Monday, August 24, 2009

A Liberal saint?

have seen a number of references lately to the UU World article, The liberal saints . "In 1956 Andrene Kauffman, a Third Unitarian member who was a muralist and longtime instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago, was inspired by a sermon to create the portraits. The sermon, by the Rev. E.T. Buehrer, minister at Third Unitarian from 1941 to 1969, was entitled “The Saints of Liberalism.” The sermon led Kauffman to paint twenty-four figures, many of them mentioned in the sermon. She finished the first one, of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, in 1956." I know Kauffman's high opinion of Wilson is universal amongst liberals; he is often rated in the top five US Presidents... something that is incomprehensible to me. Most particularly, I cannot comprehend UUs considering him a saint.

Liberals usually give two reasons for considering Wilson a saint- primarily for his League Of Nations, and secondarily for establishing the first federal income tax. How can I possibly dislike the man who showed such idealism in foreign policy, and gave us the mechanism to do a little social engineering and soak the evil rich? Easily... let's start with the fact that he was a virulent white supremacist that destroyed what progress we had made so far in race relations since the Civil War. Here is a quote of his that appeared in the movie, "Birth of a Nation". While president of Princeton University, Wilson discouraged blacks from even applying for admission, the first black student not being admitted until 1945. He reversed what integregation had been accomplished in the armed forces, re-segregating them. For the first time since 1863, he segregated civilian federal employees. He signed a law making racial intermarriage a felony in the District of Columbia. He aided and encouraged the creation of "Jim Crow" laws.

In view of his racial attitudes, it is no surprise that he was also a proponent of eugenics, and signed forced sterilization into law. 60,000 American citizens were subjected to involuntary sterilization- some by full castration- before the laws were overturned. He encouraged marriage laws that excluded not only mixed race marriages, but marriages to people with any of a long list of disabilities, or a family history of "criminal tendencies".

But then, respect for civil rights in general wasn't one of his long suits. He created the draft, despite the fact that there was no shortage of volunteers for military service. Then there were the Espionage, Sabotage, and Sedition acts that made it illegal to oppose WWI or the government's prosecution of it. Vigilante groups, with the approval of the Justice Dept., trashed publishers and newspapers who wrote against the war, and informed on their friends and neighbors for speaking out. Socialist Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for asking why should workers from various countries fight against each other for the interests of the wealthy and powerful. (I guess that Debs had noticed that while the war did result in full employment, CEOs did better than workers; 42,000 millionaires were created during the war, while workers actually lost ground- wages increased by only 20%, while inflation went up 37% )

Of course, the war that Debs was imprisoned for speaking against, WWI, was a war of choice. While declaring the US officially neutral, (he even ran on "He kept us out of the war"), he violated all international laws of neutrality. He participated in the embargo against Germany, halting even shipments of food and medicine, causing starvation amongst German civilians, while simultaneously not only selling weapons to England and France, but arranging sweetheart loans from American banks... and shipping those weapons on civilian ships. I'm sure you've heard of the sinking of the Lusitania- but did you know it was carrying 4.2 million rounds of ammunition? His own Secretary of State resigned over this issue, and the starvation the blockade caused- it continued even after the cessation of hostilities- was a contributing factor to the resentment that resulted in the rise of the Nazi party. In "Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s", John Maynard Keynes cited the testimony of an observer who accompanied Herbert Hoover's mission to help the starving:
You think [this] is a kindergarten for the little ones. No, these are children of seven and eight years. Tiny faces, with large, dull eyes, overshadowed by huge puffed, rickety foreheads, their small arms just skin and bones, and above the crooked legs with their dislocated joints the swollen, pointed stomachs of the hunger edema... "You see this child here," the physician in charge explained, "it consumed an incredible amount of bread, and yet it did not get any stronger. I found out that it hid all the bread it received underneath its straw mattress. The fear of hunger was so deeply rooted in the child that it collected the stores instead of eating the food: a misguided animal instinct made the dread of hunger worse than the actual pangs."

But these weren't the only resentments Woodrow Wilson's foreign policies created. There were the invasions of Mexico, Haiti, The Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, for example. Yeah, a lot of Presidents have abused the Monroe doctrine; but he also sent 5,000 soldiers to Russia to take sides in their civil war, tainting relations with the new Soviet union to come, and setting a fine precedent for Vietnam forty years later.

If Woodrow Wilson is a saint, call me an atheist.


Davis said...

Thanks for putting the "rest of the story" concerning Wilson online. I believe that we should know the warts as well as the glories of the "famous" people because we can then make an informed decision about how we feel about those persons.

I usually come away even more impressed that the person could achieve any good acts given their shortcomings.

In truth, I once didn't want to know the warts--I wanted my heros to be somehow better than me. Now I accept that they too are flawed humans. This gives me hope for it means I too can do great things.

Chalicechick said...

I am so with you on Wilson.

Anonymous said...

As an old Wobbly, I second your opinion of Wilson.

He was an unreconstructed Confederate via his Virginia mother. He was able to cloak those beliefs under his reputation as a “liberal” president of Princeton and Governor of New Jersey. Of course the “Solid South” knew it and pushed his nomination over another nod to Western populist William Jennings Bryan. Yet he would never have won election if Theodore Roosevelt hadn’t bucked his hand picked successor and run as a Progressive and if Eugene Debs and the Socialists hadn’t attracted a significant labor vote.

In office, Wilson was an enthusiastic enemy of the labor movement, particularly of the Industrial Workers of the World, the radical union then at the peak of its power in both the Western extractive industries and in the melting-pot factories of the east. He gleefully latched onto “war necessity” to unleash the worst repression in American History. It would result in Socialist and IWW papers being banned from the mails, the deportation of thousands of “Reds” on little or no evidence of wrongdoing, and finally the mass arrest and jailing of the entire leadership of the IWW. J. Edgar Hoover cut his teeth on this Wilson project.

And he also ruthlessly repressed the Women’s suffrage movement, jailing dozen of leaders for having the temerity to stand quietly with signs demanding the vote in war-time. When many of the women went on hunger strike, he ordered brutal force feeding.

Of course respectable Unitarians hardly felt the sting of Wilsonian tyranny. Many of them approved of suppression of the labor movement, if not his racist counter-reconstruction. Even the defeated William Howard Taft, then President of the National Conference of Unitarian Churches, would enthusiastically take up Wilson’s repression when he attacked John Haynes Holmes and other pacifist ministers.

What ever the virtues of “Wilsonian Idealism” in foreign policy and the creation of the League of Nations might be, they should be overshadowed by his turn as a virtual domestic dictator. And that same “idealism” was cited by George W. Bush in his attempts to impose American values on the rest of the world at the point of a gun.

Joel Monka said...

Thanks for reminding me of the suffrageettes, Patrick, I had forgotten. With a list of sins that long, something's bound to slip between the cracks.

CC and Patrick both- I guess I can understand how at the time, a good capitalist could turn a blind eye to the raciasm and the sexism, especially if you were one of the brand new millionaires. I suppose, even a UU could, having been raised in the culture, etc. But I don't see how any UU even then could support the shredding of the first amendment.

But how, in 1956 when the mural was painted, could anyone consider him a saint? How is it that people still do? if you look at these rankings , only Wall Street Journal had him out of the top ten best presidents! Heavens to Hecate, Nixon and Bush combined didn't do a fraction of those things. What is it about him that lets people ignore his record?

Diggitt said...

I found three interesting quotes from Wilson about his religion:

"[The Bible is] a book which reveals men unto themselves, not as creatures in bondage, not as men under human authority, not as those bidden to take counsel and command of any human source. It reveals every man to himself as a distinct moral agent, responsible not to men, not even to those men whom he has put over him in authority, but responsible through his own conscience to his Lord and Maker. Whenever a man sees this vision he stands up a free man, whatever may be the government under which he lives, if he sees beyond the circumstances of his own life." -- speech on the tercentenary of the King James Bible, Denver, 7 May 1911

"My life would not be worth living if it were not for the driving power of religion, for faith, pure and simple. I have seen all my life the arguments against it without ever having been moved by them . . . never for a moment have I had one doubt about my religious beliefs. There are people who believe only so far as they understand -- that seems to me presumptuous and sets their understanding as the standard of the universe . . . I am sorry for such people." -- letter to Nancy Toy, 1915

"It does not become America that within her borders, where every man is free to follow the dictates of his conscience, men should raise the cry of church against church. To do that is to strike at the very spirit and heart of America." -- speech, 4 November 1915

I know it's a personal flaw, but I grew up in a rather Presbyterian community as a Unitarian child and I found them rigid and unforgiving, period. Racist, classist, a lot of the -ists. And yet, in the teens and 20s of the last century, the Presbyterian ladies and my grandmother did a lot of forward-looking things. It beats me how they got so intellectually and philosophically constipated by the 50s and 60s. Even worse is that when I return to my hometown and go to the Presbyterian church with friends, they are just about where they were fifty years ago. (Alternatively, I could regard those visits as the evidence that I have grown far, far away from Ohio.)

I didn't mean this to decry Presbyterians qua Presbyterians, but WW was steeped in it. He was true child of Staunton, Virginia, which proudly heralds his birthplace today. Times have no doubt changed since my boarding school years in Staunton, but in those days even the local Unitarians were Episcopalian.

Yet, oddly enough, there was a joke about Wilson during his presidency (altho it sounds like a very modern joke to me, I heard my grandparents laughing about it 50 years ago):
Why did President Wilson marry Mrs. Galt?
She threatened to kick him out of bed.
But so what else is new about sexual hypocrisy on the part of religious conservatives?

Wilson's father, at least, was from Steubenville, a city on the Ohio river. Southern Ohio was a hotbed of southern sympathy before and during the civil war, so the senior Wilson's move south, mid-19th century, did not find him in hostile territory. I was taught that the senior Wilsons totally identified with the South. Another commenter said WW got his sympathies from his mother -- I doubt that his parental household was at all divided. If you recall, several Protestant church split over the issue of slavery, and the senior Wilson was a leader in the creation of the southern Presbyterian Church.

How did WW become a liberal saint? Well, in the 50s, the kind of radical debunking we're familiar with hadn't happened yet. Wilson's racism, or whatever you want to call it, was somewhat more subtle than Jefferson's double vision. It's just taken a while. I am sure we can find better these days without scraping any barrel bottoms.

I always start with Dorothy Day myself.