Saturday, July 16, 2016

Reading Animals and Eating Animals:A Micro-Study of the Capacity of Literature to Spark Change

Many thanks to those who responded to the questionnaire posted on this blog a few months ago. The results are reported in the paper below (the full version of which, including footnotes and appendices, will soon be posted on SSRN as well). Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Northeast Modern Language Association Conference, Hartford, March 18, 2016) Don LePan with Maureen Okun, Vancouver Island University) To what degree is the experience of reading literature capable of affecting humans in ways that have ethical implications? A very substantial body of research in this area (by both literary scholars and psychologists) has focused on empathy; does reading a work of fiction tend to enhance our ability to relate emotionally to the lives of others? Some studies suggest it may well do so in certain circumstances—but some studies have also suggested that any such effect may be transient.

But what of literature’s capacity to bring about social change? To what extent can fiction change hearts and minds about real world issues? And can the effects be long-lasting? It has often been said that novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle caused significant changes in many readers’ attitudes—and in many readers’ behavior. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that this is so. There can be no doubt that such works helped to bring change, but studies of their impact sometimes suggest that they did so not so much by directly changing attitudes as by providing encouragement to the already committed, and by heightening the level of controversy.

One recent novel written with the explicit purpose of helping to bring about social change is my own Animals: A Novel (Véhicule Press edition 2009, Soft Skull/Counterpoint edition 2010); that book aims to engage readers imaginatively over the issue of cruelty in factory farming. In the seven years since the book was published, dozens of people have reported in conversation that they found the experience of reading the book quite powerful; several have reported in writing that the experience helped to change their attitudes, their behavior, or both.

The present study seeks to broaden the range of respondents, and also to go beyond the anecdotal. I contacted as many readers of Animals as possible, and asked them to complete a survey concerning the effect the experience of reading the book has had on their behavior, and on their attitudes. All responses were provided anonymously. The hope was that the survey results would quantify in a somewhat more scientific fashion than the anecdotal responses had done the degree to which the experience of reading this literary work has contributed to specific changes in attitudes (and/or behavior) on the part of readers—and also the extent to which any changes have been lasting.

Let me turn first to what the respondents say on the question of attitudes—the eighth and last question on the survey. Here the results seem unequivocal: 65% of those answering this question (and 59% of all respondents) indicated that the experience of reading the book had contributed either “to a considerable degree” (35%) or “at least to some slight degree” (30%) to an increase in their level of concern for the welfare of non-human animals.

Attitudes are one thing; behavior is quite another. One may come more and more strongly in one’s belief system to be in favor, for example, of ending slavery while still—until the day that happens—remaining a slave-owner oneself. And one may be in favor of ending the cruelties of factory farming while continuing to consume the products of that cruelty every day. But it would seem from the answers to questions 5 and 6 that the experience of reading Animals had just as much of an effect on behavior as on attitudes: 70% of those answering Question 5 (and 64% of all respondents) indicated that the experience of reading the book had contributed either “to a considerable degree” (15%) or “to at least some degree” (55%) to this change. Moreover, 65% of those answering Question 6 (and 59 % of all respondents) indicated that the experience of reading the book had contributed to a lasting effect on their behavior.

“Lasting for how long?” one may fairly ask. Here too the survey results provide a fairly clear answer. The vast majority of respondents were people who had read the novel at least three years before responding; fully 90% of respondents read the book either when it first appeared in 2009-2010 (73%) or in the years 2011-2012 (18%). The survey is thus able to provide useful information as to how lasting the effect may have been—as would not have been the case if, for example, 90% of respondents had read the novel less than six months before responding.

Questions 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7 are designed to explore with more precision first, the question of how long lasting any effect on behavior may be; and second, the question of the degree to which respondents’ behavior has actually changed. Questions 2, 3, and 4 ask the same set of questions for different times: before reading the novel, six months to a year after reading the novel, and today (which, for 90% of respondents, is at least three years after reading the novel).

What is perhaps most striking in the answers to these questions, given the high percentages of respondents who reported changed behavior, is how little actual change in behavior is reported. Particularly given that the sample responding to the survey is almost certainly skewed towards readers who were strongly influenced by the book, one might have expected there to be a more dramatic shift. The shifts indicated here are relatively modest. In percentage terms, the reduction in those describing themselves as in one of the two categories least concerned about animal welfare may be striking—the number drops in half—but when the absolute numbers are from 6 respondents to 3 respondents, it’s hard to portray the change as earth-shattering. Nor is the change at the other end particularly dramatic—the number reporting themselves to be either vegetarian or vegan increasing from 7 to 9, or from 31.82 to 40.91 per cent of the total. Those in the middle—omnivores who “to a considerable degree” limit their consumption of animal products “for reasons relating to the treatment of non-human animals” continue to constitute the largest block. The composition of that block has presumably shifted over time, with some of those who have moved out of the lowest two groups entering this larger middle group, as those who become vegetarians or vegans leave it. But there is also, of course, a good deal of space for movement within the large, middle group. One may move from eating free-range meat frequently to eating meat only if it is free range (and from a farmer one trusts to treat the animals well before they are killed), and still stay within that broad, middle category. One may move from very occasionally choosing dairy products that one knows are from organic farms where the cows are treated well to consuming dairy products only if those conditions are met—and again, stay entirely in that broad middle category. One respondent emailed me after she had completed the survey to comment on this sort of nuanced point:
The survey is lacking some possibilities, as you probably know. For instance, I experimented with vegan products, but I couldn't develop a taste for some of them. Nevertheless, I try to make more vegan choices in my diet, and buy only organic products (particularly milk) approved by Natural Grocers. … [I]t was not solely reading your book that caused these changes, though it is very powerful.
The answers to Questions 2, 3, and 4, then, are consistent with the responses given to Question 7. The reported changes in behavior are not always large, and the degree to which the experience of reading Animals contributed to those changes is not always great. But for most respondents there was a change, and for most respondents the experience of reading the novel did contribute to that change.

That is to put everything in the past tense. We should look too at the responses to Question 7: might the experience of reading Animals contribute to some future change in behavior for readers? Very interestingly, 6 people—some 30% of the total number of respondents—thought it quite possible that the experience of reading Animals would contribute to some future change in their behavior—and a further 7 did not rule out the possibility entirely. In total, then, some 65% of respondents did not rule out the possibility that the experience of reading a book could influence their behavior in the future. If we recall here the results of Question 1, we realize that of those 13 respondents, at least 11must have read the book in 2012 or earlier—at least three years before completing this survey. And a number of those people had clearly been altering their behavior already, in part at least as a result of the experience of reading this text. Even three, four, or five years after reading a book, in other words, many think it still possible for the experience of reading a novel to exert a further effect on their behavior.

This may seem implausible—I would have thought it implausible myself many years ago. But in fact it accords entirely with my own experience—with both fiction and non-fiction. It was I think in 1991 that I read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. This was my introduction to the atrocities of factory farming; I was shocked, and I am sure deeply influenced. But to what extent did I change my behavior? At first, not at all. And when changes in my behavior did come, they were very gradual; beginning in the late 1990s, I began to eat free-range meat and free-range eggs when I could, and dairy milk from cows who I believed to have been relatively well treated. In the early years of this century I became more and more passionate about the evils of factory farming. In 2005 the outline of a story that could dramatize those evils came to me, and I began working on Animals. When the novel was published in 2009 I still believed that the novel’s essential argument was against factory farming—not against eating animal products. A number of readers suggested that in fact the afterword I had written went against the grain of the story—that Animals constituted an argument not just against the evils of factory farming, but against the human practice of consuming other animals. Over the years since then, I have come to agree with them. (When the next edition of Animals is published, it will carry a very different afterword—or no afterword at all.) Both with my experience of reading Animal Liberation, then, and with my experience of writing Animals, I found that experiencing a book could continue to affect my behavior many years afterwards. * * * For most of the past two centuries the tide in literary criticism and theory—indeed, in literary circles of all sorts—has run heavily against didacticism. Interestingly, even those who have endorsed the notion that all literature is political have been carried with the tide; if a book is described as a powerful political statement, that may safely be taken to mean simply that the book embraces a world view broadly critical of establishment values—not that the book aims to prompt us quite specifically to change our behavior (to devote more time and money than we have been to helping the homeless, for example, or the poor in the developing world, or young women who are being denied an education, or gays and lesbians who in so much of the world are still denied any rights whatsoever). Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, on the other hand, or Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, are political in a very different sense; like Animals, they were written with the intention of changing readers’ attitudes –and behavior—in quite specific ways. They are examples of literature that is not just political, but didactic. There are some signs that the tide in literary circles is beginning to turn. Black Beauty and The Jungle now appear frequently on university courses—as works of aesthetic as well as historical interest. And some of the leading lights of literary criticism and theory have begun to openly acknowledge the possibility that didactic literature can also be good literature. Here, for example, is Terry Eagleton, writing in 2012: That even a touch of didacticism is distasteful is as received a judgement for the literary establishment as is the suggestion that Shakespeare wrote some pretty impressive stuff. But it is surely not the case [that didacticism should be regarded as inherently distasteful]. “Didactic” simply means a matter of teaching and there is no reason why all teaching should be hectoring or doctrinaire. Brecht’s Lehrstücke, Lancelot Andrewe’s sermons, and William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell are didactic works which are also potent pieces of art. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not an embarrassingly second-rate novel because it has a specific moral purpose—so does Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” Tolstoy’s Resurrection, and Orwell’s Animal Farm—but because of the way it executes it. (The Event of Literature, 68-69) Yet Uncle Tom’s Cabin is widely assumed to have succeeded in its didactic purpose at least as well as did any of these other works. Is Eagleton wrong about Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Is it, as some others have suggested in recent years, a far better novel aesthetically than the twentieth century took it to be? Or, if Eagleton is right, does bad literature work best when it comes to doing good? Those are some of the larger questions that seem to me to be worthy of discussion. But to do so in an informed way, it seems to me that we should try to find out more about what literature can actually do by way of changing human attitudes—and human behavior. This paper represents a very small step in that direction.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Student Protests and the Media: Why Have Trigger Warnings Trumped Tuition Fees?

The latest New Yorker carries a long article by Nathan Heller entitled “What’s Roiling the Liberal-Arts Campus.” Unlike the widely-read Atlantic article by Greg Lukanioff and Jonathan Haidt published last September (“The Coddling of the American Mind”), this one takes a largely positive view of campus unrest over a wide variety of issues, ranging from trigger warnings to college administrations’ treatment of people of color, people with disabilities, and people with sexual orientations that may not fit traditional categories. Whereas Lukanioff and Haidt, focusing largely on the trigger warnings controversy, fret in the Atlantic over whether students are too “coddled” and ask if calls for trigger warnings might spark a threat to academic freedom, Heller suggests that the “Firebrands,” as he calls today’s crop of protesters, are re-setting norms and may be “shifting the default settings of political culture.” But both articles seem to agree that what’s happening represents something fundamentally new—and something that’s becoming very widespread.

There are indeed some new and interesting things happening in many of these student protest movements (and perhaps some worrisome ones too, not least of all insofar as a seeming rise in anti-Semitism at many campuses is concerned). But how widespread are these sorts of radical protests over new sets of issues? Read these articles closely and you’ll see a very few campuses mentioned again and again. Repeatedly, it’s suggested that “America’s colleges and universities” generally (Lukanioff & Haidt) are being greatly affected by a new movement—or at the very least “the liberal-arts campus” (Heller) is undergoing something of a revolution. But the evidence provided is almost entirely anecdotal, and the same fifteen or twenty colleges—Oberlin, Amherst, Northwestern, and so on—crop up again and again in the examples. Fifteen or twenty out of well over 2,000. Maybe they are indeed representative—but where are the numbers? How widespread is all this?

Heller tells us that “when Wesleyan’s [student] newspaper published a controversial opinion piece questioning the integrity of the Black Lives Matter movement, some hundred and seventy people signed a petition that would have defunded the paper.” So there’s a number—170 students. Quite a few, perhaps, but to put it in another way, a little over 5% of Wesleyan’s student population of about 3,000.

In the previous paragraph Heller gives another number: after mentioning various controversies “in mid-November” of 2015 over racial and cultural issues at Yale, Claremont McKenna, and Ithaca College, Heller asserts that “more than a hundred other schools held rallies that week.” That number seemed surprisingly large to me. Granted, it would still be far, far smaller than the 500 or more campuses at which there were sometimes simultaneous demonstrations in the Vietnam War era. But my sense (as someone who spends a fair bit of time on a number of American campuses each term) was that, rightly or wrongly, the protests over these racial and cultural issues had been nothing like so widespread.

I googled, of course. There had indeed been that at least that many “mid-November” student protests—but the great majority of them had nothing to do with racial or cultural issues. So far as the number of protests are concerned, here’s the key November 12 news item (as phrased by the Reuters report): “Students hold demonstrations on university campuses across the United States to protest against ballooning loan debt for higher education and rally for tuition-free public colleges.” A worthy cause, I’d say, but not one that most people would automatically connect with protests about insensitive treatment of racial issues or inadequate trigger warnings—and not one that Heller focuses on in his article (though he does touch on the effects of economic hardship for some students).

One can argue, of course, that everything is connected—that every issue of class and education and race and sexual orientation and culture and the economy can be linked with every other issue, including high tuition fees and inadequate student loans. (Interestingly—and to their credit, I would say—the Million Student March of November 12 also called for an increase in wages for campus workers.) Arguably, though, explorations of the issues start to lose focus if they are trying to deal simultaneously with movements as disparate as the push for trigger warnings and Black Lives Matter. And certainly such explorations will leave a misleading impression if they reference the total number of student protests at a given time but neglect to mention that the majority of these protests were over an issue that the writer has not listed.

Heller is not alone in giving short-shrift to the issue of economic hardship for students. The New York Times carried several articles on culture-related and race-related student protests that week (including a November 15 1,600-word feature article on how a dean at Yale had been “Racked By Racial Protests” at that university), but—so far as I could see—no coverage at all of the large countrywide protests Thursday, November 12 over student loans and tuition fees. The Wall Street Journal seems not to have covered those November 12 protests either—though they too carried articles on culture and race-related student protests that week, and an op-ed feature with a predictable slant: “The Rise of the College Cry-bullies: The status of victim has been weaponized at campuses across the nation.” Elsewhere too, those November 12 protests seem to have received relatively little coverage in the media—though at least brief reports did appear in the Washington Post, USA Today, and, among others. Overall, though, it would seem that the largest cause of student unrest in America is also the one that the media is giving the least attention.

I certainly wouldn't want to argue that protests over Black Lives Matter or gender issues or sexual orientation issues deserve any less coverage than they've been getting; all are important. But I would argue that the protests over the issue of the cost of higher education deserve more coverage. And if Hillary Clinton wants to improve her chances of getting young people out to vote and defeat Donald Trump, one would think she'd be well advised to pay a good deal of attention to this issue herself in the coming months.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Reading and Writing and Work

Last year I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to edit John Bart’s novel Middenrammers, which has now just been published. I should say at once that it required very little by way of editing—and that it was and is a very great pleasure to read.

It’s easy to forget the virtues of simplicity in the world of today’s literary fiction—a world that tends to place a premium on certain forms of literary stylishness. At a sentence-by-sentence level, striking metaphors are often disproportionately valued, as are sentences designed to impart vividness through every verb, every adverb, every adjective. We are assured that such work will repay slow and careful reading, that it is worth taking the time to reflect on the poetic qualities of what we read.

At the level of narrative structure, complexity is often disproportionately valued—flashbacks, flash-forwards, and various other devices that often force the reader to spend a good deal of time figuring out what happened when, and to whom (or perhaps I should say what happens when, for the historical present has largely taken over between the covers of literary novels). Again, we are assured that the effort invested will be repaid; at some level, we are often told, the novel we are reading is not just about the characters, or about the things novels used to be about—love and money—but “about language itself,” or “about memory itself,” and it’s worth taking the time to work all that out.

At some level, certainly, all this is work; “literary fiction” might well be defined as “fiction the reader is expected to work at appreciating.” That’s not to say that such work can’t also be a pleasure, of course; indeed, there can be few greater pleasures than reading a great literary novel. But when a literary novel is less than great—and such is the case most of the time—the reader can surely be forgiven for wondering if the work is worth it. When the sentences start to creak with the strain of all that vividness imparting, and the tangles in the narrative start to seem as pointless as they are dense, we can be forgiven for wishing we had opted instead for a book that aimed to please without making us work.

Stylistically, Middenrammers does precisely that. It tells its story straightforwardly, from beginning to middle to end—and a gripping story it is, too; a doctor and a midwife take sides against the medical establishment in a 1970 Yorkshire community where women still struggle for reproductive rights. At a sentence-by-sentence level the narrative never calls attention to its style. Descriptions—including several memorable descriptions of crises being dealt with as women give birth—are entirely matter-of-fact; metaphors are rarely employed, and even adjectives and adverbs are used sparingly. About as close as the book comes to a “poetic” passage is this nicely understated end-of-chapter description of the book’s protagonist leaving the hospital after a difficult delivery:
I was surprised to find it was evening outside. The rough grass at the edge of the path to the prefabs was wet. Perhaps it had rained. Perhaps it was just sea spray. The standard lamps along the way had a stippled halo around their bulbs. Everything looked washed and worn, and I felt the same.
If Middenrammers is straightforward so far as its style is concerned—an easy read, from that angle—its subject matter certainly does not always make for easy reading. The story is emotionally wrenching at more than one point, and it certainly carries with it an important message about medical practice. Though the style doesn’t make readers work, in other words, we may have to work a bit to come to grips with the novel’s content.

I want to make one more point about Middenrammers and work—which is simply to say that the novel concerns what happens at work far more than do most novels. (Television programs deal with the workplace a good deal—literary novels, not so much.) Most novels in any era—and certainly most novels of the past few decades—foreground personal relationships outside the workplace. Love and money are the traditional topics of the novel, not love and work. To be sure, personal relationships are part of the story of Middenrammers too—but the heart of the novel is what happens at work—in this case, at a small Yorkshire hospital.

The closest literary analogy to Middenrammers I can think of is the fiction of Nevil Shute—novels such as Landfall (about the struggle to develop better planes during WW II) and The Ruined City (about the struggle to revive a shipbuilding town that has fallen on hard times). Like Bart, Shute wrote in an utterly matter-of-fact style; like Middenrammers, these novels of his deal with personal and romantic relationships as well as business and professional ones. But in all these cases, the work developments are at least as important to the progress of the story as are the personal ones.

Like Shute’s novels too, Bart’s Middenrammers is entirely engaging—and no less well-written for being written with clarity and simplicity.

Let me end with a thought about writing and work more generally: writing and work can go together far better than many aspiring writers assume. By “work” in this context, I mean of course work other than writing—but, more than that, work that you find truly engaging (not “day jobs” that you don't care about and work at only in order to give you time and money to write). Working at something you care about can of course provide raw material for your writing—and for most of us, it beats sitting at a desk staring at blank paper when you’re finding creative writing difficult. But arguably it can also help develop habits of caring about life in a broader variety of ways than can a more purely writer’s life. It’s surely not coincidence that both Bart and Shute, who write so well about work, did not make writing their life’s work. (Though he became a best-selling novelist later on in life, Shute worked in aviation and as an engineer for several decades; Bart has worked as a doctor for over forty years.) Young writers sometimes assume that the key to success as a writer is to find time to write—the ideal being a position in a Creative Writing Department that does not impose too heavy a teaching load. It’s certainly true that some fine writers have followed that route—and remained fine writers even after having done so. And of course many great writers—Jane Austen perhaps chief among them —never took paid employment of any sort at any time. But the body of work done by writers who worked at work other than writing is pretty impressive; among them are Geoffrey Chaucer the comptroller and diplomat, Anton Chekhov the doctor, Joseph Conrad the sea captain, George Eliot the periodical editor, T.S. Eliot the banker, Henry Green the industrialist, Thomas Hardy the architect, Philip Larkin the librarian, Wallace Stevens the insurance executive, Virginia Woolf the publisher, and Anthony Trollope the Post Office inspector. Whatever works for you, I say.

PS One related idea is simply that having some experience in the world helps when writing fiction. On that theme there was an interesting piece in the Globe recently--Want to write a novel? First Novel Awards finalists say it's better with age (April 16).

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Ownership and the Long Term: The Case for Bombardier and the C Series

If there is one thing on which every mainstream commentator on the Canadian economy and Canadian politics has agreed over the past year, it's that Bombardier’s dual share structure, which allows the Beaudoin family to control the fortunes of the company even though they hold a minority of its equity, is bad for the other shareholders, and bad for Canada. The near-universal consensus* has been that the federal government should make any investment in Bombardier’s fortunes contingent on the company abandoning its dual share structure, and treating all shares equally.

Intuitively it all makes sense. Equal has to be good, right? And Bombardier’s other shareholders probably would have benefited in the short term if the company had, for example, sold off its train division last year, or sold the C series to Airbus. (Both sorts of deals were said to be on the table.)

But what about the long term? Where would the shareholders be? Where would Canada be? Without its biggest contributor to R&D, for one thing. Bombardier’s investment in research and development totals about $2 billion a year—one sixth of all R&D spending in the entire country. Canada would also be without its only big league player in the aerospace industry. And Canada would be without a company that is making a larger contribution to greening the world economy than almost any other corporation in the country; the appeal of the C series is very largely that it uses far, far less jet fuel than the average plane today—and less than its new competitors from Airbus and Boeing and Embraer too.

For the fact is that, without the dual share structure which has enabled Bombardier to remain in family hands, Bombardier in all likelihood wouldn’t be in Canadian hands at all. When its share price kept falling and falling in 2015 until the company’s shares were selling for bargain basement prices, a Chinese company would surely have snapped up not just the rail division, but the entire company. Or Airbus or Boeing would have done so, simply to kill the competition. Or a takeover specialist such as Carl Icahn would have orchestrated a buyout.

For Bombardier shareholders like me, who are in it for the long term, it’s a very, very good thing that the company has remained in family hands, and that they have taken the long view. Have there been mistakes? Sure? Is the C series late and over-budget? Sure. Those things are true of virtually every major project that any ambitious company takes on. But the company seems to have a great management team in place now, and—most importantly—they have succeeded in developing an absolutely superb plane. Before long they will again come to be acknowledged as a company responsible for some of Canada’s greatest technology and manufacturing successes.

If Canadians really do want the country’s economy to be about more than resources, this is a company we do not want to die. And if people everywhere want air travel to be more environmentally friendly, we should be grateful that Boeing or Airbus hasn’t been able to drive Bombardier and its C series out of business.
*The only places I've seen any other views expressed have been posted a few comments on sites such as, and of course in Bombardier's own statements

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Wrong Kind of Animals

The lead-in for the CBC Radio news this morning gave advance notice of a featured story: "Snare traps in British Columbia are catching the wrong kind of animals." As the story reported, snares set on Crown land near residential areas have been catching dogs rather than the wild animals for whom they were intended. Randy McNolty's dog Almoe is pictured on the CBC site, having evidently died a cruel and painful death in the trap:

Dog snared in wildlife trap prompts call for tighter laws

As a society, do we really think there is a right kind of animal to die in this sort of way? The law allows--some would say encourages--this sort of killing of a fox or a lynx or an otter or a muskrat or a marten or a bobcat or a coyote--or any one of ten other species of animal.

Are human beings the right sort of animal to be doing this--or to be allowing this?

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Reading Animals and Eating Animals

Can literature change hearts and minds about real world issues? And can such effects be long-lasting? It is often assumed that novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed readers’ attitudes. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that this was so—and some have suggested that such novels may have facilitated change less by changing attitudes as by providing encouragement to the committed.

As part of a session at the NEMLA (Northeast MLA) conference in March 2016 (organized by Laura Struve and Ursula McTaggart and entitled "Literature that Sparks Social Change"), I'll be giving a paper that focuses on the degree to which the experience of reading Animals may have contributed to changes in attitudes and behavior for some readers. I'm hoping you may be willing to help.

I've now posted a short questionnaire on this topic that my partner, Maureen Okun, helped me put together. Responding should take no more than a couple of minutes; I'd be very grateful indeed if you may be willing to answer the 8 multiple choice questions. The questionnaire has been posted through Survey Monkey, and they will tabulate the responses. All answers are anonymous; neither nor anyone else will be able to see how you responded.

Here's the survey; I do hope you'll check it out!

Create your own user feedback survey

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.