Rudyard Kipling nailed it when he said more than 100 years ago, “San Francisco is a mad city—inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people whose women are of remarkable beauty.” It was mad in the days of the Gold Rush and all through the 19th century when the city burned down again and again only to be built up repeatedly. Madness overtook the city during and after the 1906 earthquake and again in 1978 when an ex-cop who served on the Board of Supervisors shot and killed fellow Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Dianne Feinstein took over the reins at City Hall and declared the city off limits to “kooks.” No one listened. They kept coming from New York, Chicago, LA, and Boston.
The latest madness exploded recently when the Board of Education took political correctness to a new low and decided to erase the names of 44 schools, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Paul Revere. No school, the Board of Education announced, should be named after anyone who “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings; or who oppressed women, inhibiting societal progress; or whose actions led to genocide; or who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
That must include just about anyone and everyone. “Inhibiting social progress.” Who is to judge? And diminishing the right to the pursuit of happiness? That could be any teenager’s mother or father. The Board of Education thought that its definition applied to Sen. Feinstein. So, off with her head, or at least off with her name from a San Francisco school.
In their defense members of the board explained that they consulted with no historians but rather turned to Wikipedia for information, as though Wikipedia told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
I had the opportunity to witness the madness of San Francisco when I lived there for six months in 1974. Ever since then I have witnessed it again and again when I visit my friends and my family members, many of them graduates of the city’s schools who became school teachers and devoted their lives to education.
Blame the madness on geography. Perched on the edge of the continent with nowhere west to go except into the icy water of the Pacific Ocean, San Franciscans have their backs to the wall and have acted like desperate citizens who have to prove something to the rest of the nation. Long before white settlers arrived, members of the Ohlone tribe danced on what they regarded as “the edge.” A certain edginess has never abandoned the place.
Yes, geography contributes to the madness, and it’s more than geography. It’s the people, including the “fruits and nuts” from points to the east, who have escaped from New England Puritanism, Midwestern provincialism and Southern patriarchy, embraced the madness and perpetuated it.
So why, one might ask, am I planning to leave rural Sonoma County and move to San Francisco on June 1, 2021? Maybe I prefer madness to provincial boredom, and maybe because I want to live closer to my two brothers, Daniel and Adam, my sister-in-law, Adelina, my nephew Jesse, his wife, Ngan, and their daughter, Hannah, who seem like perfectly normal citizens. Not every person in the 49 square miles that make up the city are certifiable insane. My brothers fled from New York more than 40 years ago. They went to work, raised families, and sent their children to public schools named after Washington and Lincoln.
I ask myself, would the name of any American historical figure be appropriate for a school in San Francisco? Did Geronimo always treat the women in his tribe as equals? Was Harriet Tubman always respectful to the ex-slaves she led to freedom. Perhaps the San Francisco Board of Education might dispense with names completely and assign numbers to the schools, from 1 to 44. Or are some numbers inherently sexist, racist, ageist, and more? Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet who wrote his epic Howl in San Francisco in 1955, advised friends and neighbors, “Don’t hide the madness.” He didn’t hide his. The neo-Beats haven’t hidden theirs. One wishes that some of them had. San Francisco might have become a saner place to live and work.
Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of 14 books, including biographies of Jack London, Allen Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman.