Anthony Romero ’87 on stage with Wilson School Dean Cecilia Rouse at Alumni Day in February
Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications
Imperfection in service to humanity

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

— Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi,” 1970

It’s always helpful when somebody brighter than me serves up a history column on a silver platter. So today you, the Seasoned Historian, and I both are beneficiaries of Anthony Romero ’87, the executive director of the ACLU and 2020 Woodrow Wilson Award recipient, whose intriguing Alumni Day address, published in the April 8 issue, is our launching point. The ACLU, after all, was explicitly created in response to Wilson’s unconstitutional Palmer Raids in 1920, and its fundamental emphasis on equal rights and civil rights doesn’t play well with Wilson’s re-segregation of the Federal government, nor with Princeton’s decades thereafter of dreadful treatment of African Americans and Jews.

OK, a deserved touch of ironic satisfaction, fine. But Romero continues to a far greater depth by additionally pointing up the ACLU’s continuing problems over its 100 years, including its belittling the roles of Jews and, most ironically, women — although its founders included Jane Addams and Helen Keller — in a troubling display of how pervasive societal biases can infect the most altruistic institutions. If we only choose to give awards to perfect people, if we only choose to support or work cooperatively with perfect institutions, we’re going to be lonely much of the time, and worse yet, likely to accomplish very little beyond admiring our own navels.


To our good friends over in the philosophy department, this is hardly news. Going back to Aristotle (always a good guess on your Philosophy 101 test if you don’t have any idea of the answer) we find hamartia, the concept of the tragic flaw buried in the psyche of every hero, filling each great deed with the tinge of inevitable impending doom. Christian theologians later constructed a related concept in original sin, the idea that every individual is in his very nature as a human flawed from the outset, a veritable petri dish of imperfection. Hence Jesus tells the big donors at the temple they may follow scripture and stone the adulteress they’ve discovered — as long as a deservingly sinless person goes first. Now, that’s big-league irony.

If we take all this seriously, and so decide that reserving our best efforts until we find the perfect person or cause is just going to leave us chatting with Didi and Gogo and waiting for Godot, then we face some stark decision-making as to how we go about building and operating bedrock societal constructs. Take democracy as an example. That’s what the ACLU is trying to promote after all, whether its board is pristinely multicultural or not, whether the dude who wrote the Declaration of Independence was a slaveowner and worse, not to mention the guy who won the American Revolution and became the first president, or their buddy from Virginia who thought up a great deal of the U.S. Constitution while slaves did his laundry. American democracy at least doesn’t pretend to be perfect, among other things espousing three coequal branches of government to tattle on each other, plus the concept of amending sacred texts to reflect improved (mostly) understanding of what they should initially have been.

We are in the midst of a periodic examining of the long-term viability of democracy, which you could guess even if you’d been on Uranus the last 20 years and had just returned to take a two-hour poll of global leaders. New Yorker editor David Remnick ’81 and his staff are examining this under the rubric of “The Future of Democracy,” addressing a cornucopia of basic questions involving what democracy is and why. One essential element of that is, of course, how we got here, and that includes a fine and — to me at least — revelatory article by Jill Lepore, the eminent Harvard historian, about the 1930s, rather luridly promoted as “The Last Time Democracy Almost Died.” And there, amidst anecdotes about town meetings, the WPA, and the power of NBC Radio in keeping the public motivated, we find in 1937 Heinrich Brüning presenting the Vanuxem Lectures at Princeton, entitled (of course) “The Crisis of Democracy.”

Heinrich Brüning should have been in Germany. In the ideal world, Princeton resident Albert Einstein should have been as well, I suppose; in reality, if they had been, they would most likely have been dead. Brüning had been the last effective chancellor of the Weimar Republic, from 1930-32, a Ph.D. economist and social activist who had come to power along with the Depression. His Hooveresque economic solutions simply inflamed German resentment remaining from World War I, and he ended up governing through the decree of semi-senile President Paul von Hindenburg. After alienating both the Communists and the Nazis by banning their armed militias, he came up with a desperate plan to restore the German monarchy. That left him exposed and alone, and he resigned in favor of the clueless Franz van Papen, so inconsequential that when Hitler came to power the following year, he didn’t even bother to get rid of him.

The Prince reported dutifully on Brüning’s four lectures and their litany of high-level critiques of the weakness of democratic processes across the globe — so aloof and removed that he spent more time talking about Mussolini than Hitler. In PAW, on the other hand, student columnist Bob Edwards ’37 — a direct descendent of president Jonathan Edwards, and nephew of John Foster Dulles 1908 — labeled Brüning’s indictment of the Treaty of Versailles and the subsequent German reparation burden as “the usual route,” and showed obvious displeasure with Brüning appearing to simply cede Europe to the absolutist thugs.

Well, OK, but in contrast, what was Princeton doing to save democracy (whatever that meant)? Although there were institutional things such as the creation in 1930 of the School of Public and International Affairs (now the Wilson School), they were few given the economic constraints of the time. But, in the same populist spirit highlighted by Lepore, Princetonians individually did their bit. Consider:

  • The Rev. Norman Thomas, valedictorian of the Class of 1905, who garnered over 880,000 votes as the Socialist candidate for President in 1932: His lifelong efforts espousing peace, racial and economic equality, labor fairness, and even environmental responsibility lit the route to democracy beyond the current hour.
  • J. Douglas Brown 1919, an industrial-relations economics wonk and Princeton professor: Over decades of voluntary government service he became the father of Social Security, shepherding it from its creation in 1934 to 1971; meanwhile, he was a consulting economist to a vast array of other senior government agencies.
  • My old personal favorite and symbol of student activism in a repressed era, The Veterans of Future Wars: In 1936, seeing the hash their parents had made of their world, these undergrads demanded veterans’ payments for their service — in advance of any war, while they were alive to spend it. This tongue-in-cheek movement went national essentially overnight, as democratic an expression as you will ever see, social media be damned.

Were any of these folks perfect? Hardly. Thomas had a weakness for Marxist rhetoric that he only gradually overcame, and ended up exacerbating dissention within the Socialists that rendered them almost inert even before Sen. Joseph McCarthy wandered onto the stage in the ’50s. Brown, as long-time dean of the faculty, wielded power in a racist and anti-Semitic Princeton; he became part of the solution, but only after decades of negligible progress. Some students may have been anti-war, but in the same time period, students were also social bigots of the first order; the eating clubs froze out Jewish students with regularity, controlling social life with a death grip that insured the unfavored would suffer isolation on multiple levels.

Was Princeton perfect? Hah. Black students were anathema, the number of Jews present was controlled by quotas, and new admissions initiatives were begun in the South and West — where there were few Jews or educated blacks. The jingoism of World War I even caused an astounding breach of the tradition of free speech treasured by the faculty and students: Thomas, a pacifist but hugely admired by alumni and campus community alike, was banned from campus during the war. President John Grier Hibben 1882 *1893, who also was instrumental in solidifying the anti-Semitic admission policies in the early ’20s, finally realized his own stupidity and presented Thomas an honorary degree in his presidential campaign year of 1932.

So it would seem that democracy hardly needs perfection to succeed, if it wasn’t even required in the disheveled and desperate 1930s. What it does require is common (not necessarily universal) good will and numerous individual efforts — George H.W. Bush’s thousand points of light. Democracy arises not out of perfection, but only from the notion that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects.

OK, let me guess. Aristotle? Aced it again.