Between a Rock and Dianne Feinstein

There’s much to admire about California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, not the least of which is that she spells her name with two n’s just as my wife does.

Feinstein was the first woman to serve as mayor of San Francisco and she was highly regarded in that job before being elected to the senate. There, she became the first woman to chair the Intelligence Committee and she’s earned a reputation for being a smart and serious public servant.

So, she deserved to have an elementary school in her hometown named after her… for as long as it lasted. Recently, the San Francisco school board voted to chisel her name from the building. Why? Well, four decades ago, when she was mayor, there was a collection of flags in city hall, which included the confederate flag. (The fact that the confederate flag had a place in the San Francisco city hall in the first place is, in itself, some indication of the less controversial way in which that symbol was viewed back then.)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein

Anyway, somebody defaced the flag. And here’s where Feinstein committed the fatal, unforgivable mistake that got her elementary school taken away. She replaced the flag.

Never mind that she soon had the flag removed altogether, probably making her one of the first local officials to do that kind of thing. Never mind that she’s been an unwavering champion of civil rights and the advancement of women, a friend of the environment and just generally a staunch progressive right across the board.

No, what matters is that she had a single confederate flag replaced to a spot it had previously occupied for who knows how long and at a time before that flag was widely regarded as a racist symbol. She has had a near half-century of exemplary public service and she has been, no doubt, an inspiration to the young girls at the school once named for her. No matter. She’s now just another victim of the cultural revolution.

The senator can take consolation in the fact that she joins the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in being cancelled. In fact, a total of 44 schools in San Francisco are being renamed because of some violation of the code of purity.

Here in Madison we did have a school renamed for local Black activist the late Milele Chikasa Anana. But that was less about dissing the guy for whom the school had been named (although that was part of it) and more about honoring her. The move in Madison made a lot more sense to me. I supported it.

But even someone like Anana might not cut it in the future. One member of the San Francisco school board cautioned against naming schools for people at all, which might not be as crazy as it sounds given the lengths to which people will go to find and scream about the slightest blemish on an otherwise sparkling career.

The Chamberlin Rock

Still, even that might not be the answer as inanimate objects are not beyond reproach. The University of Wisconsin just agreed to spend about $70,000 to move a big rock. The rock’s offense? In 1925 a single newspaper article referred to it using a racial slur that was common at the time referring to the rock’s dark color.

Commonly known around campus — to those who even knew of its existence — as the Chamberlin Rock, activists said it was a daily reminder of racism on campus. Never mind that most people on campus never saw it, barely knew about it and never would have had any idea that it was ever referred to by a name tinged with racism if it hadn’t been for somebody digging up this obscure reference from a century ago.

There were sensible people in San Francisco, like Mayor London Breed, who suggested that the middle of a pandemic, when students are suffering from being physically separated from their schools, was not a great time to indulge this kind of micro-aggression obsession.

At the UW anybody who thought the rock controversy was overblown had the good sense to say nothing. The chancellor just went along with it all, probably figuring that $70,000 was a small price to pay for a little peace and quiet.

And that’s pretty much how this stuff rolls. Some zealous activist stumbles on or actually takes the time to ferret out an obscure transgression committed by a current official, historic figure or geologic formation. They demand that it be erased. Those around them, even fellow activists, may well think they’re wasting everybody’s time, but they say nothing because they don’t want this zealous self-righteousness turned on them. And, finally, whoever is in charge just throws up their hands and complies. It’s just not worth the fight.

All this would be a side show accept for the real harm it does to all the legitimate stuff that needs to be fixed. When the public (even the liberal public) hears that an iconic figure like Dianne Feinstein is being trashed for something so small or when we hear that an obscure campus feature must be removed because of a single reference made to it almost a century ago, well, then people conclude that if this is all there is to complain about things can’t be that bad.

And it all becomes fodder for those who actually oppose meaningful change. I came across the Feinstein story on the oped page of The Wall Street Journal, which delights in covering things like this in the service of making exactly the point that it’s an indication of how insignificant the remaining issues of race are.

Dustups like those over Feinstein’s school and the Chamberlin Rock have the effect of diminishing real problems in the public mind. Young activists can be excused for letting their zealousness get in the way of good judgement. But wiser people should have the good sense to better manage the optics and to pick fights that advance the cause instead of trivializing it.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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