Saturday, May 15, 2010

Woodrow Wilson and Kobe Bryant

Apparently, Glenn Beck (who I don't watch) has a serious dislike of Woodrow Wilson, possibly informed by Jonah Goldberg's book, Liberal Fascism, which I have written about before. There are little pockets of discussion of Wilson all over the internet. (What? You haven't read them? You mean not everybody reads early 20th-century political theory for fun? Here's one from this week, just as a taste.)

It just so happens that I just finished teaching about Wilson this week. And I'm not a big fan, either. There are lots of reasons--Wilson was a racist, I think his vaunted "idealism" was rooted in a terribly naive worldview which at least partially contributed to the causes of WWII, and his espionage and sedition acts of 1918 (among other things) were, in my opinion, an example of one of the times when we as Americans did not live up to our stated principles. I could go on and on about these and other evils, real and imagined, but that's not the point.

The real reason I don't like Wilson is that I think he's overrated. If he were a bad guy and everyone agreed about it, I'd be fine with that. Or if my opinion of him were lower than most people's, but no one sang his praises, he wouldn't cross my radar screen. But what gets me is that many, many historians rank him among the best presidents. There was a great poll done by the Wall Street Journal in 2005 that ranked all the presidents from G.W. to G.W. (Washington to Bush). The thing I like about this particular poll is that they tried to balance liberals vs. conservatives, so in theory the ideology should balance out (unlike, say, the famous rankings done by the Schlessingers, which could be translated as "liberals good, conservatives bad"). I actually use that poll in my history class. But even on it, Wilson gets the #11 ranking of all time. (As an aside, you can't look at the ranking of George W. Bush with any confidence, as the poll was taken in 2005, immediately after his reelection and before the slide he took starting in 2006.)

Anyway, I understand why he gets the "near-great" designation. He was the first Democrat to win consecutive terms since Andrew Jackson. He is the guy who brought "progressivism" to the Democrats (where it would develop into modern liberalism). And you always get bonus points for winning a war, in his case WWI. Moreover, I never try to judge a president by whether or not I agree with his agenda (or else you get the Schlessinger problem). Even a liberal can respect Reagan's success, and even a conservative can respect FDR's. (And incidentally, I'm perfectly fine with FDR outranking Reagan--the 1930s depression was worse than the 1970s malaise, WWII was worse than the Cold War, and 4 landslides trump 2.) But I just happen to think that those criteria for which Wilson gets so much credit are mis-used. He only won his first term in 1912 because of the Taft vs. Teddy Roosevelt split. In neither of his two electoral college victories did he win over half of the popular vote (incidentally, the same was true of Bill Clinton, but that's just interesting trivia). And I firmly believe that although Wilson "won" the great war, he lost the peace. Moreover, I would say that it was his own ego that prevented the US ratification of thee Treaty of Versailles, and set the stage for WWII.

Anyway, historians can argue about that, and they do. But what amuses me is that I feel the exact same way about Kobe Bryant. I'm not a Kobe fan. Yes, he scores a ton of points, and yes, he has won several championships. But the main reason I don't like Kobe is because too many folks swoon and call him the best player of all time. I'm sorry--he's not the best player in today's league (that would be Lebron), he's not the best player ever at his position (that would be Michael Jordan), he wasn't the best player on his own team for four of his championships (that would be Shaq), and he's certainly not the best player in his franchise's history (behind Magic, Kareem, Shaq, possibly Jerry West, and that's not even counting the time Wilt Chamberlain was there). It just bugs the heck out of me that people walk around not knowing that, the same way they know that 2+2=4.

Oh, well. I guess that's why I blog.


Kim said...

Like you, my problem is not much with Wilson himself as it is with the apparently compulsive tendency to record/relate history with a sharp slant. I distinctly remember the impression left by American Pageant on my 17 year old self: Woodrow Wilson was a genius ahead of his time. Yes, he made some unfortunate missteps after WWI and was too unwilling to compromise his vision for his peace plan and the League of Nations, but you must understand that it was because he was just too stinkin' brilliant to work with the stubborn commoners, like Lodge, who objected to his proposals. I don't remember hearing any mention of his trenchant racism until years later, when I read a book aptly called, "Lies My Teacher Told Me."

I mean, I don't want to be anachronistic in my judgment on the man, but his racist policies did more than just carry on the status quo (as your linked article suggests). In his complete segregation of government, he took a few steps backwards. And to me, that whole side of him should have been clearly related in a history textbook, as it kind of puts a dent in the "genius ahead of his time" theory.

Why can't history tell both sides? I know there will always be a natural bias, but some omissions like Wilson's racism are over the top. Are historians so terrified of the common people making up their own mind about a person? Can we not handle the complexity?

Okay, end rant:).

Btw: my word verification was "eminerds." I'm not even going to try to define that, but it seemed appropriate.

Coach Sal said...

I agree 100%. As an aside, the "Pageant" textbook is a pet peeve of mine. It's almost the industry standard for AP history, so it's what the very best kids read. And its liberal bias is palpable. There's a bit of a controversy right now because the Texas school board is considering changing their standards to reflect some conservative thought (and this is big because Texas' size tends to drive textbook publishers' overall decisions). Perhaps they are just as biased in the opposite direction, but I am a big fan of telling both sides of the story.

As for Wilson, the fawning treatment he gets for his "genius" relates directly to my previous post about the "Harvard-Yale Type." I am not anti-intellectual, but I am anti-elite-bias. I have written elsewhere that I'm not pro-Sarah Palin, but I am devoutly anti-anti-Palin. Ditto with the Tea Parties. If somebody has an argument with an idea, they should be willing to engage in the actual argument. But too many of our supposed elites steal a base and just sneer. I'm pretty sure Proverbs 1 has some stuff to say about scoffers and mockers.

On an entirely unrelated topic--I LOVED the church history book Greg lent me. I'm going to have to buy my own copy so I can dog-ear it and mark it up. It may be the best treatment of our brotherhood I've ever seen. I am VERY fired up about my upcoming Sunday School class on Church History!