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The anti-woke show: a response to Matthew Wilson ’24

<h5>Student protestors enter Nassau Hall in Nov. 2015.</h5>
<h5>Courtesy of University Press Club</h5>
Student protestors enter Nassau Hall in Nov. 2015.
Courtesy of University Press Club

Last week, in a piece for the Washington Examiner, Matthew Wilson ’24 breathlessly opined, “Princeton can’t have it both ways on racism.” In short, Wilson maintains not only that President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 is hypocritical in characterizing Princeton as simultaneously racist and anti-racist, but he even declares in no uncertain terms that Princeton is not racist.

Under other circumstances, Wilson’s enthusiasm might be charming, even appropriate, if his reasoning were as impressive as his claim is bold. Alas, this was not to be — instead, Wilson, no doubt with the intention of provoking such a response as this one, chose to gaslight countless classmates and showcase ignorance about the University’s history and politics. In so doing, Wilson displayed an understanding — or lack thereof — of campus affairs that would make anyone blush, including the multitude of his classmates who have not yet stepped foot on campus but still manage to sidestep the misconceptions at the very core of Wilson’s case.

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I raise two objections against Wilson’s op-ed. He made next to no effort to research the history of the Black Justice League (BJL), the group to which the University supposedly “acquiesced” just a few months ago. He also failed to interrogate how Princeton operates similarly to the American government and society at large. The irony of the Department of Education’s investigation is lost on Wilson, as he does not seem to see how the same administration conducting this investigation is led by a man who refused to condemn white supremacy on national TV.

It is useful to examine the supposed contradiction that Wilson identifies in the University’s actions. Wilson is right to say that the rhetoric of Princeton’s administration has undergone a definite change in light of a shifting political terrain nationwide. But Wilson’s speculation about the nature of this inconsistency is simply wrong. In fact, the BJL is no longer active on campus. The left-wing “mob” that Wilson condemns exists only in the minds of a classicist with nothing better to do than to hover in an Instagram netherworld, looking for something to complain about — and, apparently, his equally misguided copycat.

For anyone who has a sense of what took place on campus for the past several years, Wilson’s summary is, to put the matter lightly, laughable. It is true enough that the BJL laid the groundwork for the Woodrow Wilson name changes that recently took place. But this was the most modest of their demands, and, at the time, BJL members were threatened with disciplinary consequences.

When Wilson alleges that Princeton “bends over” backwards for the sake of anti-racist activists and leftist revisionists, he is fictionalizing a widely covered event for which he cares to neither learn of nor represent fairly. Wilson is far more concerned with the “canceling” of a president who shares his name than with the people in the University’s history whose names have never been sufficiently recognized to be canceled in the first place. It’s just a different way of viewing the world, one which I hope is not common among the recently-inducted class. From Wilson to Wilson, it seems the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

Putting aside Wilson’s lack of basic knowledge about the oh-so-terrifying BJL and his hasty and smug dismissal of the lived experiences of people who have confronted racism at Princeton, even his argument betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of racism. He posits a simple-minded either/or formulation: either Princeton should be emptied of federal funds for being racist, or the campus has been utterly purged of the totality of its racist legacy. But as I have pointed out before, this perspective, a mere rhetorical trick, neglects the following points.

Racism goes beyond individual incidents of interpersonal discrimination and must be addressed systemically. Most of the University’s racism is a microcosm of what exists throughout American society at large. It follows, of course, that the federal government is not therefore in a position to take action against a university that has taken a step, however minimally, to combat the racism that the Trump administration and the American state regularly and overtly perpetuate.

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Wilson may conclude from this column that this is an effort to “cancel” him. To preempt this allegation, I end by pointing out that to debunk is not to censor. Before mounting the high horse of classical liberalism, Wilson would do well to concern himself with the invalidating effect of his ill-informed and uncomprehending words. To do any less is not political or personal courage, but intellectual irresponsibility and, very properly, social self-embarrassment.

Braden Flax is a senior from Merrick, N.Y. He can be reached at bflax@princeton.edu.

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