Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama scrambled partisan lines by renaming Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in the United States, proving that even in this era of political polarization, some issues still go beyond party affiliation.
Alaskans of all political persuasions cheered the decision to return the mountain to its initial, Native Alaskan name of Denali, while both Democrats and Republicans in Ohio bemoaned what they saw as disrespect for one of the Buckeye State’s native sons – President William McKinley, who was elected in 1896 and assassinated in 1901.
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The decision wasn’t the first to trigger a national conversation about the propriety of such renamings or displacement of public monuments. The same week that McKinley became Denali, the University of Texas was removing a statue of Jefferson Davis from a place of honor on its main campus. It was deemed inappropriate to continue honoring the former head of the Confederate States of America, a man who did his part to trigger a war to maintain chattel slavery that ultimately cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Of course, the Texas-sized elephant in the room remains the large statue in front of the State Capitol, honoring only the Confederate war dead, on which Davis stands alone at the top. What, indeed, is to be done about such political symbols and artifacts?Having written a book about this subject, “Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies,” I can say three things with confidence. The first is that there is no satisfying general rule that allows us to determine when to adhere even to possibly uncomfortable status quos and when to act to change them, whether by changing names or monuments. Should we remove Alexander Hamilton from the ten-dollar bill, or President Andrew Jackson from the twenty, as some critics have recently argued? What do we lose or gain by emphasizing one history over another?
The second is that such choices are never apolitical. It should be obvious that mountains, airports, and cities do not announce their own names, any more, for that matter, than pets or newborn children do. We assign the names or, with regard to statuary, decide who is worthy of public honor. But the third is that even if “we” have a great deal of autonomy in naming our individual children or household pets, “we” are certainly not equal with regard to controlling public space and allocations of honor. Some of us have more power than others. From time immemorial, those with power – including the power that comes with great wealth – have used their control of public space to try to mold a certain kind of political consciousness.
Mt. McKinley is probably a fairly anodyne example. It received its name in 1917, with bipartisan support. President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill. What, after all, was the harm in offering Republicans a relatively cheap gesture? Similarly, President Bill Clinton in 1997 signed the bill, passed by a distinctly Republican Congress, that renamed the Washington National Airport the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. One suspects he too thought it relatively unimportant.
The use of public space for political ends has existed from time immemorial, inasmuch as all political regimes reinforce their legitimacy by trying to form a certain kind of public consciousness. Consider in this context some other places that no longer officially exist: Leningrad, Stalingrad, the Daniel F. Malan International Airport, Southern Rhodesia, Cape Kennedy, Saigon. All of them had their names changed for obviously political reasons, and does any of us truly disapprove of all of the changes, especially if we realize as well that many of them – Leningrad and Stalingrad are the most obvious examples – were themselves chosen for patently political reasons?
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Similar ambivalence is attached to the destruction of public monuments. There is a reason that a common trope of political revolutions, much beloved in the modern era by photographers, is the destruction of statues of tyrannical leaders, such as statues of Stalin in Budapest or Prague, or the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. There were no photographers to cover the scene, but part of the American Revolution was the destruction of a statue of King George III, which was pulled down from its place of honor in front of King’s College and melted to make musket bullets. Confederate symbols – such as the battle flag that until recently flew outside the South Carolina State House – may now meet the same fate.
William McKinley was certainly no tyrant; he does not “deserve” to lose his mountain in the way that Stalin or even King George might have deserved their ignoble ends. But, by the same token, he did nothing at all to deserve gracing our highest mountain. Perhaps it would have been different if, say, Lake Erie had been renamed in honor of this slain son of Ohio. But if we find that almost unthinkable, it is worth asking why it made any more sense to efface the traditional name of Denali, by which generations of Native Alaskans had identified the site.
There is no algorithm that allows us to say with complete confidence which renamings and destructions of monuments make sense and which do not – only that such “creative destruction” of our institutions and monuments is as much a part of our historical experience as their original creation.
Sanford V. Levinson is a professor at the University of Texas Law School and in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of ”Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies.”