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Monday, November 23, 2015

Where there's a will, no more Wilson?

The debate over airbrushing the past has reached an interesting new level, as the new target is Woodrow Wilson, Princeton University president, Nobel Peace laureate and two-time President of the United States.

An enormously important figure of the 20th century-- unless you ask Glenn Beck-- Wilson was also an unreconstructed Southerner who re-segregated the District of Columbia and the federal civil service, and was a big ol' fanboy of Thomas Dixon and the D.W. Griffith  movie of the Klan-glorifying novel, Birth of A Nation.

At the blog Crooked Timber, economist Tyler Cowen steps back from the edge of the slippery slopes of revisionism:
Why do we name things after people at all? 
When I look at countries which are periodically renaming buildings, cities, and institutions, I get a little uncomfortable.  The renaming probably isn’t causing their bad or unstable qualities, but pushing for a world of constant renaming does not strike me as a useful goal.  It is not governed by a desirable feedback process, too much voice and not enough exit and competitive constraints. 
There should be some kind of intermediate process where institutions can indicate that they take very seriously the moral failings of their namesakes, and publicize that message.  And then over time they can try to raise enough money so as to have a convenient excuse to rename the Wilson School after a wealthy donor, taking constructive action but not ending up in an endless game of renaming. 
A simple concrete step would be to cut the price of the naming rights on the Wilson School by fifty percent. 
That also could prove an efficient form of price discrimination, by selling the naming rights to one school for less, yet with a special circumstance so donors do not feel that every naming right now should sell for less.

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