President Joe Biden visited North Carolina’s Fort Liberty last Friday, the largest military base, not only in the nation, but in the world. He spoke with troops only a week after the base had its name changed from Fort Bragg, which had been a controversial name because Braxton Bragg had been a Confederate general and slave owner.
But the same day, just down the road at the N.C. GOP Convention in Greensboro, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a 2024 presidential contender and military veteran, was suggesting we not get too comfortable with the new name.
“I also look forward to, as president, restoring the name of Fort Bragg to our great military base in Fayetteville, North Carolina,” DeSantis said. “It’s an iconic name and iconic base, and we’re not going to let political correctness run amok in North Carolina.”
I’m not sure if former Vice President Mike Pence also had a line about Fort Bragg in his original speech or if he added it after seeing the crowd’s reaction, but when it was Pence’s turn at the podium the next day, he said, “We will end the political correctness in the hallways of the Pentagon, and North Carolina will once again be home to Fort Bragg.”
Those are big words, but my guess is it was mostly campaign bluster — an attempt to toss red meat to a North Carolina Republican primary audience. Judging from the enthusiastic applause they received, it worked.
But before they brought it up, the name change didn’t appear to be a hot political issue in the state. U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis did say he opposed the name change initially, but then he said he was open to dialogue on it and didn’t say much more on the subject. U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, a Republican representing Fort Bragg/Liberty in Congress, said the community should make the decision on a new name. For his part, Hudson suggested renaming it for Braxton’s cousin, Union officer and U.S. Congressman Edward S. Bragg.
Both North Carolina’s U.S. senators at the time, Republicans Tillis and Richard Burr, voted for the 2021 Defense Authorization Act, which included approving the renaming of nine military installations with Confederate-inspired names, Fort Bragg being one of them.
With the entire process now complete, and without any clear groundswell of North Carolinians demanding the name go back to Bragg, this may not have been the ideal culture war issue to bring up. As someone who works at a liberty-focused think tank, and who isn’t a fan of the Confederacy, I actually like Fort Liberty more than Fort Bragg.
But DeSantis’ and Pence’s comments do speak to a concern many conservatives, and just everyday people, have: Are we going to just end up renaming everything as politically correct mobs look for their latest scalp? Can we agree on some limiting principle?
Canceling the Founding Fathers?
In my hometown of Falls Church, Virginia, the school board held a survey on whether to rename Thomas Jefferson Elementary School and George Mason High School because the namesakes were slave owners. George Mason Middle School had already been renamed. Those polled overwhelmingly (56% to 26%) wanted to keep the Founding Fathers’ names for the schools, but the board ignored the results and renamed the schools anyway in 2021.
They almost renamed Thomas Jefferson Elementary to Tripps Run, for the creek that goes through the campus, but settled on Oak Street Elementary, because, as Vice Chair Laura Downs said, “in the end, the body of water [Tripps Run] was named after a person, and we don’t want to find ourselves here years from now because of something someone found [on Silas Tripp].”
Others complained that not naming schools after people meant they couldn’t name it after Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That was likely a good call to avoid her name, though, since history doesn’t seem to look back fondly on those who dehumanize the vulnerable.
It wasn’t just my school. On the other side of Seven Corners, in the Fairfax County part of Falls Church, the high school my sisters went to also had its name changed. It had been named Jeb Stuart, after a Confederate general, and is now known as Justice High School. It wasn’t just all the schools we attended; the basketball team I grew following (the Washington Bullets) and the football team (the Washington Redskins) also had their names changed.
DeSantis and Pence are right to push back on this very unpopular name-changing trend, even if the example they chose wasn’t one that motivates me personally. In China, a purge of traditional names was part of the Cultural Revolution to erase the “Four Olds” (old customs, culture, habits, and ideas), with similar efforts taking place in other Marxist nations. This also happened during the French Revolution, where they even renamed the months and made them out of three 10-day weeks.
It’s not inherently wrong to change the name of things, even for moral reasons, but if we want to avoid going overboard, there should be a method to the madness. I propose a simple standard: If what the person was known for is a unifying part of our heritage, then the names should stay. If their main claim to fame was something we largely now agree was evil, then go ahead and change it. But when in doubt, keep names, statues, flags, and other common symbols as they are.