In summary

Cancel culture is erasing names of historic or current figures from public places if they deviated from contemporary ideology

Nearly 70 years ago, Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible,” a play ostensibly about the 17th century Salem witchcraft trials, in which about 25 people, mostly women, were accused of consorting with the devil and suffered horrible deaths.

There’s no doubt, however, that Miller’s play was an allegorical denunciation of persecuting Americans suspected of harboring communist beliefs, particularly hearings by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. In fact, after writing the play Miller was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to identify others with whom he had attended certain meetings.

The Salem trials and the McCarthy hearings generated two enduring terms — witch hunt and McCarthyism — to describe intolerance for those who don’t conform to current religious or political dogma.

They could also describe the 21st century phenomenon, dubbed “cancel culture,” of erasing names of historic or even current figures from public places, if they have deviated from contemporary ideology.

The earliest cancel culture targets were low-hanging fruit — men who had rebelled against the nation and instigated a bloody civil war to maintain slavery, such as Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Soon, however, the cancel culture movement expanded to those whose sins could not, in the eyes of their accusers, be offset by their virtues. Thus, George Washington, the single most important figure in the nation’s founding, and other giants of the era, such as Thomas Jefferson, would be condemned for being slaveowners.

California, not surprisingly, has been a fertile ground for cancel culture, targeting such historic figures as priest Junipero Serra and pioneer John Sutter for their sins against Native Americans.

The cutting edge of cultural cancellation is found in San Francisco. Just the other day, the city’s governing Board of Supervisors voted 10-1 to condemn the 2015 naming of its public hospital for Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, after the couple gave $75 million toward a new acute care and trauma center.

Why? Basically, the city’s leaders just don’t like Facebook.

The nonbinding resolution’s sponsor, Supervisor Gordon Mar, said a hospital that serves the poor should not be named for someone whose social media corporation spreads misinformation and violates privacy.

Facebook is taking heat from those on both ends of the political spectrum. However, it’s ironic that San Francisco’s left-leaning city supervisors would single out Zuckerberg and Chan when they have been, if anything, supportive of leftish causes, such as contributing $10-plus million to the campaign for Proposition 15, a ballot measure that would have raised taxes on commercial property.

Even more inexplicable is an effort in San Francisco’s school system to strip names of ideological sinners from 44 schools.

They include slaveowning presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, Spanish conquistador Vasco Nunez Balboa and — very oddly — U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose alleged sin is that as mayor she once replaced a Confederate flag in front of city hall that had been vandalized.

The most puzzling target is Abraham Lincoln, an historic hero for resisting the Southern states’ rebellion and issuing a proclamation to free their slaves.

Despite those actions, Lincoln should be dishonored, the committee says, because he was insufficiently supportive of Native Americans in their struggles with white settlers.

“Uprooting the problematic names and symbols that currently clutter buildings, streets, throughout the city is a worthy endeavor,” said Jeremiah Jeffries, a teacher who chairs the renaming committee. “Only good can come from the public being reflective and intentional about the power of our words, names and rhetoric within our public institutions.”

“Uprooting” would seem to be the current term for witch hunting.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions:

Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...