The recent news out of Princeton University is that its favorite son, Woodrow Wilson, is persona non grata.
President of Princeton, governor of New Jersey, and finally president of the United States, his accomplishments as chief executive were the Federal Reserve Act, limiting railway workers to an eight-hour day, prohibiting child labor, leading the country through World War I and fostering the League of Nations — predecessor of the United Nations.
However, he was a segregationist. Hence the bum’s rush by Princeton students who have discovered they are offended by Wilson’s failings vis-a-vis the races.
Exhibit No. 2: Atticus Finch. Harper Lee’s masterpiece, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” acquainted us with a man who was the epitome of principled thought and behavior, a widowed attorney willing to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. In segregated, Jim Crow, Depression-era Georgia. (His nobility inspired the spawning of little Atticuses all over the country.) Then, only months ago, the bombshell: “Go Set a Watchman,” by the same author, shows a septuagenarian Atticus some 20 years later, still principled, still dedicated to the law but candid about what he views as the limited capabilities of the poorly educated blacks around him. As with Woodrow Wilson, opinion has turned on a dime, and there is no shortage of folks who feel betrayed by a man — fictional, though he is — they now view as a “racist.”
So what is one to make of finding Woodrow Wilson and Atticus Finch suddenly abroil on the rotisserie of relativism? The standard of flawlessness is being applied not by the ignorant and uninformed but instead by intelligent and otherwise tolerant folk who seem to believe that in this year, 2015, a somehow magical year, we have finally arrived at that plateau of understanding where all is finally clear — a revelation we thought would be dispensed only by the Almighty at the Final Reckoning. They look back in judgment at the past and, using the standards and expectations of this particular moment in time, find themselves champing at the bit to retry past historical figures, superimposing on them a grid in which character is measured in degrees of latitude and longitude in an attempt to locate that intersection marked “perfection.”
In Wilson’s and Finch’s days, if a disinterested American standing anywhere in the country were to throw a stone in any direction, he would most likely strike a segregationist, because, back then, such sentiments were matter of fact, forming a sort of societal soup in which everyone marinated. People, in short, reflected their social milieu by speaking and acting out what they were taught. Woodrow Wilson was no exception. When he spoke segregation, heads nodded, and, like all politicians in all eras, approbation was his life’s blood.
Wilson and Finch, then, were products of their times. What is remarkable is not that larger-than-life personalities such as these were bigots but that they were able to rise above their bigotry and the tenor of their times to do good. One can celebrate and memorialize this while still acknowledging the flaws of these men. All of us are the sum of our parts. Few — Hitler and Stalin come to mind — are referenced exclusively by the evil of their natures. We are all tainted by the periods in which we live. To believe this is not true is foolish, for in our search for the man or woman possessed of only thoroughgoing morality and goodness, we doom ourselves to unremitting frustration.
Which brings me to exhibit No. 3: me. When I was a little boy in ’60s-era New Jersey I referred to black people as “coloreds,” as did everybody around me, including my black neighbors. I feel I have done a fair share of good in the world, but now that I have made this confession about the vernacular of my childhood, I feel vaguely at risk. (I may never have a building named after me.) The advantage I have over Wilson and Finch, though, is that I have lived to see the dawn of another era, one in which I no longer say “colored” — and who knows but that one day “African-American” may be viewed as pejorative. Again, I reflect the sensibilities and language of the time I am presently inhabiting.
And if classical expertise in this matter is desired, then I’d like to make reference to Pericles, a Greek general who, in extolling any man who rose to fight for Athens, remarked, “His merits as a citizen more than outweighed his demerits as an individual.” An astute commentary, for which I honor Pericles — even though he was a warmonger, a quality highly esteemed in his time.
Robert Klose teaches at the University of Maine at Augusta’s Bangor campus and is a four-time winner of the Maine Press Association award for opinion writing. His recent novel, “Long Live Grover Cleveland,” has just won a USA Book News award.