Don’t Repress the Past

tags: Yale, John C Calhoun, Calhoun College

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).

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. ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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