Dear Tal Fortgang and the Princeton University Community:
Welcome to the fun house world of American mainstream media’s obsession with caricatured versions of campus identity politics. In this world, the small groups of genuinely left-wing or minority students who are outspoken in their criticism of society on campus are seen as some sort of thought police who stifle open debate in that critical agora of the mind, the academy. You are the latest in a sequence of young white males (and one Asian of Indian descent, among the stars of this long-running drama) selected as the hero-martyr of a discourse that began in the 1960s. If you don’t relish the idea of being a kind of Ivy League political and moral Pepto-Bismol for the middling, middle-brow and comfortable for the remainder of your life — well, then, I have a suggestion: study history, not politics. American history, ideally.
The reason for this is simple. You wrote in your essay about your grandparents: “It was their privilege to come to a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character .”
I find this quotation fascinating. You seem to genuinely believe that the United States in the 1940s was a country that granted equal protection to its citizens. And cared neither about religion nor race.
It may come as a shock to you to learn that far from “caring not about religion nor race,” the United States in the 1940s was a country in which it was assumed that not just a white male, but only a white male Protestant could become President (the catastrophe of Al Smith’s 1928 campaign was still a fresh memory then). It was a country in which it was perfectly legal to write into the deed for one’s home, or an entire new subdivision of homes, an enforceable legal covenant that said “No Jews.” Or Blacks, or “Orientals,” perhaps here and there even “no Catholics.”
The United States was a country in which Catskills resorts like Grossinger’s flourished in part because older, more prestigious resorts like Mohonk Mountain House simply didn’t allow Jews, much less people of color, to come stay. A country in which most stores on 125th Street in Harlem didn’t allow “coloreds” to patronize those stores, adjacent to the largest and most prestigious African-American neighborhood in the country.
Your grandparents gratefully came to a country that wanted to believe itself a shining beacon to the world and the fulfillment of the prophecy built into our founding documents of a near-utopian society without injustice. There is nothing wrong indeed in being inspired by these 18th-century ideals and their application today. But the reason your grandparents were able to come here at all is the then-tremendous guilt about America’s indifference to the persecution of Jews in Europe before and during the Holocaust. It was the vindication of New Deal liberal interventionists after 1945 that made possible new laws on refugees, laws that were written to conform American law to codes developed by the newly founded United Nations and its promise of morality over national self-interest. That made an exception to highly racist, quite extreme limits on U.S. immigration legislated in the 1920s that were designed to keep Jewish (and Catholic, and southern European) immigrants from coming here.
Perhaps it is now time for you to open your eyes to all the history that explains the argument you find yourself naively inserted into now, ingenuously pure in your belief in an America that might exist one day, but that exists now (and I write this more admiringly than critically) almost wholly in your imagination. Bring that imagination into contact with reality, and perhaps you can make that dream a bit more real. But please don’t help along those who would lie to us and themselves and say this has been the American reality all along, telling us to shut up and accept that we already live in a “best of all possible worlds.” We don’t.
Michael D. Phillips ’90