Update, June 18, 2014: On Wednesday, the US Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Redskins' six federal trademarks.
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Every once in a while a small controversy comes along that helps explain a big problem. This National Football League season has provided such a controversy. The name of Washington D.C.'s football team, the Redskins, is under fire. "Redskins" is an offensive term and therefore inappropriate for the team representing our nation's capital. That's kind of obvious, right?
Most Republicans don't think so. They defend the name, as they do other Native American-based team names, such as the college football champion Florida State Seminoles, calling them tokens of "honor." They claim that the names celebrate a "heritage" and "tradition" of "bravery" and "warrior-spirit," and they publicly wonder: What's the problem?
The Onion, that fine news source, captured it in one neat, snide sentence: "A new study… confirmed that the name of the Washington Redskins is only offensive if you take any amount of time whatsoever to think about its actual meaning." So what's keeping Republicans from thinking about it?
For one thing, Republicans tend to wear a set of blinders, crafted and actively maintained by the party's functionaries and its media priesthood. They also suffer from mental roadblocks shared by American whites more generally, including a thin, often myth-based "knowledge" about Native Americans. Collectively, all of this blinds Republicans to what it's like to be on the receiving end of power at home and abroad.
That said, the GOP's power brokers know the party is facing a demographic time bomb, so why do they let their media minions form an offensive line to protect the Redskins name? Nationally, the Republicans' short-term hopes and long-term survival may hinge on whether they can manage to make the party welcoming to non-whites. Yet they proudly wear these blinders, as I once did, continuing to "honor" American Indians–as they never would a team called the Whiteskins, the Brownskins, the Blackskins, or the Yellowskins. Here's a little breakdown on why.
Blinder 1: Intent Is Everything
As I have written previously, Republicans have a convenient belief that when it comes to racism, it's all about intent. With the Redskins name, this is a particularly powerful blinder because, as one sportscaster said, "I strongly believe that there is zero intent to offend Native Americans among Redskins fans or football fans in general."
In the words of a National Review writer, "No one picks a team name as a means of disparagement." Similarly, Human Events columnist John Hayward claimed that "[n]obody names their football team the Losers or the Wimps." Again and again, Republicans in the media sound this chord, effectively saying that if there is no intent to harm, then there's no foul.
Blinder 2: The Messengers
A big reason why conservatives don't like change is the people who push for it. Just look at who's complaining about the Redskins name.
There are Native Americans protesting the name, like the Oneida Tribe's "Change the Mascot" campaign. To a Republican, that means this is, ipso facto, the usual, tedious, "race-card" stuff and another instance of the obsession with identity and victimization. In my Republican days, I would have asked, "Can't you Indians or Native Americans or whatever you want to be called these days see that making your group identity the most important part of your existence denies your individuality? You sink or swim on your own in our meritocracy. How can you thrive if your mind's on the reservation?" (Not that I knew any Native Americans to ask, of course.)
Then there are the cadres of academics (liberals!), foaming at the mouth about "narratives" and "oppression," glorifying relativism, preaching white guilt and feel-bad history, and denying Objective Truth. The American Psychological Association says that such team names promote negative stereotypes, making little Indian kids feel bad about themselves. Boo hoo!
There are also the activists, those unwashed Occupy longhairs who get off on feeling offended for other people, "fabricat[ing] outrage," creating a "manufactured controversy."
There's the feared "Liberal Media." A handful of newspapers, the alternative rag Washington City Paper, and several liberal outlets like Slate, the New Republic, and Mother Jones now refuse to use the Redskins name, instead inelegantly referring to "Washington's football team." Most don't even cover sports, but they can't miss a chance to pontificate!
Singled out for the most angst was sportscaster Bob Costas–for speaking out against the name during a Sunday Night Football broadcast. Glenn Beck's response was to call him "senile" and a "sanctimonious piece of crap."
And then there are the politicians. Guess which team's jersey they're wearing? There's the Washington city council (no Republicans there, of course!) getting all righteous with a unanimous resolution urging that the team be renamed something non-offensive. There are Democrats in Congress lining up to do their bit by pushing a bill to strip the very right of a team to trademark its name if it's offensive to Indians!
Worst of all is the "Trinity of Evil," the "Socialist Trifecta": Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and above all President Obama. They've all come out against the Redskins name.
See a common thread here? Democrats. Liberals. Progressives. Minorities. The Left.
The other team.
These messengers could say that the sky is blue, and the natural Republican inclination would be to think that they were lying for partisan gain. The Enemy is relentless, implacable, and vast. It must be stopped.
Blinder 3: The First Amendment Right to Offend
No need to think about why a name or epithet might offend, when you can spring straight to the defense of the "right to offend." Poke around Republican media and you will see many articles defending this "sacred" right.
Here's the rhetorical formula: Sure, some people offend others on purpose, and yes they're jerks, but most people don't. It's too bad if you're offended, but what's important is to protect the constitutional right to offend–because isn't that what the First Amendment is actually all about? The real danger in this: letting some thin-skinned crowd destroy our collective liberties through intimidation. (Optional: insert comment about PC or liberal "fascism" here, or the slippery slope to Nazi Germany.) So toughen up. Sticks and stones, etc…
(This one's easy for them because a 2004 survey suggested that a significant majority of Indians weren't bothered by the name. Of course they don't mention that the main survey had only 768 respondents, or that the groups fighting the name in court include the National Congress of American Indians, the largest intertribal organization–which represents more than 250 groups with a combined enrollment of 1.2 million–as well as the Cherokee, Comanche, and Seminole tribes. It's not just the Oneida.)
Blinder 4: Feelings are for Sissies
There remains the frightening possibility that some Republican might try to imagine how a Native American might feel about teams or mascots appropriating (or insulting) his culture. Lest that nice Republican go off the proverbial reservation, there is a ready-made prophylactic that can be stated in these simple words: "Don't be a sissy."
This prophylactic is built into Republicans definitions of masculinity. One of the first things you learn as a boy in a Republican community is that manhood is of the utmost importance, and the prime way to be a man is to avoid anything effeminate. Feelings, emotions, and all that other irrational stuff like empathy are girly.
Republicans love to knock Bill Clinton for saying, "I feel your pain." We are living in "The Age of Feelings," wrote National Review columnist Dennis Prager, making fun of people who might take issue with the Redskins name. That magazine recently ran an article entitled "Against Empathy." The implication is clear: Feelings are for losers–that is, liberals, those sensitivity-preaching, holier-than-thou, bleeding-heart, sad sacks of emotions. Grow a pair.