Settling down to write this post, I thought to take a look at what I’d written last time the pressure to remove “Providence Plantations” from Rhode Island’s official name ramped up, and I was surprised to find how relevant my point was to the point I intend to make now.
In 2009, then-Representative Doug Gablinske (D, Bristol) actually got up on the House floor and announced that he’d never gotten more feedback from his constituents than he had in their opposition to the name change, but he affirmed his intention to disregard the preferences of the people he was elected to represent. To that declaration, still-Representative Joseph Almeida (D, Providence) stood to insinuate that the people of Bristol are racists.
The title of that 2009 post was a question: “Who’s Working the Plantation, Now?” And because that deliberate refusal to try to be representative in our state’s democracy has escalated, I’ve escalated the provocation in this post’s title.
The last time elected officials put the name of the state on the ballot (in 2010), voters rejected the change 78% to 22%. That’s not a close margin. Almeida might insinuate that Rhode Islanders proved themselves to be racist that day, but perusing some of the comments made at the time, it seems more likely that the message was intended to be something along the lines of, “Stop playing word games while our state is in crisis.” Here we are, a decade later, on the cresting wave of another crisis, and here are our elected officials once again choosing to spend the state’s energy on this same issue.
But the key point is that the last time voters had a say, they resoundingly rejected this change. Giving them another chance for a vote would be one thing, but our betters in public office aren’t content with that. In fact, they’re practically racing to prove that people who have a different opinion than they do don’t deserve a vote. That is, they’re racing to disenfranchise us.
First out of the gate was Democrat Mayor of Providence Jorge Elorza, changing the state’s name wherever possible in the city. In typical Rhode Island fashion, the move was dictatorial while also being unclear. One cannot tell whether the mayor is renaming the state simply “Rhode Island” or keeping his city’s prominent place with “Rhode Island and Providence.” If the former, the mayor seems oddly to be diminishing his city’s relevance; if the latter, the new construct seems only to emphasize divisions within the state.
Notably, Elorza’s executive order promotes the fact that Providence “had the highest proportions of yes votes in the State” to change the name in 2010, but it fails to note that the results were still not close: 62% to 38%. Thus, by the latest available information, his order’s stated purpose, “to ensure all residents… feel safe, respected, and proud to call Providence home,” is plainly a lie. The mayor manifestly does not respect anybody in his city who does not agree with him on this issue.
Within days of Elorza’s show of disrespect, Democrat General Treasurer Seth Magaziner gave himself similar power to modify all documents under his authority, playing on his own Jewish heritage for moral authority. Soon after that, legislative leaders followed suit, apparently by the executive fiat of the Speaker of the House and Senate President via press release, thus disrespecting and disenfranchising not only Rhode Islanders, but also our elected legislators.
The worst of the rhetoric around this disenfranchisement of Rhode Islanders came from Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo. She stated that she is “fully committed to continuing to work alongside the community in stamping out individual and institutional racism in our state.” To understand how chilling that statement is, separate it from the underlying issue.
The governor of the state is not only speaking on the level of organizations, but promises to “stamp out” the beliefs of individuals — as in stomping on the glowing embers of their self determination. As in treating them as if they don’t deserve even the most basic of human rights in the face of her rule.
In this image we see the warning many have made about the toppling of statues. A pseudonymous author on Medium put it well:
In the three cases of the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution, and Nazism, book-burnings and iconoclasm were to varying degrees tribal (alternatively, “racial”) or ideological in origin, but the nature of book-burnings and iconoclasm lends itself to ideology. In these three cases heretical thought, the ideas of the Ancien Régime, and “Jewish science” and “Jewish decadence” were intolerable to the aggressors. But the ideas contained in these books were not extinguished when they were publicly burned. They existed in the public memory through statues and monuments. After the statues were gone, they existed still in the minds of men. And when the mob could not cut the idea off at the root, they cut men off at their necks.
Racism is terrible, including in the harm it does to the person who holds racist beliefs, but we protect the rights of those with ideas we deplore for a reason. When oppression and genocide happen, the people doing the deed always think it justified. When we treat certain ideas or identities as if they disqualify people from the rights of humanity, we begin to dig the tracks and establish the habits of mind that justify broader and broader persecution.
Consider that Governor Raimondo has also decreed that all state employees under her command must undergo “implicit bias training.” The assumption must be that they (like Almeida’s view of Bristolians) are likely to be implicitly racist. Consider also the sudden mandate that everybody must be familiar with, and get in line with, the Juneteenth holiday.
Democrat Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello made things worse by his response to the controversy, but his initial affront was to admit to not knowing what Juneteenth is. So rapid has the taboo on such ignorance been imposed that the WPRI article on the controversy doesn’t bother to define the term, as if explaining it would give the impression that it is acceptable not to know what it is already.
This is demonstrably unreasonable. A review of Google Trends data shows that before 2018, Juneteenth was not widely known. Dig into the data, and you’ll see that it was of most interest in the South, especially Texas, where it is recognized. (Another name for the day, Emancipation Day, was more common outside the South.) Indeed, Rhode Island was (and remains) dead last in the country for searches of the term. Yet, the Ocean State is first in the country, by a long shot, for searches of “VJ Day.”
Indeed, until this heated, tumultuous election year, “Juneteenth” was not a day of which Americans could have been expected to be aware. To be specific, until this very month, the term wasn’t widely searched.
This is not to say that Juneteenth is not worthy of recognition, but that the mandate that we must already know about it is unreasonable. That is the sort of expectation set by cruel adolescent social cliques (with rapidly changing rules for what’s cool) and totalitarian regimes. To be caught behind the in-group’s standards for relevance is to be branded, in this case as a racist, which is justification for public shaming and exclusion.
This ability of social movements to turn our culture into quicksand is why we respect minority viewpoints. It is also why we write our rules down and prioritize the rule of law. If we have a process for changing the rules of our government, if it takes time and if it respects the rights of everybody, then dangerous social movements can spin themselves out and soften to a point that is at least not destructive or deadly.
Let’s return to Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.
The name of the state is in our Constitution. Indeed, it is the title of our Constitution. If politicians can simply stroke a pen to make this not “the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” then why should we expect them to feel bound by the “Constitution of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”? Obviously, if they are rushing to subvert the process for changing the very name of the state, we can’t.
Equality and mutual respect are values that deserve all of our support. Accepting elected officials’ overt disrespect for the rule of law does not advance those values, but undermines them. If we are now united in supporting a name change for our state, then following a respectful process will take only a matter of months. If we are not united in the change, then practicing disrespect under the banner of equality is merely a gross exercise of power that will move us toward a dangerous future.
Featured image: Screenshot of Union general Ulysses S. Grant statue toppled in San Francisco, from KPIX coverage.