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Why the “Redskins” Name Change is a Damn Good Idea

The logo fro the Washington Redskins. To add insult to an already insulting logo, the team places in D.C., seat of the Feeral governmnet -- the same federal government that sanctioned and directed acts of genocide against native peoples ovet he last three centuries.

The logo for the Washington Redskins. To add insult to an already insulting logo, the team plays in D.C., seat of the Federal government — the same federal government that sanctioned and directed acts of genocide against native peoples over the last three centuries.

Well, the political correctness police have really done it now, haven’t they? In their never-ending zeal to crush the spirit of America, this amorphous, white-guilt-bleeding, lawsuit-wielding band of killjoy hippie liberals have shown their tyrannical iron fist by attacking that most paramount of freedom-displaying American institutions, the NFL. Yes, using the United States Patent and Trademark Office jackbooted Nazi stormtroopers, the PC tyrants have cancelled six of the Washington Redskins’ trademark registrations under the dubious justification that the team’s various logos depicting a stereotypical feather-headed Indian brave “were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered.” My god, you can just smell the tyranny from here!

After the Patent Office’s decision, American conservatives took time away from being apoplectic about everything else to be apoplectic over this most recent blow to freedom. As Talking Points Memo notes, the wingnuts took to the Twitterz to voice their (perpetual) anger in their typically reserved fashion and (natch) blame Obama, who supported the Redskins name-change. Right-Wing blogger Matt Barber whined that because federal trademark law prohibited the display of culturally and racially disparaging imagery from a sports team, “the American free market and private enterprise are no longer free nor private. Liberty is under threat as never before.” Echoing Barber’s sentiment, RedState.com Grand Pooba Erick Erickson — the self-proclaimed “alpha male” and defacto spokesman for paunchy, white, privileged jerks everywhere — blamed the Redskins decision on “guilty feeling white liberals” who are a “threat to freedom.”

You honestly have to wonder how these people can function mentally when they believe that changing an NFL team’s logo represents the death knell of capitalist society. But let’s ignore the conservative temper-tantrums and ask ourselves, as a culture: should the Washington Redskins change their name and logo? The answer is “hell yeah.” Now, before you label me just another guilt-compensating white guy (I admit to being that anyway) consider, for a moment, why it’s historically offensive for sports teams like the Redskins to use Native American mascots and logos.

It’s no secret to anyone who’s even remotely aware of the history of the United States that the country’s native peoples have, to put it in academic terms, gotten royally screwed. The history of Native-White relations in America is characterized by colonialism, prejudice, violence, racism, genocide, and finally, cultural appropriation. The latter term refers to the process through which a dominant culture (which usually became dominant through violent means) adopts particular cultural aspects or practices of another group and employs those cultural aspects or practices for its own purposes. Cultural appropriation is generally (and rightfully) considered a bad thing because it almost always involves a cultural majority’s flagrant demonstration of its power to a conquered minority culture.

Among Indians themselves, the issue of cultural appropriation is decidedly complicated. Last Real Indians notes that, “It’s not me they [whites] are honoring [with mascots]; they are honoring themselves for doing such a good job on killing all the Indians.” Indeed, some tribal representatives view Indian mascots as the legacy of institutionalized racism, while others feel that mascots distract from more important issues facing Native communities. At the very least, as Jenny Vrentas of MMQB writes, “Native Americans want to have a say in how words and imagery that refer to them are used, in the same way that African-Americans establish when and how the n-word can be used.”

History, however, suggests that a name change is worth making. Over at Talking Points Memo, fellow academic-turned-blogger Josh Marshall has a great take on how the use of the term “Redskins” is a classic example of cultural appropriation via “mascotization.” “If you look back over the course of four centuries of American history there’s a clear pattern. When Indians represented a threat to the dominant immigrant settler culture (whether militarily or culturally or economically), they were the focus of an intense demonization, one rooted in fears, perceived alienness and competition for preeminence,” Marshall writes. But when Indians ceased to be a threat to white culture, he adds, “a totally different image of the Indian emerged – some mix of noble savage or a people representing something quintessentially American.”

In the nineteenth cetury, this is how white American culture responded to Indians. Needless to say, no footballs were involved.

In the nineteenth century, this is how white American culture responded to Indians. Needless to say, no footballs were involved.

What Marshall is saying is that once the white power structure succeeded in conquering Native peoples on America’s battlefields, it then proceeded to conquer them culturally by turning the Indians into little more than symbolic servants of the colonial culture that vanquished them. Thus, we have the Indian sports team mascot: a figure invented by the colonizing culture for the purpose of promoting that culture’s own rituals. Indian mascots like the one on the Redskins’ logo are supposed to represent “noble” aspects of Indian cultures such as bravery and prowess in battle, but this only works because the real Indians who were brave in battle have already been defeated and relegated, both literally and figuratively, to reservations on the outposts of American life.

Historically, real Indians were scary, barbarous, and a problem to be wiped out via the barrel of a gun and brutal territorial usurption. But now that they’re no longer a threat, we can use Indians for our sports teams because, gosh-darnnit, they were just so brave and noble as we slaughtered them mercilessly! It’s this nasty history that is invoked every time a sports teams uses Indian mascots and imagery, and it’s why team names like “Redskins” need to go.

In his book Contesting Constructed Indian-ness, historian Michael Taylor explains that “[Indian] mascots are the results of conquest and control,” and are thus created “to fit tropes of colonialism, history, and myth-making in order to control the physical body of the Indian.” Sports teams that use Indian imagery, Taylor writes, “profit from the idea of the Indian to produce a cultural and commercial context to the conquering of the West and its peoples by ‘owning’ the lands and the people living upon said lands.”* In other words, after American colonial society decimated Indian societies through genocide and land expropriation, it then decided to further rub its clout into Indians’ eyes by employing native customs and imagery to cheer on a bunch of guys chasing a ball across a field.

This is how white America has dealt with what historian Thomas King calls the “Inconvenient Indian,” the annoyingly persistent presence of nativeness in a country that would rather just forget about native peoples except on terms dictated by the colonizing culture itself. “When we look at Native–non-Native relations,” King writes, “there is no great difference between the past and the present. While we have dispensed with guns and bugles, and while North America’s sense of its own superiority is better hidden, its disdain muted, twenty-first-century attitudes towards Native people are remarkably similar to those of the previous centuries.”* Thus, Indians can still be stereotyped at will and used to encourage all aspects of the colonial culture that conquered them.

So if you ever find yourself feeling aggravated over the alleged “political correctness” that accompanies instances like the Redskins trademark decision, take a step back and consider that maybe, just maybe, something as purportedly simple as supporting an Indian mascot actually invokes a sad, violent, genocidal history of American conquest that non-Native people can easily brush off but which Indians themselves rightfully feel a bit more strongly about. And I say this as a die-hard Cleveland Indians fan. That team’s logo, “Chief Wahoo,” is offensive as hell and should be dropped. Who knows, maybe changing their name and logo might actually result in the Indians becoming a good team. But I won’t hold my breath on either of those two things happening.

* See Michael Taylor, Contesting Constructed Indian-ness: The Intersection of the Frontier, Masculinity, and Whiteness in Native American Mascot Representations (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013), 13.

* See Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2013), 5.

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Calhoun’s Ghost and the Enduring Dream of Secession

John C. Calhoun, with one of his many trend-setting mane styles.

John C. Calhoun, sporting one of his many trend-setting mane styles.

Secession is the idea that simply won’t die in the United States. You would think that after secession — the withdrawing of one or more states from the Federal Union — caused the The Civil War, which cost over 600,000 lives and left half of the country in ruins, the issue would have been settled in 1865. But Americans have never been ones to let a nutty idea go to waste, and in the year 2013, a few brave patriots are still bandying about the concept that withdrawing from the national compact is 1.) legal, and 2.) desirable.

Some recent examples from around the country are keeping the dream of secession alive and well — at least for a few misguided individuals. Back in June, some right-wing residents of northern Colorado counties with a serious Jones for the oil and gas industry drew up plans to secede from the rest of the state and form the newly sovereign state of “North” or “Northern Colorado.” Citing a general butt-hurt caused by the growing influence of liberal urban enclaves like Denver, conservatives in northern Colorado hope to create a separate haven for pro-gun, pro energy industry interests. As the CBS Denver news affiliate reported:

The secessionist movement is the result of a growing urban-rural divide, which was exacerbated after this year’s legislation session where lawmakers raised renewable energy standards for rural electric co-ops, floated bills increasing regulations on oil and gas, and passed sweeping gun control.

Pro-secessionist leaders in northern Colorado cited a lack of attention by state and federal lawmakers as the reason for their wanting to secede:

“We really feel in northern and northeastern Colorado that we are ignored — citizens’ concerns are ignored, and we truly feel disenfranchised,” Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said.

Conway said the new laws don’t support the interests of the northern part of the state, which is rich in agricultural history. Conway said that’s why he and others are proposing to break away from Colorado to form a new state.

Following the Colorado brouhaha, conservative activists in northern California and western Maryland have proposed seceding from their respective states in order to escape the perceived liberal political dominance of metropolitan areas. As the Washington Post reported, Western Marylander  Scott Strzelczyk summarized the secessionists’ views succinctly:

He wants to live in a smaller state, he says, with more “personal liberty, less government intrusion, less federal entanglements.” He wants the right to carry a gun. He would abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Although he thinks the government shouldn’t be involved with marriage, he’d put the question of gay marriage to a vote. Medical marijuana would be just fine, he says. There would be lots of liberty.

Proponents of contemporary secessionist movements who want “lots of liberty” have an intellectual godfather in the figure of nineteenth century South Carolina senator and Vice-President under Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun. He was a political theorist whose most famous ideas refuse to die despite being discredited in practice over a hundred years ago.

An early American nationalist and proponent of a strong national government in his early years, Calhoun eventually morphed into a radical proponent of limited government and states’ rights, especially the right of individual states to nullify any Federal law they found distasteful, constitutional prohibitions be damned.

Calhoun was also a steadfast defender of southern slavery, and his defence of states’ rights usually served as a bulwark against federal interference in the “peculiar institution.” Calhoun’s most famous idea was the concept of the “Concurrent Majority:” the theory that all interests within states had to concur on the actions of the government. The idea behind this concept was to prevent tyranny of the numerical majority, which would supposedly lead to mob rule running roughshod over the interests of minorities, thereby denying them a say in government. Calhoun proposed two measures to prevent supposed tyranny of the majority: nullification, the idea that states have the right to invalidate federal law, and secession, in which states would withdraw from the federal Union.

No less an authority than President Andrew Jackson — himself no fan of excessive federal government — recognized that Calhoun’s theory was blatantly unconstitutional. The constitution expressly grants the federal government power over the states, meaning that states cannot nullify federal law. But beyond the legal issue with the idea of “Concurrent Majority,” it also created a deep philosophical problem: taken to its logical conclusion, Calhoun’s theory negated the very principle of democratic government and sowed the seeds of anarchy. Requiring all states and interests to agree on operations of the general government guaranteed the death of compromise and the perpetuation of governmental paralysis. Furthermore, if a state, or a municipality within a state, could simply secede from the Union whenever it found fault with federal laws, then the basic idea of democracy failed, and republican countries would devolve into ceaseless fracturing, threatening social and governmental order.

This is why Abraham Lincoln characterized secession as the “essence of anarchy,” and why he and the vast majority of northern states decried the secession of the slaveholding southern states in 1860 and 1861 as a violation of the experiment in democratic republicanism. Put simply: you can’t spend years drawing the benefits of membership in a federal Union and then pick up and leave when things don’t go your way.

Despite the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy, however, the idea of secession, underpinned by Calhoun’s “Concurrent Majority,” just refuses to die. In 2009 Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) floated the idea that his state could secede from the Union if the federal government continued its supposed tyrannical overreach, though he failed to mention that Texas is among the states that receive the highest amounts of federal money. Republican state legislatures have also invoked Calhoun’s ghost by passing restrictive voter I.D. laws designed to hold off the growing majorities of non-white voters that in the future may not support the Republican Party.

Thus, John C. Calhoun’s ideas will continue to be popular among cranky conservative Americans for the indefinite future, or at least as long as they continue to perceive that their political privileges are slipping away. But in republican societies, secession isn’t the answer. Those who lose at the legislative level should go back to the drawing board, reorganize, and try winning at the ballot box. Leave Calhoun’s ghost in the past where it belongs, guarded by the hundreds-of-thousands of Americans who perished thanks to his ideas.