Mythical entities also fell under the fatal gaze of the Purity Police. El Dorado Elementary, named after a fantastical kingdom whose fame circulated among Spanish explorers in the early 16th century and whose Goldfinger-like ruler was allegedly ceremonially covered by his subjects with gold dust, also made the list. Citing the death of Native peoples that resulted from the Gold Rush, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a committee member said, “I don’t think the concept of greed and lust for gold is a concept we want our children to be given”—an idealistic, if possibly futile, position in a city whose median household income exceeds $100,000.
The possibility that judging past figures by the standards of the present is both untenable and ethically suspect did not, apparently, occur to the committee. Nor did the committee decide that the towering achievements of Lincoln or Washington or Jefferson might just outweigh their shortcomings. It defended its crusade as part of America’s racial reckoning. As the committee chair, the first-grade teacher Jeremiah Jeffries, said, “This is important work. We’re in the middle of a reckoning as a country and a nation. We need to do our part.”
The board’s vote drew the ire of Mayor London Breed, who blasted the committee for wasting resources on such an exercise instead of trying to reopen the public schools. “Let’s bring the same urgency and focus on getting our kids back in the classroom, and then we can have that longer conversation about the future of school names,” she tweeted.
To her credit, Breed suggested that the conversation be opened up to all the stakeholders in the city, including students. But she did not challenge the renaming campaign itself, only its timing and process. In fact, Breed and other city officials, and much of the city’s cultural intelligentsia, are partly to blame for this embarrassing episode. Promoting easy symbolic solutions to intractable societal problems, they have either endorsed earlier cultural-purification missions or said nothing about them at all. As a result, they have made it impossible to make any foundational arguments against those acts, and have created the slippery slope the city finds itself sliding down.
This debacle is just the latest example of “progressive” cultural censorship in a city once renowned as a bastion of free speech. Our purgative program began in 2018, when an 1894 statue titled Early Days was removed from a cluster of statues near city hall called the Pioneer Monument, at the behest of the city’s Indigenous activists. The piece, or at least most of it, was undeniably retrograde: It showed a Spanish priest looming above a cowering, seated Native American, with a debonair vaquero striking a proud pose nearby. The city’s art establishment remained silent as the statue was hauled away: The bloody 2017 riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee made it anathema on the left to question the destruction of monuments deemed objectionable by groups deemed to have standing. But the fact that Early Days was taken down without much opposition meant that the beliefs underlying the decision to remove such monuments, the issue of who gets to determine their fate, the implications of removing them, and the possible alternatives to removal were never seriously discussed. As the renaming debacle demonstrates, such a discussion is urgently needed.