The San Francisco School Board recently endorsed a proposal to remove the names of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln from schools in that district. And you did not have to be President to end up on the chopping block: Paul Revere, John Muir, and the writer Robert Louis Stevenson were also designated for disappearance.
Robert Louis Stevenson?
In 1879, Robert Louis Stevenson traveled to California on the transcontinental railroad.
Please join me in contemplating what Stevenson wrote on white people’s attitudes toward the Chinese:
Of all stupid ill-feelings, the sentiment of my fellow-Caucasians towards our companions in the Chinese car was the most stupid and the worst. [The Caucasians] seemed never to have looked at them, or thought of them, but hated them a priori.
For my own part, I could not look but with wonder and respect on the Chinese. Their forefathers watched the stars before mine had begun to keep pigs. Gunpowder and printing, which the other day we imitated, and a school of manners which we never had the delicacy so much as to desire to imitate, were theirs in a long-past antiquity.
And the members of the San Francisco School Board believe that this man will have to be shunned. To put this clumsily, which side are they on?
Contemplating that clumsy question, I am going to take my maiden run at the invention of conspiracy theories. I will now propose two possible explanations for the School Board’s action. These explanations qualify as conspiracy theories because they are completely untrue, but unlike many conspiracy theories, they are also just a little plausible.
Conspiracy Theory #1
The decision to remove the name of Robert Louis Stevenson actually arose from the grievances of an agitated group of white men. As the author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson committed an unforgivable sin against virtuous white men, suggesting that they often turn into diabolic and murderous fiends. A writer who perpetrated such a crime should have every honor stripped away from him, and a copy of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde should be ceremonially burned at every school in the district.
Conspiracy Theory #2
The San Francisco School Board has launched a super-secret campaign to prove that well-known platitudes actually carry a great deal of insight and meaning. Beginning this campaign, they changed the names of nearly fifty schools, taking this action in order to validate, affirm, and ratify the platitude, “Act in haste, repent at leisure.” In the next stage of their campaign, the School Board plans to demonstrate the truth of the saying, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
Meanwhile, in the privacy of my own home, I am going to reverse the actions of the San Francisco School Board. I will name one bookcase in honor of Robert Louis Stevenson. In this bookcase, I will place books about people of the past who I still admire even if some of their actions and statements might make me wince and cringe.
One bookcase is going to be far from sufficient.
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