The Names of Things

thberlin.jpg

Names are powerful things. Don’t believe me? Consider how they’re being wielded as weapons.

So, members of the U.S. government, upset at France’s diplomatic opposition to a war on Iraq, have responded to French “treachery” by renaming the dishes served in the cafeterias of a handful of U.S. government buildings. French fries are no longer “french”, they are “freedom fries”. The same goes for french toast, now named “freedom toast”.

It’s important to note that this is the action of a petty few who happen to occupy positions of power. Reaction from the rest of the population has been either silent nodding, a rolling of the eyes, or expressions of complete, and utter disbelief (the March 12th entry). These blogs, incidentally, cross the political spectrum.

Never mind that the French have always hated french fries, and are probably greeting the change with some satisfaction — to many people, the move smacks of a schoolyard brawl among children. (“Your mama wears army boots!” / “Oh yeah? Well, your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!”) To others, however, things run deeper.

(Actually, it’s telling that the French don’t seem to have responded in kind — although doubtless some would sniff and say that Americans have created no cuisine worth renaming)

Countries throughout the world have, in times of disagreement, fired petty gestures along with bullets. Witness, during America’s entry into World War I, where sauerkraut briefly became “victory cabbage”. Even Canada can’t claim any moral high ground.

I live in the city of Kitchener, Ontario. Until 1917, it used to be called Berlin. Guess what happened.

Berlin, Ontario, because of its Germanic nature, suffered some of the worst bouts of anti-German hysteria in Canada during the First World War. It didn’t matter that half of the German-speaking population of the town were descended from Dutch-Pennsylvanian Mennonites (actually, it made the problem worse, since most Mennonites were pacifists, and so refused to join the armed forces and fight), Berlin’s German heritage and its people were ridiculed and their loyalty to Canada was questioned. A bust of Kaiser Wilhelm, set up in Victoria Park (appropriate given that Kaiser Wilhelm was Queen Victoria’s first cousin) long before the war, was thrown into Victoria Lake twice, and then vanished forever, possibly melted down to produce guns.

Then finally, somebody had a bright idea of changing Berlin’s name, erasing one more piece of German heritage off the map of Canada. Whoever that person was was clearly not a member of the community because the community did not support it. Unfortunately, the supporters of the status quo had no luxury of voting “no”. In the words of this website “Those citizens who supported the status quo were immediately perceived, by those who wanted change, as being unpatriotic and sympathizers with the enemy. Violence, riots and intimidation, often instigated by imperialistic members of the 118th Battalion, were not uncommon in the months leading up to the May 1916 referendum on the issue.”

A referendum was held to decide upon the new name (“Berlin” was not one of the options on the ballot) and the change was presented as a fait accompli. Unable to oppose, the community stayed home. Only 892 people bothered to vote (Berlin’s population at the time was over 15,000) and of those, just 346 were enough to change the name of the city to that of Kitchener, after British Field Marshall Lord Kitchener. A petition of 2000 names was sent to Queen’s Park to try and stop the process, but it was all for nought.

The pattern was repeated across the United States. Not just “victory cabbage”, but places like Germantown, Indiana, were given “patriotic” names like Pershing Post Office. The Germans had to be eradicated, right down to their names.

So you see how powerful it is to be in possession of an enemy’s name, especially if you yourself are not across the ocean, spraying the enemy with bullets and getting sprayed yourself. Actions such as this shows that you spit on your enemy. That you want to see them crushed entirely, that their children will forget their language, and their memories will be completely eradicated off the face of the earth.

Seems a little darker when you say it like this, doesn’t it? But that’s the nature of total war: you seek the total annihilation of your enemy.

The problem, of course, is that we’re not at war with France. Despite France’s strident opposition to invading Iraq, and despite the outright lies of the National Review, the country remains committed to the international War on Terror. They continue to provide excellent intelligence, and are themselves dealing with deadly Islamic terrorist groups. And they are certainly not “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” as the National Review has said. They have and continue to put hundreds of thousands of their own soldiers in harm’s way, from the 12,000 troops they committed in the first Gulf War to peacekeeping forces in such hotspots as Cambodia, Lebanon, Haiti, Angola and even Jerusalem.

So why should some in the U.S. Government be applying rhetoric to a friend which is usually reserved for a bitter enemy? Are we to see, as Ikram suggests, Paris, Texas rename itself Powell, Texas (I give that two weeks before somebody on the council comes up with that idea)? Are the phrases “rendez-vous” and “vis-a-vis” about to be removed from all government documents?

And should we just be laughing at this, or should we worry more?

If people think that the Bush Administration is trying to gently persuade obstructionist nations to go along with a perfectly reasonable plan, consider that these steps go well beyond diplomacy. When these things happened before, the message was “we will bury you. We will dance on your graves and we will steal your children. We will beat your language out of them and we will remove all of your names. You will never be remembered. You will vanish off of the face of this Earth. For opposing us, you will cease to exist.”

The message is not being accompanied with bullets, but it’s still there, and it’s going in one direction only. So, ask yourself, between Jacques Chirac’s government and the Bush Administration, who is being diplomatic and who isn’t? Who is more desperate?


The picture, by the way, is a thumbnail leading to an image of a newspaper clipping from the time of Berlin’s name change. I got that picture from this web site.

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