From The New Yorker:
Last month, San Francisco’s Board of Education voted, 6–1, to change the names of forty-four schools, including schools named after Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. A committee formed by the board in 2018, in the wake of the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, had determined that any figures who “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings; or who oppressed women, inhibiting societal progress; or whose actions led to genocide; or who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” should no longer have schools named after them and had recommended which names should be changed. Washington’s name was struck because he held slaves, Lincoln’s because of his policies toward Native Americans. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s name will be removed from a school, owing to the decision, when she was San Francisco’s mayor, in the nineteen-eighties, to replace a Confederate flag that was part of a Civic Center display and had been taken down by a protester. (A spokesperson for Feinstein said that the city’s parks department replaced the flag “on its own accord.” She later had it replaced with a Union flag.) Some of the committee’s recommendations have received more criticism than others: Paul Revere Elementary School will be renamed because of his role in the Penobscot Expedition of 1779, an assault on a British fort that the committee claimed, incorrectly, was intended to colonize the Penobscot people.
I don't much care what the city of San Francisco wants to name its schools. Plus, it's not like the US has a shortage of things named after Washington and Lincoln. As the president of the school board told the New Yorker, it isn't "erasing history" to get rid of names some of their students or teachers find offensive. The job of the schools is to educate students, not memorialize the past, so if having a school named Lincoln is a distraction from that mission, away with it.
I wonder, though; how many people in history could meet that standard? Has there ever been a powerful political leader who never promoted the "subjugation of human beings," never oppressed women, and never inhibited social progress? If you ask me, sending people to prison is a form of subjugation, which is precisely why we have a big debate now about incarceration. Precious few American leaders have opposed prisons, so we can throw most of them out right there.
I have friends who were part of the Civil Rights struggle in the 1960s and some of the women are still bitter about the degree of sexism they encountered. Martin Luther King does not have a good record on that score, and more radical figures like Malcolm X were worse. The American Indian Movement of the 1960s and 1970s demanded that its members reject "white feminism" and support traditional Native ideas about gender roles. Most of the major American Indian figures you can name – Powhatan, Tecumseh, Sitting Bull, Popé, Quanah Parker – came from communities that owned slaves.
If you consider gay rights to be social progress, which I certainly do, you are going to find precious few leaders from before 1990 who never impeded that kind of progress.
As I see it, what is under attack here is the whole notion of leadership. You cannot lead a diverse community without compromise. You cannot lead a democracy unless you align your views with the majority on most issues. The standard of purity advocated by the San Francisco School Board is simply impossible for anyone with real power to meet. If Paul Revere does meet that standard it is only because he never held office, because if he had he would have been part of a system that oppressed minorities and women and made war on Indians. I think the same is true of any activist they come up with who seems to meet the standard.
But maybe that is, as they say, a feature not a bug. Maybe the point is to de-emphasize political leaders and point our attention in other directions. After all, many people think that essentially all political leaders are corrupt and wicked. I would phrase it differently, and say that a certain amount of wickedness is necessary to get anything done in this imperfect material world, but I am willing to concede that every important leader I know of has a mass of sins on his or her head.
How should we feel about that?
Many people think it is important to memorialize leaders because leadership is essential to, well, pretty much everything. Great leaders should be forgiven their sins because the things they accomplished are vital. Many Brits felt that way about Winston Churchill, knowing full well that he was racist, imperialist, anti union, and friendly toward Fascism until Hitler made war on Europe; his wartime leadership wiped away all those sins and made him a hero. Many Americans felt that way about Franklin Roosevelt.
But others think that is bunk, that what we should do is reject the whole fantasy of greatness. That what matters, or what should matter, is the people, and that there is something unfair and downright immoral about putting some on pedestals up above the rest of us, as if they were better than we are. Instead of Lincoln, maybe we should honor the ordinary soldiers who fought in the war, or the people who went South with the Freedman's Bureau to feed refugees and teach ex-slaves to read. Maybe what we should do is to fight the whole aristocratic notion that some people are great and others are not, and we can start by making sure that everyone knows about the crimes committed by so-called heroes.
George Washington is a common target of activists not just because he owned slaves, but because as the Father of Our Country he represents the pinnacle of the Greatness Pyramid. If this is a nation of Great Men, especially Great White Men, who are Leaders the rest of us should bow down to, that starts with him, and the path toward creating a nation that cares about everyone equally also starts with him; the first act of a movement to empower the people should be knocking him down into the dirt.
I personally think leadership does matter, and that without George Washington or Abraham Lincoln US history might have gone quite differently. But I might be wrong about that.
And I fully understand that the whole business of making national heroes and naming schools after people we are supposed to admire is in itself a political act. There is a plausible kind of politics, and political morality, that rejects the whole notion of Great People. If you cringed when Trump said, "I alone can fix it," maybe you should question the importance of every other leader, too. Maybe, in fact, there are no people good or important enough that we should name schools after them. If we care more about principles than leaders, more about ordinary folks than grandstanding politicians, maybe the San Francisco school board is in a weird way right.