The controversy over whether to dissociate Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton is of far less importance than (just to name a few) climate change, terrorism, gun absolutism, racially motivated police shootings, and speciesism, that last of which ruins the environment, damages our health, and makes us cruel. Nonetheless, the question of whether or not to remove Wilson’s name has gained attention and might have more importance than it seems in revealing just how unthinking a species we tend to be. Why not step back and consider why we have a mania for naming buildings, bridges, roads, and concert halls after some man (and I mean man as opposed to woman, although I am not suggesting that the practice would be more defensible if only it were more gender neutral). I would hate to be called upon to write the essay explaining in 500 words or less why it is important that we put mens’ names on things. On the other hand, I could write the essay why it makes little sense that we memorialize men, from the old days and recent times, in this way.
Any man who has received this “honor” did whatever it was he did in his own self-interest and reaped the rewards. Why must we reward someone who was doing what he wanted and probably succeeded at least to some degree whether president, senator, mayor, or baseball player. Second, we did not need the example of Woodrow Wilson to know that there is no such thing as a “great man.” I have no reverence for a slave owner. I don’t think a single founding father who owned slaves could be seen as a positive sum of very negative parts. They did some notable things (again, of their own volition and to their own aggrandizement while alive), but if they owned slaves, they were not moral in that regard, which is not hindsight given it was the age of reason and enlightenment, that most of the Western world at that time did not own slaves, and that England was on the verge of ending, or had abolished slavery. They also of course were sexist, appropriating for themselves power and rights and depriving women of pursuing meaningful lives. As with abolition, ideas of the equality of women were also available; there was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, if they needed help in understanding why subjugating half of the population was wrong. Leaving the “great man” idea aside, I must wonder what does anyone, particularly the deceased, gain by having his name attached to a structure. It must be for the gratification of his heirs, who certainly have no right to special treatment by the accident of their relationship to one of these successful men.
Vaguely sensing that “honoring” someone in this way is the “right” approach probably just counts as one of those things that we do without any real thought at all—it’s just what we do. However, although it no doubt figures as a lapse in the exercise of reason, it might be more than a cultural eccentricity or neutral practice of no importance, like shaking hands rather than saluting, bowing, or embracing. The practice can lend itself to a more insidious use because the name can reflect not so much the famous “great” man per se as much as what he stands for, and the group in favor of emblazoning his name on the roadways uses the name to promote its self-serving and recondite agenda.
The only exception to the pointlessness of naming buildings, bridges, and roads is when a large donor of funds insists on having his name attached to the project. Okay, if there is quid pro quo attached to the money, then it must be done; spend the money and leave for no one to bother with the question, “What petty thrill of fame does that donor get from seeing his name on the placard?”