Sunday, November 29, 2015

Flattening the Past: The Recent Controversy over Woodrow Wilson as a Case in Point

Recent protests at Princeton concerning the ways in which that university honors Woodrow Wilson have elicited an extraordinarily vituperative response. The essentials of the case seem to be as follows: historical research has drawn attention to the prominent role Wilson played in purging the American civil service of African Americans (except from the most menial positions); in keeping any African American out of Princeton while he was president of that university; and in preventing the League of Nations from adopting a proposed racial equality principle. In response, some students at Princeton have demanded that the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs be renamed, and that a Princeton residence named in Wilson’s honor also be renamed.

Predictably, many have rushed to attack the students—and in doing so have missed some of the most basic points about such debates about historical figures. Some declare vehemently that we must not try to “stamp out history”—as if the protesters were demanding that Wilson’s legacy not be discussed, rather than demanding he cease to be singled out for special honors at the institution. As Karen Attiah rightly put it in her November 25 Washington Post column on this topic,
Of course [such figures as Wilson and Cecil Rhodes] will never be erased from history; nor do they need to be. But in forcing their sins into the international limelight, universities, and society by extension, must reevaluate the lionizing of such men.
Others who attack the students’ demands emphasize the “nobody’s perfect” argument—pointing to the public and private flaws in everyone from George Washington to Martin Luther King, and suggesting that, by the protester’s logic, there is absolutely no one truly worthy of honoring.

While it is of course true that no one is without flaw, it is also true that, when we are judging public figures, large matters of public policy are more important than personal peccadilloes; that some have fewer flaws than others; that the achievements of some are greater than those of others; and, in the other direction, that the damage done by some is far greater than the damage done by others.

But how are we to judge fairly who should be honored and who is perhaps not so deserving of being honored? Another refrain of those attacking the Princeton students is that (to quote one comment in response to Attiah’s column), people such as the Princeton students must “stop demanding that historical figures be judged by the standards of today rather than by those of their own time.” One hears this said, of course, on almost every occasion when a historical figure is criticized for having been intolerant towards women, or towards those of other races, or towards gays and lesbians. The inference is often an extraordinarily simple one: that the past presents us with a flat picture, in which everyone in a given era (or at least every white male) was equally sexist, racist, and homophobic.

Let’s look at that assumption in the context of Woodrow Wilson’s attitudes about race. Did other American presidents of the time take a similar approach in dealing with African Americans in the civil service? Did other Ivy League universities in the early twentieth century act in much the same way as Princeton did under Wilson when it came to admitting African Americans as students?

The answer is in both cases a resounding no. Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt don't have a great record when it comes to African Americans and the civil service, but Wilson's is considerably worse. It’s worse as well than some of the oft-vilified Republican presidents of the 1920s; Calvin Coolidge, for example, apparently had a relatively good record in this area. Wilson’ racist policies as a university president during the years 1902-1910 also stand in contrast to others of his own era. African American students had by the first decade of the twentieth century been attending Harvard and Yale for more than twenty years; they were well established at Columbia as well. At Harvard African American women students were attending in sufficient numbers that they founded their own sorority in the first decade of the twentieth century.

It is with reference to facts such as those rather than purely “by the standards of today” that we should read Wilson’s refusal to allow even a single black student to enter Princeton. "The whole temper and tradition of the place,” he firmly declared of Princeton, “are such that no Negro has ever applied for admission, and it seems unlikely that the question will ever assume practical form." Wilson made very sure that the question indeed did not “assume practical form” during his tenure as university president—and it was not until the late 1940s, some seventy years after African Americans had begun to graduate from Harvard and Yale, that the same began to happen at Princeton.

Historical figures in any given era are not, in fact, all equally sexist and racist and homophobic; the past is not flat, and we should not try to make it so.

Nor should we feel obliged in perpetuity to pay special tribute to those who have been far more intolerant than others of their own era. The School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton will always have good reason to study Woodrow Wilson; surely they need not feel obliged to pay tribute to him.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Rising Stories in Winnipeg

The final story in the appendices to Rising Stories: A Novel concerns the Sears Tower—and also the broad topic of the correlation that exists between great ages of the skyscraper and periods of tremendous inequality in various societies. Was that the case in Winnipeg? That was a question I found myself asking before I visited the city for a launch event at McNally Robinson’s bookstore last week. So far as I can tell, the historic early twentieth century period of extraordinary growth in Winnipeg (during which the fine towers of the Exchange District went up) was indeed a period of unusually high inequality. Levels of urban poverty and appalling factory conditions in the city are described by Pierre Berton in his history of the settling of the Canadian west (The Promised Land) as being worse than anywhere else in western Canada; people in much of the north of the city lived in hovels and, if they had employment, worked for 20-25 cents an hour, while on the south side the mansions of the rich became grander and grander. (A 2004 article by Dan Nerbas, “Wealth and Privilege: An Analysis of Winnipeg’s Early Business Elite,” details this.) And certainly the skyscrapers in Winnipeg dwarfed those in other cities of the Canadian prairie. The 1908 Grain Exchange Building in Winnipeg? 11 stories. The 1909-10 Grain Exchange in Calgary? Only 6 stories. At that time, Winnipeg had taller skyscrapers than Calgary, and also higher levels of inequality.

* * *

Rising Stories touches on the notion that Winnipeg during the early decades of the twentieth century was “the Chicago of the North.” I confess I had thought of this historical moniker as being uncontroversial, but as I was doing a bit more research before last week’s Winnipeg event I came across a Brent Bellamy column in the August 25, 2014 Winnipeg Free Press that took issue with the whole concept. As Bellamy points out, Winnipeg skyscrapers in the early twentieth century arose though a good many connections to architects from New York and elsewhere, as well as from connections to Chicago architects. The Exchange District as a whole is often today characterized as “Chicago Style” or “Chicago School,” and Bellamy is I think right that such a description is problematic. (I think it’s also worth noting the degree to which Chicago and New York architects from the period are not discreet categories; before Frederick Dinkelberg designed the Jewelers’ Building in Chicago he had designed the Flatiron (aka the “Fuller Building”)in New York. After Raymond Hood designed the faux Gothic Chicago Tribune Tower in Chicago he went on to design Art Deco and modernist towers in New York. And so on.)

I would argue, though, that the best of the towers in Winnipeg’s Exchange District are in fact strongly influenced by the Chicago style. If the terms "Chicago School" or "Chicago Style" architecture from the early twentieth century are to mean anything, it is surely that, in addition to a steel frame and a cornice, a skyscraper will have large windows to let in the light (this made possible by the walls not needing to support the building’s weight); and the windows will be in groups, with vertical elements between the window groupings that emphasize the building’s height. A skyscraper such as the Union Bank Tower on Winnipeg's Main Street, by this definition, is not Chicago Style; there is no vertical element, and the windows are small and evenly spaced. Nor does the Grain Exchange fit the description of a Chicago Style tower.

Union Bank Building

The Lindsay Building, on the other hand, or the Confederation Life Building, or the Union Trust Building—all, to my eye, more attractive skyscrapers than the Union Bank Building—do indeed fit the “Chicago Style” description.

Lindsay Building

Confederation Life Building

More than the buildings themselves, of course, was the spirit of the city. People called Winnipeg the Chicago of the North not just because some of its skyscrapers resembled some of the skyscrapers in Chicago, but because they felt the bustling spirit of the railway town that was the Canadian gateway to the west resembled that of the railway town that filled the same role in America. The comparison certainly would not be apt today—and I guess that was a large part of Bellamy’s point in his Free Press piece. But in the 1910s or 1920s or 1930s? My guess is that the expression “Chicago of the North” captured something real; both were growing up in similar ways, and growing up fast.