Monday, October 21, 2013

Redskins on the Warpath

Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder insists he is not going to change the team’s name. In the face of mounting criticism of the time-honored nickname, which many insist is a racial slur, Snyder refuses to budge, saying the name is not intended to be offensive and has decades of tradition behind it.

I’m surprised it has taken this long for the debate to catch up with the Redskins; most college teams with Indian-themed names and emblems were ambushed by this years ago. Colleges, which are of course hotbeds of fervent political correctness, have often caved in to the pressure, with Stanford leading the way in 1972 by ditching the relatively respectful “Indians” for “Cardinals” and subsequently the singular and baffling “Cardinal.” It is, they say, a color, and that’s something we can all root for without fear of offending.

I tend to roll my eyes when the ethnic dignity fanatics get going; I think too much can be made of what is intended to be a compliment, if a playful one. After all, you don’t call your team the Vikings because Nordic raiders were known for fainting at times of stress. To most of us, the American Indians, whatever other baggage they carry, represent ferocity, courage and endurance, qualities we hope our teams can at least fake.

However, like Charles Krauthammer, I’m not totally insensitive to the feelings of the people whose names get appropriated. In the first place, it’s interesting that we only adopt mascots when they are no longer threatening, i.e. when they are defeated. I don’t think too many Texas high schoolers thought Indians were cute when the Comanches were still cutting up settlers just over the rise, and I don’t think the good citizens of Havana would have named a baseball team the Pirates when Henry Morgan was still ravaging the Cuban coast. Can you imagine an Israeli soccer team called the Fedayeen? Somehow I don’t think we’re going to see that for a while. By the time a group gets adopted as a team symbol, they’re pretty much finished as an active fighting force. And maybe if you’re the one who got defeated, you see that adoption, however intended, as just rubbing it in.

I don’t think it’s necessarily racist to adopt Indian themes for sports teams, but I do think you have to be aware of history. And I think that if you are going to let a bunch of suburban white kids (or professional athletes) pretend to be Indians, you have to at least have a little respect. And Redskins... boy, I don’t know. Just change the damn name to the Washington Warriors, keep the logo (which, to be fair, is a lot more respectful than that silly cartoon Cleveland Indian) and be done with it. The diehards can keep calling them the Redskins the way Canadiens fans talk about the Habs and Pirates fans talk about the Bucs, but it won’t be the official name. Everybody will be happy.

But OK, Daniel Snyder doesn’t want to change it, and he’s the boss. Let’s take him at his word: nobody intends “Redskins” to be offensive. I’m willing to let him and all the fans keep the name if they show their respect in other ways, and here’s what I propose.

The Washington Redskins made $104.3 million last year. That’s income minus expenses, i.e. profit. Meanwhile, out on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Lakota nation, alcoholism is an existential threat for the defeated people we call the Sioux and mythologize as a great tribe of warriors. Anpetu Luta Otipi is an alcohol and drug treatment center at Pine Ridge that gratefully accepts donations of clothing, bedclothes and toiletries. What percentage of the Washington Redskins’ annual profit would it take to assure that Anpetu Luta Otipi doesn’t have to go begging for basic necessities for its patients? Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, South Dakota serves 1,800 students, mostly from Pine Ridge. It’s not exactly Harvard, and its endowment is somewhat smaller, but it trains teachers, nurses, social workers and technicians in an attempt, as its motto says, to “rebuild the Lakota nation through education.” What percentage of the Washington Redskins’ profits would it take to meet the needs of the nursing department for one year? Or fund a few fellowships for promising graduates to go on for advanced degrees?

I say let Daniel Snyder call his team whatever he wants, as long as he shows a little concern for the real people who have lent his business their image. Putting some of his money where his mouth is would go a long way toward co-opting the opposition. Of course, my suspicion is that the closer Daniel Snyder got to real redskins the less comfortable he would be with the name of his football team. And then maybe even people at Pine Ridge would cheer for the Washington Warriors.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, October 6, 2013


I’m disgusted with our political scene these days, so disgusted it’s hard even to think about it let alone write about it, but I do have two casual thoughts on the current government shutdown and the tussle over Obamacare:

1. When Wisconsin’s Democratic state senators walked out back in 2011 to prevent a vote on a bill they opposed, turning the state capitol in Madison over to either mob rule or a stirring people’s protest movement, depending on your point of view, I called them on it. I said if they didn’t like the bill, even if they didn’t like the Republican governor’s tactics, the thing to do was to show up and cast their votes and then constitute a principled and tenacious opposition until they could persuade the electorate to give them a majority. That’s how it’s done in a democracy. You don’t retain the high moral ground by running away or by playing obstructionist games.

The shoe is on the other foot now, and I have the same message for the Republicans in Congress: if you don’t like Obamacare, you have to wait until the electorate gives you the votes you need in both houses to repeal it. Until then, it’s the law of the land, and you don’t retain the high moral ground by holding the whole machinery of state hostage in an attempt to starve it to death. If the Affordable Care Act is as bad as you say, the voters will get tired of it soon enough and you’ll have a chance to mend it or even end it then. Right now, you’re just making people all over the world wonder if you’re responsible enough to govern the world’s greatest power. Give it up.

2. Joan Walsh, in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune the other day, claimed that the principal force behind Republican opposition to Obamacare (and the rest of Obama’s agenda) is racism. She says that the Republican party has been working for fifty years to inflame white fears and equate liberal policies with special breaks for blacks. Now, with a black president in the White House, the strategy has come to a head.

I have no doubt that many of Obama’s opponents are motivated, overtly or covertly, by racial prejudice. I also have no doubt that the Republicans are happy to have those people on board; politicians aren’t especially picky about where their votes come from. But I take issue with the attempt to equate Republican policies with racism; that looks to me like an attempt to dodge argument on the issues. If you can smear your opponents with an accusation of moral infirmity which undermines legitimacy (and racism is just about the only moral infirmity left that serves that purpose), then you don’t have to talk about policies. It saves time and trouble and homework.

There are legitimate objections to various aspects of Obamacare and, for that matter, legitimate objections to any number of policies touted by the Democratic party. Now, if you don’t like what our first black president is doing, you have to be able to give a better reason than that you don’t like the color of his skin. And if on the other hand you support Obama you ought to be able to say why you think his approach is better than the alternatives; you can’t just say the only reason people oppose him is because he’s black. The policies are the point, and black politicians should not be insulated from criticism because some of their opponents are motivated by racial hatred. A racist attack speaks for itself and needs no refutation; a reasoned critique of Obama’s policies can be debated on its merits, and the motivations of the people who present it are irrelevant as long as the argument is sound.

When people on both sides of the aisle are ready to play by the rules and engage in rational discussion of the problems facing us, we’ll start making headway on some of our problems. Until then, I’m going back in my shell.

Sam Reaves