Published online Jan. 8, 2018
I read with interest President Eisgruber ’83’s address to the incoming freshman class, which emphasized the importance of open debate and the free exchange of ideas at the University (President’s Page, Oct. 4). Unfortunately, he seemed compelled to first discuss his political opinions and by implication, Princeton’s political opinions, during his Opening Exercises remarks. He started by citing a book by Professor Jan-Werner Müller that suggested that “populism” necessarily leads to “anti-pluralism.” If populism is defined as “ordinary people taking power back from a group of elites,” then certainly the 2016 election provided an example of this. I see no reason why anti-pluralism should result. There is a potent historical example demonstrating that this does not happen. It is the American Revolution, an essentially populist movement, in which power was claimed for individual citizens of the country and taken away from elite groups in England. Princeton’s John Witherspoon was instrumental in inspiring many of the founders and, in particular, mentoring James Madison 1771.
America has been a pluralistic society since its founding, and its power has been based on the power of individuals from every background. “E pluribus unum” is still operative for all those who recognize the genius of the American idea, and want to become Americans. Government remained in the hands of the people and remained limited for nearly 150 years, until the progressive movement was incubated under Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson 1879 and promoted the idea that an intelligentsia should determine what is best for the people. Since then, the federal government has grown substantially in size and power at the expense of individual liberty and control. An unelected bureaucracy and the “political class” have become the modern-day “elite,” and this is what ultimately led to the populist reaction of 2016. I prefer the Princeton of John Witherspoon to that of Woodrow Wilson.
The second political commentary centered on the events in Charlottesville, Va., last summer, and President Trump’s reaction to them. Apparently, condemning violence on both sides was not politically correct. The proper response was to condemn only the white supremacist group, but not the ironically named “Antifa” who arrived armed and initiated the violence, while the local police were conspicuously absent. The message seems to be that if the speech is hateful enough to somebody, violence is permissible.
Needless to say, this attitude leads to a very dangerous slippery slope and a poisonous environment for free speech. Witness Berkeley. For President Eisgruber to explicitly ignore an internal terrorist group such as Antifa in an address to an incoming class in which he chooses to discuss Charlottesville is shockingly irresponsible. Perhaps exposing the danger of internally generated and funded terrorism would be a more important activity than parsing President Trump’s pronouncements.