… Which are worse?

“People nowadays just don’t seem to know their place. Everywhere one turns, blacks and Hispanics are demanding jobs simply because they’re black and Hispanic. The physically handicapped are trying to gain equal representation in professional sports. And homosexuals are demanding the government vouchsafe them the right to bear children.”

— In Defense of Elitism, Prospect Magazine, 1983

We in the History Corner are, I fear, often regarded as bookish, coldly analytical, detail-obsessed aesthetes who just pick nits in the meaningful discourse of real life. I’m here to say that’s grossly unfair. Not only is my analysis warm, it’s sometimes a bit testy (the other stuff, I guess we can discuss later).

A great deal of that heat stems from one basic facet of the late unlamented 20th century that bedevils us today: The Big Lie. As you know, The Big Lie first appeared by name in Mein Kampf and was helpfully refined by the ace practitioner Josef Goebbels during the media-savvy cataclysm that was the Nazi regime in Germany. Among others, Lenin and Stalin also practiced it; they just didn’t have quite the same adept PR staff. Although a little pliable conceptually, The Big Lie consists of knowingly misleading people so outlandishly they suspect it’s true because, if it weren’t, nobody would have the guts to make it up. In other words, creating Fake News so fake that a normal naïf will swallow it at least 51 percent of the time.

An example would be helpful. So just take climate-change denial, which has become a political football uniquely in the U.S., because detractors (for their own reasons) are applying the propaganda lessons of a previous Big Lie — from the tobacco companies — against mounds of empirical ecological science. And some folks, who just know they and their SUV could never do anything bad, are willing to vote based on that.

All of which may lead you to guess I’m heading in a particular direction here toward a particular target. That would be wrong. I’m looking, in this case, a little closer to home, and considering a couple of painful examples from Princeton’s past that show how even a seemingly inconsequential exaggeration or misinterpretation can evolve into a Big Lie of its own if carried to its logical extreme.

Prospect Magazine, 1981: Concerned
Princeton University Archives
Sounds like a textbook definition of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton. A reactionary group whose advent was guaranteed the moment President Bob Goheen ’40 *48 began initiatives to recruit qualified minority students and support coeducation in the late ’60s, it began formally in 1972, immediately sent out letters to the parents of prospective freshmen, inquiring how they liked the University’s support of cohabitation in the dorms, running unattributed surveys asking whether unqualified minority students should be admitted, and trying to undercut the University’s sexual-health office. As a young graduate, Bill Frist ’74 — that notorious radical — was part of an alumni committee that found in 1975 that CAP “presented a distorted, narrow, and hostile view of the university that cannot help but have misinformed and even alarmed many alumni.” Earlier that year, the always cutting-edge Tiger Band had saluted CAP on the halftime field by forming its initials, then saluting its attitude by inserting an “R” after the “A”, then recognizing its accuracy by moving the “R” back after the “C,” all while playing The Stars and Stripes Forever. The CAP magazine, Prospect, embodied many of its rearward-looking causes and became increasingly shrill as President Bill Bowen *58’s administration moved to integrate the diverse students and faculty it gathered at Princeton, including initiatives like undergraduate colleges and LGBT services. The magazine, eventually edited by non-Princetonians — the general assumption was that CAP could no longer find any alums who were willing to do it — ended up in the realm of the loony citation you see above, trying to somehow unartfully put forth a Big Lie that someone might swallow, in the supposed service of Making Princeton Great Again. By 1987, four years after the above manure, CAP was dead.

But for the real message here, let’s think for a moment and make a couple of fundamental inquiries. What traditional Princeton were they trying to revive, and more intriguingly, how did they find out about it?

One suspects from CAP’s propaganda that it was certainly a Princeton that Radcliffe Heermance *1909 and his creative admissions office would recognize from their 1922-50 tenure, which simply assumed that black students were not educable at the Princeton level and Jewish students were un-clubbable, apparently by virtue of being hopeless wonks and not team players. This bigoted approach doesn’t quite qualify as a Big Lie because, when asked, they denied it, but the material effect of the resulting quotas, of course, was the same. Oh yes, and Princeton legacies were sacrosanct. We can strongly infer this worldview was at the core of CAP’s daydreams.

But of course, the roots of the CAP viewpoint go back further (and were indeed cited by Heermance), to Woodrow Wilson 1879 and his creation of the modern Princeton, an intellectual extension of the great innovator from Scotland, James McCosh. That’s where our true story lies today, and that’s why today I’m not coldly analytical, but rather testy.

We’ve often cited here the Mudd Manuscript Library Blog, where some of the most fascinating documents from Princeton’s history arise for examination, thanks to the library’s multitalented staff. In this case, we note an impressive entry from a truly outstanding researcher/writer, April Armstrong *14. It examines the extremely slim — one might say suspiciously slim — archival data on the perhaps dozen or so black men who studied at Princeton beginning with McCosh’s classes in the 1870s, including some who earned master’s degrees as late as Wilson’s administration. And it all revolves around Wilson’s disingenuous contention in 1904 that “no negro has ever applied for admission, and it seems extremely unlikely the question will ever assume a practical form.” Given that McCosh had personally taught black students (some over from the Seminary) while Wilson was a student, and others had earned Princeton degrees while he was both a professor and president, it is hard to put any spin on this declaration beyond a knowing Big Lie. Meanwhile, University Secretary Charles McAlpin 1888 was trying to expunge the records of prior black students on the basis of being only grad students with short tenures here — which wasn’t true — but for some reason he had to clear that with trustee eminence Moses Taylor Pyne 1877. Pyne (among those who later forced Wilson out of Princeton) put a stop to that with the blunt note that “they are as much Princeton men as anyone else.” But for that, the highly fragmentary data we now have on Princeton’s early black students prior to Jim Crow might be completely nonexistent beyond random newspaper stories and old tales. Armstrong refers to this wholesale obfuscation, rather tactfully, as “erased pasts and altered legacies.” Well, if it wasn’t a Big Lie in 1904, it probably was by 1935 when Heermance cited it as a “tradition” to refuse black applicants, and decades later when CAP used them both as a tacit centerpiece of its campaign.

Irwin William Langston Roundtree *1895: One of Princeton’s earliest African American graduates, he may also have been the first and only former slave to graduate from the college.
Trenton Evening Times, via Princeton & Slavery Project (https://slavery.princeton.edu/stories/reverend-i-w-l-roundtree)

As part of the trustees’ review of the Wilson legacy, Walter Hood has been commissioned to create a sculpture for Scudder Plaza reflecting the complexity of Wilson’s impacts on Princeton. Two columns, black and white, will contain words from Wilson, presumably exemplifying both his majestic global aspirations and his feet of clay. His insipid, conscious lie belittling blacks from 1904 should certainly be among them. But we have to remember a Big Lie can be so pervasive that some well-meaning Princetonians will still assume it was true at the time.

As maddening as all this is, if we look at Princeton today we might still ask, well, since we have seemingly moved beyond this, why this concern over the Big Lie is still relevant. In trying to verbalize the answer, I ran across this comment of New Yorker editor David Remnick ’81 regarding another institution, which adroitly addresses that honest question. I don’t think I can improve upon it:

“What we’ve learned from the scandals that have beset Silicon Valley of late is what we learned from the scandals that beset the Catholic Church: a self-protective assumption of righteousness can make it harder to acknowledge and confront patterns of abuse. With great power comes great responsibility.”

That seems to me to be The Big Truth.