As I sit writing this, the Senate of the United States (I assume this since I’m not watching at the moment) is effectively deliberating how to label the events of January 6th. They will listen to evidence. Then they will decide whether by telling his followers to march on the Capitol, “take back America” and “fight like hell” for Donald Trump’s right to overturn a legitimate election, Trump should be labeled as having a) incited a riot or b) merely exercised his First Amendment rights to free speech.
Right, and all those rioting people bent on lynching legislators and other acts of violence merely transmogrified out of dandruff and horse hairs floating in the Washington Monument reflecting pool.
But no further comment from me on that today. Not that you need any. Instead, let me delve into a few other exercises in the fine art of abusing nomenclature.
“Aunt Jemima” was clearly a racist brand name. But the new name’s just dumb. Whether because racist intention or more likely mere stupidity, the image of “Aunt Jemima” the overweight house slave in the kitchen that appeared on a leading brand of pancake flour and syrup, perpetrated an awful racial stereotype. Such stereotyping has no place in American commerce.
So hurrah that the Quaker Oats Company, the maker of the product, finally got its guano together and changed the name.
But what marketing genius came up with "Pearl Milling Company" as the replacement? It's racism-free — except that they mention on the new label that it's still "Aunt Jemima," just in case you're not sure. And it's also personality-free.
How about Quaker pancake flour? Or if that sullies either the company’s image or the Society of Friends, how about anything else? Dan’s Dandy Pancake Flour. Pancake Pete’s Fluffy Flour. Power Flour for Pancakes. Or even — what the hell!— steal or license a brand name from Wylie Coyote and make it Acme Pancake Flour. At least I can remember that.
What’s sad is, if the brand with a now totally forgettable mouthful of a name flops after all these years, some right-wing yoyos are going to blame it on “cancel culture” having forced the name change. And that will aid and abet, not neutralize, the advocates of racism.
But speaking of cancel culture…
Sorry, Abe, and George, and Tom and Jim and Diane. You’re cancelled!
Alas, I regret to say that members of my own progressive crowd have gone off the deep end without their water wings.
A report out of San Francisco tells me that forty-four schools throughout the city will be renamed, by order of the local school board, because they are named after historical figures who “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings; or who oppressed women, inhibiting social 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."
Holy cow! You mean San Francisco had schools named after Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee? Or was there an Attila the Hun School, a Simon Legree Vocational High School of Slave Abuse, a Jeffrey Dahmer Mass Murder Preparatory School, and an Adolph Hitler High?
Nope. The San Francisco school board is now horrified that its schools are named after Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Senator Diane Feinstein, among others.
Abe Lincoln? Well, yeah, because he backed policies that harmed Native American Tribes. And George Washington owned slaves. And Diane Feinstein — get this — “has been accused (accused!) of ordering a Confederate flag to be replaced after it was torn down, when she was Mayor of San Francisco back in the 1980s.”
The Roosevelt Middle School will also be renamed, even though the school board isn’t certain which Roosevelt the school was named for, Teddy or Franklin. (Or maybe Eleanor?) Paul Revere is about to ride off into San Francisco-imposed oblivion. And on and on goes the purge.
Listen, it’s one thing to avoid naming schools or monuments after traitors to the United States such as Jefferson Davis, who betrayed his country to preserve human slavery. Or to eschew monuments to rabble rousers, race baiters and thugs. But there’s no such thing as a perfect human being. Was Lincoln wrong to allow conquest of Native American lands, if he did so?
You bet he was. Damn wrong. But he also kept the union together and ended the abomination of slavery, and in the end that has to count for something worth memorializing, one supposes.
What did Paul Revere do wrong? I duno. According to history.com, he had kind of a spotty military record. He commanded American soldiers against some British forces in Maine, but his forces “failed to attack in time” and British reinforcements arrived, forcing an American retreat. Revere was charged with cowardice and insubordination and booted out of the militia. (But he was acquitted in 1782. So go figure.)
“It’s not just symbolic. It’s a moral message,” said Mark Sanchez, a member of the school board.
But perhaps that’s exactly the problem.
Flat out, clear cut, deliberate evil should deservedly get purged from places of honor. Morality, on the other hand, is a a fluid and tricky concept. There are some things we can all agree are immoral, like murder, or rape, or deliberate genocide. But there are other things where someone with a liberal turn-of-mind might allow for shades of gray.
It’s only a few decades ago that being gay was immoral. There were people who were raised thinking masturbation was immoral. Or failing to attend church.
Your immorality may be my right to self-expression. Is San Francisco’s own Margo St. James, recently deceased, (and called "San Francisco's Joan of Arc") a saint who started a movement to protect and liberate sex workers? Or is “sex work” by definition immoral and its organizers like St. James worthy of nothing but opprobrium?
It's a long, hard slog if you search for high achievers who are perfectly moral by everybody's standards. With few exceptions the only morally perfect people are nonentities. And after a while the exceptions will run out. Sadly, it's likely that after that, some of the exceptions will be discovered to have had some unexceptional flaws. I can’t imagine what they might be — anything from cheating on exams, to hidden cases of child abuse, to nose picking.
The problem with naming schools only after morally perfect people is that it’s a perfect way to begin naming schools after mediocrities.
Not that I’d have anything against a Hermione J. Nebbish High School. Or a Morton J. Schlub Middle School.
Right, Mr., uh….what’s the name of that guy on the San Francisco School Board again?