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The Great Renaming Game

by Richard Mason | June 6, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.
Richard Mason

Lately it seems Americans have decided that we must try to erase the recognition of anyone, who at any time in their life, was involved in any of what we consider today as an evil part of history. We seem to be striving to remove the names and or statutes of certain persons based on any association with standards that today we consider unacceptable.

Of course, we are being selective and judgmental.

First, we are judging these people by today’s standards, and we are using that scale to decide whether a person deserves to be remembered or honored. We have a laser focus on just certain parts of that person’s life that must meet today’s standards, while we conveniently ignore the rest of his or her accomplishments. It seems we are trying to remove from sight the name or anything relating to the memory of anyone or anything that is connected to or even remotely involved in the treatment of various ethnic groups.

Let me elaborate. It all started with removing Confederate monuments, and then quickly spread to all Confederate statues. Of course, then it turned to removing the names of local schools and even colleges, which were named for any persons of history who, according to our standards today, were on the wrong side of history in any part of their life. But it hasn’t stopped there. It has spread to street signs and buildings and even to the renaming of college dorms, dining halls and to the mascots of athletic teams.

Well, let’s look a little deeper into the removal movement, and why not go back to the some of the first settlers in North America. How about the folks who came over on the Mayflower? Okay?

Well, it seems they didn’t arrive at a vast uninhabited wilderness. North America was inhabited by an estimated 15 to 20 million indigenous people, and during the next 250 years, their land was taken from them, and the ones who weren’t murdered or killed by disease brought over by the Europeans were put into reservations.

But we seem to ignore most of these atrocities, because trying to erase the memory of them would require the removal of thousands more of names and statutes that had anything to do with it. In other words, almost all of our country’s former citizens were part of the treatment given to these people. And now, we think to quit using the name “Redskins” is a way to reconcile history. Who are we kidding?

Yes, this country has a checkered past and slavery was part of it. Of course slavery is detestable, but 43 men who signed the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. I guess the name changers want to hunt down all the streets, buildings and memorials that honor these folks and change their names? But the list keep growing. Now George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are coming into play, since slavery is connected to the “Father of our Country,” Washington, and mistreatment of American Indians is being pinned on Lincoln. Are we going to try and change the names of, say, Lee County in Arkansas or the state of Washington?

So where do we go from there? Yes, forming the Confederacy was terrible, but eleven southern states joined up and a horrible Civil War resulted. It seems, from actual history, nearly every able-bodied white man in the South between 17 and 70 participated in some way in the insurrection. Of course, after the War, some of these men contributed greatly to thousands of admirable causes such as the building of colleges and schools. Their names are on buildings and schools from coast to coast. Are we going to try and remove every name that has any tie to slavery or the treatment of indigenous peoples? Of course, as we do this, we conveniently ignore the sins of the present.

It seems we are grading sin. That’s right, and what we are saying is that we are going to put some sins of the past on a list, and forget others, and on top of that we are going to completely ignore any sins of the present. When we start making a list of our country’s past sins and conveniently leave out certain sins and concentrate on others, we are on a slippery slope.

Who is the judge as to what sins are especially grievous, and what sins are just the price our country paid for the progress as a nation?

We justify renaming a grade school named after someone who, reflecting on his or her place in history, at one time was part of something that while commonplace in that person’s lifetime, is today considered a black mark on his or her character.

It seems we have a thumb on the scales of justice when we currently judge someone such as William Fulbright. We point to his political stance at a time in history, which today is a black mark, and we ignore his other legacy and accomplishments. We are doing the same thing with Lincoln, Washington and Andrew Jackson.

If you examine almost all of our historical figures back to Columbus, we could easily find fault, based on today’s standards of conduct, on every one of them. Even Columbus has already come under fire and his statue has been defaced because of his treatment of indigenous people. Are we ready to start renaming “Columbus” towns?

It seems we are proclaiming a self-righteousness, which ignores the sins of the present and condemns the sins of the past, and that begs the question. Do we have present day sins? Certainly!

We condemn someone who lived 150 years ago and support erasing him or her from the history books without giving any consideration to that person’s full life. I guess we believe that it’s okay to spend millions of dollars to rename every street, school and remove every monument because of the involvement of that person in a practice we find abhorrent today, without any regard to the sins of the present or the full measure of that person’s life.

We conveniently ignore the continued discrimination of women, who certainly don’t have equal rights. We protest the insignificant name of a school and ignore the homeless, let a terrible percentage of our population suffer from inadequate housing and we let children go hungry while we push to take down a meaningless sign.

Well, it is time to put history back in the books and quit trying to erase anything that today we find abhorrent. It is impossible for us to reconstruct the lives of these men and women who we condemn today without a thorough investigation of their lives, and of course that is what we are doing today as we nitpick a stand these people took or a cause they supported.

Of course, trying to erase history is as old as mankind. The pharaohs of Egypt were guilty of chiseling out the name of former pharaohs, and isn’t that what we are doing today when we change the name of Jackson Street to Porcupine Avenue?

Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email [email protected]

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