Soon the “Name Exploration Subcommittee” of Cabrillo College’s Governing Board will transition into the next phase of the process adopted to consider potentially changing our community college’s name and identity. This controversial issue resurfaced mid-2020, and has continued as a topic of discussion of variable intensity ever since. While both sides of the debate have presented reasonable arguments, and while I don’t question the sincerity of those proposing a name change, I do believe they are wrong, and possibly even counterproductive to their own cause.
The subject emerged as an outgrowth of what has been referred to as “cancel culture,” which has initiated drives to remove statues and names of historical figures deemed undesirable by a subset of our population. Some of this appears defensible as erasing the glorification of confederate “traitors” during the Civil War. However, the movement has become rudderless and is in danger of spiraling out of control. In January of this year, the San Francisco Board of Education voted 6-1 to rename 44 schools to “dismantle symbols of racism and white supremacy culture.” Among those were some named after Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Dianne Feinstein.
What proponents of the change object to is that the college was named after Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to explore present-day California as he navigated the coast and entered San Diego Bay in September of 1542. Before becoming a maritime explorer, Cabrillo fought as conquistador and captain of crossbowmen in the army of Herman Cortes during the Spanish-Aztec War of 1519-21. As reward for services rendered, the king of Spain introduced Cabrillo to the encomienda system, granting a long-term lease of property, which included the right to the use of indigenous slave labor. Slave labor became the basis of his wealth. Compared to today’s values, Cabrillo was a cruel man who took advantage of the norms in place during the time in which he lived, and who was recognized for historical firsts almost a century before the colonization of North America began.
Digging deeper into the life of this historic figure will expose the cruelty associated with the time period in which he lived. However, that misses the point. What the anti-Cabrillo advocates are engaged in is not just a form of “cancel culture,” it is what some historians refer to as “presentism,” an uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts. It means looking backward in time to condemn or condone historical figures for living in their own time in history, instead of adopting today’s attitudes and norms. Historians strive to understand what people said and did in the context of the time they lived in, not criticize them for failing to live in our time. So, where do we draw the line?
At least 12 of our presidents were slave owners at some point during their lives. These included Washington, Jefferson, Madison and others. By the time George Washington died in 1799, there were 317 enslaved people at his Mount Vernon estate. Should we tear down the Washington Monument? Rename Washington State? Remove George Washington from the dollar bill? Thirty-one counties and 241 townships carry his name … At the time, our Constitution, the law of the land, supported slavery. Until 1808 it prohibited Congress from regulating the international slave trade (Art. I, sect. 9). Until Reconstruction, the Fugitive Slave Clause (Art. IV, sect. 2) guaranteed the right of slave owners to pursue and reclaim their slaves anywhere throughout the country.
Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration was arguably a political statement, not a moral one. He only freed the slaves in rebellious states. We tend to interpret only what we want to believe … Harry Truman approved the use of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 105,000 civilians and maiming 94,000 more. But we contextualize … Aristotle, one of the greatest philosophers, who made positive contributions to modern political theory, physics, economic and psychology, was openly supportive of slavery, and saw women as subject to men. Shakespeare, in “The Merchant of Venice,” used highly stereotypical, pejorative depictions of Jewish people. Shylock, its main character, openly personifies anti-semitic prejudices of the time. But we continue to produce the play. And so it goes.
Renaming Cabrillo College is not just a local concern, it is more consequential than that. Removing a name does not erase history, but it does remove opportunities to learn from it. Leland Stanford Jr., a “robber baron” and namesake of Stanford University, has been held responsible for ruthlessly exploiting and mistreating thousands of Chinese workers when constructing the Central Pacific railroad line. The Stanford student body, on numerous occasions, decided to use his history for teachable moments rather than opting to erase them. Cecil Rhodes, philanthropic contributor to the University of Cape Town and Oxford University, a profound racist and advocate of the “English master race,” still retains his statue above a doorway on the front of Oxford’s Rhodes Building, left in place because “we should learn from the past, rather than censoring history.”
Aside from the substantial cost and the overwhelming logistical issues involved, changing our college’s name would do a disservice to thousands of alumni and stakeholders who, when referring to “Cabrillo,” invoke the name of the institution. not honor a historic figure who lived five centuries ago.
Don’t change the name and erase what would provide important material for teachable moments.
Theo Wierdsma currently resides in Corralitos. View his blog at 2020gps.blogspot.com. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the Pajaronian.