Culture

The Hypocrisy behind the Student-Renaming Craze

Statue of Junipero Serra in Santa Barbara, Calif. (William Perry/Dreamstime)

University students across the country — at Amherst, Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, UC–Berkeley, and dozens of other campuses — are caught up in yet another new fad.

This time, the latest college craze is a frenzied attempt to rename campus buildings and streets. Apparently some of those names from the past do not fit students’ present litmus tests on race, class, and gender correctness.

Stanford students are demanding the rebranding of buildings, malls, and streets bearing the name of Junipero Serra, the 18th-century Franciscan priest who some 250 years ago founded California’s famous chain of 21 coastal missions. The sainted Serra was often unkind to Native Americans and by our standards racist in his worldview.  

Harvard is ditching its law school’s seal because it is based on the coat of the arms of the Isaac Royal family. Isaac Royal Jr. donated his estate to create Harvard’s first law professorship, but he and his family owned slaves, so apparently that cancels out his philanthropy.

For students, politically incorrect actions in politically incorrect eras mean that otherwise-generous historical figures have to be judged as bad in all aspects — at least by 21st-century standards. But why the sudden nationwide-renaming frenzy — and how is it any different from other campus fads?

RELATED: The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ Movement and the Questions It Evokes

Are students aware of the historical antecedents, such as the fickle ancient Roman practice of the postmortem erasing of someone’s name from all mention (damnatio memoriae)? Have they any idea that they are playing roles right out of George Orwell’s dystopian works Animal Farm and 1984? Do they know the history of the verb “Trotskyize”?

The renaming craze is not really about race, class, and gender correctness at all. If it were, there would be no Warren Hall at UC Berkeley. Before liberal Earl Warren became chief justice of the Supreme Court, he was the California attorney general who instigated the wartime internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-American citizens. There also would be no Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. President Wilson was a man of dubious racial attitudes who infamously re-segregated the federal workforce.

Instead, the “Animal Farm” rules of the current campus bullies go something like this: Some politically incorrect people from centuries ago are bad, but other politically incorrect people from the recent past are not quite so bad if they were at least sometimes liberal.

#share#Or are students even hypocritical with their made-up litmus tests?

Few students are demanding, for instance, that San Diego State University drop the school nickname “Aztecs.” The imperialistic Aztecs sacrificed tens of thousands of victims from among the tribes they conquered — often ripping out the hearts of their living victims — and enslaved even more.

Revolutionary tastes change quickly, and yesterday’s PC hero can become today’s pariah.

Should UC–Berkeley students demand the renaming of their Cesar E. Chavez Student Center, on the contemporary-campus principle that not being a saint in the past means becoming a sinner in the present? Chavez, the iconic farm-labor activist, sent his lieutenants down to the southern border to use violence to prevent Mexican immigrants from entering the U.S. He courted Ferdinand Marcos, the cutthroat dictator of the Philippines, to support his union. And Chavez tried to implement the Gestapo-like management principles of the discredited cult Synanon among his United Farm Workers hierarchy.

Is the logic of the campus bullies that some heroes did not mean to do bad things, and so they cannot be judged by the standards of the moment — at least not if they were liberal and deemed politically correct?

RELATED: Our Imperfect Eponyms: Toward a Simple Standard of Historical Evaluation

Students fail to realize that revolutionary tastes change quickly, and yesterday’s PC hero can become today’s pariah. Based on students’ own expanding definition of sexual assault and the curtailment of freedom of speech, former president and notorious womanizer Bill Clinton would not be allowed to set foot on any campus because of his past exploitation of women. Nor would his enabler, Hillary Clinton, who in the past has sought to demonize her husband’s female accusers.

There are other hypocrisies in the campus renaming fad.

#related#Why would Stanford students just stop with airbrushing away Father Serra’s name? The university’s co-founder, philanthropist Leland Stanford, who was also governor of California, exploited Chinese laborers to help build the transcontinental railroad. He even dubbed them a “degraded” people. Today’s students, however, have invested tens of thousands of dollars into their blue-chip Stanford-branded educations. So far, they have shown no desire to lose that snob appeal and expensive cachet — or perhaps have their degrees restamped from Stanford to something more politically correct but less marketable, such as Ohlone College, which would honor the original pre-Colonial peoples of the surrounding Silicon Valley region.

In the 1930s, half-educated student faddists swallowed goldfish. In the 1950s, the silly campus craze was to cram into phone booths. In the 1960s, students went feral and torched buildings.

Now, they pout and rename things.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals. You can reach him by e-mailing author@victorhanson.com. © 2016 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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