In Scripture, the bestowal of a name was an event of great importance. A name was an expression of character; and humans earned new ones in accordance with their inner growth. Jacob, after he spent an entire night wrestling with his demons, and finally prevailed over them, became Israel. His old name meant “to seize by the heel.” His new one, “God will rule.”
The places where such events occurred acquired new names as well. Jacob called the place of his new insight Peniel, which meant the “face of God.” Before that, when he had set his head down on a pillow of “stones” – that is, hard, tormenting thoughts – and had dreamed of a ladder connecting him to the Highest, he called that place Bethel, which meant the “house of God.”
Places had meanings. Their names connected the outer landscape to the inner – to the core of the shared identity of the people, and to that which they valued most. For most of its short history, America followed a civic version of this tradition. We named our public places for civic leaders and national heroes. A Washington Square Park, a Lincoln High School, a Martin Luther King Boulevard, was not just a memorial to a dead person. It was a token of the qualities of character that the nation purported to hold in high regard.
Such names can lose evocative power over time. But even so there are echoes of the honor that inspired them. Have you ever heard of Joel Elias Spingarn? He was a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, a founder of the Harcourt Brace publishing company, and a long-time executive of the NAACP. His memory lives on at Spingarn High School in Washington, D.C., a light – however muted– to the students who walk through its doors.
I went to an elementary school that was named for a local man who died in World War I. I am not going to pretend that I sat at my desk each day pondering the bravery of Albert Edgar Angier, as opposed to, say, the Little League game that night. But I remember to this day the awe I felt as I looked up at the bronze plaque in the main corridor, at the top of the front stairs.
I was not a model youngster. But still, somewhere in my unruly and contentious mind, the thought took hold that I was supposed to be brave and unselfish, and to put the welfare of others above my own comfort and desires, just as Albert Edgar Angier had done.
That’s not the message that children in America get today. Increasingly, the Spingarns and Angiers are giving way to corporations, eager for yet another hook into the minds of impressionable kids. A high school football field in Illinois has become Rust-Oleum Field. In New Jersey, an elementary school gym is now the ShopRite gym. Hallways, classrooms, buses and even textbooks are filled not with testaments to honor and achievement, but rather with come-ons for junk food. A child was expelled from school in Georgia because he wore a Pepsi shirt on Coke day.
Coke Day? Kids now are expected to honor Coke, the way they do Lincoln, Washington, and veterans who gave their lives for us all?
It is not just schools, of course. Sports arenas, public buildings, parks and civic spaces – all are becoming corporate shrines. Now it’s a whole town. Clark, Texas, a hamlet of 125 residents, has agreed to change its name to DISH, which is a satellite TV system owned by Echo-Star Communications of Englewood, Colorado. In exchange, the residents will get free satellite TV for ten years.
The founder of the town, one L.E. Clark, was not pleased. “I don’t especially like it,” he said. “I worked my butt off a little over a year getting it incorporated.” But it’s not hard work that matters in America today; it’s free TV. It is an apt reward – a decade worth of commercial television, in return for serving as an ad. And there’s a kind of grim honesty in this whole corporate naming trend. Just as the ancient Hebrews filled their landscape with symbols of what mattered most to them, so we today fill ours.
They honored character. We honor corporations. They called a place Peniel in memory of a night of struggle. We call a place DISH in honor of free TV. It’s not what you are that counts. It’s what you buy.
The strange part is the perpetrators of this anti-values trend. It’s not the godless liberals about whom we hear so much. For the most part, it’s the same people who lecture us on traditional values on other days. They keep cutting taxes to the point that schools, park departments and the rest are starved for funds. In fact that is the point: “Starve the beast” is how Grover Norquist, the Right Wing Beltway strategist, puts it.
Call schools “the beast,” set out to starve them, and the money has to come from someplace. That’s part of the plan – to force public places and functions into the embrace of corporations, which then can use them to their own ends. (Rod Paige, President Bush’s first Secretary of Education, delivered the school children of Houston, Texas to the Coca-Cola company, via an exclusive marketing agreement, when he was school superintendent there. Paige uttered not a peep in protest when the Administration proceeded with massive tax cuts that would make more such deals inevitable.)
Next time these politicians thump their tubs about the decline of traditional values in America, and how young people today choose self-indulgence over selflessness, they might take a look at the propaganda they have invited into the schools. They might look at how, with their own help, the landscape is filling up with memorials to the very consumer hedonism they say they oppose. They might ask why civic heroes are giving way to McDonald’s and Coke.
Then they might look in the mirror. You make your bed, you lie in it, folks.