Adam Gopnik offers a commonsensical observation on the brouhaha over the change of Alaska's Mount McKinley to Denali. While he is at it, Gopnik looks at other name-controversies: Andrew Jackson's image on the $20 bill, Cape Kennedy, the Avenue of the Americas, yada yada yada. This blogger shudders at the prospect of renaming this blog. There are all sorts of alternatives mostly obscene or profane. Fortunately, this blogger won't around for the dénouement, so feel free to strip "fair & balanced" from the masthead. If this is (fair & balanced) onomatology, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
Denali And The Names Of The Past
By Adam Gopnik
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President Obama’s decision that the federal government will now call what was formerly Mount McKinley, the continent’s highest peak, by its older, First Nations name of Denali, which means “The High One,” caused some hysteria this week, though mostly among the predictably hysterical. Part of it may have come from stripping away the prefatory article: from now on it’s not even Mount Denali, just Denali, causing in some the shock your parents felt when you explained that the band was not called “The Cream” but “Cream,” for God’s sake. Denali, to be sure, though itself an excellent rock-band name, has more of a seventies feeling—one expects a band called Denali to have a lead singer with a shaky falsetto, chirping songs of natural mysticism like, well, like the band called America.
The hysteria seems to have been the result of a suspicion that the new, or rather original, name was preferred because it was more “politically correct.” They’re just practicing identity politics at twenty thousand feet! the cry went up, amid accusations of kowtowing to the Yupik or Inuit or choosing a new name just because it’s the kind of thing people like that do. Let Obama rename a mountain, and the next thing you know he might do something really pernicious, like avoiding unnecessary wars or expanding health care for the helpless. And then there was the Internet rumor that “Denali” was the “Kenyan” word for black power (it isn’t), not to mention an anagram for “Denial,” presumably of our glorious imperial past. Rather tellingly silent throughout has been the half-termer herself, former Governor Sarah Palin, perhaps for the simple reason that she, too, appears to be part of this new plot against America, having called the mountain Denali, as Alaskans often do, even in her resignation speech.
Weirdly, no one has mentioned the earlier occasion when the name of a liberal President was pushed off an entire peninsula and no one complained. In 1963, the Kennedy family apparently made the modest suggestion that a fitting tribute to the murdered President might be the Florida space center that he had done so much to bring into existence. L.B.J., with his usual Texan appetite for overcharge, caused the entire peninsula of Cape Canaveral to be renamed in J.F.K.’s honor, as Cape Kennedy. The earlier name was a popular one, though, and a mere decade later the state of Florida turned it back into Cape Canaveral. The federal authorities acquiesced, and the Kennedy family, and liberals generally, were properly quiet.
The truth is that the obsession with word magic and names is a primitive one, inherently irrational. Names are notional. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet—or as rancid, depending; a mountain by its older name is just as tall. Yet the desire to remedy the wrongs of the past by righting our nomenclature is a deep one, and it burns on. Word magic it may be, and no more than that, but we believe in magic, and we think in words. During and after the French Revolution, a flurry of renaming turned the Place Louis XV into the bloody Place de la Révolution and finally into the conciliatory Place de la Concorde, and the Place Royale into the mundane Place des Vosges (the Vosges being the department of France that most speedily paid Napoleon’s taxes). Big things have names that change as the people who own them change, too. The mountain we call Everest was named, in the nineteenth century, after a Welshman, though the Tibetan people had called it Chomolungma, “Mother Of The Universe.” (Weirdly, if the Welshman’s name were properly pronounced, it would be known as Eve-Rest, evoking the final resting place of the mother of us all, rather than the superlative form of “ever.”) In more recent decades, the Nepalese government, in what was in some measure an expression of nationalism, took up the Sanskrit name of Sagarmatha for the peak.
Some new names never catch on, while old names stick irrevocably, no matter what Presidents say or do. A sixteen-year-old girl who had passed most of her life in New York asked her father the other day to please explain why there were insignia medallions of Cuba and Canada on lower Sixth Avenue. From his own musty memories, he explained that the avenue was once named—was actually still named, though never called—the Avenue of the Americas, due to a bit of showy postwar politicking with Fiorello La Guardia (and Nelson Rockefeller leaning in) at the controls. (The dad was actually disappointed to learn that most of the medallions, once a bit of ornamental excess whose point was to be treated disdainfully, have vanished; they ought to be restored.)
Most of the renamings of the past to suit the present are harmless, or silly, but some have an edgy and quarrelsome side. Andrew Jackson, Indian killer and hardened racist, gives his name and his face to the twenty-dollar bill. Should we obliterate his image from our money, as we have obliterated McKinley from the mountain? Should we rename every street, rededicate every monument, repurpose every President, to conform to our enlightenment?
It’s obvious—or it should be so—that we cannot rename and reorder all the remnants of the past according to the present’s pieties, for the simple reason that the present’s pieties will not be the pieties of the future. One of the many evils of ISIS and the Taliban is their desire to remake the past entirely in their own image; changing old names too casually is a more harmless form of blowing up Buddhas. Pluralism makes retrospective, historical demands as well as immediate ones. New York should not again become New Amsterdam, no matter how passionately any revanchist Dutch may feel about it.
But we can distinguish, simply enough, between the stubbornly recalcitrant parts of the past and those easily remedied—an Alaskan mountain with a fine and ancient native name has no need to bear that of an Ohio politician who was never anywhere near it. We are not insulting William McKinley, the former President, when we change it; we are honoring the mountain, and the first people who saw it often enough to love it.
There is, in general, an easy resolution to this problem of when we should adjust the past to the present, one neither “relativist” nor unduly pietist. We need ask merely, What was the most humane view being widely urged at the time, and does the name or people we honor celebrate that? Slavery is a good instance—there was absolutely no shortage of articulate and eloquent people for whom slavery was an absolute evil. Already in the mid-eighteenth century, long before the classic period of American abolitionism began, Samuel Johnson, the greatest conservative poet in the English language, was outspoken about the evils of slavery; he thought, with uncomfortable persuasiveness, that the American Revolution was stained beyond redemption by its hypocrisy on the subject. Those who stood and made the case for slavery, then and later, were not simply people of their time and temper. They were wrong, and were called so by the good people of the same time. When we honor them—say, on the side of a mountain in Georgia—we honor what everyone knew was wrong, or could have known.
So let us remove the wrong people’s names and pictures from our bills and byways, while remembering that we are, or will be, regarded as the wrong people ourselves in some way we cannot yet fully conceive—as we will be seen as better people than we know in some way that we do not yet fully recognize. (We now cherish the diets of nineteenth-century farm dwellers, though they merely mostly endured them.) Nothing depends on names. The rock will not get an inch taller or shorter or changed in nature depending on what we call it. If Ohioans want to keep calling it Mount McKinley, let them, and let them take a place of pride along with those who are fighting to keep Pluto called a planet. We are not slaves of our tongues. But we are citizens of our languages. Choosing names is a way of expressing emotions. The things of this world can exist with as many names as we choose to give them, and the biggest among them can take on many identities without getting any smaller. Ω
[In 1986, Adam Gopnik began his long professional association with The New Yorker with a piece that would show his future range, a consideration of connections among baseball, childhood, and Renaissance art. He has written for four editors at the magazine: William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick. Gopnik, born in Philadelphia, lived his early life in Montreal and received a BA (art history) from McGill University. Later, he received an MA (art history) from New York University. In 2011, Adam Gopnik was chosen as the noted speaker for the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Massey Lectures where he delivered five lectures across five Canadian cities that make up his book Winter: Five Windows on the Season (2011). More recently, Gopnik has written The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food (2012). In 2013, McGill University awarded a DLItt ( honoris causa) to Adam Gopnik.]
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