Should we rename places named for those who ran afoul of today’s sensibilities?
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Welcome to "Political Posturing," featuring opposing views on current issues important to Wisconsin's business community. In this column, Wisconsin Business Alliance Board President Brad Werntz and conservative columnist David Blaska offer their opinions from the left and the right, respectively.
No, but we shouldn’t whitewash history, either.
By Brad Werntz
Whenever I need perspective on the state of mankind, I go to a small monument on East Wilson Street, in a city garden just down the hill from the Capitol. This Wisconsin Historical Marker says, in part: “Near this location, the Militia shot and scalped an old Sac warrior awaiting his death upon his wife’s freshly dug grave.”
This happened in 1832. By this point in American history, the previous 340 years of colonization and enslavement since 1492 had witnessed the deaths and displacement of an estimated 75 million indigenous peoples. Additionally, 6 to 7 million native Africans had been torn from their homes and imported to the United States as slaves.
But we aren’t the only horrible people who ever inhabited this continent. In pre-Columbian times, wave after wave of native-born conquerors poured across the land. We know these cultures as empires that span back over 5,000 years: the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan. Over history, other empires elsewhere conquered every inhabited continent: We have the English, Han, Mongolian, Roman, Egyptian, Greek, Babylonian, and countless other major and minor empires, all of them bathed in blood.
As much as this blood is constantly under foot — generation after generation of it in every city around the world — it is also literally written into our language. For example: Today, we call political appointees in the federal government “czars,” which is the Russian derivation of the Roman term “Caesar.” While history records some admirable men who were czars or Caesars, there is no doubt that every one of them presided over countless acts of petty cruelty and systemic atrocity.
So, today, as we argue whether to remove grave markers from cemeteries, or to rename streets, schools, or cities because one or another historical figure insults today’s modern sensibilities, I’m drawn back to that small marker on Wilson Street for perspective.
We can’t whitewash our history if we don’t want to repeat it. Instead, let’s recognize and own our real history and vow to do better going forward.
Brad Werntz is a small business owner in Madison.
If we do, anything named for Madison could be next.
By David Blaska
The Illuminati who operate the City of Madison as a locally sourced, sustainable, fair-trade people’s collective have issued a fatwa against anything that may offend the freshman sociology major.
Madison’s alders have banished a memorial stone commemorating the Johnny Rebs who died here as POWs in 1862. Unlike statues banned in other cities, Madison’s cemetery stone depicts no mounted Confederate general brandishing a menacing sword. Even so, this monument, paid for by the soldiers’ survivors, is now judged guilty of subliminally promoting slavery these last 112 years.
Having struck this cheap and easy blow for racial equity, how much longer can this city tolerate the stain of a known and proven slaver — he being a certain James Madison Jr.? Unlike George Washington, this fiend never freed his slaves. At his death
in 1836 — a year before construction began on Wisconsin’s new capitol — a relative could boast only that no slave had been flogged at Montpelier “for several years.”
Madison wrote the U.S. Constitution, with its ingenious checks and balances but also its infamous accommodation of slavery — counting slaves as only three-fifths of a person. (He also is responsible for the Electoral College!) Always conflicted about the peculiar institution, Madison nonetheless kept slaves in the White House.
Erasing the stain of this man from our city is inevitable, but what to replace it? It is a relief that Wilson Street is named after an obscure signer of the Constitution and not the racist president who extolled Birth of a Nation, the 1915 movie that revived the KKK.
What historical hero can survive today’s P.C. electron microscope? American history is chockablock with right wingers and pinkos; war profiteers and draft dodgers; fanny pinchers and philanderers; rum runners, horse thieves, and the odd Koch brother.
The only safe source of names is a numbering system. It works pretty well for highways and obscure celestial objects. From the south, take I-39/90 north, turn west on U.S. 12 & 18 and you are in City 43°4′N 89°24′W.
David Blaska is a Madison columnist and blogger. Find his blog at davidblaska.com.
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