'Progressivism:' Where Time Stands Still

Now is the time when we juxtapose, Small Dead Animals-style:

He told one protesting black delegation that "segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen." When the startled journalist William Monroe Trotter objected, Wilson essentially threw him out of the White House. "Your manner offends me," Wilson told him. Blacks all over the country complained about Wilson, but the president was unmoved. "If the colored people made a mistake in voting for me," he told The New York Times in 1914, "they ought to correct it."

Wilson appears to have perceived his presidency as an opportunity to correct history, and to restore white Americans to unambiguous supremacy. That is apparently the reason he embraced the poisonous message of D.W. Griffith's 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation; it offered a congenial narrative.

Griffith's notorious film portrays the overthrow of debasing black rule in the Reconstructionist South by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The film's black characters (most of them white actors in blackface) are either servile or savages; Klan members are represented as both heroic and romantic. The movie was based primarily on The Clansman, a novel written by Thomas Dixon in 1905. Not only was Dixon a personal friend of Wilson's, he had been pushing for a Wilson presidency for years, and Wilson regarded himself as being in Dixon's debt.

Wilson discharged that debt by helping Dixon and Griffith publicize their movie. He arranged for preview screenings for his cabinet, for Congress, and for the Supreme Court, and he gave Dixon and Griffith an endorsement they could exploit. "It is like writing history with lightning," Wilson said of this KKK celebration, "and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." The first half of Wilson's endorsement is still affixed to prints of the film that are screened for film students studying Griffith's advances in editing.

Obviously, Southern hopes that Wilson could force blacks into servility were always delusional. Nevertheless, Wilson's Jim Crow presidency remained an available model for segregationists and supremacists who came later. Thurmond and his fellow Dixiecrats didn't necessarily require a model of triumphalist racism, but the point is that in Wilson they had one. The Lott Affair has been treated as if its origins lie in 1948; they don't. The past isn't dead, said Mississippian William Faulkner. "It's not even the past." He might have added that the past we attempt to grapple with usually isn't even the real past.

"Dixiecrats Triumphant: The menacing Mr. Wilson," Charles Paul Freund, Reason magazine, December 2002.

Which might help to explain Jim Geraghty's query today on Twitter...

...And this headline from yesterday: "Democratic activists were behind controversial Klan ads in Mississippi."

(Bull Connor could not be reached for comment at the Democratic National Committee.)

Oh, and speaking of Mr. Wilson's menacing era, in USA Today, Jonah Goldberg writes, "George Kennan observed that when studying the maladies of the 20th century, 'all the lines of inquiry lead back to World War I.' A century from now, people might say the same thing of the past two centuries:"

Without World War I, you don't get the second — a poignant irony given that the former was sold as the "war to end all wars." The terms imposed on Germany, described as a "Carthaginian peace" by John Maynard Keynes, made another war virtually inevitable. Much as Adolf Hitler found his life's mission while fighting in World War I. Benito Mussolini's fascism was a direct adaptation of what he called "the socialism of the trenches."

Without the first war, the Bolsheviks almost surely would never have come to power in Russia. That led to the Soviet Union's mass murder, Eastern Europe's enslavement, the Cold War and, of course, Vladimir Putin's career.

The Middle East's travails can be traced in no small part to the Ottoman Empire's dissolution at the end of WWI. Dividing their spoils, the British and French drew most of the contours of the Arab world to their benefit. According to a surely false legend, the line between Jordan and Saudi Arabia takes a crooked turn because someone bumped Winston Churchill's elbow while he was drawing it. (Churchill himself blamed his errant pen on a liquid lunch.) What's not disputed is that the resulting maps have fed countless conflicts and resentments ever since.

* * * * * * *

"I believe it is no exaggeration," wrote sociologist Robert Nisbet, "to say that the West's first real experience with totalitarianism — political absolutism extended into every possible area of culture and society, education, religion, industry, the arts, local community and family included, with a kind of terror always waiting in the wings — came with the American war state under Woodrow Wilson."

Read the whole thing.