A modest proposal to achieve a “historically correct” America
There is a difference between right and wrong. It is important to know the difference between right and wrong. And without a doubt, enslaving people is wrong. We should not celebrate that wrong.
And yet, how far can we go in denigrating historical wrongs before we enter the Orwellian world of denying history’s existence?
As George Orwell wrote in 1984…
If all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’
And as the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
A lot of work will have to be done if we decide to eliminate all celebrations of wrong and all memorials to wrongdoers.
So, I propose a thought experiment: If we need to make some changes, then, to be perfectly logical, we need to make all changes.
At the beginning of our nation (though not at the beginning of enslavement) there is George Washington. He held 317 people in bondage.
One American state, 31 counties, 55 cities, towns, and villages, 241 townships, and six major geological features are named after George Washington, as are 12 colleges and universities, nine important public parks, four of the nation’s longest bridges, and innumerable avenues, boulevards, streets, roads, and highways.
What shall we rename them?
Ideally, they all should be named after oppressed persons. However, due to the oppression of persons because of their race – and also because of their gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation – the names of most of the oppressed are lost to us. And the names of some of the oppressed – Carrie Nation, for example – could prove divisive among millennials who object to having their craft beer smashed with a hatchet.
In a gesture to neutrality and fairness, we could start the “Washington” renaming with the first 358-plus words in the dictionary… “A City,” “Aardvarkville,” “Abackburg,” “Abacustown,” and so on.
But dictionaries are a social construct of Western civilization’s dead white males (such as Noah Webster, who’s dead). So maybe an alphabetical approach won’t do.
Perhaps we can use a random selection of tattoos from today’s young people who are so vigilantly opposed to historical wrongs. For instance, Washington Pass, in the North Cascades mountains of Washington State, could be renamed “This Too Will” Pass, in “Follow Your Dreams” State.
Of course, you could wind up being someplace that didn’t have a name at all… a place where you’d need to scroll through Google Maps looking for a hummingbird on someone’s butt, instead.
And George Washington is only one small part of the larger problem. Eleven other American presidents, including some of those rated best by historians, owned slaves. Consider:
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and, of all people, Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant owned only one slave, William Jones, and freed him after one year. Despite Grant’s desperate need for money at the time, he did not sell Jones. But, still…
Even wise and kindly Benjamin Franklin bought and sold people. Yes, he freed his slaves and he became president of America’s first abolitionist society. But, still…
So here is a to-do list (with many, many, many more chores to be added to it):
1. Remove from public sight all references to anyone who ever owned slaves or at any time supported, explicitly or implicitly, the institution of slavery.
The movie The Bridges of Madison County is an easy fix, re-titled Worst Piece of Dreck in Which Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood Ever Appeared.
But should the name of the lead characters in The Jeffersons disqualify the brilliant comedic work of African-American actors Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford from being shown in reruns?
I picture a (organic, GMO-free) butter-churning contest to decide which one gets the coveted name of “Cheesehead City…” Montpelier will likely get “Maple Syrup Town.”
The capitals of Madison, Wisconsin and Montpelier, Vermont (named after Madison’s Montpelier plantation) will need new monikers. I picture a (organic, GMO-free) butter-churning contest to decide which one gets the coveted name of “Cheesehead City.” Bet on the muscular Green Bay fans. Montpelier will likely get “Maple Syrup Town.”
New York’s Madison Avenue will also have to be rechristened. I suggest “Avenue Clogged With Commuter Buses to Westchester.” It’s unwieldy, but it will remove the offending wig-wearer’s name and lend the illusion that beleaguered Mayor Bill de Blasio cares about the largely forgotten, mostly Republican borough.
“The Monroe Doctrine,” I suppose, will henceforth go by something on the order of “Doctrine of Yankee Imperialist Interference in the Sovereign Affairs of Latin American Nations, No Matter How Insane Those Sovereign Affairs Get.”
John Jay was a Founding Father (a patriarchal and Eurocentric term that needs to be replaced with “Crypto-Colonialist Person Once Considered Significant”) and the first Chief (a title insulting to Native Americans) Justice of the United States. So, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice will be renamed for all the people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes, starting with those unfairly arrested using prejudicial “stop and frisk” tactics. It will be a very long name for a college, but America has a very long history of Criminal Injustice.
2. Repurpose public spaces that memorialize ideas and actions that are wrong.
Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, and the University of Virginia’s Jefferson-designed Rotunda and Lawn could be made into “safe spaces” for permanent “antifa” demonstrations. Republicans, Libertarians, and old-fashioned “free speech” liberal Democrats would be forbidden to venture within 10 miles.
Half of Mount Rushmore will be blasted away. Or all of it. Lincoln, early in his political career, made comments that were racist. And Teddy Roosevelt’s actions in the Spanish-American War were clearly imperialistic. Maybe the cliff face can be ground smooth, made perfectly vertical, and turned into a climbing wall where people can learn the futility, frustration, and pain of the “American Dream” of “trying to get to the top” by falling off.
The Washington Monument and the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials are ideal sites for low-income housing in a city where capitalist exploitation has made housing prices unaffordable to the homeless. Until the housing is built, these places can serve as squats for activist collectives.
3. Edit the Declaration of Independence to remove the signatures of the 41 (out of 56) signers who owned slaves.
Perhaps their names can be replaced with historically Black names, although this too presents difficulties. According to the 2010 census, some of the most common surnames of respondents who self-identified as Black were Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and Wilson. (Woodrow Wilson was a notorious racist.)
Or we can replace the 41 slave-owner signatures with the signatures of important historic figures who would have signed but were prevented from doing so by the cultural inequalities of 1776. For an example, I’d name Dolley Madison – who was not only a woman but also a victim of the 18th century’s dire lack of children’s rights, being only eight at the time – but she also owned slaves later in life.
4. Rebrand any commercial enterprise that contains an offensive name, even if it is unrelated to the offending figure or spelled differently.
Lee Jeans and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce will become W. E. B. Du Bois Jeans and Sacagawea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce.
And Robert Lee, the Asian-American ESPN broadcaster who – after the white supremacist riots in Charlottesville – was pulled from announcing the UVA/William and Mary football game because of his name…
That guy shall henceforth use the Chinese characters for he-who-must-not-be-named – R_____ E. L__.
“George Washington” will be removed from 32 parks, schools, and monuments dedicated to George Washington Carver, to avoid confusing him with the slave owner.
Ditto for Booker T. Washington. But Booker T. himself was somewhat soft on Jim Crow segregation, so we’ll have to get rid of his first name and middle initial as well. All recordings by the seminal R&B/funk instrumental group Booker T. & the M.G.’s will be credited to the band, “And the M.G.’s.”
5. Withdraw from circulation all currency and coins featuring offending figures.
No expense will be spared. The 2017 U.S. Treasury budget for replacing worn-out currency (notes only) is $726 million. By my estimation, the cost to replace all currency and coins defaced (as it were) with portraits of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Hamilton (his family owned slaves), Jackson, Grant, Franklin, et al, will be at least $3 billion.
Because of this high cost and the already dubious value of money issued by the U.S. Treasury, I propose that the pictures on the new U.S. coins and currencies be of endangered species, particularly, the less intelligent and commercially valuable… the Alabama cavefish on the $1 bill and the American burying beetle on the $100 bill, to start.
But cost should not be our main consideration – the government will pay for it.
And the vast amount of money, time, and effort dedicated to achieving the goal of a “historically correct” nation will effectively eliminate unemployment, drive our economy, and increase our tax base.
It could be the biggest economic boon since Obama’s “shovel ready” infrastructure stimulus projects. Hundreds of thousands of people will be gainfully employed tearing down street signs, demolishing statues, shredding currency, and the like.
After all, since we’re denying history, let’s deny economics, too…
If we use economic assumptions that are “right” (Keynesian government spending) rather than “wrong” (Reaganomic government thrift), the way we’re using historical assumptions that are “right” (full of nice thoughts about social justice) rather than “wrong” (history as historians recount it)…
Why, we could…
We could “make America great again!”
Kerry D. Moynihan is a partner at executive search firm Boyden. He helps build executive management teams across retail, consumer, financial, and technology sectors. He specializes in working with leveraged buyout and venture capital funds, public companies undergoing dramatic growth or rapid change, and restructuring boards of directors.
Kerry is a graduate of the University of Virginia in English Literature and holds an MBA in Finance from The Wharton School. He has worked with clients on six continents and holds dual U.S. and E.U. citizenship.