“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.” — George Orwell, “1984”
Recently the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education decided to change the names of 44 schools because the board decided that the men and women for whom these schools are named engaged in racist behavior. Among the schools to be renamed are George Washington High School, Abraham Lincoln High School, and Thomas Jefferson Elementary. It should also be noted that Dianne Feinstein Elementary School is also slated to get renamed.
In defense of George Washington, he was one of the founders of this country and when he had a chance to seize power and become a dictator, he turned it down. Napoleon, on the other hand, did seize the opportunity, and uttered with regret at one point as he lost everything, “They wanted me to be another Washington.”
Without a Jefferson, there would have been a different version of the Declaration of Independence without the words “all men are created.” Certainly, we might not exist as a nation if President Lincoln had not fought to save the union.
Finally, Dianne Feinstein did not protest the flying of the Confederate flag at San Francisco’s City Hall, but she has been a great California senator, a role model for women running for higher office and after the death of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk led the city of San Francisco out of a dark period in its history.
Yes, Washington and Jefferson were slaveholders, but both were reluctant slaveholders. Jefferson said, “Slavery was holding a wolf by its ears, you dare not let go!” Washington stated in his will that upon his death his slaves were to be freed.
Yes, Lincoln’s policy toward Native Americans was not very good, but he was an abolitionist. His election led to the Civil War. The war would lead to the abolition of slavery.
So, in essence we are trying to rewrite history in the way we name our public buildings because some of us are offended by how they conducted a portion of their lives.
If we took this canceling of our historical figures to the extreme, we would have to change the names of a lot of buildings, schools, and places.
Should we get rid of the dollar bill because it has an image of George Washington? Do we remove all the Lincoln pennies and Jefferson nickels in circulation because some people are offended?
There would be one state, a state and national capital, quite a few cities, streets, schools, and colleges that would have to change their names if we followed the lead of the SFUSD Board of Education.
And what about Mount Rushmore? We might have to destroy the images on that tourist attraction very much like the Taliban destroyed the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. Maybe only Teddy Roosevelt would stay, but that might be questionable.
The next question is: who do we rename all of these places after we have cancelled the current names? Who among the famous doesn’t have some flaw we can point to and to a certain extent have dirty laundry in their closet?
The Bible is pretty clear on dirty laundry and casting the first stone:
“And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’” — John 8:7
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” — Matthew 7:3
Certainly, if adultery was viewed as a flaw. Our current governor and The Terminator ex-governor would not qualify to have a building or school named after either of them. There is a recent president, who I will not name, who is also guilty of that character flaw.
Are there people we should not name things for? Certainly, a Josef Stalin, Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) or Fidel Castro high school or highway should not exist.
Instead, we need to do a better job of teaching history. Like all human behavior, people do good and sometimes they do bad. We are all flawed. Can’t we show some grace in the behavior of our historical figures?
We have also been a nation willing to confront our ugly past and not glorify it. For example, the United States has acknowledged that putting Japanese Americans into concentration camps during World II was wrong. Reparations did not fully compensate Japanese Americans who lost their property but an attempt was made to make amends with a monetary gesture and an official apology.
In what other country would this happen? In what other country would its sins be exposed by scholars in a reinterpretation of historical events?
Finally, judging people in the past with our current values is somewhat counter-productive. Remember that we are all products of our time.
I think if Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson were alive today they would embrace the progressive ideals of our time.
Perhaps the most important thing about teaching history within context is to not repeat our mistakes and to change our behavior for the better. It is not to cancel each other out for our past transgressions.
Bill Yee is a retired Alhambra High School history teacher. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.