According to some lawmakers (and at least one UNLV history professor), the answer is yes. Why? Because Nevada Senator Pat McCarran is said to have demonstrated racist and anti-Semitic views. I’m not about to parse accusations leveled against someone who died more than six decades ago, but I’ll wager that my Thanksgiving dinner convo with McCarran would have been limited to sports and the fine art of turkey carving.
Before being elected senator, McCarran served on the Nevada Supreme Court from 1913–1918. During his time in Washington (Democrat, 1933–1954), McCarran witnessed the global rise of both communism and fascism, the events leading to World War II and the eventual end of that conflict. His record demonstrates a not-unusual alignment against communism on the world stage, but he went as far as to side with fascist leaders of European countries that he felt would stop its march. It all seems rather removed from today’s world, where most young voters seem more concerned with employment or environmental disasters than communism or nuclear annihilation.
But there are some parallels. McCarran was one of the sponsors of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which codified and restricted immigration. Speaking to Congress in support of the bill, McCarran said, “I take no issue with those who would praise the contributions … to our society by people of many races, of varied creeds and colors. America is indeed a joining together of many streams which go to form a mighty river which we call the American way. However, we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies.” McCarran’s views are stunningly familiar to those espoused by our current president.
So, should McCarran Airport be renamed? I’m too conflicted to say. Applying modern social norms to historical figures without context is flawed, and often there is no context in a place’s name. We don’t name landmarks after people to point out their personal flaws. If that were the case, would the Washington Monument be built in 2017?
The 21st-century trend of revisiting proper names reinforces both sides’ tendency to politicize everything. It’s easy to excuse the ideas of the past and say all humans are flawed; it’s more meaningful to examine how the change of social attitudes has accelerated alongside global interconnectivity. So rename if you must. But let’s not replace one human’s name with another. In fact, let’s depoliticize the process and simply stop naming public places after people altogether. One thing we can all agree on is that every one of us is offensive to someone.
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