What's in a name?

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of "Equity" in San Francisco

I’m no Confederate apologist. Nor do I have any interest in parsing the merits and demerits of the postbellum Lost Cause narrative, etc. The late historian Forrest McDonald once privately quipped, “I’m the only American historian who doesn’t give a damn about the Civil War.” I sympathize. I do, however, care deeply about two things. First, our sense of national identity, which is intricate to our self-confidence and social cohesion.

The second thing follows from the first. I care about the way we handle history and public representations thereof. I was reminded recently whilst doing a podcast interview of C.S. Lewis’s remarks on patriotism and national myth in the Four Loves. We shouldn’t deify historical figures—excepting for those (singular) that were actually deity, of course. Nations, societies, however, do require heroes, figures that possess some level of veneration as the mythical (in the best sense) embodiment of what constitutes their progeny. Naturally this often takes the form of visible remembrances of them in the form of monuments, museums, etc. This is an impulse not to be despised, but it will become increasingly impossible to fulfill, in part for the reasons stated below.

There’s something unsettling about the mass monument demolition we’ve seen over the past few years—the same reason that the Capital chaos of January 6 was frightening. Its one thing for a locale to determine, through valid processes, that they no longer wish to look at Nathan Bedford Forrest’s face every time they take their kids to feed the ducks at the public park. Its quite another for basement dwelling Antifa acolytes and the like to frolic about razing cities and ripping public memorials down—doubtless being unable to identify most of the faces they burn in effigy. Public disorder of any brand—whether Target lootings or Capital invasions—cannot be tolerated. They’re distasteful, juvenile, and unbecoming of a free republic.

Perhaps most disconcerting of all was the prospect, which many commentators had the foresight to see, that our contemporary iconoclasm would not stop with Robert E. Lee, et al. They were right. In short order, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln were being defaced—the former instance serving as a testament to America’s greatest export, its politics. Most of us can’t conjure up too much energy to defend the losing side of the Civil War, but it should shock us into attention when we see the triumphant party, the emancipators of slaves and preservers of the union—in the case of Churchill, the savior of western civilization—being shown no quarter. It won’t stop.

I recently learned that a mosaic frieze on the front of a library building—a former Carnegie construction located near where I once lived—is set to be “obscured.” The 70-foot-long mosaic in question, positioned atop a beautiful neo-classical structure, is called “America Receiving the Gifts of Nations,” and depicts America personified on a throne flanked by her children, equality and opportunity. Proceeding in are Rome, Greece, and others; Moses and the Decalogue; Michelangelo and Raphael; Shakespeare and Longfellow; Whitman and Dante; Tyndale and the English Bible; George Washington and Christopher Columbus. This is offensive, apparently. I previously would’ve assumed that Washington and Columbus were the key offenders dragging the rest down, but now that the classics are under fire, Homer has been de-curriculum-ized, and “Christian privilege” is a subject of great concern for Christians, I’m not sure who the real culprit could be.

The monument stuff will no doubt carry on, but its kind of old hat now. New targets have been identified.

Most recently, the San Francisco board of education voted 6-1 to rename 44 of its schools, all of which are currently closed due to California COVID-19 restrictions. The rebrand effort includes scrubbing the names of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, Robert Louis Stevenson, and, ironically, Dianne Feinstein. The high crimes of these people vary but, in general, include, as Ross Douthat put it, “various forms of cooperation with white supremacy and patriarchy.” As the commission itself put it, the disowned figures are guilty of being,

“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.”

Per the board of education’s public documents on the issue, Jefferson is scheduled for erasure due to slave owning; Washington for slave owning and colonialism—no doubt “colonialism” in the new, woke sense, more or less synonymous with “white supremacy,” which itself has been injected with new meaning beyond the colloquial sense. Revere apparently contributed to colonialism as well.

FDR refused to support an anti-lynching bill. Senator Feinstein was on the list because “a Confederate flag that was vandalized in front of City Hall was replaced while she was mayor of San Francisco.” (Sins of omission and commission are apparently in view.)

A cursory survey of the commission’s spreadsheet outlining the indictments of each school’s namesake reveals that the historical figures (or in Feinstein’s case, living persons) considered for removal are reduced to a single category, a lone identifier. The intersectional sensibility pervades activist bureaucrats—in truth, they’re just mimicking what college kids were doing five years ago—like those in San Francisco. It is curious, then, is it not, that they would be comfortable downgrading Jefferson to simply, “slave-holder”? This, of course, makes it easier to streamline the prevailing narrative and dehumanize the person under review. Its a similar dynamic to that of a human resources department at a massive corporation, and that’s no coincidence. This kind of reductionist assessment of history of which only the managerial class are capable raises some troubling questions, the answers to which prove contradictory to the stated rationale of the renaming, holier-than-thou crusade.

Commenting on the monument craze back in August of 2017, Tucker Carlson was right to pose a rhetorical question: If Thomas Jefferson isn’t worthy of a memorial on the national mall, for instance, then why is the Declaration of Independence worthy of veneration? A valid rhetorical exercise to be sure.

We might rephrase the question for the present topic of renaming schools that bear the namesake of now objectionable people: How can the removal of Jefferson’s name from a school building be justified on the basis of the Declaration’s most famous phrase?

Indeed, that is what the San Francisco school board did. In the name-change resolution passed by the board in May 2018 quoted above, those who “significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” were to be cast into the abyss. Amongst them, as it turns out, is the author of those very words. Herein lies the inconsistency. The invocation of the Declaration is implicitly Eurocentric, that is, colonialist and white supremacist.

By way of some pro bono consultancy, if the school board of San Francisco, in its tireless and ruthless pursuit of “equity,” really wanted to be radical (and consistent)—really “get serious” like The Lancet—they might look to a Critical Race scholar like Tommy Curry, a committed disciple of Derrick Bell, by all accounts CRT’s founding father.

In a 2008 article called, “Shut Your Mouth When You're Talking to Me: Silencing the Idealist School of Critical Race Theory Through a Culturalogical Turn in Jurisprudence,” Curry, inter alia, advocates for the restoration of the truly radical posture of Bell and those thinkers from the Black radical movement (Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, etc.) upon which he drew. Curry’s beef is with the “idealists” who have departed from this original vision. (Curry could be accurately described as something of a CRT purist.) Instrumental in this alleged departure by people like Kimberle Crenshaw, Angela Harris, and Richard Delgado was the adoption of Eurocentric thought, thought outside of “the epistemic basis of Blacks’ worldview.” The idealist, by Curry’s lights, wrongly incorporated Kant, Hegel, Freud, French deconstructionists—”postmodernity is nothing more than Europeans’ discontent with Europe not living up to the hype”—and the neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School into their CRT.

Critical race “idealists turn to White (European) thinkers outside of and unaffected by the racial problematic to lend their unbiased (untainted view to Black problems,” which constitutes nothing more than “anthropological dependency” and imports “modernists narratives.” Hence, the admittedly mainstream idealists fail to attack the philosophic underpinnings of “White thinking,” which is to say, oppressive, hegemonic thinking. To Curry’s horror, this dependency “asks Blacks to think of themselves as possessing the same fundamental nature as those who have created, justified, and perpetuated colonialism.”

Curry draws heavily on the legal scholar Kenneth Nunn who said, “To successfully resist Euro-centricity, African-descended people must interpret law in light of their own cultural perspectives.” Building off Nunn, Curry suggests that only a subversive” epistemology situated outside of the baggage of a “European worldview” and the “West’s metaphysical purview,” holdovers from the Critical Legal Studies movement, can animate a politics and psychology of racism, and a truly liberative CRT.

For the realists like Curry, CRT simply cannot “utilize the thinking of the colonizer without embracing the manifestations of colonial thought.” The two go hand-in-hand. To borrow white ideas is to participate in “colonial discourse,” the very ideas that allegedly enabled and emboldened subjugation of the Other. Curry follows Nunn in saying that law, at least as we know it, is “fundamentally Eurocentric.” So too is the conception of rights, natural or otherwise. Rights are a manifestation of law, and law is politics, and politics is the will to power of the dominant class. Rights are a “discourse” through which power is normalized and proliferated. (Universalism is also a “white” idea.) These things are meant to distract the subjugated class from the “thinking about the White cultural hegemony and supremacy” imbedded in all of it.

The justification of American independence on the natural law basis of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—the latter term borrowing its meaning from antiquity making it especially suspect—is all a myth conjured up by the powerful (in this case, whites) for the sake of dominance.

In the final analysis, and in light of Curry (who takes CRT ideas to their furthest logical conclusion), the school board of San Francisco has no basis for their action insofar as it incorporates Eurocentric (“white”) thought—especially the white conception of “rights,” and especially “natural” ones. (If this sounds too extreme then you’re not paying attention to the ideological trajectory insofar as it is being popularized and thereby made actionable.)

And so, we might ask the San Francisco school board, what now? In the world to which you are steering us, America may sit on her thrown still, but is accompanied only by her stepchild, “equity,” and no procession of the wisdom and achievements of the ages is coming to greet her. They were all blotted out from the book of life by six votes and a spreadsheet, and along with them, their “white” ideas, viz., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.