It's football season, and that means that we have resumed the annual ritual that is debating whether the Washington Redskins name is derogatory to Native Americans and thereby odious not just to that race but to anyone else who doesn't like to see a fellow human reduced in dignity on the basis of his genetic heritage. Naturally, the Redskins' grinning-idiot younger cousin Chief Wahoo, mascot of the Cleveland Indians, gets dragged into the discussion, because if an epithet and a fairly realistic picture could be construed as offensive, then a grimacing caricature of same must surely be offensive.
Add the New York Daily News to the list of media outlets, including this one, that agrees. Last week, the newspaper announced that not only will it no longer refer to the Washington football team by its trade-name, referring to it simply as "Washington," but it has also decided to eliminate all depictions of Chief Wahoo, the grotesque parody of an "Indian" that, to their credit, Cleveland has seemingly been trying to deemphasize this year in favor of a plain ol' red "C" -- at least to an extent. Shop.mlb.com will still be happy to sell you some Wahoo gear, ladies (and gentlemen as well).
Screen shot from MLB.com taken on September 8, 2014.
Note: "Deemphasize" is not synonymous with "eliminate," although, "Less racist than previously!" is actually synonymous with "Still racist!"
Make no mistake about it, Chief Wahoo is pretty damned racist, more racist than the name "Indians," which arguably doesn't apply to any real group anyway, representing merely the 522-year perpetuation of Christopher Columbus's ignorance. Hey, you want to call yourselves the Cleveland Not-Who-You-Thought-They Weres, go ahead. Wahoo is different. There is no equivalent caricature of any other racial group that one could draw that would not be considered scandalously offensive. But let's stop there. Rather than reconsider that well-trodden ground, however, let's just consider the reasons advanced in favor of retaining the antiquated reminders of our blithely pre-humanist, ironically tribal past. This video from SNY's "Daily News Live," in which representatives of the paper debate the decision to cease aiding and abetting Washington and Cleveland marketing, is instructive. Note the dissent offered by one of the geniuses on the panel:
"A poll taken by ESPN... 71 percent of the people in America said they don't think the name should be changed. I happen to agree with that... It's an offensive name; it's been their name for 75 years or whatever it is. Daniel Snyder, say what you will about this guy: If he does change it, I don't know how much it's going to cost him, but it's going to cost him a lot. This is not a simple name change. You have logos, you have marketing, you have all these other things that factor in here. Obviously, the people of Washington don't seem to be too concerned about it either. The Redskins fans don't want it changed. It has to be up to Daniel Snyder... He's the one who that's gonna have to pay whatever it's going to cost to change [the name]."
Altogether now, let's weep for Daniel Snyder and his bank account. Clearly, when it comes to human dignity, it's money -- other people's money -- that should be the primary consideration. Then check off the box for "irrelevant arguments" when Mr. Talking Head says, "It has to be up to Daniel Snyder." Of course it's going to be up to Snyder; he owns the team. This is a bit like saying, "It has to be up to you what pants you put on today."
Perhaps he means that it is not for the Daily News to be choosing for Snyder what to call his team, but the newspaper is under no obligation to use a name it finds distasteful. One of the problems with journalism as it has evolved in the years since Watergate is that the more responsible organizations (as opposed to the transparently partisan examples) have felt obligated to adhere to a faux-evenhandedness even when there simply aren't two sides to a story. A journalistic entity can take a principled stand rather than be a reporting automaton.
Before Chief Wahoo, the Indians went the full-on head-and-headdress route as depicted in this 1938 picture of Hall of Famer Bob Feller, center. (Getty Images).
Most importantly, what 71 percent of Americans think about the Washington name or Chief Caricature is irrelevant. Putting aside the reliability of said poll, which I leave to the Nate Silver types, an opinion is just that and in no way reflects truth, just someone's perception of it. That "truth" is inexact and forever evolving. Example: America used to a do a brisk business in souvenir lynching postcards, perhaps the sole barbarism in which even Nazi Germany chose not to indulge. Many of those photos contain crowds. Almost as appalling as the mutilated bodies are the leering faces of the onlookers whether the victim was black, or, in the rarest of cases, white. There is almost always at least one guy who is really happy to be there, another leaning in to make sure he gets his face in the shot. People bought these, put them in their scrapbooks.
I bring up the notion of lynching postcards, as distinct from the horrible violence of lynching itself, in support of the idea that morality is fluid, that today's racist murder is yesterday's tailgate party, and always could be again -- and frequently has been -- at other times, in other places. History is not a litany of progress, but of learning and forgetting -- savagery, enlightenment, erosion, forgetting, rejection, savagery, enlightenment... In short, polls that reveal how some group might vote are interesting as potentially predictive tools, whereas polls about attitudes may take a picture of our state of recalcitrance and retrograde motion at any moment in time. What they don't do is legitimize that opinion; if at any given time, 20 percent of Americans believe the Earth is flat, they are entitled to our ridicule, not our serious consideration. An opinion is not the same thing as a truism, and all the poll cited above means is that the 29 percent who get it have done a bad job of educating the 71 percent who don't, or that 71 percent of people just aren't reachable.
The bit that should really nag, though, particularly given the transformation our society is currently going through, is this: "It's an offensive name [but] it's been their name for 75 years or whatever it is." This is an appeal to tradition. Tradition is a fine thing so long as it is benign and serves to knit a community together in a positive way (or comes with a catchy show tune). The dictionary defines "tradition" in this context as, "a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting." That describes a state of doing things, but in no way defends the reason for doing it, nor justifies it, establishes its justice, or credits it with intelligence or legitimacy.
At about the same moment last week that the Daily News promulgated its new Washington/Cleveland practices, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued its decision striking down gay-marriage bans in Wisconsin and Indiana. The decision, authored by the erudite Judge Richard Posner, addressed tradition directly:
Wisconsin [argues] limiting marriage to heterosexuals is traditional and tradition is a valid basis for limiting legal rights... Tradition per se has no positive or negative significance. There are good traditions, bad traditions pilloried in such famous literary stories as Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" and Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," bad traditions that are historical realities such as cannibalism, foot-binding, and suttee, and traditions that from a public-policy standpoint are neither good nor bad (such as trick-or-treating on Halloween)...
Wisconsin points out that many venerable customs appear to rest on nothing more than tradition-one might even say on mindless tradition. Why do men wear ties? Why do people shake hands (thus spreading germs) or give a peck on the cheek (ditto) when greeting a friend? Why does the President at Thanksgiving spare a brace of turkeys (two out of the more than 40 million turkeys killed for Thanksgiving dinners) from the butcher's knife? But these traditions, while to the fastidious they may seem silly, are at least harmless.
In context, Posner's commentary is addressed to the intersection of tradition and the law, but they also serve when dealing with the defense of racist team names as well. Traditions are simply things that you've done because you've always done them; that in itself doesn't confer anything like rightness or inevitability upon them. If they no longer serve a positive purpose, or you discover they never did, you get rid of them.
What the hell is a tradition that has run only 81 years anyway? That's roughly one human lifespan these days; it's a burp in time, not a tradition. The same goes for Wahoo, which is only 67. There is also a difference between "tradition" and a "brand name" that could productively be reviewed at length: You can't call a duck a swan or a swan a duck because we've long established what each one is, that identification going back to Adam if you take Genesis (or one of the lesser Bob Dylan songs) literally. Conversely, a football team by any other name would still be a football team, as Washington itself proved when it changed its name from the Braves to the Redskins.
As for Chief Wahoo, it doesn't even deserve that much discussion. Corporate logos and branding change constantly. Mickey Mouse has been redesigned numerous times, consumer-product mascots that originated in nostalgic-racist Old South imagery, such as "Aunt Jemima," have been neutralized so as to be less offensive (still a work in progress). Hell, DC Comics even took away Superman's trunks a few years ago. The challenge to the Cleveland baseball franchise is not to cling to an antiquated embarrassment, but to think of something better, a symbol that more nobly represents their company. Surely they are capable of that instead of relying on the tired, discredited iconography of 1947.
In the meantime, the rest of us have no obligation to acknowledge what we find abhorrent, or participate in publicizing, for their profit, the existence thereof.