Novelists often have this problem. Use too many coincidences, too many sudden improbable twists, a fortuitous shift in the weather to influence your story, and your editor, your publisher, the critics, and the reading public will roundly denounce you and your work for being absurdly unrealistic; things like that simply do not happen in real life, our budding young artist will be told, and in no uncertain terms, too. A historian, on the other hand, is not bound by the timid tenets of literary realism, or to limit himself to what his public thinks should fall within some arbitrary boundary of the possible, and so may tell any story he chooses, however improbable it may be, so long as the story is true and the facts of the story are verifiable. If the standards of historical realism were the same as the standards of literary realism authors would not be able to tell the story of the Pig War, the War of Jenkins’ Ear, the American Revolution, or Heliogabalus feeding Christians to the eels, all of which are wildly improbable tales from start to finish.
So, with this as our philosophical background, we come to this bit of news. It may have escaped your attention; anything is possible, after all; but the animal-rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is calling upon the collected solons of the town and village of Fishkill, New York, to change the name of their jurisdictions to something that will at least display some small degree of empathy with the pain that fishing causes marine life, something like Fishinghurts, New York. PETA is offering, in exchange for the name change, some $15,000 worth of a soy-based faux fish product that the local schools can serve to students for lunch or use as lawn fertilizer.
Now, of the thirteen original United States, the state of New York is different from the others in one important aspect: the British had to start the others from scratch, using pacifist Quakers in Pennsylvania and convicts in Georgia, Catholics in Maryland and sexually repressed Red Sox fans in Massachusetts; New York, on the other hand, came ready made, complete with its very own hooker, an enthusiastic and energetic Dutch girl named Griet Reyniers, whose many children spanned the racial spectrum of the Dutch colony from European of one sort or another, meaning that they might be her husband’s offspring, who could tell, to definitely not European by any stretch of anyone's imagination; whatever the lamentable state of her morals, the one thing no one could ever accuse Griet Reyniers of is racism. The Dutch West India Company had New York up and running making money hand over fist when the Royal Navy sailed into the bay in 1664 for the city’s first big hostile takeover.
But for the forty years before that, however, the Dutch traipsed all over the countryside, giving Dutch names to places that already had perfectly serviceable Indian names. One of these places, a large stream filled with fish that the local Wappingers called ‘Um-gla-nick-cho’iftowega’sta, or ‘let’s get the hell out of here before the enviros start annoying us,’ the Dutch, in a frenzy of nominal non-imagination, called Fish Creek, or Viskill, which is pronounced Fishkill, since most upper class Englishmen will do almost anything to avoid having to speak or spell in a foreign language, unless said language is something like Akkadian or Latin, which are both deader than several metaphorical doornails and that possum by the side of the road, and the Englishman involved can thereby avoid the horrid prospect that his classical education may have taught him something useful. And so Fishkill has remained even unto this day.
The folks at PETA know all of this, they say; they know that the name, despite it hostile sound to Anglophonic ears, has nothing at all to do with killing, maiming, or otherwise rendering uncomfortable the lives of either fresh or saltwater fish. But the average person looking at a map, they say, has no way of knowing that. This strikes me as being a bit specious, to say the least. The average motorist looking at a map also does not know that the Pennsylvania border town of Matamoros name actually incites violence against North African Muslims and yet they still manage to avoid committing such mayhem, although the kids may be in some danger if they don’t stop jumping up and down in the back seat shouting, are we there yet, in our intrepid traveler’s ears.
And then there are all the numerous other kills spread up and down the length of the old Dutch colony. There are Otterkills and Beaverkills and one Wallkill that I know of, and the Kill Van Kull as well, and no, I don’t know who Van Kull was or is or why anyone would want to name a tidal strait after him or her. There is a Casperkill nearby too, although I am not at all sure how one would go about killing a friendly phantom, since the last time I checked one of the major job requirements for the haunting and chain-rattling set was that they already be dead at the time of their appointment, and why would you want commit mayhem on them in the first place? Ghosts, and in particular friendly ghosts, are hard to find these days; death, on the whole, seems to bring out the worst in ghosts, making them very cranky, especially in the morning before they’ve had a cup of coffee and a cigarette.
What is most disturbing about these demands for Fishkill to change its name is not that there appears to be no similar pressure on East Fishkill or Fishkill Plains to change their names, as if the direction or the lack of condiments had any bearing on the matter of fishing, but that there does not seem to be any pressure from PETA on anyone to change the name of the Arthurkill, the strait that separates Staten Island from New Jersey. Surely, if we are to deplore the violence against fish then violence against Arthur the Aardvark, Arthur Vandenberg, Art Carney, Art Tatum, Arthur Conan Doyle, and King Arthur and his brother, Mort, is equally reprehensible and worthy of condemnation.
But, frankly, I see no one bringing such pressure to bear by anyone. No one appears to care if your average Arthur is safe from harm, there are no angry shouts from PETA or loud marches and demonstrations from other environmental groups protesting the cruelty of greedy Norwegian and Japanese hunters as they track your average Arthur down to his two-story ranch house in the suburbs, and then mercilessly harpoon the defenseless Arthur as he tries to call the police, and then flense the blubber from the carcass, the blubber going to make perfumes and the meat turned into pet food. Here we can see the double standard that taints all such protests: the demand for the protection of a few at the expense of others who have just as much claim to such protection. If we have learned nothing else from the late and unlamented 20th century, surely we must know that you cannot protect the civil rights of fish without protecting the civil rights of Arthurs as well. Otherwise, where will those distinctions stop? If hunters can harpoon Arthurs without anyone raising a hue and cry about it, why not harpoon Clarences and Rodneys as well?
PETA may not see a problem here; they can always say that the A in their acronym stands for animals, not Arthurs, and that because of this they must limit their sphere of concern and that the Arthurs of this world must look elsewhere for protection. But if you see a man beating your neighbor’s halibut into insensibility with a baseball bat don’t you try to save the halibut from this monstrous crime? Or at the very least call the police? And if this is what you will do for the halibut, wouldn’t you do even more to save your neighbor, if for no other reason than he still has the snow-blower you lent him last January somewhere in the back of his garage? I think most people would; it’s a pity that PETA does not appear to think that this is worth their time and energy. Defending the rights of fish without defending the rights of Arthurs is ultimately a dead end game; only by defending the rights of both can we defend the rights of all, which is a vaguely silly sentiment now that I read it again. Well, these things have to end somehow, don't they? Might as well end on a high note, a clarion call to social action and all that. It gets everyone's blood pumping as they prepare for the big fight with the forces of social reaction. As for me, I think I'll just go to the movies.