My friend Pastor B.D. Christensen said something so good Sunday morning that I woke up and wrote it down: “(something something) … about making peace with the mistakes of the past (blah blah blah) and learning from them. It’s slippery ground, in general, to judge past actions by present standards and with a benefit of hindsight that is, morally, highly questionable.”
And immediately I thought about the Minneapolis Park Board voting to rename Lake Calhoun Lake Bde Maka Ska because the man for whom it was named back in 1820 was a slavery enthusiast from South Carolina and an author of the Indian Removal Act and also, judging from his pictures, ugly as a mud fence.
Renaming is a slippery business. I knew a Cheryl back in 1969 who became Saffron and it didn’t work out and a few years later she resumed her Cherylness. The Triborough Bridge in New York City was renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, but if you were to ask directions to that bridge, you might wind up in Pennsylvania, a state named for the common pencil. This will happen with Lake Bde Maka Ska. The name will appear on signage but when people look at that body of water, they will think “Calhoun.” The effect of this on the slave trade in Minneapolis will be slight.
On the other hand, Jean-Louis Kerouac did well to rename himself Jack. A Jean-Louis would be unlikely to write “On the Road” but a Jack Kerouac — the road was right up his alley. In 1963, Idlewild Airport on Long Island was renamed JFK, which stuck, thanks to the clumsiness of “Idlewild” — no large airport is idle, and airline passengers do not care to think of aviation in terms of wildness — and besides that, JFK rhymes. Fine and good. And back in the 18th century, Francois-Marie Arouet did a smart thing by taking the pen name of Voltaire.
That name worked out well for Marie — it lent an electricity to his work. For example, his statement: “Any one who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.” We might not believe that coming from a Marie. And how considerate of him to say it in English rather than French.
The greatest absurdity of our time is You Know Whom, which goes without saying but I will anyway. What his election showed is that a considerable number of people, in order to demonstrate their frustration with the world as it is, are willing to drive their car, with their children in the backseat, over a cliff, smash the radiator, bust an axle, and walk away feeling good about themselves. No other president in modern times has been held in contempt by a preponderance of people from the moment he said, “So help me, God.” The playboy blather, the smirk of privilege, the stunning contempt for factual truth — how can the country come together when the president has nothing in common with 98 percent of the rest of us?
And then there is Sen. Al Franken. He did USO tours overseas when he was in the comedy biz. He did it from deep in his heart, out of patriotism, and the show he did was broad comedy of a sort that goes back to the Middle Ages. Shakespeare used those jokes now and then and so did Bob Hope and Joey Heatherton when they entertained the troops. If you thought that Al stood outdoors at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan and told stories about small-town life in the Midwest, you were wrong. Miss Tweeden knew what the game was and played her role and on the flight home, in a spirit of low comedy, Al ogled her and pretended to grab her and a picture was taken. Eleven years later, a talk show host in L.A., she goes public with her embarrassment, and there is talk of resignation. This is pure absurdity and the atrocity it leads to is a code of public deadliness. No kidding.
Sen. Franken should change his name to Newman and put the USO debacle behind him and then we’ll change frankincense to Febreeze. Remove the slaveholder Washington from our maps, replacing him with Wampanoag, and replace Jefferson, who slept with Sally Hemings — consensual? I doubt it — with Powhatan, and what about the FDR Drive in New York, named for a man who was unfaithful to his wife? Let’s call it RFD and let it go at that.
Garrison Keillor is an author, entertainer and former host of “A Prairie Home Companion.”