Earlier this week, the San Francisco school board voted to scrap the names of 44 schools. It turned out America’s most liberal city had been a hotbed of racism all along. How odd. Last summer’s ‘reckoning’ of several statues and automobile windows wasn’t enough, so now the ‘reckoning’ must come.
CNN’s Nathan McDermott discovered the Google Doc which the board used to log all the sins of the city’s school namesakes. The document makes it clear that, while the city may be happy to disown Thomas Jefferson, its activist class doesn’t exactly match his mental horsepower.
Most of the names stricken have a direct or tangential relation to slavery, so you might expect Abraham Lincoln to be well-regarded. But Cockburn readers know better: ‘Lincoln is not seen as much of a hero at all among many American Indian Nations and Native peoples of the United States,’ so he is out.
From there, each reason becomes more baffling than the last. Thomas Edison’s illustrious life is summed up as follows: ‘Thomas Edison had a foundness [sic] for electrocuting animals, and did a whole sting [sic] of animals including Topsy the Elephant, who was a well loved circus elephant during that time.’ Actually, Edison never electrocuted an elephant; his film company simply recorded the event. And Topsy wasn’t a ‘well loved’ elephant, but rather a ‘bad’ one that killed a spectator. But what good are facts in these fearful times?
James Lick isn’t accused of any nefarious behavior himself, but after his death his estate financed the creation of a statue that was later deemed Not OK and removed. He’s out. Paul Revere took part in a failed naval expedition against the British, but the expedition targeted Penobscot Bay, and the Penobscot were an Indian tribe. Something something, banished. Robert Louis Stevenson used the line ‘little frosty Eskimo’ in a poem, so he may as well have stormed the Capitol.
A school didn’t need to be named for a person to be cut down. San Francisco’s crusade is against language itself as much as men of flesh and blood. So Presidio Middle School, derived from the eponymous neighborhood, is out because presidio means ‘fortified military settlement,’ and something, something slavery. El Dorado Elementary is out, because El Dorado was a mythical city of gold that the Spanish searched for. That makes it ‘Spanish colonizer myth and ideaology [sic],’ and thus bad bad bad bad. Clarendon Elementary was just named for the street it’s on, but that name might or might not come from a county in South Carolina, which was named after the First Earl of Clarendon, who was once impeached by the House of Commons for violations of habeas corpus. Confused yet? Cockburn wonders why they even bothered; if they simply wrote ‘European who lived before 1800’ doubtless everyone would have understood.
As interesting as what names were removed are the names that survived. A middle school named for former mayor Willie Brown will stick around. While the Google Doc notes that Mayor Brown was ‘Responsible for much of gentrification in SF while he was mayor,’ it chooses not to say anything about his support for Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, or his extensive use of public patronage to reward friends, political allies and mistresses. But hey, one of those mistresses went on to become the Vice President.
Sadly, the rest of America cannot point and laugh at San Francisco for too long. Very soon, the renaming frenzy may claim its biggest victory yet. Democrats are making another bid to turn Washington DC into America’s 51st state, and in 2021 there’s no way a name honoring both George Washington and Christopher Columbus will rename intact. Sadly, Cockburn’s personal preference — Bowser’s Castle — has already been rejected. Instead, Sen. Tom Carper’s newly-introduced bill would rename the District of Columbia into the new state of ‘Washington, Douglass Commonwealth,’ in honor of longtime resident and frequent social studies multiple-choice test answer Frederick Douglass (by the way, would a letter to somebody after the name change to ‘Washington, Washington, Douglass Commonwealth’?).
While Cockburn dislikes eradicating distinguished 220-year-old names in response to current-year political pressures, he can understand the appeal of Douglass. The question is, will progressives still understand it even five years from now? Douglass supported the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, who is so repugnant his name was just removed from a San Francisco school. He also supported the colonization of Santo Domingo and praised the notoriously racist Constitution of the United States.
Cockburn has no problem honoring Douglass. But if we do, will we just have to rename our 51st state 10 years down the road?