Over the past weeks, there’s been some talk here in Vegas about changing the name of our airport from McCarran to something- anything– else. Named after Nevada senator Pat McCarran (1876-1954), the group pushing for the change were of the opinion that it wasn’t quite right having one of the busiest airports in the world named after a viciously racist Fascist-sympathizing McCarthyite. Last night, I caught a bit of a local talk-show as I was channel surfing, and heard the subject get brought up. Steve Sebelius, a major journalist in Vegas, was commenting on the name-change movement’s loss of momentum, pointing out that despite McCarran’s psychotic antisemitism and racial bigotry, he was the principal defender of gambling in Nevada, and that without him “None of us would be sitting here”. The show wrapped up after that closing comment, and whether or not the they addressed the whole issue of what comprises one’s legacy I can’t tell you. Frankly, I would like to see the airport’s name changed- and not just the airport, but every street, boulevard, and building named after a bigot. But as the journalist rightly pointed out, the world doesn’t quite work in white and black.
As much as we’d like to imagine (at our history book’s insistence) that America was created by heroic men who only drank distilled freedom and wiped the sweat from their brows with patriotic American flags autographed by Jesus, this nation was built on the backs of slaves and the bones of Native Americans. The same man who authored the Declaration of Independence owned his sister-in-law, and despite his assertion that it was self-evident that all men are created equal, hated and feared German immigrants with a passion that the Minutemen Project would feel is “a bit much”. Jackson- the hero of Federalism, the slaughter of Native Americans. FDR, the creator of the New Deal, the guy who forced over a hundred thousand Japanese Americans out of their homes and into prison camps. Between genocide, exploitation, segregation, and a host of other forgotten sins, there’s not much in US history or culture that doesn’t carry with it a stain of injustice or inequity.
But how, then, do we deal with this? If we rename racist streets or airports, why stop there? Why not get rid of the sexists’ names? Or those who were just plain greedy or arrogant or inept? It seems if we go down that road, we’ll wind up leaving everything blank as we dig through history in search of the perfect human being. On the other hand, we can’t exactly drive down Hitler avenue and assert that his anti-smoking campaign is just as much a part of his legacy as the concentration camps and Kristalnacht. So how do we measure a figure’s good acts against his bad ones? I’d personally like to see Jefferson Street renamed Malcolm X Street, yet I have to simultaneously deal with the fact that X held many racist views himself until his conversion and change of heart later in life. Again, how do we discern between the good guys and the bad guys? No one’s perfect, but not everyone uses child soldiers either. Simply, people are complicated.
And because I don’t want to leave you hanging with another “Make of it what you will” post (as I did in my report on Extreme Midget Wrestling– check it out), I’m going to fly in the face of caution and offer this criteria for naming your airports and roads:
I. Is he or she a good guy?
That’s it. If you can’t answer “yes” immediately to that question, and if “mostly” doesn’t work either- move on to someone else. Simple as that. There is always going to be controversy- and we’re going to have to deal wit that. Values change, secrets are uncovered, and some heroes become villains and villains heroes- but for now. For right now- let’s go ahead and make the change. Yeah, it’s a pain in the neck, but if we do it right the second time around, hopefully we won’t need to change up the names for a another seventy years or so. And before someone writes in about it being part of our past or our heritage- let me shoot you down right now. Yes, bigotry, as ugly as it is, is a part of our history. But changing names doesn’t mean that we’re running away from it- it means we’re passing judgment on it. In the end, that’s what I want to cite as my heritage- not racism, but the condemnation thereof.