What’s in a name?
In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, racial justice is at the fore of many important efforts. None less so than attempts to have the names of everyone who ever stepped across a racial boundary wiped from history.
Franklin Pierce University: Rename it.
Washington: Gotta go.
Keene: Really? Keene?
Pierce was the state’s only resident to become president. The call for his figurative head now stems from his actions in the White House, where he backed slave owners on the grounds that, well, the U.S. Constitution required it. Those were not enlightened times. We believe those in charge of Franklin Pierce University and its similarly named law school ought to reexamine their link to Pierce based on the fact that, as presidents go, he was a dud. That’s not wonderful branding. But the race issue? That’s another argument.
Sir Benjamin Keene was, according to one reader who suggests the city be renamed — perhaps to Rainbow, N.H. — a representative of the British South Sea Co., which dealt in, among other things, slaves. This, she argued in a letter Wednesday on this page, ought to disqualify him from being the community’s namesake. Oh, and Keene State College, as well.
Of course, few people even know the city was named for Benjamin Keene, and of course, the college is named for the city, really, not the man. And even fewer know either why the city is so named, or of Keene’s checkered history. So there’s not very much glorifying of his actions happening. We seriously doubt anyone is moving to the Elm City to bask in its namesake’s slave-trading history. More importantly, with nobody aware of the connection, it’s hard to see how changing the name would advance social justice.
Military bases and forts named for leaders of the Confederacy? These are a different case and renaming them is justified. Even casting aside the issue of race and social justice — though one shouldn’t — why would we make soldiers and sailors take a vow to protect and defend the Constitution, then ask them to train in a place named for someone who tried to overthrow our nation’s government?
Back to the topic of municipal names, let’s note that Benjamin Keene was a protégé of British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. So we guess that town ought to be rethinking things, too. In fact, it turns out an awful lot of New England — and American — city and town names are derived from British figures who either participated in or condoned slavery.
As for our nation’s own historic giants, obviously slave-owning George Washington is out — rename the city, the town, the state and tear down the monument. Time to put a new cultural hero on the dollar bill, the quarter and the nickel. How about Lin-Manuel Miranda?
Thomas Jefferson accomplished a lot of great things. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, made the Louisiana purchase, designed some of the most historic buildings in our nation’s capital, Miranda, D.C. But Jefferson, too, owned slaves, and worse, had a relationship with one, which can only be seen as coerced. He’s out. No more Jefferson, Mo.
By now we hope you’ve figured out we’re being facetious. But to make a point. Humans — even those whose accomplishments are noteworthy — are, in fact, human. They’re not perfect, and their views and opinions are reflective of their times. A century from now, perhaps anyone we respect today — MLK, Nelson Mandela, Dolly Parton — will be vilified for not having the “correct” outlook on every important issue as determined by 2120 standards.
That’s not to say “Nothing to see here.” Rather, it’s worth noting the conflicts between what these important figures in history achieved and how they lived their own lives; between what they said and what they did.
King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” If true — and we’d like to believe it is — that arc does not come without missteps. Many of those missteps occur when we don’t learn from past mistakes. And we can’t learn about what we won’t talk about.
The current calls for revisionism would have us shun that history with which we disagree. Thus, Nazi Germany never happened. Slavery, and those who abetted or supported it, didn’t occur. It’s too hard to discuss, too ugly to admit; so let’s just agree to ignore it.
Better to discuss the flaws of those who came before; because they are the same flaws pretty much all our ancestors had — even those for whom no cities are named, no statues were erected.
Should we simply wait until we all agree we’ve reached maximum wokeness, then redesignate everything named for someone before that point? It would be a lot easier than having the same argument ad nauseam. But when will that point ever arrive?
How about we note the good and the bad, and learn to do better? Teach history in a more complete way, that notes both the achievements and the flaws. And, of course, also teach the contributions of those who weren’t white males.