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Noble: What’s in a name

Once upon a time there was a small town in southern New Mexico famous for its hot springs where the residents were clean and chill. They named their town for their ubiquitous geothermal springs hoping to attract soiled and stressed visitors. While the town’s name was not original, there are a dozen towns called Hot Springs across America and they were not looking for a new name.

Then in 1950, NBC radio, which hosted the wildly popular quiz show “Truth or Consequences,” announced they would air their tenth-anniversary show live from the first town to change its name to Truth or Consequences.

The good citizens of Hot Springs voted, and when the votes were tallied those favoring the change won by a massive margin, 1294 to 295. True to its word, NBC sent host Ralph Edwards to host the anniversary show in the newly christened Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

Edwards continued to visit Truth or Consequences the first weekend of May for the next 50 years. His visits initiated the annual community celebration called Fiesta.

Most place names across America were not decided in such a deliberative manner. Unlike Truth or Consequences, the process was rarely democratic, and names were often selected by one person. Illinois and Michigan have Thomas Jefferson to thank for their state names.

Thankfully, explorer and Civil War hero John Wesley Powell chose primarily descriptive, rather than honorific titles, for the places he encountered as he explored the American West: Disaster Falls, Flaming Gorge, Green River, Angel Falls, and the Grand Canyon.

Our country now finds itself in far different circumstances than when Powell and Jefferson were on their naming sprees — questioning names that no longer seem appropriate.

Recently, the House and Senate passed versions of the Defense Reauthorization Act which call for the renaming of military installations that were named for Confederate officers. President Trump has threatened to veto that provision, claiming this was a “sustained effort to erase from the history of the nation those who do not meet an ever-shifting standard of conduct.” This has been the same line of argument regarding Confederate statues.

Jamil Smith’s wry observation is instructive to the current administration, “All these folks worried about erasing history when the Confederate statues come down will be thrilled to learn about the existence of books.” Benedict Arnold remains famously infamous without a single statue of his likeness; although there is a statue of his boot.

Here in Colorado, a neighborhood in Denver named for former mayor Benjamin Franklin Stapleton, who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, is in the process of selecting a new name.

The Gore Range, named for Sir St. George Gore, a wealthy Irish nobleman, honors a man who between 1854-1857 embarked on an expedition through the American West that involved killing and leaving to rot thousands of animals including bison, elk and bear. Then he went home to Ireland. Veni, vidi, vici. There is nothing remarkable about the man to justify naming a majestic mountain range after him. He is not even an American and rendered no service to our country.

As we consider what should and should not be renamed, it is fair to ask whether we are applying shifting standards of conduct. Perhaps an individual’s failings should be weighed against their contributions. Consider the case of Woodrow Wilson. Despite being a governor, president and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Princeton still removed Wilson’s name from its highly regarded public policy school due to his role in allowing segregation in the federal government. If someone with as distinguished a legacy as Wilson is vulnerable, then what of our slave-owning Founding Fathers? As for Confederates, by the standard of their day, they were traitors.

Perhaps we could apply due process to buildings, institutions, towns, etc. named for individuals with complicated legacies. While I do not think the Gore Range should be named for the scoundrel Gore, the proprietors of businesses bearing the name Gore may think otherwise. Just because the process of naming may not have been fair, open and democratic, does not mean the process of name change should be.

Lastly, because even saints have checkered pasts, we should consider the example set by John Wesley Powell, and select descriptive titles in the future.


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