While the Republican Party grapples with out-of-control extremism in its midst, many Democrats, and many liberal pundits, are anxious to reassure the public that the Democratic Party is the voice of sanity, its radicals relegated to the fringe.
Then along comes the San Francisco Board of Education, voting to strip 44 city schools of their historic names because of a link to white supremacy and other forms of oppression. The canceled include not only George Washington, Paul Revere, and Abraham Lincoln, but also Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a prominent liberal, pioneering female politician, and supporter of gay rights and other progressive causes.
There are many reasons this decision is ludicrous. One is that the school board is focusing on window-dressing instead of the important challenges of schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even San Francisco’s progressive mayor, London Breed, has zinged the school board for being more concerned with getting schools renamed than with getting them reopened.
No less important, though, is the underlying principle: that we must stop honoring everything in U.S. history that doesn’t meet modern-day standards of morality.
The renaming spree erases nuance. Thus, one thing held against Lincoln is the 1862 hanging of 38 Native American men for an attack on white settlers in Minnesota — probably the largest mass execution in U.S. history. But Lincoln’s defenders point out that he faced tremendous pressure from Congress as well as the threat of vigilante violence against Native Americans. Even so, he reduced the number of death sentences to 38 from more than 300.
In other cases, the renaming campaign has mangled facts, as noted by Joe Eskenazi, a columnist for the San Francisco news site Mission Local. Revere is accused of participating in the conquest of the Penobscot nation; in fact, he took part in the Penobscot Expedition against British troops during the Revolutionary War.
The rationale for canceling Feinstein is especially absurd. In 1984, while she was mayor of San Francisco, a communist activist tore down a Confederate battle flag outside San Francisco’s Civic Center — part of an 18-flag display, installed 20 years earlier, symbolizing various aspects of American history. The flag was replaced by the Recreation and Parks Department, then torn down again. She then announced that it would not be reinstalled, at the request of African American Board of Supervisors member Doris Ward. But she is blamed for the flag’s initial replacement — which she did not personally greenlight.
At heart, the renaming effort is about apologizing for America’s existence and declaring that nothing in U.S. history can be celebrated except for the struggle of historically oppressed groups. (Of course, if morally absolutist standards were applied to that struggle, it could not be celebrated, either.)
This conflict echoes earlier controversies. The New York Times’ 1619 Project explores U.S. history with slavery and racism at the center and condemns the Founders as racist slaveholders; it has been incorporated into many school curricula. Statues of Washington and Thomas Jefferson were toppled during last summer’s protests. Donald Trump tried to use the history wars as a campaign issue, appointing a "1776 Commission" that issued its report two days before the end of the Trump presidency. The report, which sanitized the Founders as much as the 1619 Project demonizes them, was quickly shelved by the Biden administration.
Trump’s call for government-enforced "patriotic education" echoes authoritarian regimes. But the attack on U.S. history and its heroes can only give ammunition to right-wing demagogues. Mainstream Democrats should condemn the travesty in San Francisco.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.