Via the usually rational reporter David Plotz, we learn that Slate has decided that the Political Correctness Gods will no longer allow the on-line magazine to use the name of Washington’s NFL team when it is reporting on Washington’s NFL team. This is, of course, presumptuous, arrogant, and lousy journalism. It is not the media’s job to re-make the world into what pleases them. Slate doesn’t like the Redskins name so it’s not going to publish it. This seems to be the current mode of operation in the media today–it is no longer dedicated to reporting and commenting on the news, but rather reporting and commenting on the news it doesn’t find “offensive.”
The Redskins, as a team nickname, is certainly the strongest case for those who believe in censorship of team names with ethnic or national origins. The NCAA has already gone way beyond any rational execution of that mission however, and even in the case of Redskins, an unquestionably racist term when applied to Native Americans, the objection to a sports team name with supposedly negative historical implication has a lot of the “a chink in the armor” nonsense about it. For in Washington, D.C. and in football bars and Sunday afternoon gatherings, Redskins is not a slur, and does not refer to native Americans. It is the name given to a squad of NFL players who play pro football in the name of Washington, D.C., and a franchise that is worshiped in the city. When the name is used, it is not aimed at Native Americans or intended to denigrate them. It does not refer to Native Americans, and not intended to give offense. It is intended to designate the football team, because that is the team’s name. How can someone be offended at the use of a name that is not intended and is not a slur in the context of the use in question? There two answers to this: 1) Most people, including rational Native Americans, aren’t, and 2) Because such people want to be offended.
The name “Redskins” was never intended as a slur, as I have explained here before. You will often read, as support for the contention that the name was intended to be a slur, that original owner George Preston Marshall (no relation!) was himself a racist. I’ll stipulate that this is true, but it is irrelevant to the matter. Even racists don’t intentionally name the teams that they pay for and present to their community for support ugly racist names–nobody attaches racist names to what they admire and want others to care about: it makes no sense. Marshall’s NFL football team, in its original home of Boston, was named after that city’s National League baseball team, the Boston Braves (still the Braves, by the way, but in Atlanta now), and played at Braves Field. Later, Marshall moved his team’s home games into Fenway Park, then as now the home of the American League’s Boston Red Sox.
It seemed confusing to have a football team named after the Red Sox’s rivals for Beantown’s baseball loyalties playing in Fenway, but Marshall, a frugal man, didn’t want to have to go through the hassle of completely changing logos and uniforms. Some bright boy in the football Braves offices suggested a solution: keep all of the Native American chief graphics and the Indian motif, but change the team’s name from Braves to Redskins…Red SOX, Red SKINS, get it? It was a play on words, not a racial insult. It’s still a play on words, and the fact that those taking offense don’t know what they’re talking about is not to be taken as validation of their cause, any more than the D.C. employees unfamiliar with the term “niggardly” should have been empowered by their ignorance. They were offended, reasonably or not: is that all that matters? Essentially, that’s what the Redskins controversy comes down to.
Plotz’s brief for Slate’s unilateral rejection of the Redskins name begins with the assertion that “American Indian activists and others have been asking, urging, and haranguing the Washington Redskins to ditch their nickname, calling it a racist slur and an insult to Indians.” That simply means, to translate, that some people want the Redskins to change their name. Do most people find the name offensive? No. Do most Redskins fans, football fans, D.C. residents? No. Do even most Native Americans care about the name? Not according to a poll Sports Illustrated took a while back. So again, as usual with political correctness controversies, the simple fact that someone is upset by a name or word is deemed sufficient to over-ride the wishes of the reasonable majority. Plotz then appeals to authority, noting that D.C.’s (corrupt) Mayor Gray and Tony Kornheiser want the name changed. That’s pretty lame authority.
Next he attacks the Redskin’s owner Dan Snyder as “a dismal failure as an owner, a megalomaniacal bully, and a frivolous litigant,” as though Snyder’s dubious character has any bearing on the Redskins name whatsoever. These are ad hominem tactics, but the truth is that no owner would be likely to want to give up the name by which his storied sports team has been known and under which its history was written. Changing the name of a franchise, like moving it, virtually severs ties with the team’s past, and sports teams market their past heroes and triumphs as one of their prime assets. Like it or not, Sammy Baugh, Sonny Jurgenson, George Allen, Vince Lombardi, John Riggins, the Hogs, Billy Kilmer and the rest were Redskins…and nobody who called them Redskins was using the name as an anti-Native American slur, either. They all were proud to wear the uniform and be part of the team’s tradition.
Washington, D.C. has a poor record with political correctness name changes. A few years after the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets moved to D.C., some wags, in a classic “niggardly” move, felt that the name was in bad taste while citizens of D.C. were killing each other at a record pace. A Baltimore bullet was time-honored slang for a hustler, and basketball players hustle; the name was rich in city lore, and, of course, linked to not one but three pro basketball teams. Rather than honor its ties to the franchise’s past, the Washington owners, after a contest, decided to re-name the team “the Wizards”…you know, after the head of the Ku Klux Klan. Oh, you mean it’s not supposed to signify that? Never mind, that what I think it signifies…I’m offended!
Plotz, in keeping with my theory that he was made to write this rationalization by his bosses, then tries an invalid “thought experiment”: “Would any team, naming itself today, choose “Redskins” or adopt the team’s Indian-head logo? Of course it wouldn’t.” Again, so what? My sister’s name is Edith, a thoroughly dated and unpopular name today…would anyone name a daughter that now? Does that mean the name should be taboo? Would anyone name a team today the Red Sox, White Sox, Athletics, Redlegs, Canucks, Supersonics, Astros or Oilers? Do all names have to be up-to-date and reflect current tastes? Who made that rule? Oh, right…Slate.
You know, there’s a relief pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks named J.J. Putz. Putz is Yiddish slang for penis…should he have to change his name, so it won’t offend? No, because everyone sane and reasonable understands that when his name is used, it doesn’t mean penis, it means Arizona’s relief pitcher, just as when Redskins is used, it means “Washington’s football team.”
Beyond his defense of political correctness while saying that Slate’s new policy isn’t political correctness (that is all that it is), the rest of Plotz’s argument consists of increasingly strained logic judo and rationalizations:
- “Americans think differently about race and the language of race than we did 80 years ago.” Correct! And about a hundred years ago, “redskins” clearly meant American Indians, and was intended as a slur. Now, we think differently: it never means that, except what a political correctness bully is trying to trump up an offense and tell a community what they are allowed to call their athletic team. Now, it means either a football team, members of that team, or a kind of potato. Is referring to the potato also racist, David?
- “Slate is far from the first to take a stand against the nickname.” Everybody does it!
- “When we stop using the name Redskins, hardly anyone will notice.” This is the not only the slippery rationalization, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” but also bizarre. If everyone noticed, would Slate still do it? If nobody notices, what’s the point?
- “It will also represent no great sacrifice for us to stop using the word—it’s easy enough to substitute “Washington” or “Washington’s NFL team.” It’s easy, so it must be OK?
Then, finally, this:
“Changing how you talk changes how you think. The adoption of the term “African-American”—replacing “Negro” and “colored”—in the aftermath of the civil rights movement brought a welcome symmetry with Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans, groups defined by geographic origin rather than by race or color. Replacing “same-sex marriage” with “marriage equality” helped make gay marriage a universal cause rather than a special pleading. If Slate can do a small part to change the way people talk about the team, that will be enough.”
1. Yes, and the way to change how people think in a democracy is to debate and change minds, not to manipulate the tools of communication according to what elite arbiters of appropriate thought determine is “acceptable.” Besides: “how you think “about what? Is Plotz seriously suggesting that the multi-racial, overwhelmingly good Democrat fans of the Washington Redskins have to be deprogrammed from their Native American hating ways? The thinking that is out of whack in this instance belongs to the hyper-sensitive, racial grievance-obsessed fanatics who think that a term that in a particular and unambiguous context clearly means one thing and is intended to mean one thing, should nonetheless be interpreted to mean a racial slur, just so they can have the pleasure of bending others to their will.
2. “Welcome symmetry?” How about “incoherence”? Minority groups periodically change their “approved” names because whatever name that is approved eventually, over time, to the group if not anyone else, acquires a stigma. “Colored” was the gentile and respectful alternative to “nigger,” and was succeeded by Negro, then Black, then black, then the ridiculous “of color,” and most recently, by African-American. There is no “symmetry”—Irish-American describes where one’s family came from, not one’s race. A black Irish-American should be called that, not an “African-American Irish-American.” David Ortiz is a black South American…it makes no sense to call him an African-American, just as it makes no sense NOT to call the thoroughly white Theresa Heinz Kerry an African American, since she is from Africa. Meanwhile, what are dark-skinned but Caucasian Egyptians? What good is it to change how people think if you make them think stupidly, and change how they talk so they can’t communicate clearly?
3. “Replacing “same-sex marriage” with “marriage equality” helped make gay marriage a universal cause rather than a special pleading.” No it didn’t. It was another deceptive euphemism, just like “affirmative action” and “choice.” Plotz thinks hiding meaning is a good thing, because it makes it easier to win arguments when most people aren’t paying attention.
This is how political correctness triumphs, and has always triumphed. The vast majority of people shrug and say, “Oh, fine…who cares? It’s just a name. If they want it that bad, just let them have their way. It’s silly, but I’m sick of arguing, already.” But there is no end. The political correctness fanatics want thought control, and they will keep trying to ban more words, phrases and ideas.
If the Redskins name comes to stand for the fact that there are still sufficient Americans who will fight for basic freedoms and have the courage to resist political correctness bullies like Slate, that will be a meaning to be proud of.