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George Washington, “The Father of Our Country”

I figure when the NY Times publishes an op/ed on what’s going on in San Francisco, it’s time for this San Francisco blogger to weigh in.

So I’m writing about moral complexity today. I want to talk about the decision by the San Francisco Board of Education to change the names of all schools that honor anyone with the slightest whiff of political incorrectness, including Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

As a San Franciscan, I find the action by the Board of Ed embarrassing.

Look, all those statues in the South that were taken down, that’s a different issue. They were put up for the sole reason that those men fought to keep black people in bondage. Every one of those statues was a statement that the Confederates may have lost the war, but they had won the peace. And every black person who walked by those statues was very aware of that message. Those statues had to come down. And any naming, like the military bases that honor generals whose great accomplishment was to defend slavery, must be changed.

But to say that we cannot honor anyone who did anything reprehensible by today’s standards is stupid. As a woman, a Jew, and a lesbian, I tell you that I do not want people automatically thrown in the dustbin of history for committing sexist, antisemitic, or homophobic acts. For one thing, that would require too many dustbins! All of history would be a bunch of dustbins!

Because, guess what? People are human, which means complex, flawed, and inconsistent…. And they’re limited by the times in which they live. As are we.

To name a school after someone is to honor that person. There’s no question about that. To remove that honor and consign 44 people to the dustbin without seriously weighing the sum total of their lives, as the San Francisco Board of Education has done … How can I put it? It’s not a very educational l thing to do.

Let’s have discussions about these men and women.

Have the students in each school research and discuss the life of the person their school honors with big letters over the front door. Let the students at a school named for FDR seriously consider his terrible decision to intern all the Japanese Americans during World War II. Let them think about whether that outweighs all the good he did. Let the students learn to research, debate, and think critically about history.

Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

And if, in the end, the students decide that FDR’s internment of the Japanese does indeed outweigh his creation of a safety net to help people in need, his creation of the New Deal which broke the back of the Great Depression, and his courageous leadership during World War II — I say, if they want to change the name of their school after they’ve contemplated the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly of FDR’s life — then I can accept that. I might disagree with them, but I can accept it.

For me, George Washington is the most problematic. The other Founding Fathers considered him the essential man if the brand-new country was going to survive. He inspired awe. Just his presence as Chairman at the Constitutional Convention helped attendees rise above their differences and find common ground. He could have been king or President for life, if he so chose. But he chose to step down after two terms, creating a tradition of orderly succession.

And he legally owned other people. When I visited Mount Vernon, his beloved plantation home, I was overwhelmed with the reality that The Father of Our Country was a slave owner. I could hardly breathe the whole time I was there.

And Washington knew slavery was wrong. Yet he only freed his slaves in his will. Is that more or less reprehensible than someone who actually believes that God destined black people to be slaves?

I think that’s an interesting question for discussion. Should everything in the U.S. named for Washington change its name? That’s an interesting question for discussion too!

The roots of this country are so twisted, tormented. We are still being punished for our original sin of slavery. So, let’s talk about it. And please, let’s honor people for what they got right and think seriously before we throw them in the trash for what they got wrong.

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