Al Jones: An Orwellian dead end
The San Francisco School Board recently decided to re-name 44 schools, including those named for Washington and Lincoln. According to the board, this process will remove the names of individuals who engaged in slavery, genocide, oppression of women, or environmental destruction, as determined by a committee appointed in 2018.
New Yorker magazine recently obtained an interview with Gabriela López, the president of the school board, concerning the re-naming process. Parsing through the millennial style of idiom, grammar and syntax can be difficult for a geezer like me. With some effort, though, the message becomes clear.
The renaming committee was not interested in the details of the alleged historical crimes. Apparently historians did not participate in the process. Ms López makes no apology for that. History remains, she asserts, but it is time to “uplift” different voices.
Mistakes fill every human life, especially if one interprets that life in the context of current values rather than the time in which the individual lived.
In the board’s analysis, one single mistake, interpreted in the light of modern values, is sufficient to doom an individual’s reputation. Thus they removed the name of a sitting U.S. senator, a woman of much accomplishment, because four decades ago some Parks Department employee replaced a torn-down Confederate flag with another and it stayed up for a day.
Removing Dianne Feinstein’s name from an elementary school is not a principled act, a decision reached after careful historical analysis. It is historical vandalism.
In fact, the whole project feels to me like historical vandalism. Certainly, the necessary single error can be found for each of the 44 individuals. Collectively, though, the renaming process rejects the entire history of California as a state in the United States and of the United States themselves.
Rejects, that is, the history of a nation that defeated the tyrannies of the Kaiser, Hitler, and the Soviet Union. Rejects, that is, the history of a nation that struggled to end its sin of slavery, of Jim Crow, that elected a Black man as its president in 2008 and 2012. Rejects, that is, the history of a nation that afforded new opportunities for tens of millions suffering from oppression in their home countries.
The world still sees us as offering new opportunities, in fact, as evidenced by the many migrants seeking to cross our southern border.
Now that the school board has jettisoned the heroes of our elective democracy, of individual effort and merit and accomplishment, we wait to see what other voices they uplift. No doubt those voices will stand in opposition to the traditional view of our history. I fear they will be collectivist voices, people who demand that our individual rights and freedoms be subordinated to the needs of the whole, as those needs and that whole are defined by the party in power. Or voices who favor a society guided by educated elites, with elections held merely to affirm their party’s leading role.
“History has stopped,” George Orwell wrote in “1984.“ “Nothing exists except an endless present in which the party is always right.”
It is one model of history. History suggests that it leads to an Orwellian dead end. We shall see.
Al Jones lives in Grass Valley.
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