow Wilson's closest adviser, Colonel House, passed the President a note: 'The trouble is that if the Commission [the Covenant Committee] should pass it [the amendment], it would surely raise the race issue throughout the world.'
    Wilson took the point and addressed the meeting in his headmasterly way, frank but firm. He said that the League was 'obviously based on the principle of the equality of nations' but once you spelt it out you invited 'embarrassments'. It was his own interest 'to quieten discussion that raises national differences and racial prejudices'.

Did this attitude, in part a concession to West Coast anti-Asian prejudice, in itself cause Pearl Harbor? Of course not, but Purcell recalls the words of the disappointed Japanese ambassador:

Such a frame of mind, I am afraid, would be most detrimental to that harmony and cooperation upon which foundation alone can the League now be contemplated to be securely built.

"He was prophetic," Purcell continues. "In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria; in 1933 it left the League and so began its aggression that led it into the Second World War."

Likewise supporting Beck's eugenics theme is the policy of the Wilson administration toward people with disabilities. As the economist Thomas C. Leonard has written in the Journal of Economic Perspectives:

For progressives, a legal minimum wage had the useful property of sorting the
unfit, who would lose their jobs, from the deserving workers, who would retain their
jobs. Royal Meeker, a Princeton economist who served as Woodrow Wilson's U.S.
Commissioner of Labor, opposed a proposal to subsidize the wages of poor workers
for this reason. Meeker preferred a wage floor because it would disemploy unfit
workers and thereby enable their culling from the work force. "It is much better to
enact a minimum-wage law even if it deprives these unfortunates of work," argued
Meeker. . . . "Better that the state should support the inefficient wholly
and prevent the multiplication of the breed than subsidize incompetence and
unthrift, enabling them to bring forth more of their kind."

Beck is only the latest in a series of what my friend the sociologist Gary Fine calls reputational entrepreneurs. Reality is always more complex than the high and low points of the record. In my own reading of Wilson's works and contemporaries' comments, I've found a side of Wilson that -- before his presidency -- led many African American voters to support him. At a time when religious bias was still rampant, Wilson appointed Princeton's first Jewish and Roman Catholic professors. He created a model of higher education and faculty-student relationships, ably summarized by another friend, Barksdale Maynard, that has survived his prejudices, even if it is too seldom realized in practice. What's sad about Wilson is that he tried to sustain two incompatible goals, the development of every person's potential on one side, and the enforcement of collective unanimity on the other, even if avoiding "embarrassments" meant betraying ideals. Once war was declared, the second prevailed. German books were burned in some states, and the summary dismissals of anti-war professors remain some of the most powerful rationales for academic tenure. In this sense there is more of Woodrow Wilson in the Tea Party movement than its leaders would like to acknowledge.

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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