Austin, the capital city of my home state of Texas (and the site of this week's Resurgent Gathering), is a curious place. It boasts scrumptious food, beautiful Hill Country views, second-to-none nightlife, and a staunchly progressive city government and populace. As the lone splotch of dark blue deep in the heart of solidly red Texas, Austin’s policies occasionally seem weird to its neighbors, more at home in California than the Lone Star State. But Austin often wouldn’t have it any other way.
Their city government's latest attempt at social-justice-warrioring? Floating the idea that maybe Austin should be renamed.
According to the Austin American-Statesman, the city’s Equity Office (how very Orwellian) released a report last week suggesting that perhaps Austin’s namesake, Stephen F. Austin, was just too problematic to be commemorated by the city because he opposed Mexico’s attempt to ban slavery in Texas. Surely that overwhelms out all the good he did, like leading the first American settlers to Texas, working tirelessly for their health and safety, founding the Texas Rangers, and establishing beneficial trade relations with Mexico.
The Equity Office also suggested that numerous historical markers and at least seven streets in the city should be renamed due to their connections with the Confederacy or former slave owners. This would cost the city at least $6000, and homeowners and businesses on the targeted streets would bear the greater cost and logistical inconvenience of a new address.
This report comes nearly a year after the University of Texas at Austin memorably tore down its Confederate statues in the dead of night, and a few months after the Austin City Council renamed several other streets named for Confederate leaders. In a brief moment of self-awareness, the Equity Office asked in its report: “What’s next, and where do we stop?”
Might I suggest the following answers: nothing, and right here. Removing the names of historically significant figures from our surroundings actually accomplishes the opposite of what Austin’s Equity Office intends.
Austin's bureaucrats and I agree that racism, slavery, and the past barbarisms of the Confederacy are evil and disgusting. But the philosopher George Santayana cautions us that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
We should be exposed to monuments of towering men and olden times on a regular basis. When retold accurately, history reveals human beings as capable of both great good and great evil, and that often the two were intertwined. We need reminders that our forefathers were neither angels nor demons, and that the past was neither rose-colored nor grimy.
Stephen F. Austin was a vital player in Texas’ eventual independence from Mexico, and a tireless advocate for the first American settlers on the Texas frontier. Yes, he did stump for the continuation of slavery while Texas was still under Mexican rule, though he also called the institution of slavery “the curse of curses." His legacy is messy. It is by no means pure.
Yet without prominent examples of people with messy legacies, without remembering that the titans of history were men and women just like us, we will come to believe that we are less likely to make their mistakes again. After all, we’ll think, we’re more evolved than they are. But we aren’t.
Every human being that has ever lived, save one, has sinned. We are all fallen creatures. Blotting out commemorations of men who did great things but held the morally repugnant belief that slavery was necessary makes it more likely that we will repeat the dehumanizing horrors of our nation's past.