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  • Minds of the Word People

    Posted by David Foster on October 10th, 2011 (All posts by )

    Sigmund Freud and William Bullitt (who worked closely with Woodrow WIlson at the Versailles conference) wrote a book titled Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study. Excerpt:

    Throughout his life he took intense interest only in subjects which could somehow be connected with speech…He took no interest in mathematics, science, art or music–except in singing himself, a form of speaking. His method of thinking about a subject seems to have been to imagine himself making a speech about it…He seems to have thought about political or economic problems only when he was preparing to make a speech about them either on paper or from the rostrum. His memory was undoubtedly of the vaso-motor type. The use of his vocal chords was to him inseparable from thinking.

    Remind you of anyone we know?

     

    13 Responses to “Minds of the Word People”

    1. elf Says:

      Wilson had some heft: he was President of Princeton, Governor of NJ…and he didn’t apologize for the United States. In fact beatings in Mexico were answered with Artillery.

      For instance. I’m still not a fan, just saying…

    2. David Foster Says:

      Certainly the *content* of Wilson’s beliefs was significantly different from Obama’s: Wilson seems to have been a strong believer in Anglosphere exceptionalism and was a devout Christian in a traditional denomination. But I think the structure of his personality had interesting parallels, and indeed some of the beliefs are common as well.

      One of Wilson’s strong opinions was that the Constitutional separation of powers was obsolete, based on simplistic reasoning about the “organic” nature of government and the assertion that an organism could not have “organs offset against each other as checks, and live.” This belief echos unpleasantly in many of the ideas of Obama’s associates and supporters, such as Cass Sunstein and Thomas Friedman.

      It should also be noted that Wilson went along with the Sedition Act of 1918, surely one of the most anti-free-speech measures ever enacted in this country.

    3. setbit Says:

      “[N]o living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live.”

      I’d never heard that quote before. It certainly confirms the charge that he was deeply ignorant of biology.

      All complex organisms are built around the principle of homeostasis, with countervailing hormones and processes antagonizing one another to maintain balanced blood pressure, temperature, pH, etc. Remove any of those check and balances and you are down, right quick.

      Wilson was too ignorant and arrogant to recognize he had completely demolished his own argument. Our current financial and political predicament is the result of his living organism analogy being spot on, but completely reversed.

      If I had any residual respect for him, it is now truly dead and gone.

    4. David Foster Says:

      Sitbit…yeah, I had the same thought about homeostasis. Of course, the concept of feedback as we now understand it had not been developed in Wilson’s day…there were devices such as thermostats, but there was not a unified theory tying such things, and the equivalents in biological systes, together..indeed, I see from quick googling that the concept of homeostasis in biological systems wasn’t proposed until 1926—I actually though it was somewhat older.

      Still, the Founding Fathers seemed to grasp the governmental applications of the concept way back in the late 1700s.

      And today, with homeostasis understood since 1926 and generalized feedback theory developed in WWII and shortly thereafter, there is even less excuse for Wilsonian thinking on separation of powers than there was in his day.

    5. setbit Says:

      I see your point, David. I had assumed that the idea of balanced, countervailing forces in the body was understood by the late 19th century, even if the term “homeostasis” had not been coined.

      Apparently not. I even found a Wikipedia entry that suggests that Walter Cannon, who first used the term homeostasis, advocated a “biocracy”, a group of technocrats that would keep society in balanced order just like the body’s control mechanisms.

      So idiocy it certainly was and is, but it was fashionable, respectable idiocy. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to hear it coming out of Wilson’s mouth.

      As you say, though, modern Wilsonian apologists are without excuse.

    6. David Foster Says:

      One would think that anyone who had run any kind of organization would understand the need for “organs offset against each other as checks.” even at the simple level of an auditing department and the separation of payment authorization from payment execution.

    7. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Homeostasis was recognized by Claude Bernard and described by Walter Cannon about 1906. Wilson was a Calvinist and very narrow minded. Had he been willing to compromise with Lodge, the US would have been a member of the League of Nations.

      I’ve been watching some of the excerpts on “prohibition” the movie. I was struck by the willingness of some of the participants to blame the progressive movement.

    8. Robert Schwartz Says:

      There is no doubt that Wilson’s political opinions (including, but limited to, his segregationism) were odious. But, as Elf says above, compared to Wilson, Hussein is a flyweight in every dimension.

      The good news is that it limits the amount of damage Hussein can do.

    9. setbit Says:

      Quite so. I suppose Wilson gets under my skin precisely because he was a serious thinker who made serious decisions and got them seriously wrong.

      The closest Obama has is his serious face.

    10. Michael Kennedy Says:

      I think we are watching a rerun of the Great Depression right now. Bush was not a Hoover Progressive but he was a big spender. Calvin Coolidge was very worried about stock market speculation, especially with borrowed money. He believed that the federal government had no power to regulate a state chartered institution, the NY Stock Exchange.

      Ironically, the man who did have the power to rein in the NYSE in Coolidge’s opinion was the Governor of New York, Franklin Roosevelt.

    11. Whitehall Says:

      I thought that John Maynard Keynes’ description of Wilson in the “Economic Consequences of the Peace” at the conference table was illuminating:

      “The President was like a Nonconformist minister, perhaps a Presbyterian. His thought and his temperament wore essentially theological not intellectual, with all the strength and the weakness of that manner of thought, feeling, and expression.”

      Still sounds a bit like Obama.

    12. Vader Says:

      I don’t recall the source, but I think the fellow was spot on who said that Wilson’s belief in his own moral righteousness was so great as to approach mental illness.

      I like what was said about Salmon P. Chase (again, don’t recall the exact source): Mr. Chase is a fine man in many respects, but his theology is unsound. He believes there is a fourth Person in the Godhead.

      The application of these two quotes to current personalities I leave as an exercise for the student.

    13. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

      Michael – and he might have compromised with Lodge if he hadn’t had a stroke a few months before, which still impaired him and everyone – especially his wife – was covering up.

      He was narcissistic and opinionated, and latched on to odd analogies, certainly. But he was reasonably intelligent. I don’t think Obama is a lightweight, but neither is he an intellectual force. As to Wilson’s habit of thinking about things only in terms of speech, I am rather like that myself. I started as a math major, and rehearse thoughts for writing more often than speech these days, but I recognise that approach immediately. I don’t find it a negative, but a positive. To me it is axiomatic that if I cannot explain something to a reasonably intelligent person I don’t actually understand it myself.

      I acknowledge the self-focus of that, though.