Mountains and Molehills: Renaming Mount McKinley to Denali Makes Sense

August 31, 2015

Yesterday, President Obama announced that the highest peak in North America would have its name changed from Mount McKinley to Denali. As a proud Ohioan, the home state of our glorious 25th president William McKinley for whom the mountain was named, I have this to say.

Oh that’s right, he was totally from Ohio.

It’s more accurate to say the name of the mountain is being changed back to Denali. Shocking, I know, but the native Alaskans who lived in the area before European settlers came a-knocking did not independently arrive at the name “Mount McKinley.” Instead Denali, meaning “the great one,” comes from the Athabaskan languages of the people that predate its American ownership.

This was absolutely not an issue on my radar. It probably wasn’t on yours either. But as it happens this has been a quite contentious topic for some time and even has its own Wikipedia page. While Alaskans have long sought the change,  Ohio politicians vehemently opposed it and, predictably, took great offense at the announcement.

I would like to take this opportunity to tell the politicians from my home state to kindly chill out. I have zero ability to understand any opposition to this, but I’ve seen three arguments about it that all seem pretty flimsy to me.

But Legacy! Our History!

This is, on paper at least, is the main reason Ohio’s politicians have fought this for so long. Though he may not be one of our more famous presidents, McKinley’s legacy includes fighting for the Union in the Civil War, passing the Gold Standard Act, and leading the nation during the Spanish-American War. These are some noteworthy pieces of our history, and he certainly deserves to be remembered.

The problem is the reason for naming the mountain after him is tissue paper thin. A gold prospector from Seattle bestowed the name upon the mountain, and it’s believed it’s because of the then-candidate McKinley’s support for the gold standard. President McKinley played no part in “discovering” the mountain for the U.S. He didn’t establish the national park in which it sits. He never even visited Alaska! It would be like renaming Mount Vesuvius for Hansel.

This is not a referendum on William McKinley nor a refutation of his legacy. Check out his Wikipedia page. He has a grand tomb in Canton, Ohio and a statue in front of the Ohio Statehouse. His name is used for schools, libraries and streets across the country. We are not in grave danger of forgetting about McKinley anymore than we already have.

Executive Overreach

While protestation about “legacy” may be the most common defense for the “Mount McKinley” name in the past, the main argument coming from the Ohio delegation now is that this is executive overreach by the President for announcing this change unilaterally. Check and balance within the government is critical, but I’m convinced the present argument is trumped up because other reasons for opposing it are so weak.

This is the kind of thing term-limited Presidents do, and I’m not interested in slippery slope arguments questioning “where does it stop?” If we’re interested in executive branch overreach, there are plenty of bigger fish to fry from basically every administration ever.

What about “Real” Problems?

Lastly, I’ve seen the occasional comment questioning why the government is doing stuff like this instead of trying to solve “real problems.” It’s a bad argument, but a popular one anytime the government does something that seems less important than, say, nuclear disarmament.

At no point have I seen anyone make the case that the name of a mountain is more important than the economy or crime or whatever else you think the government should be focusing on. The government can address more than one thing at a time, no matter how inept you think it might be at actually solving those problems. Something like this, while relatively minor, is done in addition to other things, not instead of them. Are you capable of making reservations for your coworker’s birthday lunch without completely dropping the ball on your other responsibilities? I certainly hope so.

In sum, settle down everyone. This was an easy one.

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