The Chronicle Review

Don’t Repress the Past

Bob Child, AP Images

Students at Yale U. want to rename one of its residential houses, Calhoun College, to avoid honoring John C. Calhoun, a 19th-century proponent of slavery and secession.
November 20, 2015

Yes, Woodrow Wilson was a racist. So was Teddy Roosevelt, and every other president until — who? FDR? JFK? LBJ? Remember, the New Deal was predicated on the exclusion of black people from its benefits, including those provided through the Federal Housing Administration.

By the standards of our time, Abraham Lincoln was a racist who plainly stated — in impromptu remarks he chose to incorporate in the published version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 — that he wasn’t in favor of political or social equality between white and black people.

What then? What goes missing from current debates about, say, Wilson is the humility of retrospect — the capacity to recognize the possible limits of your ideas against the obvious failings of those who didn’t have the benefit of your education.

I teach social theory, G.W.F. Hegel to Judith Butler, in undergraduate and graduate courses. Until we get to de Beauvoir, the misogyny of the writers we study is consistent, even resolute, especially in Durkheim and Freud. (There are exceptions, among them Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, and Jane Addams.) How to teach the misogynistic thinkers?

I’m asked every semester why Hegel is such a formative figure in the curriculum — he is the theologian-turned-philosopher who famously claimed that Africa had no history, after all. Analogous questions might be asked about Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, just about anybody who wrote before 1950.

With respect to Hegel and race, the answer is his close, obsessive study of the revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture in what is now Haiti, which, as the political-philosophy professor Susan Buck-Morss has suggested, informs the master-slave dialectic at the heart of The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), and, by my reading, Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1821) as well.

It gets more complicated with the others — again, especially Durkheim and Freud. They were men of their time, and the notion of equality between the sexes seemed preposterous to most reputable observers (prominent exceptions are Mill and William James). Also, not incidentally, when the notion of equality between the races was countermanded by colonialism on the global stage and Supreme Court decisions on the domestic scene — Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), to be sure, but also, and perhaps more important, Williams v. Mississippi (1898), which validated the state’s Constitution of 1890 by noting that the disenfranchisement of black voters also excluded poor whites.

The question comes down to this: Do we read these theorists, repulsive warts and all, and learn what we can from them? Do we keep our differences with them, in other words, but engage with them anyway? Or do we decide that these differences saturate their texts so thoroughly that reading them becomes unbearable?

I’m asking the inverse of the question that led to the redefinition of the American literary canon in the late 20th century. The most difficult version of that question is: Do we exclude writers from the theoretical canon on the grounds that they were, by our standards, racists and misogynists? Where do we forage in our history if, on those grounds, we exclude Hesiod, Aristotle, Saul of Tarsus, Augustine, Aquinas, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Voltaire, and those arrogant Germans I’ve mentioned? The intellectual commons looks pretty barren if we’re fenced off from all those ideas.

Now transpose from the key of philosophy and literature to that of politics, through which contemporary movements have congregated on campuses. At Yale, the demand is to erase the monumental memory of Sen. John C. Calhoun, a force behind slavery and secession. At Princeton, the demand is to do the same with the physical memorialization of Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. president who segregated federal offices in 1913.

To my mind, these are ways of forgetting the past — repressing and mutilating it rather than learning from it, or, as the shrinks would say, working through it.

This nation was built on slavery and its offspring, racism. To think that we can ignore this fundamental fact is to pretend that we can escape the past, in keeping with that old frontier thesis — if we just light out for the territory along with Huck Finn, why, we’ll slip the yoke of a civilization predicated on barbarism. That way lie boyish beginnings and a model of the American Adam, but nothing else worth thinking with, or about.

I say keep Calhoun enshrined and teach the history of the Ivy League universities. Remind students that every Ivy League endowment, with the possible exception of Cornell, was connected either to the slave trade or to the Atlantic economy that could be constructed as a result.

As for Wilson: If we can acknowledge and teach the centrality of slavery and racism in 19th-century American history by keeping Calhoun on our minds, we can acknowledge and teach the centrality of imperialism and racism in 20th-century American history by keeping Wilson on our minds. As the historian William Leuchtenburg demonstrated many years ago, the social reforms we associate with progressivism, from the FDA to the Federal Reserve, were enabled by imperialism — every one of them. But then again the imperialism that Wilson sponsored was a vast improvement on the colonial precedent. It advocated national sovereignty and economic development rather than conquest and exploitation.

Walter Benjamin and Freud were right, in any case: The original sin of civilization is the brutal subjugation of what its defenders portray as the Other, whether that is a city, a country, a people, a race, or an unruly Id.

The barbarian is always at the gate. It’s only when we acknowledge that we ourselves are the barbarians that we can stop running from the past and start learning from it.

James Livingston teaches history at Rutgers University at New Brunswick. He is the author of Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture Is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul (2011).